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Sermon: Seed, Soil and The Word

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, July 13, 2014.
5th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Gen. 25:19-34; Ps. 119:105-112; Rom. 8:1-11; Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Continuing through Matthew’s gospel, we move from missionary texts of sending disciples into the world to preach good news, and shift the next several weeks to hearing some of the Parables that Jesus taught. Like an artist or painter that uses colors and images as a medium to tell stories on canvas, Jesus is a masterful storyteller who worked through parables.

Today's gospel is called The Parable of the Sower. But others know it as The Parable of the Soils. This parable in Matthew can also be found in the other synoptic gospels, in Mark [Ch 4] and Luke [Ch 8]. In each instance, the gospel writers not only record the parable itself, but its explanation as well. And because we have Jesus' explanation, this parable is valuable on two levels. Jesus' explanation not only gives us the spiritual truth of this parable, but it also gives us guidelines that might help us interpret other parables.       

You may know that a Parable is defined as a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson. It is a statement or comment conveying a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison, analogy, or the like. As many of us learned in Sunday school, Jesus shares a seemingly earthly story laced with a heavenly meaning to speak about the Kingdom of God.

Early Christian literature appears to designate as “parable” any saying of Jesus who’s meaning in not immediately clear in terms of Christian faith and theology. Jesus, as an artist, created pictures for us to interpret. Some parables such as the Prodigal Son are clearly examples of the love of God for the outcast. These require no explanation.

But as explained in the verses omitted from today’s gospel [vs. 10-17], Jesus’ message was sometimes concealed from those were hostile towards him. Through parables, Jesus taught publicly about the Kingdom of God, yet members of the religious order and authorities of the Roman Empire could find nothing in his message considered rebellious or subversive.

Stories have a way of separating people. Some hear and some do not; that is, some catch the meaning and others miss it. Jesus chose the parable as a verbal picture to teach, a strategy by which he separated those who were honest and sincere about understanding the Kingdom from those who were only curious or were critical of his ministry.

The story today is simple enough. As I read and you hear Jesus' words, we both can imagine a first century farmer walking a field with a bag of seeds slung over their shoulder. As they walk, there is a rhythmical grab of a handful of seed from a bag that is then scattered out onto the field. The idea obviously was to distribute seed over the whole field so that it would grow and produce a crop. It was probably a scene that was quite common during the planting season in that time.

What is unique here is that this sower seems to be indiscriminate about where the seed is sown. We can see this person working to the outer edges of a field, trying to cover every square inch of the field with seed. It is entirely possible that some seed flies beyond the parcel of land being worked to overshoot onto ground surrounding that target field. In Israel, rocks are everywhere and fields have to be cleared to not have rocks. In the parable, however, the sower seems to be throwing seed everywhere - not only on the good soil, but also on the road, the rocks, and the thorns - everywhere. Some may see this sower as reckless. Others may realize a grace and abundance in this simple action. While not so accurate in the distribution of seed, there is still hope in the potential provision that issues forth afterward.  

As Jesus began to explain the meaning of this parable, he asked his disciples to concentrate on the activity of the seed as it interacted with this variety of soils. The seed represents the Word of the Kingdom of God - the proclamation of the salvation that Jesus Christ earned for us on the cross. The scattering of the seed represents the sharing of the Word, going out into the world to preach the good news to the Kingdom. The soil types represent the different types of people who hear the Word.

Jesus begins with those who simply reject the Word. He says, "When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path." Why? A path is where many people have trampled the ground; it is packed dirt. The Bible tells us in 1 Timothy 2:4 that God our Savior desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Nevertheless some people reject the Word and resist the Holy Spirit. They remain in unbelief and under God's judgment by their own fault. After the world has worn them down, the Devil, the tempter and deceiver, comes to take the Word away from them. They have hardened their heart against the work of the Holy Spirit by simply refusing to believe.  

The next scenario begins on a hopeful note, but then ends perilously. Jesus says, "As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away." Here the seed produces results for a while. This type of person receives the word with joy. They join a local congregation. They may even become quite active. But then something comes along to distract them, test their faith and they fall away.  

In Jesus’ day, many fell away when our Lord began talking about His future suffering, death, and resurrection. There were followers who could not accept that teaching. Like stones, these ideas were just too hard to embrace. We often hear of those who, during the persecution of the early church, gave up their lives rather than deny Jesus, but there were others who fell away from the faith rather than surrender their earthly lives. There were also those who surrendered Jesus to the religious authorities, abandoned him in his hour of need and time of trial, even some who denied knowing him; that was like throwing stones at Jesus. Today, there are those who fall away when they find something in the Bible with which they disagree – and like stones, they would rather forsake the Word than have it possibly change them.  

One important consideration regarding this type of soil is that it is the sun that attacks the rootless plant. The same sun that provides energy for growth to the fully rooted plant can also wither the rootless plant. In a similar way, the same persecution that can wither a rootless faith can also strengthen a well rooted belief.

The third scenario illustrates a similar misfortune. Jesus said, "As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful." Once again, the seed sprouts. Once again, this type of person may join a local worshipping community. The issue here is that the cares of this world are more important than the Word of the Kingdom. A late night party or even late night television is more important than being rested up well to attend to God's Work. Extra-curricular activities are deemed more important than family gatherings at meals and play. Basically, there are so many things to do in this world that God's Word can be choked out, an afterthought rather than a priority.  

The types of people represented by both the rocky soil and the thorny soil end up rejecting God's Word just as much as the people represented by the path. In the end, they have resisted the Holy Spirit and are under God's judgment by their own fault.

I admit that at this point I began to wonder if this parable is really more about the hazards of farming in the first century. But I think it is describing the some of the difficulties of evangelism maybe then and now. This parable emphasizes different kinds of obstacles and failures encountered by proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

The last type of soil Jesus tells us about illustrates the fruit that God's Word can bear. Jesus said, "As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. They indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty." This time, the roots of God's Word run deep. The Seed, the Word, thrives and produces a harvest.   

Notice though, that even the good soil is dead until God's Word takes root in it. The soil and its condition are important, but power comes from God and God’s Word distributes that power. God works in us as we read or hear the Word. God brings us into God’s family as that very same Word combines with the water of Holy Baptism to live, to join us to Christ in His crucifixion. God sustains and strengthens our faith with the Word combined with bread and wine as God as Jesus offers Himself to us in His body and blood. These are the Means of Grace whereby God works the power of the Word in us.

The fact that the farmer appears reckless as he sows the seed illustrates the abundance of God. God is gracious with our salvation. God spreads the Word throughout the earth to all peoples in all times and in all places. Our Creator withholds the seed, the Word, from no one just as God withholds the Son from no one. The seed, the Word, is not aimed it at any one people or any one place or any one time. Jesus Christ died on the cross to take away the sins of all people in all times and in all places. He rose from the dead to declare His victory to His disciples and He told them, [Acts 1:8] "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." In this way, God has promised to sow the seed of the Word to the ends of the earth.  

You see, as an earthly story, a parable has limits. It can only illustrate a few spiritual truths at best. So it is with the Parable of the Sower or the Parable of the Soils. Although there are many ways in which God's Word is like a seed, there are some things God's Word can do that seeds cannot. A seed cannot change the soil on which it falls, but God's Word can and does change the heart. The message of the salvation that Jesus earned for us on the cross can soften the hard heart. It can break up the rocks and overcome the thorns. God does not sow the Word once and then give up. God sows the Word generously season after season. God sows the seed with loving generosity.  

So we, the soil in this parable, should pay attention to this greatest seed of all – the mighty Word of God. What pathways in our hearts are trampled hard because of other traffic in our lives? What precious words get picked off because of flighty thoughts or ravenous temptations? What seeds from God get wasted because we are overtaken by worldly concerns, never taking time to let our hearts be plowed in readiness for the Word to enter in? What germinations of God’s Word get scorched as soon as our life runs into a burning problem?

God’s Word is like the rain that waters the earth and brings forth vegetation. It is also like the sower who scatters seed indiscriminately. Our lives are like seeds sown in the earth. Even from what appears to be little, dormant, or even dead, God promises a harvest. For it is at this Table of the Lord that we are fed with the bread of life, that we may bear fruit in the world.

At the close of this parable, Jesus says, "Let anyone with ears listen!" Benedict of Nursia, a saint of the church whose feast day was Friday, opened the prologue of his Rule with "Listen, my son." Hearing Jesus' teaching and following the Benedictine Rule, disciples then and now are invited to "freely accept and faithfully fulfill" that which they listen to and hear. Jesus and Benedict offer a formula for anyone seeking God. There is to be listening and the fulfillment of that hearing, through obedience, in lifestyle and deed. St. Benedict expects listening to incorporate what he termed "the inclination of the ear of the heart." This kind of listening these days is rare. That, with meditation and contemplation, may be found in the experience of the Benedictine Community here at Immanuel. I hope that you'll come explore that tradition with us.

We are all born hard, rocky, and thorny, but season after season, God applies the abundant blessing of God’s Word. God sends parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, pastors and priests to share God's Word with us. Eventually, the Word finds a fissure or crack in which to set itself, anchoring its roots deep to take hold, and the Holy Spirit creates the faith that trusts in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ for salvation. The windows of heaven will open and that faith will receive all the gifts that God wants to pour out upon us. God offers us forgiveness, life, and salvation that last forever. Through God's Word, we are promised the Kingdom of God which is with us here and now and that one day God will take us home to dwell with God forever.

It’s about sowing seed, toiling (or tilling) soil, and sharing the Word.

Because with good seed and good soil, there is always Good News! AMEN.