“Preparation and Scattering” Colchester Federated Church, July 16, 2017, (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23) Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today our text is the Parable of the Sower as found in Matthew’s Gospel.  Actually the next couple weeks will be some great parables in the Lectionary!  Before we get into the specifics of the Sower, we can recall that parables were central to Jesus’ ministry.  New Testament scholar Arland Hultgren notes that the two things we know about Jesus of Nazareth that are beyond any historical doubt (known around the world by Christians and non-Christians alike) is that Jesus was crucified in the First Century and that Jesus taught in parables.  When it comes to Jesus’ miracles, healings, resurrection, even teachings like the Sermon on the Mount—people will dispute them from a historical perspective.  And miracles are a matter of faith after all.  However, no one can argue with Christians that Jesus was really crucified and that he spoke in parables.

So what in the world is a parable?  Hultgren has a good definition: “a parable is a figure of speech in which a comparison is made between God’s kingdom, actions, or expectations and something in this world, real or imagined.[1]  We hear Jesus proclaim in the Gospels, “The kingdom of God is like . . .” a seed growing secretly, a mustard seed, leaven, treasure hidden in a field, an expensive pearl, a great banquet.  Jesus is comparing this concept of the Kingdom of God to everyday ordinary things.  Yes, Jesus was all about parables!

Which brings us to Matthew Chapter 13.  Jesus tells this parable where a farmer scatters seeds throughout the field.  Some of the seeds land on the path and the birds eat them right up.  Some of the seeds fall on rocky ground and grow into plants, but then die because they can’t take root.  Some of the seeds fall in with weeds which basically choke them to death.  Finally, some seeds fall on good soil and grow to be tall and strong, yielding a good harvest—some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty![2]  We are to admire the seeds planted in the good soil and wonder about our own faith.  Does our faith have the water, the sunlight, the depth, the space to grow and flourish?  Or not?  Are we working with good soil in our lives or are we hanging out among the weeds and the thorns?

Now my father grew up on a farm outside Wooster, Ohio (Wooster spelled the normal way and not the weird Massachusetts way.)  Anyway, the family grew corn, wheat, oats, and clover and alfalfa for hay.  In order for these crops to grow, they had to plow the ground.  Then disc it—level out the furrows, turn the soil over.  And then they would harrow it so that it would be ready to plant.  The soil became so fine that the wind could even blow it around.  After all that work was done, the soil was ready for crops.  It was a long process.  Though my dad grew up with 73 acres on the farm, some of their land was wooded—probably around 45 acres had to go through this process.  Their neighbors were Mennonites and apparently had much better corn than our family ever had—so who knew what old school farming techniques they were using!  However, farming is a process.  And if you want to yield good crops, there’s a lot of preparation that must go into the soil itself before a seed even enters the ground.

Maybe you knew all that already if you farm or garden.  Maybe you could even add to that brief explanation.  It’s just worth remembering as Jesus talks about this Parable of the Sower.  This particular parable is thought to be one of Jesus’ oldest teachings.  It’s found with some slight variations in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and the Gospel of Thomas.  We can understand the parable as being a word of encouragement Jesus gave to his followers to proclaim the Kingdom of God.  In spite of the seeming failure at times (the seeds not thriving in the pathway, the rocky ground, and the thorns) there would be an abundant harvest in time!  So keep your head up and keep the faith!  Keep telling and showing people that God is about to do a new thing.  Keep preparing that good soil so that people can receive the message.  Right now is not a time to be timid or faint-hearted, not when this ministry of proclamation needed to go on![3]

The parable begins so simply with “a sower went out to sow” and Jesus rather nonchalantly says “other seeds fell in good soil and brought forth grain.”[4]  Remember that it takes a process to make that soil good.  In order for the seed to grow it seems that preparation is necessary.  Perhaps we’ve had moments where we really want to explain something to somebody and it seems to fall on deaf ears.  Afterwards we may think to ourselves that we didn’t prepare for that conversation very well.  We could have done some work to make sure the other person could hear what we were trying to say.  We could have thought of various ways to convey our message.  The point is the seed couldn’t take root—it was like that seed that just fell along the path and the birds ate it up.

Preparation matters. In farming and in life in general.  Sometimes we have to work hard to create that good soil for life to flourish.  Haven’t we heard quotes like, “Proper preparation prevents poor performance?”  Or Bobby Unser’s quote: “Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.”  Or Alexander Graham Bell’s quote: “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”  Right?

Well what if it’s not that simple?  What if this parable actually isn’t that simple?  Rev. Martin Copenhaver, President of Andover Newton Theological School (my beloved Alma Mater), once wrote a wonderful reflection about this Parable of the Sower.  Copenhaver’s reflection stemmed from acting out this parable with children and youth of a church he once served somewhere in Connecticut actually.  The children and their young pastor planted bean seeds beside the road, among rocks, among thorns, and in good, fertile soil in accordance with how Jesus describes the situation.  His plan was that all the seeds would die except the seeds planted in the good soil, bringing home this parable about living into Christ’s message of the kingdom.  Unfortunately, things didn’t go exactly as planned.  In his words, “As the weeks passed, however, I noticed with horror (the children with glee) that the bean planted among the thorns was keeping pace with the bean planted in the good soil.  In four weeks, only one plant remained … the one among the thorns.  It was doing so well that it yielded a handful of beans.  The children thought this was so hilarious they planted one of the beans in a pot and gave it to me as a gift.  Bless their little hearts.”[5]

Copenhaver wanted to teach the lesson of the parable exactly as it was outlined in Matthew’s Gospel.  If you plant anything too shallow or among thorns or among weeds, that plant will not be able to grow and thrive.  However if you prepare good soil for the plant, well—that plant will grow and grow and grow until you can’t believe your eyes!  But they all ended up learning a different lesson.  In the end Copenhaver says, “What I noticed only after attempting to act out the parable is that we cannot know where the rocks are, where the good soil is.  That knowledge is given to God alone.  We simply never know where God’s kingdom is going to take root.  Our job is simply to spread kingdom seeds with something like abandon so they might take root where God sees fit.  There is something wonderfully freeing about knowing that.”[6]

This reflection on the Parable of the Sower has everything in the world to do with all of us.  Because how was Jesus to know that his teachings would stick with some of his followers and not with others?  The preparation work had been basically the same for all of them and Jesus worked hard to prep that soil.  Jesus would take the disciples aside and explain his teachings to make sure they got it.  Except sometimes they didn’t.  Or how were the disciples to know that some people in those early crowds would find truth and meaning in their words and others would literally think they were drunk and crazy like on Pentecost?  The disciples ended up just spreading the seeds of the faith with abandon in some cases, hoping and praying that they would take root.

Isn’t this exactly what we do today?  We reach out to all people.  We preach and teach.  We learn and grow.  We baptize and bless.  We share joys and struggles.  We welcome and see visions and dream dreams.  We glorify God and give thanks for this community.  We do the work of justice.  We spread our kingdom seeds with abandon and hope in our hearts, filled with the love of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit to make this world a better place.

Here’s the thing though—no matter the amount of careful preparation that we do, no matter how much we prep that soil to make it good, some of the seeds will not take root.  There is some variability in the parable, right?  Even the seeds planted in the good soil yield thirty or sixty or a hundredfold, it wasn’t all the same!  And other seeds even planted among the thorns or the weeds may actually grow and flourish against all odds as those children discovered at that little church in Connecticut.  We can’t know exactly the impact of our loving actions in Christ’s name.  We won’t always know the difference that a kind word or act makes to a person who’s hurting.  But isn’t that rather liberating?  We do our best.  We still prepare.  We pray for those seeds to take root and grow and grow and grow.  We scatter love with hope and abandon, leaving the rest up to God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, 3.
[2] Matthew 13:3-9, NRSV.
[3] Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, 188.
[4] Matthew 13:3 and 7.
[5] Martin Copenhaver, “Where is the Good Soil?” UCC Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, May 20, 2012.
[6] Ibid.