Sermon for May 5, 2019
Texts: Isaiah 55:10-13; Psalm 104:1, 14-24; Matthew 13:1-9
Sermon: "How Does Our Garden Grow?"
I wonder with you today: How does our garden grow here at First Presbyterian? Yes, I know we have beautiful roses blooming on the church grounds, and the urns on the front porch are resplendent with spring color.
But have we planted another kind of garden for God? Do we sow enough seeds, pray enough for the harvest? Are the seeds we sow the true word of God given freely and in joy?
I think we hear God responding to that question in the parable of the Sower that Jesus tells; and through the prophet Isaiah.
In the parable, the sower scatters the seed; seed that sometimes take root but more often seem not to thrive. And Jesus tells us that when the seed fulfills God's purpose, the harvest will be wondrous -- larger than we can imagine.
Jesus often taught in parables. Then and now, the meaning often eludes us. But in the case of the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explains what he means -- that is, he explains to the disciples, not the crowd of listeners.
Hear now as those who truly listen, those who want to know how to sow seeds, those who want to find fertile soil -- yes, and those who want first to be fertile soil.
Jesus says that the sower of God's Word must strew the seeds lavishly and with unquenchable hope in his heart. See in the parable with what abundance the seeds are given up, even though the sower knows many will fall on hard, thorny, or rocky ground.
The sower of God's Word must believe that God will provide fruit that grows out of that hopeful and lavish sowing. In truth, the parable describes what we might call a mixed harvest. Some hear the word and believe and act upon it. Others do not. And it has been that kind of harvest for Jesus up to now in his ministry.
Jesus has experienced what seem to be some successes in his ministry thus far -- but also some notable failures. Not everyone who meets him likes him; not everyone wants to follow him. Some say they want to follow and then disappear.
Most people in the crowds, peasant people who find a new kind of hope in his words and deeds, seem to love his teaching and healing. But religious authorities in the crowds are opposed to Jesus. The parable might be seen as representing that mixed reaction to his teaching and healing -- and one way to encourage the church today about how to deal with failures that disappoint and confuse us -- as well as successes that come out of nowhere and stun us!
In the parable, there are four kinds of soil in which the seeds might be sown.
First, there is soil that is packed down, hard soil. The seeds that fall on the hardened path are eaten immediately by the birds. There is no chance for the seeds to sink into the soil and take root.
The second soil is the rocky soil -- the kind of soil we know well -- soil that it is no fun to try to turn with a shovel. Jesus pays the most attention to this kind of soil. Here is what he says about the seed falling into the rocky soil: the seeds "did not have much soil," the seeds did not have "depth of soil," and the seeds "had no root."
Jesus notes that the seeds grew up quickly in rocky soil -- maybe the shallow soil absorbed more heat from the sun. But the quick growth spurt did not produce strong plants but, rather, plants that could not withstand the heat of day and thus were scorched by the hot sun.
The third soil was inhabited by thorns and briers. The seeds planted there were choked out.
Finally, the fourth soil is rich and ready, where the seeds formed strong and deep roots and produced a bountiful harvest -- thirty-fold to one hundred fold, when ten-fold would have been a big success.
After telling the parable, Jesus exhorted the crowd with these words: "Let anyone who has ears, listen." Listen, he says, to hear and to understand what I am saying.
Those in the crowd by the sea that day who knew their scriptures well might have thought of Isaiah 55, especially verses 10 and 11: Just listen one more time.
"For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it."
But those who listened carefully also would think of the teachings they already had heard from Jesus -- about the kingdom of God, about sin and repentance, and about judgment at harvest time.
It is right that we should hear those same things. And as those who carry the word forth into the world today, as God's church in the world, we find many questions and many challenges in the parable.
First -- there are warnings about rootlessness. That warning is for even those in the church today. Are the seeds we sow not taking root in good soil? And do we suffer from rootlessness?
Second -- Jesus warns about distractions of the world's culture competing with kingdom ways. How can the church respond today to those caught up in such distractions -- those who have found other people and things to worship instead of God in Jesus Christ?
Third -- the parable warns us about love of material wealth. Where does that love intersect with love of God and God's ways in the world?
These all are questions we must ask, realities that we as the church must face as we sow seeds of the gospel in obedience to Jesus' commandment to us to go out and make disciples of all nations. So we listen and we ponder these realities, these lessons.
But we don't miss the promise of God's abundance and God's grace found in the parable. Do we recognize God as the extravagant sower of the word and wonder what that means for us as the church? What about what it means not just for the church but for the world?
God has provided the church with the gift of call. But God also has given us enough seed to cover the earth again and again. God has given us seeds of his own Holy Word and sent us out to sow them -- to sow them generously and lovingly no matter how the soil appears to us, however hard or rocky or thorny it might seem.
We in the church too often back away from the task put before us -- not sowing the seeds of hope and love and faith -- but rather of fear, judgment, and exclusiveness.
Jesus tells his disciples that the seeds are "words of the kingdom," but as the parable continues, the seeds seem to become something else -- people sent out by Jesus, maybe? That would include us? And we notice that Jesus spends the most time speaking about the soil, so the parable of the sower seems more precisely a parable about the soils.
Further, Jesus himself can be seen as both sower and seed of the kingdom. Jesus is the parable -- bringing to the world both judgment and mercy. The parable has many lessons for us -- both as givers and as recipients of the gospel news.
Our own soil can become hard or rocky or thorny. Where once we were good, fertile places for God's word to dwell, there may be another time in our life when our soil gets dry and hard; or full of thorns.
And as for those birds -- they might be seen as all kinds of devilish attitudes that eat up the seeds of hope that God calls us to keep alive.
There are those who have decided they don't like or need any kind of faith; there are drugs and greed that destroy the very souls of those who succumb; there is apathy, sometimes derived from spending all day worshiping things that have become our new gods but in truth are worthless and soon discarded. All of these, like the birds eating the seeds on the path, are the antithesis of hope in God's victory, in direct opposition to God's loving, compassionate, grace-filled way in the world.
Clearly God's call and challenge to the church is to stand fast, finding the resources within ourselves to imitate the sower -- and to hope that over time the hard soil will break, the rocky soil will be cleared of its obstacles, the thorny soil will bring forth the myrtle tree or the cypress, as Isaiah says. All in God's time -- it is not for us to know when.
God says to us: Don't stop. Be persistent. God is making something good out of what you are doing, something you cannot see. Keep dropping those seeds and pray for God's Spirit to take over from there. We may not always understand how it works, but we do it in love for the Lord and his kingdom -- and for the ones who need to hear about how God sent Jesus Christ to teach and heal and die and rise for them -- for the world, my friends.
That sowing of seeds is our holy offering to God, a way to give our hearts away. God's word will not return to him empty but will succeed in its purpose. God's kingdom will not be denied. Jesus has told us that. God provides the seeds -- the very words and promise of the gospel.
I ask you again, then, how is our garden growing? Keep your prayers alive. Pray for seeds to sow and fertile hearts to receive them. And remember that God alone in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to rise up in discipleship today and tomorrow and into our future together. May all glory be now and always to our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.