“Rooted in Faith” Colchester Federated Church, July 12, 2020, (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23) Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (**Virtual Worship)

This morning our Gospel story is the Parable of the Sower from Matthew 13.  The next couple weeks will be wonderful parables in the Lectionary, so get excited because these are some of Jesus’ most famous and often perplexing teachings!  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 beyond any historical doubt 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.  However, no one can argue (in good faith anyway) that Jesus was crucified and that he spoke to his followers in parables. 

So what’s 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 the idea of the Kingdom of God to everyday ordinary things—something in this world, real or imagined.

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, sunlight, depth, and space to grow and flourish?  Are we working with good soil in our own lives? 

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 this 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 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 happen![3]

Rev. Martin Copenhaver (former President of Andover Newton Theological School, my Alma Mater), wrote a lovely reflection about the 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.  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 in his parable.  His plan was that all the seeds would die except the seeds planted in the good soil, bringing home this lesson about living into Christ’s message of the kingdom.  Unfortunately, things didn’t go 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.”[4]

Copenhaver wanted to teach the lesson 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, that plant will grow until you can’t even believe your eyes!  And it’s the same with faith.  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.”[5]

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.  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 would find truth and meaning in their words and others would literally think they were drunk and crazy like on Pentecost?  The disciples spread 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 people.  We preach and teach.  We learn and grow.  We baptize and bless.  We share joys and struggles.  We welcome and have visions.  We glorify God and give thanks for this community of faith.  We do the work of justice.  We spread our kingdom seeds with abandon and with hope, 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—some of the seeds will not take root.  There is some variability in the parable.  Even the seeds planted in the good soil yield thirty or sixty or a hundredfold, it wasn’t all the same!  And other seeds 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 for a person who’s hurting.  But isn’t that rather liberating?  We just do our best.  We still prepare.  We pray for those seeds of faith to take root and grow.  We scatter love with hope and abandon, leaving the rest up to God.  Because God is God and we are not, and thanks be to God for that!  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] Martin Copenhaver, “Where is the Good Soil?” UCC Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, May 20, 2012.
[5] Ibid.