I love my kids so much. I just want to get that out in the open. I love them so much. But, sometimes, they do this thing where they lack a filter. All the parents in the room know what I’m talking about. Sometimes my kids just yell out whatever is in their head without having any notion of the idea that it’s not socially acceptable. This happened twice just this past week. One day, Amy had an ear-nose-throat doctor appointment out at Sunbury hospital, and after her appointment, we went to the hospital’s little café to get a snack for the kids. And as we’re sitting there, all of a sudden Oakley yells out “SANTA!” And I look to where she was pointing and, sure enough, there’s a guy in a red shirt with white hair and a white beard. And once Oakley started yelling it, Boston started yelling it. Now, meanwhile, Amy and I are just peeing ourselves from laughter, so we’re not helping the situation by egging them on. The next day, we’re walking around a store, and we walk by a mom and a little kid in the cart, who I would peg at like, under 1 year old. And Boston goes, “LOOK MOM! BIG BABY!”
But this happens, right? I mean, kids often share their thoughts and opinions so liberally and freely, that we don’t really know what to do with them. And the compliments don’t always land the same. The guy my kids thought was Santa didn’t look too pleased with their comments on his appearance, whereas the mom of the child that Boston insulted laughed at it as much as we did. So, all that goes to show is that it’s not very different for us. Sometimes our words land on deaf ears and sometimes their received. And our story this morning is about something much the same.
So, first of all, this parable is called the parable of the Sower. And, when you really think about it, it doesn’t make much sense that this might be called the parable of the sower since the sower is really only mentioned in this first verse. Instead, much more of the emphasis falls on the ground. Get it? The emphasis of the story falls on the ground, and also the seed falls on the ground. Get it? The sermon has a series of discreet jokes…Anyway, this is really what’s important here. It’s the only thing that really changes throughout this whole story.
So, we see this listing of different kinds of ground. We see 1) seed that falls alongside the path which is eaten by birds. 2) We see seed that falls along rocky ground and, since the roots can’t dig deep because of the rocks, it dies quickly. 3) Other seed falls on the same ground as thorny plants, which grow stronger and faster and don’t let the other seed grow. 4) And finally, some seed falls on good soil which takes root and yields a harvestable crop. Now, I know what you’re thinking: This is just…bizarre. But if anyone could understand this, it would be the disciples. They know Jesus’ beliefs; they know how he operates; they know he likes to hide his teachings behind these little stories called parables. Surely, they’ll understand him if anyone can. And if you’re thinking that, I agree with you. But we’re overlooking one little detail with the disciples, and the technical, theological term for this is that they’re idiots.
So, a few verses later, it shows the disciples kind of poking and prodding Jesus to explain to them the meaning of the parables, and eventually Jesus loses his patience and snaps and says, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” I’m curious of Jesus’ tone in this moment. Like, is he openly frustrated, or is it kind of a passive-aggressive, I-need-an-anger-translator kind of tone? In any case, Jesus says this, and then proceeds to walk the disciples through this parable, step by step: “14 The sower sows the word. 15 These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17 But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. 20 And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”
So, Jesus really breaks it down for us here. The sower sows the word. The sower is the person talking about the gospel, be it the preacher, the teacher, the water cooler conversation, whatever. If the sower sows the word, then the word would be the seed, right? And finally, those having ears to hear the word are represented by the different types of ground. Now, I don’t want to brag, but when we were in Princeton, we had a community garden plot, and I grew a bunch of lettuce, so…I think I know what I’m talking about. It’s funny because, if you know anything about gardening, you know lettuce is the easiest thing on the planet to grow. It’s like, you literally just need a seed, dirt, and water. No special conditions, doesn’t matter if the soil is bad. I literally grew, like, 20 heads of lettuce by accident because it’s so easy to grow. Lettuce is like the Methodist Church of vegetables – it just needs the necessities. If you want to grow lettuce, all you need is dirt and water. If you want to be a pastor in the Methodist church, you just have to have a pulse and love Jesus.
But it’s worth spending some time thinking about this “soil” idea. And we’ve all probably fallen into each of these categories at one time or another. Maybe at one time you were going through a season when, no matter how hard people tried to love you and pour into you, you were just a steel trap and couldn’t let anything or anyone in. Maybe you’ve gone through seasons of doubt and questioning, where you finally feel like you’ve grasped onto this Christianity thing, but then you can’t quite stop wrestling with all the problems and contradictions you keep finding between your faith and the world. Or maybe you’ve been lucky enough to have a few rare moments of the gospel taking root and growing within you.
Now, I remember hearing sermons about this text where preachers would talk about how we’re called to be good soil and let the gospel take root within our hearts. And, if we step outside the details of our story, we might agree with that, on some level. But, if we want to work within the confines of the story, we have to acknowledge an oft-overlooked detail. And that’s that soil doesn’t have a choice. The ground doesn’t get to choose if it’s rocky or riddled with thorns; it doesn’t get to choose if it’s an often-walked path or if it’s healthy soil.
This reminds me of a story that’s kind of famous in the academic theology world. There was this Swiss theologian named Karl Barth who lived in the 20th century – he’s often referred to as the greatest theologian to come along in nearly the last 1000 years. He produced over 10,000 pages of material through his career. I mean, this was back in the day when people actually cared about theologians. Barth was on the cover of Time Magazine once. That’s crazy. Anyway, toward the end of his career, he wrote a letter to a young theologian named Jurgen Moltmann who had just written a book. And after reading the book, he wrote this letter to the author and he said, “I have been looking for the child of peace and promise. I took up and studied your book with this expectation, and at beginning of my reading I seriously asked myself whether Jürgen Moltmann might not be that [child].” So, basically Barth is saying that he’s been on the lookout for the world’s next great theologian, and he thinks it might be Moltmann.
Now, just imagine the excitement that Moltmann, this young theologian fresh out of school, would have felt at those words. But then, we read through the rest of the letter, and toward the very end, Barth says, “Very definitely, then, [after finishing your book] I cannot see in you that child of peace and promise.” So, the letter started out with this seemingly amazing compliment, only to be undercut a few paragraphs later by the real intention. Now, what’s this letter called? This letter is called a Chocolate Covered Turd. At first glance it looks attractive, and maybe even pleasing to the palate, but then you take a bite of the chewy center, and realize it’s NOT. Now, I have to imagine this was devastating for Moltmann. But, Barth does leave him on a hopeful note. Right after he says this bit about not being able to see in him this child of peace and promise, Barth says, “But why should you not become that child?” Barth is telling Moltmann: Listen, you’re not there yet. But that doesn’t mean you never will be.
In much the same way, I think we can say of these different types of soil in our story, and people with these different types of experiences: Yes, you might be going through a rocky or a thorny season, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never be classified as “good soil”. It might just mean you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be at this time. One body has many parts; one planet has many different types of soil. Being one kind over the other doesn’t make the dirt any less a part of the planet. The (big C) Church, God’s called and chosen people, is composed of saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers, those who buy into institutional religion and those who don’t. It doesn’t mean the folks in those categories will be in those categories forever, but it does mean that the categories exist and we don’t necessarily have a choice in which we are.
Now, I think we would all agree that it’s better to be good soil than rocky or thorny soil, not in a way which suggests that the people in these categories are better than the people in the other categories, but in a way that suggests being at peace is much better than being restless, right? Now, how does rocky and thorny soil become good soil? By being willing to work intimately with it until it become good soil. Much the same, how do we help people get to a place where they’re at peace? How do we help people understand and make sense of their doubts and their questions? We rally around them in love and service. We meet them where they are without any timelines or expectations. I mean, look around at this amazing community of people. I think we would all agree that anyone who might be searching or struggling would find comfort and understanding here. So, the question is why new people aren’t pouring through our doors every week? And the answer, quite simply, is that we’re not doing a good job of sowing seeds.
I just read an article not long ago which gave some statistics on this: 67% of Americans say a persona invitation from a family member would be very or somewhat effective in getting them to visit a church, and 63% of Americans say a personal invitation from a friend or neighbor would be very or somewhat effective in getting them to visit a church. Now, in the second half of 2018, we averaged 107 folks hanging out with us on a Sunday morning. So, the logical question is, why don’t we consistently see 60 or 70 new faces in here on a Sunday morning, at least trying us on for size? And the answer, again, is simply that we’re not great at sowing seeds – myself included. And I know that in this religious climate, there’s fear that if we talk about our faith, it’ll be perceived as just trying to “save peoples’ souls” or trying to fundamentally change who they are. I totally understand that. And I don’t buy into that kind of practice either. A read another study that said over half of millennial Christians think it’s wrong to evangelize with the sole purpose being to get someone to change their mind. And I am definitely one of those millennial Christians, because it just treats people as a means to an end, when we should really be treating people as ends in themselves.
So, if we’re not trying to save souls, why talk about Jesus? Why bother sowing the seeds of the word? Well, for any number of reasons. First of all, we’re commanded to do so in the bible. But besides that, how different would the world look if everyone really embraced Jesus’ radical ethic of love? We would probably have a lot less poverty and injustice. And in such a time as this, where there are lots of “Jesuses” being preached, many of them hateful – preaching Jesus philosophy of loving without limit is radical. Plus, we need to fess up to the fact that, if this were really important to us, we’d be talking more about it. We talk about our spouses and our kids; we bend peoples’ ears about our work and school. And yet, this faith that we’re so committed to internally rarely finds and external outlet. And, again – it’s hard to do because we’re afraid of how we’ll be perceived. And that’s a legitimate concern. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try.
Everything we do should be about mission. Mission, mission, mission. Everything else is useless if we’re not talking about Jesus and the radically good things he has to offer us in this present moment; things like love and meaning and community and acceptance and grace. Every time we invite someone into this space and welcome someone into our midst without any expectation or desire other than wanting them to be loved and accepted, exactly as they are, these radically good things are offered. We’re called to sow a seed that is the word, and this word is Jesus – the incarnation of love. We sow love with our words, our actions, our feet and our hands. We sow it even when we don’t think we’re sowing it in our unconscious moments driving to work or walking around the store. Everything we do reflects back on this Christ, and it’s not our job to try to evaluate if someone is “good” soil or “rocky” soil because we throw out some seed. We should be sowing love everywhere and with everyone – with our friends and family, our co-workers, whatever. Because if we’re not out there, loving people for who they are like Jesus did, then we’ve completely missed the point of the gospel. Let’s pray.