Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (NRSV)
13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
I know. I have the scriptures out of order again. Believe me, it hurts me worse than it hurts you to preach out of lectionary order. It’s especially obvious this week since this scripture already showed up in your bulletins (but wasn’t preached) on the day Hector and Cindy’s baby boy was born. But July has been kind of weird, schedule wise, and quite frankly, I love this photo so much I had to use this scripture to go with it.
This is a photo I took while I was at Camp Tamarack the other week. On Wednesday, the day I left because I don’t do altitude well at all, at all… the campers hiked 3 miles to get to this place from the camp. I rode up in a 4 wheel drive extended cab pickup, with the sack lunches. The other chaplain looked at some trees growing out of a crack in the rocks and said “I’m going to use that for my sermon on seeds on rocky soil.” I liked his idea so that I told him I was going to steal it, and took a pic of the same trees … but then I saw this even BETTER example, because this one little tree was totally dead growing out of a rock, and right behind it were huge big trees growing in good soil. I’m going to guess that the other little tree will die eventually.
Another advantage of preaching out of sequence is that I get to read other people’s sermons on the same passage before I write mine. My friend Bob Cornwall, pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan, preached on this passage last week and talked about the assumption that this parable is about what happens when we speak the Word - either in sermons or in conversation with another person. And that the good seed bearing fruit is what happens when that other person goes out and tells people who are in turn convinced, and turn their lives over to Jesus. But this time around, Bob said, he had a different thought about this parable. What if, he asks, this parable is about God and the way in which God works in our lives?
Bob also had some questions about the way the farmer planted, because in the parable it seems like he’s just sort of randomly scattering seed so that it falls on rocks and a beaten path and a thorny patch, and hopefully also in good dirt, which is what eventually produces a good harvest. Bob questioned why the farmer didn’t go out and carefully prepare the soil, and carefully place the seeds in little individual holes, as we do when we are planting a back yard garden. This, of course, was a rhetorical question, because Bob knows the reality of 1st century farming techniques as well as I do. The farmer in Jesus’ day was preparing the fields with what effectively was a long stick with a sword on the end of it. He may or may not have had an animal (or a strong son) to pull that plow. He surely didn’t have a big old John Deere tractor and all the amazing farm equipment we have today. He didn’t even have a Rototiller.
When I was growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I noticed that when our neighbor planted seeds in the field we leased to him there was always a big patch in the middle of the field that didn’t produce any wheat. There was a rock there that was simply too big to remove without dynamite, so he just lifted the plow when he went over it. And when it was time to plant, it was easier to just drive his tractor over it and waste some seeds that to try not to drop them in that particular spot. My neighbor may not have been scattering seeds by hand, but even with careful preparation and the state of the art New Holland farm machinery he used, some seeds went on the rocks, and some went along the edge of the fields where there was a path we used between farms, and some went into a patch of wild blackberries (yum). Imagine how much harder it would have been to control where seeds went when they were just flung out by hand, onto soil that was prepared by hand.
And imagine if the sower of the seeds didn’t care where they fell? What if the sower of the seeds scattered them so that every kind of ground received seeds, without worrying about whether they grew exactly where they were planted or not? Let’s look at the parable just a little differently.
Consider the seeds that fell on the pathway and were picked up by birds. Now, because we are people who pay attention to science, we know that birds are responsible for things like the variety of plants that grow on the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, islands that rose out of the ocean floor as a result of volcanic eruption. Left to themselves, these islands would be barren. There wouldn’t be anything there but volcanic rock. But over time the rock eroded away to become soil, and birds flying over left deposits, in which there were undigested seeds, which grew in the mineral rich soil, creating an island with a variety of plants that shouldn’t be there. Seeds don’t necessarily grow where they are planted. Somehow the Word one person heard, even though it didn’t take with them, may be heard by someone else, someone ready to hear it.
And what about the seeds that fell into the blackberry bushes? They certainly had a harder time of it, and they would have been almost impossible to harvest. I mean, why go into a thorny patch for a few stalks of wheat? But you know, the stalks that were left behind in the thorny patch dropped their own seeds, and grew new wheat the next year, and the next. Until eventually, new stalks of wheat grew beyond the thorns, and into the field, and were able to be harvested. The Word is still there, in that thorny patch, still growing. It just isn’t ready yet to accept God’s love. It might take a while, as it did with me. But eventually the Word, that seed that was planted so long ago did bring me back into the arms of God.
And the seed that fell on rocky soil. I do love these pictures. In one, a tiny tree is clearly dead, unable to grow in the cleft in the rock where the seeds from a pine cone fell. There is another little tree next to it that will probably suffer the same fate. But over here, over in this other rock - look at the size of this tree! Look at the trunk, how big it is. Even though it is growing out of a rock, this is a big tree. And while it is clearly beginning to die (bark beetles got to this one, too, unfortunately), it has produced harvest after harvest of pine cones, ready to drop their seeds elsewhere. Maybe some bounced over the edge to fall far down below - which is why all of my pictures were taken from a safe distance back! Maybe some were picked up by birds, or blown away by the winds, or washed down off the rocks by rain. But whatever seeds fell on this particular rocky ground grew and prospered and produced more seeds. And maybe some of those healthy trees in the good soil a bit further down the mountain come from this tree. Maybe the Word that grew here, where it shouldn’t grow at all, has taken on new life somewhere else.
We are God’s garden. All of us. All of humanity. Yes, there are individuals that don’t accept the Word, like the seeds that fall on the rocks, or that pathways, or in the thorn bushes. But that doesn’t mean that the Word doesn’t grow somewhere else simply because that person was exposed to it. That doesn’t mean that the person who hears it one day, and rejects it, won’t come to accept it later. God drops the seeds of God’s love into every human heart. Every person, no matter who, no matter where, is beloved by and precious to God.
And we, as Christians, are also God’s gardeners. God gives us opportunities every day to “preach the Word” through our actions. We don’t have to go out into the world telling everyone the Good News of Jesus Christ like preachers or theologians. But we do have to go out into the world acting the Good News, like Christians. We do have to go out into the world being the seeds God is planting in others. Maybe those seeds will take and germinate and grow where they are planted, and maybe they won’t. That’s kind of not our business. Our business is just to make sure that everyone we meet will know we are Christian, not because we are wearing a cross, and not because we can quote the Bible, and not because we tell them about Jesus. But because we act in love. Because we treat others well, as we would like to be treated. Because we reach out to help, where help is needed, and not expected. Because we serve others without expecting rewards or recognition.
My brothers and sisters, when we go from this place, let us take with us the seeds of God’s love. Let us scatter those seeds on every kind of ground, in every situation, whether we think it will take or not, whether we think it will grow or not. Let us go out and love one another, as Jesus commanded us to do, planting God’s garden with acts of love and service.