|Purple Coneflower in my neighbor's yard. The photo will make sense to you if you read the sermon.|
"Planting as an Act of Faith"
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Those of us who are gardeners plant our gardens in the spring and wait eagerly for what we planted to produce flowers or vegetables.
For a few weeks, I had an abundance of black raspberries. But not too much else in my garden is ripe yet. A little lettuce. Some chard. But no ripe cucumbers or peppers-- yet. Growing plants need time.
This is a good time of year to think about what the Parable of the Sower can teach us.
Jesus has come out of the house and is sitting beside the sea. Such great crowds gather around him that he gets into a boat and sits there, while the crowd stands on the beach. And he tells them many things in parables, beginning with the parable we heard today.
"A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.
Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty...."
This is rich... deep... mysterious stuff! “Those who have ears to hear-- listen!”
So-- what do we hear in the parable? I think we get some clues from the context. Chapter 13 begins with the words "the same day," which connects it to what has happened before.
The parables of chapter 13 are Jesus' response to the rejection he has experienced in the preceding two chapters. He’s trying to help people understand why a lot of people aren't responding positively to what Jesus is saying and doing.
Those of us who are gardeners know what we do to try to produce a good harvest. We prepare the soil. We buy good seed and plant it. We water when necessary. Then comes the time of waiting-- the time between planting and harvest.
But we are well aware of how many things are out of our control.
Things can happen that we don’t control. Heat waves. Drought. Torrential rain or hail storms. Hungry rabbits. We're not in charge of any of this.
Even in good soil, the increase differs. “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”
Jesus tells the crowds that they won’t always be successful when they sow the seeds of the kingdom. Did you figure out the statistics from what he says? Sowing the seeds of the kingdom results in failure three out of four times. Seventy-five percent of the time, the work you do related to the kingdom of heaven will not yield anything. Nothing.
The Rev. Jill Duffield suggests we imagine that stat on a college recruitment postcard or an annual financial report or the list of best jobs or a guide to happiness, health, and wealth. “Come join us and fail--often, repeatedly, spectacularly, totally! See your efforts result in nothing! Not exactly the top 10 ways to wealth or three easy steps to happiness or 30 days to a thinner you.”
When Jesus tells this parable to the crowds and to the disciples he’s mentoring, he knows that the road ahead will become increasingly risky and harrowing. If we’re going to follow Jesus and sow seeds of the kingdom of heaven, we’re going to get plenty of opportunities to learn from failure.
Jesus has already warned the disciples of persecutions to come. In the very next chapter, John the Baptist will be beheaded. God’s present and coming kingdom will not come without great resistance, and Jesus doesn’t try to hide that truth. Failure is certain. Sometimes our best efforts won’t bear any fruit-- or at least not the kind or amount of fruit we hope for.
We are living in anxious times. Some of us find ourselves having moments of despair at the state of the world. When we look around, there are more problems than we can possibly solve. And sometimes we worry and wonder: “What’s this about, God? Have we been planting enough seed? Are we doing something wrong?
In agricultural terms, we live between the time of planting and the harvest, and it is a time of uncertainty. We want to trust that we will see the planting bear fruit. We want to believe that what God has begun will come to fruition.
Barbara Brown Taylor calls the process of how seed sprouts and grows "agricultural grace." We're not in control. As much as we'd like to keep digging up the seed to check and see if it's sprouted yet, we need to plant and then wait in faith.
I'm continually amazed and surprised by the plants that appear in places where I didn't plant them. Under my blue spruce trees, in the shade garden, beside the hostas and lily of the valley, I have a couple of Rose of Sharon shrubs. One grows up against the trunk of one of the spruces—so close I couldn’t dig it out if I tried.
My next-door neighbors on one side don’t seem to care about anything in their yard except the required mowing, yet this year I see some Purple Coneflowers growing next to their street tree, apparently from seeds from my plants.
I find Black-Eyed Susan’s and Purple Coneflowers and Feverfew Chrysanthemums and Toadflax and Cornflowers and Rose Campion growing in places I know I didn't plant them. Over the years, my neighbors have seedlings from my flowers and tomatoes growing on their side of the fence-- things that they didn't plant. Sometimes a dill plant grows in the expansion joints of my driveway. I've planted lots of flowers and herbs. But the wind and the birds have a part in the planting too.
Sometimes I’ve thought the White Columbine I brought from Pennsylvania is gone, crowded out by more aggressive plants. Then a season or two later it shows up again and blooms--a reminder of Helen, the woman who gave me the plant as a parting gift when I moved to Michigan.
I’ve never planted any common milkweed in my garden, but I have an abundance of it in my garden to provide a good habitat for Monarch butterflies. The seeds just came-- carried by birds or the wind.
A sower went out to sow….
In the church, we're not in control of the harvest. That's up to God. What we are responsible for is sowing gospel seeds. If we let our anxiety take over, we might keep the seeds in our pocket, or plant them in safe little pots where we can keep a close eye on them or try to control them… or dig them up every day or two to see if they've sprouted.
Here at Littlefield, we've been planted in a neighborhood where we don't get to see dramatic results, in terms of the church growing a lot bigger. Sometimes it's really hard to trust God for the harvest. But planting is an act of faith. We've been planted, here as a result of seeds that were planted earlier, and we're responsible for sowing seeds in faith and hope.
The seeds I'm talking about sowing have to do with embodying Jesus Christ in our actions and words. I'm talking about reaching out in respect and friendship, honoring each person we meet, caring enough about them to take the time to get to know them... finding out what they value… and need… and believe.
I'm talking about being so filled with the love and peace and joy of Jesus Christ that some people will want to know how we got that way.
The parable of the sower and the soils reminds us that we are not in charge of the harvest. We are called to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ and to work as co-gardeners with God to sow the seeds of love and righteousness and justice.
The seeds will land where they land. Some of the seeds will feed the birds... and they may end up being planted in some unlikely places! Some of the seeds fall into the ground. There in the dark earth, where you can't see and don't know how, they will push up through layers of dirt-- sometimes even through stone or cracks in concrete-- through whatever is in their way.
"Some seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain..."
The good news is that God the gracious gardener is in charge of the growth. The harvest will come in God’s time.
Many of us have heard the story of Johnny Appleseed—that legendary frontiersman who walked across Ohio and other states giving out seeds for fruit trees. Many generations benefitted from Johnny Appleseed’s passion for planting.
How different would things have been if Johnny Appleseed was worried about seeing the results of his efforts? Suppose he didn’t trust the power of the seeds to grow? Suppose he felt personally responsible for hovering over each and every tree until it was producing fruit? How many trees would he have been able to plant in his lifetime?
So it is with our sharing the good news of God’s love. The resistance to God’s reign of justice, mercy and grace is real and strong. But our faith teaches us that, ultimately, goodness is stronger than evil, life is stronger than death. There will be discouraging times when we don’t see the yield from the seeds we plant. But there will be bursts of amazing, life-giving, abundant growth.
Our job is to work with God in planting the seed, and then trust that grace happens beyond, through, and despite our efforts to control it or keep it in our back yard. God can use our efforts to bring forth an abundant harvest—in God’s good time. The Kingdom will come, on earth as it is in heaven, and we will have the joy of being part of it!
Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
July 16, 2017
Barbara Brown Taylor, Mixed Blessings. (Susan Hunter Publications, Atlanta, Georgia, 1986), p. 68.