This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, in Madison, Wisconsin, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, on July 16th, 2017 is built on the Gospel reading assigned for Proper 10 in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can fund that reading here.
Here is an audio recording of the sermon.
Here is a transcript.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Please be seated.
So I just want to take a quick poll here. Anybody who’s heard this story before raise your hand. Anybody who thinks they can tell this story almost from memory raise your hand. Anybody who thinks they know what this story means raise both hands!
Wow! Parables… Jesus sat there in the boat and taught them many things by parables. Well the intent and purpose of a parable is to grab us with something with which we’re familiar to hook us in and then to twist it just a little bit. Just enough to make us wonder… “What?” What does that mean? And then to leave us wrestling and struggling, playing with those words. And that twisting of something so common and ordinary leaves us sort of twitchy and uncomfortable until we think we have it figured out.
Now I’d be willing to bet that as I started to read that story all of you who raised your hand and said you’ve heard this before jumped right ahead to Jesus’s interpretation of the parable. This is what falls on rocky ground, the people… This is what falls on the good soil, the people. You started to do that thing that we are so good at. You started to worry about yourself.
That’s my first response to this story. I hear the story and I wonder “Well.. What kind of soil am I?” And what do I need to do? Do I need to fold a little organic matter in here to improve the soul level that I am? I don’t think that’s the first thing that the people to whom Jesus originally told this story heard; even the disciples to whom he gave his interpretation.
So I’d like to ask you to do something difficult, to erase your previous history with this story. Just set it aside. Set aside your conclusions about what this means, and start over again.
Imagine if you will that you are a subsistence farmer. You struggle all year long to raise enough crops to feed your family and maybe, maybe have enough left over to sell and buy things that you can’t produce on your own. You walk in to the seed store I don’t know… in Maryland it was called Southern States. I don’t know what it’s called here, where you go and buy agricultural supplies. But you walk in and there’s one of your best friends, another subsistence farmer, and he’s standing there at the counter, and he’s haggling with the seed seller over the cost of seeds.
You know I need the seeds to feed my family and we had such a rough year last year. I hardly have enough money to afford the seeds I need. Can’t you please cut me a break?
The guy behind the counter, who’s had to pay more for the seeds that he’s selling because the guy he bought them from had to pay more for them himself, is driving a hard bargain. Trying to get every penny he can for these seeds. But finally, the two of them, back and forth; It’s my family that’s at stake; It’s my livelihood that’s at stake… come to an agreement.
Your friend turns from the counter with these precious seeds, and he walks to the door into the parking lot, and he starts flinging them on the asphalt amongst the cars; there are in the antifreeze that the leaked out of somebody’s tractor; there in the brake fluid that’s in that corner of the parking lot. Those seeds are landing where they will never produce fruit. You look at your friend. You ask him “what in the world are you doing? And he’s giggling. He’s laughing.
He has this great smile on his face and he’s clearly enjoying himself. And he says “Who knows? They may grow! And won’t it be beautiful?”
That’s what’s at the heart of this story. It’s not about whether or not we’re good soil. It’s not about judging ourselves. It’s not about becoming better soil. This story is about God! A sower with such a sense of generosity and abundance that God sows these seeds everywhere.
That wouldn’t make sense in the “real world.” So this parable has taken something that Jesus’s hearers would’ve been completely familiar with and twisted it just a little bit to teach them something about the unexpected abundance and generosity of God. And it’s so important that we get to this point in this story. It’s just crucial.
So to backup just a little bit. Just prior to this story in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is being confronted by the religious authorities who were trying to trap him and trick him. And people are rejecting his message, and putting him aside. Imagine what his disciples felt like as they watched all of this happen. Jesus tells them this story not to judge them, not to judge the people who aren’t believing, but to explain something about the human condition.
So I’m sorry I’m going to do this to you. I’m going to take us back to that first understanding of this parable. And I’m going to look at you like this , and I’m going to say, “So what kind of soil are you?”
Well… what day of the week is it? What time is it? Have I had my third cup of coffee yet? Did I eat breakfast? Am I sick? Have I just experienced a loss?
The truth is that any one of us can go from being good soil, to the path, to being rocky soil, being choked by thorns, and back again multiple times in a single day! So Jesus isn’t about judging the kind of soil that we are here. He’s just describing who and what we are. And the reason that is so important is God is spreading those seeds anyway.
So you wake up in the morning, and you’re feeling pretty good, and you’ve got your first cup of coffee, and the birds are singing, and you’re there on the porch, and oh you are fertile soil tilled wide open ready to receive the seeds… And then your kid comes downstairs and says, “Did I tell you I’m supposed to take two dozen brownies to school today?”
And suddenly that furrow slams shut. You’re hard packed. You’re the path where the thorns are rising up and choking you. But God is still up there saying, “Hey! Have some seeds! Have a little more!” And later in the afternoon, when the brownies are done and your kids off at school and you’re thinking “Wow! I did it! I got it! It’s OK!” And you start to be open again… The teacher calls and says “You were supposed to bring juice too!” God is still spreading those seeds.
I think that’s what this parable is really all about. After all Jesus doesn’t tell parables to help us understand ourselves. Jesus tells parables to help us understand God, and the kingdom of heaven. So any time our interpretation of a parable stops with us… we haven’t finished working yet. We have to go back and look and ask ourselves “What is God doing in this parable? What does this parable teach us about God?” That’s where the real heart the story is.
So sounds pretty good. Even, even when I’m not the best of possible soils God is still planting seeds in me. But there’s something even better, more exciting.
Because that sense of barrenness, that sense that we’re being choked by thorns, or that we are in the midst of a rocky field, isn’t just about our interior life. That can be true about the way we perceive the world around us. And so this parable is also telling us that God is strewing those seeds all around us. Why don’t we see them? Why don’t recognize that those seeds are landing to our right and to our left, in places where we would never imagine that God would be sowing seeds? There they are! They’re landing right next to us… If only we would stop judging ourselves, being so consumed by our own place in the story, and start paying attention to God and what God is doing, we might just find that we have the energy, and the time, and the vision, to see God springing up in the least likely of places all around us.
We might even find that we have the energy to nurture and tend those tender shoots as they start to come forth. We might find that we have a cup of cold water to spare to water that growth.
Suddenly we are liberated. We’re set free. God has not and God and never will abandon me, no matter how barren I feel. And God is at work in the world all around me. And I’m invited into this incredible adventure of tending the garden.
Hmmm. Maybe there’s a little bit more going on in this parable than we first thought.
Getting in there and wrestling with those words, hearing them afresh, letting them grow anew… That’s our project. That’s how we tend the word of God within ourselves, as fertile soil, working here in God’s vineyard.