Note: I usually post an initial sketch on Monday or Tuesday of each week; then, I come back with a revised piece on Fridays. I hope my thoughts nourish your thoughts, that something here helps you think in the right direction for the congregation you serve. Cheers!
This Sunday, I preach for the first time in a new congregation. I’m not the lead the pastor, so the congregation has already heard two sermons from our lead…and they’ve “met” me—as much as anyone can meet in this COVID pandemic. My bio has been both published on the website (http://fumcmcallen.com/about-us/our-staff/) and sent out via email. So, I don’t feel that I need to be too-too ‘here’s me’ in this sermon. But, I do need to do some of that. So, here goes….
When I was going through the ordination process back in 2005, I recall either a book I was reading or superintendent around me suggesting I find a passage that captured—to an extent—my own understanding of how I should or would live out my calling as a minister in the Church. Obviously, pastors of all sorts are to be found—church planters, evangelists, teachers, counselors, social activists, etc. So, how did I see myself? How did I understand my own place in the grand scheme of ministries out there in the world?
The passage that spoke most to me, about me, described me is that passage from Ephesians 4:
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Because my father (d. 1983) and my step-father (d.2018) were both pastors with very different gifts, it was important for me to find a passage that would both reflect my passion for ministry and guide my ministry. My Dad was a missionary/church-planter. I am not. My Papa was both an evangelist and social ministries guru. I am not. My ministry lies in that final bit— “…pastors and teachers…to equip [Christ’s] people for works of service….” My forte, my passion, my gifts lie in teaching, in discipleship.
While Jesus himself is involved in all kinds of ministry, in the Gospels he is often preparing his disciples to serve the world, to carry the Good News to others. And, he often does that through parables.
I love the parables. In just a few words, Jesus can completely re-arrange our worldview, our understanding…and he does it a deep level. Often, those parables get stuck in our heads—we can’t get them out. And, that’s probably the idea.…
Today, as we strive to figure out life, as we attempt to understand how to live in this COVID time, we long to hear from God, we desire a word from God. The parable we’ll look at today speaks to that desire. Do you want to hear from God? Do you want the wisdom that God offers us? Do you need and crave direction in your life as I do in mine? Then today’ parable speaks to our need.
Hear the Word of God found in Matthew 13, verses 3 – 9:
3 Then [Jesus] told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
When I was younger and my Grandmother Herrin was still alive, she kept a garden behind her little house in Chicopee Village outside of Gainesville, Georgia. Now, we need to be clear on something. When I say Grandmother had a garden, she had a GARDEN. It was about 150 feet by 75 feet…no small thing! The best way to describe that garden is to say it provided everything needed for her vegetable soup: tomatoes, potatoes, onions, okra, corn, green beans, butter beans, carrots—just about any vegetable you can think of. She also had some flowers—to attract the bees.
In order for that garden to be the amazing jungle of deliciousness that it was, the first thing necessary every Spring was to prepare the soil. North Georgia isn’t necessarily the most agreeable place for growing. The red clay is both hard and acidic. So, Grandmother would get out there with her gas-powered tiller and she would break up that soil…and she would blend lime into the soil to combat the acidity. She would put her compost in…and a little fertilizer. She wanted that soil to be ready for the seed and seedlings that she would put out after the last freeze of Spring.
Preparing the soil was so important. If the soil was too packed, plants wouldn’t grow tall and wouldn’t root well. If the soil was too acidic, plants would wither quickly…or the taste would be affected. Preparing the soil was nasty work, hard work…but, boy, did it pay off! Grandmother’s vegetable soup was incomparable. If I was there for supper, the fresh vegetables covered the table—fried okra, squash casserole, new potatoes. Oh, yes, the work that she and others put in to preparing the soil was more than worth it.
In our parable today, Jesus talks about problematic soil: rocky, shallow, too exposed, weedy…and the good soil—there…there is where the seed fell…sprang up…roots went deep…and it “produced a crop—a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was planted.”
If we were to read on in this passage (and I encourage you to read the rest of this chapter later today or this week), we would find out that this is one of the very few parables that Jesus explains to his disciples. He tells them that this seed being scattered is ‘the word or message of the Kingdom.’ Remember, Jesus begins his ministry proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, the reign of God.
That message is often simplified and captured as the message of God’s grace for us: God loves us, is with us, forgives us, and deeply desires a relationship with us.
But, folks have a hard time hearing this message. They have a hard time ‘period’ hearing from God. We don’t hear or can’t hear because the soil has not been prepared.
Soil that is not cared for becomes rocky, hard-packed…not very fertile. Sometimes the problems of life hurt the soil just like too much wind or rain can rob the ground of important top-soil. The anger we carry from a broken-heart or colleague’s conniving can compact the soil. The dreams that people have crushed can scrape off the top-soil. The events of life that we blame on God can make our soil very shallow—no room to root anything from God. In this parable, Jesus points out that ‘birds of the air’ come and snatch up the seed that falls on the wrong soil. Jesus reminds us that there are evil forces in this world that want nothing more or less than to rob us of the kingdom message and the joy, the peace, and the wisdom it brings.
So, how do we prepare the soil of our lives to receive the goodness that God has for us? How do we get the soil of our lives ready to receive God’s message of grace and joy and peace and love? How can we make sure that seed falls on good soil in our lives…and is not snatched away from us?
God—in His grace—gives us practices or disciplines that God’s people, Jesus people, have practiced through the centuries that have served well to prepare the soil of their lives. Yes, God loves so much that He gives what we need so we can come to Him and hear Him.
One of those practices is simply reading Scripture—Scripture that is now available everywhere. Oh, don’t start with Genesis and try to read cover-to-cover. The Bible is not a novel and does not read like a novel. Rather, start with small pieces. The Psalms and Proverbs are a great place to begin—a Psalm each day or just one chapter of Proverbs. Or, read some of the Gospels that give us the story of Jesus and his teachings—the most readable are Mark and Luke. Simply reading Scripture begins to prepare the soil of our lives to hear and receive what God has for us.
Prayer is another discipline. Some may say, ‘I don’t know what to say!’ Well, I’ll point you back to the Psalms—a collection of prayers and songs of the early believers. Let David the Shephard-King teach you about prayer as he praises God with delight in one moment and comes crushed and accusing the next. Or, if you learned the Lord’s Prayer…pray that prayer and expand on it. “Thy Kingdom come…”…and what does that Kingdom look like? “Give us this day our daily bread…”…but, I have enough—is there someone I can share with? Prayer gets the soil of our lives ready to hear and receive the Good News of God.
Finally, strive to worship God. I know, I know…it is so hard to worship sitting in our homes. Or is it? What does ‘worship’ mean anyway? Merriam-Webster says that worship is to honor or respect…to love…to pray to God or to a god or something. Honor. Respect. Love. Pray. Well, prayer covers this practice for some. For many, worship involves music. And, between the radio, YouTube, Spotify, Alexa, and Apple Music, we have options a plenty to find the music that speaks to our souls…that lifts us to God and allows us to worship—to honor, respect, and love God with our voices and our lives. And, you know how music sticks in our minds? That is lime, compost, and fertilizer settling into the soil of our lives, preparing us to receive the joy and peace and confidence that God has for us.
How is the soil of your life? Is it rocky? Is it hard, dry, packed? Is it shallow…unable to hold water or let things root? Do you want rich, deep soil that is ready for God’s good news? Begin one of these practices that God has given for us today…and notice how the soil of your life becomes more fertile. And when God’s kingdom begins to take root and grow in us—as we know the grace, the peace, the joy, the wisdom of God…yes, our lives grow and we can begin to influence others around us.
Jesus ends this parable with these words: “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Or, as Peterson captures this so well in The Message, “Are you listening to this? Really listening?
Let us pray….
Feel free to leave your own insights, questions, and words of encouragement below--perhaps they'll help us all as we strive to faithfully present this passage to our congregations. Blessings...