July 16th Sermon: The Sower (Rev. Zollfrank)
13That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!”
18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When 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. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet 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. 22As 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. 23But 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.”
Holy One, sower of everything that grows in us, let your word accomplish that which you purpose. Amen.
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
Today’s gospel – the parable of the sower – is fairly simple to understand right away. It seems to say that there are four kinds of people:
- First there are those, who hear God’s word but don’t get it.
- Then there are those, who hear God’s word and receive it enthusiastically. But that joy is short lived, when the going gets tough.
- The third group consists of those who hear God’s word, but the cares of the world and the striving for wealth chokes God’s word of life.
- It is only the last group that hears God’s word, understands, and yields fruit.
As I heard and read the parable I immediately began worrying about what kind of ground I am on with God. After all, according to the interpretation here, we only have a 25% chance of things working out well. And as I mentally review my plot of soil, there is plenty of reason for worry. That path running through it is packed down pretty hard. My habits, inflexibilities, resistance to new ideas, lack of imagination, fear of failure, worries about the future – have all served to make any seed thrown on that path pretty easy picking for birds. And what about all those rocks lying around my plot of soil? All those excuses I trip over all the time – no time for volunteer work, too busy for a daily sustained time of quiet with God, better cut back on the charitable contributions with the healthcare expenses on the rise. I don’t even want to think about the thorns! Those wicked weeds that choke off all my good intentions – letting the cultural climate and the latest opinion rather than the gospel dictate the use of my resources and gifts. I wonder if there is any patch of good soil in my plot – soil, which will produce twofold, let alone thirty, sixty, or a hundred fold.
What type of soil are you? A path, rocky ground, soil filled with weeds, or good soil that will allow the seed to grow and yield fruit? If we hear the parable in this way, each of us has a 25% chance of being the right kind of soil. Can you be sure you are good soil?
But is that what Jesus wants to say? That only one in four makes the cut?
Another way of looking at this parable may be that it is an allegory of spiritual life. Looked at it that way, the text illustrates four seasons of faith that just about any Christian may be familiar with.
- The first season would refer to times, when the soil of our heart has hardened and God’s life giving word runs off like rain water on a rock solid dirt path. For example, have you struggled and wrestled with something or someone for a long time? Have you suffered from a situation or a problem in your life that could not easily be resolved? Maybe you tried all kinds of things to change it and then you talked to a loved one or caring other and that person then suggested that maybe, just maybe, God might be somewhere in the experience you are struggling with. I remember moments like this and I quickly responded, “Why would God be in this? I don’t think God has anything to do with it!” We all may have seasons of our life with God when we are not open to God’s word. And while we are like rebellious teenagers, God is still trying to talk with us.
- The second spiritual season seems to be a much happier season. Those times when we enthusiastically and joyfully celebrate God’s presence in our lives. Those moments when our hearts burst with joy. Those spiritual high points, when we can hardly believe our blessings! But then all of a sudden it can become impossible to sustain the bursts of spiritual energy we are given in extraordinary moments. — “Oh my God, he is such a miracle,” a first-time mom says in the maternity ward as she holds and sees her child for the first time. And then quite naturally, the spiritual high of that unforgettable moment gives way to the reality of diapers, exhaustion, sleep deprivation and figuring out how to feed the kid. Another kind of faith then must grow and sustain her and the father over years to come.
- The third season of our spiritual lives may be times when everything material is more important than anything spiritual. A middle-aged man sits in his hospital bed, the laptop on the bedside table and the phone in his hand. Without missing a beat he says to me after I introduce myself, “Look, chaplain, no offense, but I’ve got to figure out how I can get out of here and get back to work so I don’t loose my job. So, if you don’t mind, I would rather talk to my boss than to yours right now…” Fair enough and so understandable! Focusing on solving real life problems can and must at times take over.
- The fourth season is a season when we hear God’s word, understand it, and bring plenty of spiritual fruit. I remember a 45-year old woman, whom I will call Janice, whose heart failed for no good reason. I met her when she couldn’t live anywhere else but in the cardiac ICU. Emaciated from heart failure and almost unable to do anything including holding her head, her daily prayer was for a heart transplant. Two years later after having lived with an electronic device that circumvented her heart and helped her live, she was strong enough to receive a heart. The surgery went well and I saw her get stronger every day. “You know how I got through all this?” Janice asked me one day, “I held on to God’s word. Your daily visits and prayers and the Eucharist were the only medicine that helped. I would not be here if it wasn’t for that. But now I have received the gift of life and I have to figure out how to live a life that is worthy of it.” – “Why would you not be worthy, Janice?” – “I don’t know… It doesn’t matter, but I think I want to write a letter of gratitude to those kids who lost their mother, the woman who donated her heart. Her heart is now beating in my chest. Think of it! I want them to know that it is a beautiful heart, that I am so grateful, and that I will always pray for them.” Janice kept her word. She even met the family of her donor and many tears were shed. Janice went on to become a volunteer in the hospital. She talked with cardiac transplant patients about her journey and helped them think through theirs. She offered encouragement, realism, and advice about pesky details that some of the doctors never talked about. Janice had heard the word of God, lived by it and gave back a hundredfold. She found a new life, a new vocation, and a new purpose for herself.
There are seasons in our lives of faith and God knows that.
But let’s just be clear – and I agree with Barbara Brown Taylor in this – our parable today is not called the “parable of the different soils,” or even the “parable of the seeds.” It is called the “parable of the sower.” “A sower went out to sow…” Put that way, our parable is not really about the hearers. Barbara Brown Taylor says, this text is “not about our own successes and failures and birds and rocks and thorns, but about the extravagance of a sower who flings seed everywhere, wastes it with holy abandon…confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty, and that when the harvest comes in at last it will fill every barn in the neighborhood to the rafters.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Extravagant Sower,” The Seeds of Heaven, Cincinnati: Forward Movement Publications, 1990)
The parable is not about us and what kind of soil we are. It’s about God, who is the most extravagant sower. It is about our God; a sower who “flings seeds everywhere, wastes it with holy abandon, who feeds the birds, whistles at the rocks, picks his way through the thorns, shouts hallelujah at the good soil and just keeps on sowing, confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty.”
It’s about our God who says in our Isaiah text today “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, 11so 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.”
God’s word will not return to God empty. It will accomplish God’s purpose.
What is the purpose of God’s word? What does it mean for God’s word not to return empty, if it is about more than just doing good and creating a fertile soil for God’s word. God’s word is relational – a word spoken to us, sent to us, promised us, contradicting us, and always meeting us. Because that is so, I – like Jesus – can only tell you another story, which I think had everything to do with God’s word accomplishing its purpose.
Just because I practically live in the hospital, it is another hospital story. Listen to this. One night I was called to be with the two daughters and two grandchildren of a man in his early seventies, who was dying in the ICU. The room darkish with neon light, the machines slowly giving breathe and rhythm to this man’s failing body. The daughters clearly had not had an easy life. For now, I just tried to setup the room in a way that fit their needs. The 11-year old was interested in knowing what exactly which machine was doing. We needed tissues and we needed an extra chair. And then they talked, “Just so you know, our dad was a piece of work. And he was not exactly what you would call a great dad.” – “That must make it complicated to be here,” I responded. No need to discuss this further, we silently agreed and instead I spent some more time explaining all the tubes to the 11-year old and together we got some crackers for his 3-year old brother. “What’s on your mind, as you are gathered around his deathbed?” After some time of story telling bitterness and resentment miraculously made way for a rough but honest kind of love. “Well, he did better with the grandkids”, daughter one stated and daughter two finally came closer to the be, sat down, and took a deep breathe. “Well, we are going to be here anyway. We won’t leave him to die alone.” After a while I asked them, if they maybe wanted to say an Our Father. “The whole thing? All of it?” – “Well, I don’t think we could leave out lines, do you?” – I waited and after some time they all gathered around the bed, one grandchild on the bed and the other on a chair so that he could see grandpa. We prayed the Our Father, – all of it. When we were done, the 3- year old asked if he could say something to grandpa. “Sure, go ahead, honey, he can hear you,” his mom stated. – “We love you grandpa. And we’ll miss you.” – And with tears shed, the room grew peaceful.
God’s word came down from heaven. Jesus Christ is God’s word sent to us, the word promised us, the word contradicting us, the word that meets us and reconciles us with God and with one another. It may not matter so much to God what season of our faith we are in and what kind of soil we are. Because God has made up his mind long before us, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 10For 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, 11so will my word be that goes out from my mouth; it will not return to me empty, but it will accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Amen.