Preached at Alger First UMC on 10/11/2015
Scripture: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
When I was growing up, I can remember my mom having a garden every spring and summer. I especially remember it from the parsonage we lived in in Hamilton when Dad was pastoring a church there. The pastor and his wife who lived in the parsonage before my family had a huge garden in the front yard, with stepping stones, landscaping, the whole nine yards. So, as it sometimes goes, when we moved in, the church said “So…you’re keeping the garden, right?” So Mom kept it for a few years. And she always had my sisters and I help her out. Every spring, she would have us pick two or three things to grow in this garden. It could be flowers, vegetables, something that could grow in our little part of the garden. So we were each in charge of weeding, watering, taking care of our part. And as a kid, it was pretty cool watching a big stalk of corn tower up from the little seeds I’d put in the ground. Or see a big ol’ pumpkin sprout from the vine.
Now, sometimes I wasn’t that successful. Sometimes it’d be a dry summer and I wouldn’t water my part of the garden when mom told me to, or I wouldn’t pull weeds often enough. So there were a few times when my sisters’ plants and vegetables were all full grown and mine were kind of dead.
How many of you garden, or have ever gardened? How many of you have a green thumb and usually do pretty well? Or how many of you have thumbs that aren’t quite so green? Do you keep trying? Or have you just given up? When I would have one of those years when nothing much grew, my mom would always want me to try it again the next year. And I would always do it, even after I failed. Why? I think it was because there was always the hope of something sprouting and growing from those little seeds I would put in the ground.
This week, we’re finishing our series on this thing called evangelism. If you haven’t been here for all of it, let me bring you up to speed. The first week was all about how Jesus has called all of his followers share their faith with others-this is an expectation of Jesus’ followers. Week 2 we talked about how this work of sharing our faith and spreading the Gospel isn’t done by individuals working alone, but happens within a community-that’s what a church is supposed to do. Week 3, we talked about how none of that is going to happen if we ourselves don’t know the God we’re telling others about. Week 4 we talked about the work of proclaiming the Gospel, what most of us think of when we think of evangelism, and we said that it’s really all about simply sharing your story of you and Jesus with others around you. And last week, we said that all of this happens in relationships that you already have.
So this week, the last week of this series, I just want to encourage you in this work. This thing called evangelism, sharing your faith, is an expectation for those who call themselves followers of Jesus. But it isn’t easy all the time, or even most of the time. And when we do this work, we’re certainly not always successful. So why do we do it? For the same reason I kept growing stuff in Mom’s garden-for the hope of something sprouting and growing from the little seeds of faith we plant in others.
Now this idea of planting seeds and watching them either sprout to life or fail to grow was a big thing in the Scripture lesson you heard a few minutes ago, the Parable of the Farmer. Jesus told this parable about a farmer sowing seed, and how some of it falls on the path, some in rocky soil, some among weeds and thorns-and it dies in all of those places-and some on good soil, which thrives.
This is a pretty familiar story. But something that we usually forget about this parable is that the sower actually…failed. Right? I mean, look at it objectively. SO MUCH of his seed is completely wasted. Right?
Some of his seed fell on the path or the road running by the field, and the birds ate it up. Wasted that seed.
Some of it fell on some really rocky ground. And the seeds started to grow, but they couldn’t put down any roots, so they died pretty fast. Wasted that seed.
Some more of the seed fell in some thorns and weeds. And again, it started to grow, but the thorns and weeds all choked it out. So they died out pretty quickly as well. Wasted that seed.
Now some of this might seem like just an honest mistake, right? Sure, a lot of the seed died, but maybe that was kind of par for the course? In the ancient world, sowing seed was a pretty straightforward task-you walked up and down the rows of an already-plowed field with your bag of seeds at your side, and you would take handfuls of seed and cast them into the dirt. It wasn’t a very exact method, so maybe we could see how seed falling on the path, among the rocks, and among the thorns could have just happened if you’re just throwing seed out into the field by hand.
But we have to realize that this would have been the farmer’s livelihood. A huge percentage of the population when Jesus was alive worked the land as farmers, and for most of them farming is what gave them food and their ability to live. So their seed was precious to them, they wouldn’t want to waste much of it.
But here, ¾ of this farmer’s seed is wasted and dead. Even if this farmer happened to be more wealthy than most and had a surplus, that’s a lot of income and a lot of food to lose- ¾ of his seed!
Now maybe this farmer was just bad at his job. Maybe he just wasn’t a very good farmer, right? I mean, it wasn’t the seed’s fault that they didn’t grow and thrive when they fell on the path or road, or among the rocks or among the weeds, right? It wasn’t possible for the seed to grow in those types of soil. So the farmer really should have been more observant, right? I mean, he’s just being wasteful. How many farmers do you think would risk wasting ¾ of their seed by just tossing it every which way and not caring about where it falls?
Now, I realize that Jesus told this as a parable and really meant it as a metaphor, so maybe we’re digging to deep here. But when we look at this story as the metaphor that Jesus intended it to be, it’s worse.
If God or Jesus is the sower, the seed is the word of God, and people are the soil…then God’s word has failed here, right? If God’s word is supposed to take root in people and grow and mature, then it’s failed, right? Because ¾ of the time, the Word died off without producing anything of note.
Now that’s a problem. Right? Because that contradicts the Bible pretty seriously. Isaiah says that God’s word will not return empty, that it will always accomplish its purpose. Galatians says that you’ll reap what you sow. But the farmer here doesn’t reap everything that he sows.
Now some people have tried to get around this by saying that, for example, the seed that fell on the road and was eaten by birds did fulfill a purpose-it feed the birds. But I think that’s kind of a stretch. It looks like God’s word failed here. And worse-it looks like God in Godself failed. This is a problem right?
Now, maybe that’s not the only way to read this parable. Maybe this isn’t showing how God’s word has failed. Maybe Jesus tells this story to illustrate God’s extravagance. The farmer throws seed everywhere he can, even in the rocky and hard places, sowing his seed even in the clearly weedy and choked-out places, in the hopes that one day, something will take root and sprout. Remember what I said in the beginning? Why did I keep listening to mom and helping her in the garden, even when I’d failed the year before? It was for the hope of something sprouting and growing from those little seeds.
I think the key here is that we are the soil into which God flings his holy seed. Is there any hope that it will take root in us?
God ceaselessly throws the Gospel message of love and peace and truth and acceptance and forgiveness out to the world, and not only in the places where it looks like it might take root. Not only in places and people that already look Christian and safe and clean, but also to places where it looks like the Word of God might never take root. God flings the Word to the lightest and the darkest places in the world, places where it seems like the seed of the Word will be wasted.
It doesn’t make sense. It’s not efficient, it just seems wasteful. But God does this knowing that there will be some seeds that will find good soil, even if that soil is found in the most unlikely of places.
There was a pastor who was appointed to a rural parish, with a congregation of mostly farming families. She wanted to impress her congregation by entering the county fair and seeing if she could win anything. So she buys seeds, prepares some rows in her back yard, and plants the seeds. She waters them, tends them, and waits…but nothing happens in her garden patch, nothing grow. However, as she was carrying the seeds out to her garden, she had dropped a few seeds on the sidewalk outside of her back door. And right by her sidewalk, there sprang up the most beautiful squash she’d ever seen, it was huge, and growing not in her garden where she expected, but right next to her sidewalk. The farmers in her congregation said that that’s called a ‘volunteer squash,’ one that comes up where you didn’t plant it by accident.
So what does any of this mean for this thing called evangelism that we’ve been talking about for the last five or six weeks? We are all called to this work of sharing our faith and telling others about our experiences with God. But the truth of this is that we will not always be successful in sharing our faith. Our story and our message will be rejected sometimes. But that is no reason not to do it.
Too often, I think we as followers of Jesus Christ play it safe. In the rare occasion that we might even think about sharing our faith, we only look for the places where we have a good chance for success. And we talk a lot about loving our neighbor and sharing our faith with those close to us, but so often, we cheapen our neighbor-we think only of people who look like us, act like us, think like us, believe like us.
I think this parable of the farmer says that it’s ok to make mistakes. A blogger named Brian Stoffregen said in one of his blogs that if you want to succeed in anything, “Be sure to generate a sufficient number of excellent mistakes.” You hear that kind of idea a lot in the business world. Tom Watson, the former chairman if IBM, was quoted as saying “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” I heard about a businessman somewhere whose goal in life was to start a business that would become a Fortune 500 company. He knew that 9 out of 10 new business startups fail, so he said “Well, that just means that I need to start 10 companies.” Maybe the farmer’s failure to plant seed in thriving places is not a bad thing. Maybe he was just taking the risk necessary to succeed.
That same blogger, Brian Stoffregen, also had this great quote about this parable. “The problem with people not believing today is not necessarily that they are bad soil, but because the sowers are failing to spread the Word in speech and actions beyond the confines of the church building.”
Now this church has a history of this extravagant seed-sowing. 39 years ago, you had this crazy idea to put on a Missions Conference to try to save a floundering church. The idea was like a seed that you planted in the ground, and you waited to see what would happen. And 39 years later, it’s still growing.
(What followed were various opportunities to help out at Missions Conference this week)
We have this amazing message of love, grace, justice, and hope that the world needs to hear. And if you claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ, you’re expected to share this message. You are called to be the farmer in the parable, throwing the seeds of the Gospel out any way you can and hoping that they will take root somewhere. Take risks, don’t worry about failing, and trust that God will be with you each step of the way.
Imagine what amazing work could be done if we, little ol’ Alger First UMC, committed to scattering our seed of the Gospel however we can. Imagine what a difference that would make in our community, when people who’ve never encountered Jesus Christ before hear about the love and hope that is offered to them in the Gospel we have to share. This is amazing work that we are participating in. And I can’t wait to see what comes of it.