I wonder what those crowds gathered by the sea that day thought when they heard Jesus speak.
Just imagine yourselves in their place. You’d heard stories about this country preacher who was travelling around preaching and doing miracles. You’d heard some amazing stories about what he had done. People in the village had taken to arguing about it.
Some said there was no way those stories could be true. Some yokel from Gallilee was not the long promised Messiah who would restore the glory to Israel and bring about God’s kingdom on Earth. It had to be crazy talk. They’d seen a hundred madmen claiming to be the Messiah and not one of them had been the real deal.
Others swore it was true. They’d see it. Or they knew people who had seen his works. They’d heard him teach and preach. This was the one that the holy Scriptures had promised would come. And he would be near their village in the morning.
Can you imagine the expectation and anticipation?
Can you imagine the scene on the shore that day? Can you feel the press of bodies one against the other? Can you hear the chatter and the talk? The Scripture says the crowds were so large that Jesus had to get in a boat and push out into the water so they could all see him.
And then he said this: A farmer in his field sows his seed. He throws it everywhere. Some falls on the path and is eaten by birds. Some falls on the rocky ground and grows at first, but it is killed by the hot sun. Some falls in among the weeds and thorns and is choked to death. But some falls on good soil and yields a rich bounty.
And that is it. That is all he says.
When we read the Scripture, we get the explanation of the parable, but the crowd there on the sea shore that day, they did not. They just got the story.
How do you imagine they felt?
I think it was a pretty good thing the disciples did not sell tickets to see Jesus. They would have had a lot of demands for refunds.
In a way, though, the parable was the perfect illustration of the point Jesus was trying to make.
If you remember from the second part of the gospel reading, the meaning of the parable was this. Not everyone who hears the gospel bears fruit.
Some people hear it, but it doesn’t get past their ears. They don’t take it into themselves. It does not touch their heart or mind in any way and it quickly fades away.
Some people hear and rejoice when they hear it. But when turmoil and trouble arises in their lives, the joy fades. The good news dies.
Some people hear the good news, but their hearts are set on wealth or the pleasures of the world, and these things strangle whatever change the good news might work in their lives.
And then some people hear the good news and it bursts forth in their life. They find new life and new meaning in the world. They live as new and different people. They bring God’s love to the world in what they do and how they live.
In a way, the parable was itself in illustration of this point.
Jesus knew that many – maybe most, maybe nearly all – in that crowd were not ready to hear the gospel. So, he did not try to explain it to them. He did not go out of his way to make the good news understandable. He did not worry that lots of people left the shore that day scratching their heads or angry that they did not get from Jesus what they had come expecting to get.
By the way he preached, Jesus was saying, “Look, not all of you are going to get something from this. I’m okay with that.”
United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon says that we preachers need to take a lesson here from Jesus. Too often, we preachers feel that we have to make the gospel easy to understand and easy to digest. We file off the rough edges and explain away the parts that are hard.
When Jesus says to people that no one can follow him if they don’t hate their father and mother, we get edgy. When he says it is harder for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, we start looking for other texts to preach that Sunday. When he says pray for Osama bin Laden, we feel a cold coming on and get out our list of substitute speakers who can fill our pulpit that week.
Bishop Willimon says that the real truth of the matter is that the good news of the kingdom of God is so hard for ordinary sinners like you and me to understand that it takes a miracle for us to really hear it. It is only by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit that we hear the good news as good news.
I don’t know about you, but I find this extremely liberating, in a couple of ways.
First, as a church, it is liberating because it frees us from having to worry all the time about how effective our witness as Christians is.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We want to be good witnesses. We want to be faithful. We want to live out our faith in ways that glorify God and show the world what God’s love looks like in the lives of people like you and me.
But the parable of the sower suggests to me that we can let go of our hang-ups about how people respond to our witness.
In the parable, the sower – that is Jesus – throws his seed everywhere. It is flying all over the place. He does not care. The birds are going to eat a bunch of it. The sun is going to kill a lot of it. The weeds will choke a bunch more. But he keeps throwing it out there.
In the United Methodist Church these days, there is a new emphasis on planting churches. For about 150 years, the Methodists in the United States were the kings of church planting.
In 1881, there was an atheist speaker at a convention of Freethinkers who declared triumphantly that Christianity was dying out in America. He said the church was withering on the vine.
A man named C.C. McCabe with the Board of Church Extension of what was then called the Methodist Episcopal Church sent a message in response. He wrote:
I stepped into a telegraph office and sent the following dispatch: “To the President of the Freethinkers’ Convention, Watkins, N.Y.: ‘All hail the power of Jesus’ name!’ We are building more than one Methodist church for every day in the year, and propose to make it two a day!”
Until about 1950, the Methodists planted churches like the sower throwing his seeds. Anywhere we could get enough people together to start a church, we did. It is why we are the only Protestant church with a congregation in every county seat of every state in the United States.
And this kind of wild extravagance does not just go for planting churches, either.
If we live as if God has plenty more seed to spread around, we live our lives and run our churches not out of fear that we will run out of resources, but out of confidence that some of the seed will find good soil.
A lot of what we do will not work. Many of our ministry ideas and efforts will fail. But if we keep throwing God’s good seed out there, some of it will find soil ready to receive it.
I think that is a terribly liberating message for the church to hear. For the last 50 years the United Methodist Church has been living as if God is about to run out of seeds. We talk an awful lot about death and doom. Jesus does not appear to agree with us.
It is a liberating message for us here at Wesley Chapel. I’ve only been among you a short time, but I hear it in your voice and see it in your eyes. We are not that young. We are not nearly as many as we used to be. We might not have many years left.
Well, that may be true. God only knows. But I don’t think we do any glory to God if we live out of fear and defeat. Today, we are still here. If God can use a shepherd boy to bring down the giant Goliath, he can use us. If God can take eleven scared disciples and build a church that covers the Earth, he can use us.
Jesus does not fear death. Neither should we.
But I don’t think this parable is only a message for the church as a body. It is also a message for you and me as individuals. What I hear in the parable is Jesus saying he understands our spiritual journey, even our spiritual struggles.
He understands that for some of us, we find ourselves in a place where the world’s troubles blast away all our joy in God.
He understands that some of us are too taken up with worldly concerns. The weeds of this world suck the life out of our faith.
He understands that some of us can barely hear the words of hope or do not believe them to be true. We are like the hard, dry ground on the foot path that has been beaten down to the point that the word of truth cannot penetrate.
The good news is this: Jesus will keep throwing seed our way until we are ready and able to receive it.
He will keep speaking to us through the lives of his faithful people. He will keep speaking to us in our prayers. He will show us the grace of God in the face of a child given a warm meal or the blessing of education. He will churn up the tough, rocky soil of our souls with his gospel of the Father’s love. He will water our parched ground with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes, he’ll do this in unexpected ways.
A woman came to the church I served in Greene County this way. She had locked herself out of her house one night and was climbing in through a window. Now, the window was not quite big enough for her to fit through and she wound up hanging halfway through it, stuck between the wall and her bed.
After a long time, she got pretty upset. So, she made this promise to God. She said, “God, if you get me out of this, I’ll go back to church.”
Now, I’m sure God was working in her life in lots of ways to get her to the point where she would make such a bargain and keep it. And she did keep it. In fact, she later brought two of her neighbors to the church.
The good news is that God is working in your life, too. He’s working in the lives of our friends and family and neighbors. God is working to break up the hard soil of our souls and make it ready to receive his word of hope and faith and love.
We are invited to work with God. To take up the means of grace. To pray. To fast. To search our Bibles. To worship in truth and love. To seek justice. To show mercy. To walk humbly with our God.
And we are invited to sow God’s seed into the lives of everyone we meet. We are invited to sow God’s seed everywhere we go.
Much of it will never take root. Much of it will never bear fruit. But do not worry. God has more where that came from.
Let us be sowers of God’s extravagant and wild love for his creation. ……. Let us pray.