Parable of the Sower or the Soils?
The Rev. Chris Harris' sermon from Sunday, July 16, 2017
This is most commonly known as the Parable of the Sower, but it is also known as the Parable of the Soils, and that seems to be at the heart of the interpretation offered by Mathew’s Jesus: In short, that our receptivity to the Word of God, is not universal. Some of us, it turns out, are more resistant than others.
And if you think about it, that was certainly true of the differing reactions to Jesus and his message throughout the gospels: For every woman at the well or for every blind man or Roman soldier whose life is transformed through their encounter with Jesus, there are countless others for whom it did not – in fact later in this very chapter, Jesus’ preaching would be rejected by the people of his own hometown – and in Luke’s version they get so angry at his preaching they try to throw him off a cliff! And before anyone gets any ideas, might suggest that if any of YOU don’t care for this sermon, just send me an email!
It’s therefore tempting to hear this as a parable as primarily talking about those OUTSIDE the church. After all we’re HERE! We’ve been baptized, we come to church, we’ve made a pledge, we volunteer in one or more ministries and so on – certainly WE’RE the good soil! Isn’t this parable supposed to help us to understand why those out there, aren’t in here?
Well, let’s take a little closer look at those soils…
First, Jesus mentions the path – the hard, well-worn road where the seeds of the Gospel can’t penetrate: Have you ever had such a closed mind about something that the gospel literally falls on deaf ears? Take, for example, our call to love our enemy. Do we take that to heart or at least try to struggle with it? Or do we blow that off as naive idealism? Someone asked if we could pray for fallen Marines in the prayers of the people this week – which we will, happy to – but what would be your reaction if we also prayed for the ISIS leaders killed by a recent drone attack? Do you dismiss that idea as politically correct nonsense or are you open to trying that on as a spiritual practice to stretch our faith?
Or how about the rocky ground where the Gospel is received with great joy and gladness – that is, so long as life is going our way. When going gets rough – in the face of life’s hardest challenges, illness, divorce, the loss of our job, death, or when our assumptions about God and God’s ways are proved wrong, do find ourselves relying on God all the more, have we ever discovered the roots of our faith to be a bit shallower than we thought?
Finally, is our faith ever sown amongst thorns? Does practicing our faith compete with all the other demands on time, our attention and our pursuit of money and things – the desires of the flesh as Paul calls them: Is practicing our faith just another to-do item on an overly long list, somewhere below our jobs, our vacations, trips to the mall, soccer games, remodeling, new cars, new status, new styles? I think Jesus is reminding us that if practicing our faith isn’t a priority – something that we clear our calendar for -- but rather something we try to fit in if we have some spare time, then it’s easy for it to get lost in the weeds.
Well if you can identify with any of that either today or sometime in the past, you’re in good company, as several of the original disciples did as well…following Jesus’ arrest it got rocky enough for Peter that he would deny ever knowing Jesus! Paul was thoroughly hardened against the gospel as the greatest persecutor of Christians, until his heart opened after encountering Jesus on a hard, well worn road. Zacchaeus had amassed a great wealth as a roman tax collector but eventually found his way through the thorns of worldly wealth, to give it back to those he had profited from, and to follow Jesus.
So if this is about us after all, what can we do to cultivate our own soil? I think that’s where spiritual practices come in, and not just worship, but daily prayer, and gathering in small groups to study scripture and to reflect on what God is up to in our life, it’s about giving generously – which means NOT giving when we can afford it, but giving when we can’t … Spiritual practices help us to grow in our faith, to break up even the most hardened of soils, to weed out the distractions in our busy lives and root out the idols of our consumer culture. But there is one more practice that we don’t talk about in the church very often and this gets back to the people OUT there who aren’t in here… And that practice is become a sower of the Gospel yourself…
So yes, this parable is about the soils; those of us who have heard the good news and are struggling with it taking a deeper root in our lives. But it’s also about the need to sow the good news to people who haven’t heard it to begin with! They never had the seeds thrown their way!
Oh, sure they may have heard of about “Christianity”: That if you don’t believe in Jesus and join OUR particular denomination, you’re not getting into heaven… but that’s not the Gospel I know. That just sounds like good old-fashioned carrot and stick training that one might use on an animal. For me, the Gospel is about God’s love, the good news is that the creator of creation itself, knew your face before you were stitched together in your mother’s womb… and loves, just as you are, so deeply, so wildly, that when you experience it, it frees us from our fears and everything that holds us back to be the person God made us to be. It’s a love that so overflows that we could live no other way than to offer that same love to everyone we meet. That’s the gospel that knocked Paul off his horse, that that’s the good news that drew Zacchaeus out of his tree and into the mission of God – THAT’s the gospel we experienced this morning marching in the pride parade and we hugged and thanked thousands of strangers for offering that most simple, but most radical message, and THAT’s the gospel we need to start sowing today.
And if you don’t think you’re ready. If you don’t think you know enough about the Bible or about Jesus or whatever, just ask yourself: How long have you been going to church? 20 years? 40 years? 60 years? When Jesus send the 70 out into their surrounding communities to share the love of God – and none of them could have been his followers for more than two or three years at the most. Trust me, each of you are MORE than ready to become a missionary for the Gospel today!
And by the way, when I say “missionary” I’m not talking about overseas missions to far off lands. I am talking about your neighborhood, the block where you live, the people in your building, even your own family. I’m talking about grandparents seeing themselves as missionaries to their own grandchildren, or if you work in an office, the those in the cubicles next to you. And it’s not about guilting them into coming to church, and it’s not about justifying or explaining the bible to people – it’s simply about showing the people you encounter most often, God’s extravagant, radical, mind blowing love and then seeing where the Spirit takes you from there.
So yes, the is the parables of the soils and that sower and they are both us. One of my mentors, Stew Dadmun used to say, my work is to find the Christ in me, so that I can see the Christ in you. And I think it works the other way as well: When we seek and serve Christ in the other, we come to know Jesus within ourselves. In other words, if you want your faith to deepen, you can’t just endlessly come to church, cultivating your own soil, as important as that is. For the Gospel to fully take root, you need to start sowing seeds as well. Its mutual.
My book group is trying that on this summer and our homework has been to prayer walk our neighborhoods. The other morning as I was walking my neighborhood, I was going by the home of an elderly widow who I’ve seen driving the neighborhood in one of those motorized scooters. As I passed her house, I felt a nudge on my shoulder, that said, “you know, she must have a terrible time taking her garbage cans out to the curb on trash day.” So, I took a chance and knocked on her door, I introduced myself and explained that Joe and I lived just a few doors down – and then asked if she could use a hand on garbage day. Through the screen door, I could see her look down took what seemed like a really a long pause…and that’s when I started to panic! Had I come by too early? Was this just too forward? Maybe being friends with the gay neighbors is not her thing? As those fears were flashing through my mind, she looked up with a wide smile and she said, “You have no idea how good you just made me feel.”
Suddenly the conversation was no longer about trash cans, but about two neighbors who had lived on the same block for years, making a connection, and through our vulnerability, seeing each other for the very first time. Where will this lead, who knows? I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a new guest for our Thanksgiving dinner this year. But I think I’ll just continue to pray and let the spirit continue to lead me.
Last Sunday we did a prayer walk in the neighborhood right across the street. It turns out there’s a retirement community right on our doorstep! What if we made that a regular practice and over time started to get to know the folks living there? Again, not promoting our church or handing them flyers to our next concert, but asking if there was anything going on in their life that we could pray for? What if came to know the prayer concerns of our neighbors across the street? Who knows what that might lead to…
Will we get some doors slammed in our face? Probably, though I doubt anyone will try to throw us off a cliff! But that should deter us. It’s about sowing God’s love wherever we find ourselves and like the sower in the parable, not to try to prejudge people and try to decide ahead of time who would be receptive, and who wouldn’t. It’s OK to be haphazard, dropping seeds here and there, the key is to pay attention on what takes root and then nurture it.
As you walk out today, there is a simple one-page guide on beginning this practice in your own neighborhood – and again it’s not about going door to door proselytizing. It’s about waking up to what Spirit of God is already doing in our neighborhoods, it’s about seeing our neighborhood with fresh eyes and ourselves in a new way: as sowers of the Gospel, as missionaries of God’s love, and then preparing for what would surely be…a miraculous harvest.