Scripture: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
There is something powerful about a story. Stories have a strange power that can transport us from one place and time in to a totally different universe. This is why so many of us enjoy a good book or movie, those stories take us from our living rooms and transport us to worlds far in the future, or deep into history. A good story often has a theme that encourages us in some way. There is usually an obstacle of some sort that the main character must overcome. Or there may be some sort of ethical issue in which the story teller is prompting us to consider through the facilities of imagination. This is why some of the greatest teaching Jesus has are not in the explanation of scriptures, but the seemingly entertaining metaphorical stories he tells.
The seeds, it is a story that we have each listened to so often that I wonder if we really listen to it any more. But imagine you had not heard it. You came to the seaside to listen to this traveling teacher and the crowd is so large that to be heard the teacher gets onto a boat and floats out a ways using the terrain as a natural amphitheater. You are anticipating the message you are about to hear, and you are hoping that you will be able to see a miracle.
Jesus looks out at the crowd and begins to speak. There was a farmer that was scattering seeds, the seeds fell in various different places. Some fell on the path where the birds came and ate them, others fell in rocky soil and grew rapidly but quickly withered. Some of the seeds fell among the weeds and were choked out and others fell on good soils and produced an abundance. Then he looks out at the crowd again, says “Let anyone with ears listen,” and he sits down in the boat. The teaching is over because he has now turned his attention away from the crowd and is focused only on his closest followers.
Consider that for a moment. That was the entire sermon that Jesus gave at that moment. No further explanation, no deeper discussion explaining the metaphors to the masses, He simply told a story and left it hanging there in the air. Concluding by saying “Let anyone with ears listen.”
Often we think a story is just entertaining and fun, but often the deepest and most meaningful expressions of faith come from the simplest stories. These simple stories of overcoming obstacles and finding a pathway through a struggle our culture yearns for from the deepest parts of their beings. This is something that humanity has always loved. The story of your life is one of the most powerful things this world has ever heard. The story of how you struggle and found hope even in the darkness, is often a balm for the wounded hearts attached to listening ears.
The sower and the seeds. For many of us is a simple story of a farmer, but in ancient times it was not as simple as we might think. Notice the first illustration that Jesus uses, “Some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.” The words used in this phrase to a listening ear is packed full of spiritual imagery. Although some birds were used as symbols of grace, and used in temple worship, birds were often seen as robbers in the culture. When a farmer had an infestation of birds their livelihood was stolen from them. As Jesus explains later to his disciples, the path is a heart that has been hardened so even though grace and mercy is scattered over that heart the hearer of the words do not sense it. Quickly the minions of evil rob that person of the words of life before the grace even has a chance to germinate. To go a bit deep the phrase, “ate them up,” is a term that is also used for devour, exploit, or to take advantage of. If we were to consider that for a moment we get a very different picture of these hardened people.
A path is a place where foot traffic has compacted the soil. A hardened heart is a heart that has been exploited and used, it is a person that has been abused by its culture so long that it resists any and all mercy. We each know these types of people, when you talk to them they are immediately skeptical and pessimistic.
Jesus continues, “Other seeds fell on the rocky ground, where they did not have much soil…” Rocky soil is a soil of transition, it is either in the process of being trampled and packed or nurtured to become productive. There is something there that responds to the seeds of grace, but Jesus says the sun comes out and they wither because they have no root. These rocky hearts are extremely vulnerable. They often respond to encouragement but can also be quickly turned away. I fear for these types of individuals, because often they can get caught up in the emotionalism of a moment but when their life experiences do not meet their expectations they can quickly become hard.
For example I was in a conversation with a leader of another denomination, this particular leader made an observation that there was a great deal of turnover in leadership among their group and he was reaching out to other Christian leaders for advice. This particular group was one that based the majority of their teaching on excitement, emotions, and blessing. In this leader’s group they would have leaders rise and fall away within a couple of months, leaving him questioning why. Groups like this are vulnerable to the rocky soil believers, they get excited about ministry and life with God and as long as there is not any struggle in their life, they continue to participate, but as soon as they encounter a difficulty they question everything about their faith. They enter into pastoral leadership, but they run into financial difficulties and resign, they begin to lead bible studies but then they have marital struggles and suddenly they question if God even exists. Many of these people then become hardened to the gospel because they tried it once and it did not work, they tried God and He did not bless them and in many cases they left in worse shape than they began.
Jesus continues to speak about the seeds that fell among the thorns and were choked. These are lives that are filled with various worries and distractions. Lives that have so many demands on time and attention that there is no room for anything else. These people by in large are good people, these people if you were to ask them actually say that they believe in God, but they are just unable to grow in their faith because the soils of their life are filled with other things. Our culture by in large is filled with people like this. We are a busy people. We juggle multiple jobs and our family. We have debts that need repaid and mouths to feed, even when we have a few hours to relax we fill that time with things that are equally as demanding as everything else. We like the idea of God, but a relationship with God is just something that will have to wait.
Jesus is teaching to people that understand agriculture. Those listening to this story, if they themselves are not a farmer, know someone who is. They have each observed each of these sorts of situations. They experienced birds robbing them of crops by eating the seeds, they have seen plants quickly taking off and withering away as the temperature rises, and they have seen the weeds choke out the plants that they hoped would feed their families. They also know that the earth is constantly changing and that with proper and intentional care any field can become productive.
Often when we listen to this story we look at it from a position that all soils and all people will not or cannot change. That is not the case. Good soils can become bad and poor soils can become good if we work with them according to their specific needs. So we must then consider what we as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus should do to prepare lives for the seeds of grace? The goal of our efforts is to harvest of the planted seeds. We first keep that goal in mind, but we also have to recognize the situations around us. Jesus is saying to these listening ears in this simple story, that just like a farm a relationship with God takes a lot of work. This is the reason Jesus came to live among us, to show us how to tend the fields of life. It is through the life that has joined into the spiritual rhythm of Jesus’ example that we are able to tend the fields of our community. The rhythm of worship, prayer, and service are similar to the efforts a farm employs in the fields.
The work first begins in our own lives, because we cannot share with others what we ourselves do not possess. When we enter into the spiritual rhythm Jesus has shown, we remove the weeds as we learn through worship and prayer what areas of our own lives can be simplified, and as we simplify our lives we can then encourage others to simplify theirs as well. When we intentionally make time to pray we quickly recognize all the things that are making demands on our time, examine those demands and weed out the ones that are distracting us from the goal of a harvest.
We also may observe not only weeds but rocky areas that prevent deepening roots, things that may threaten our very faith. What do we do to remove these rocks? Rocky soils are everywhere on earth. Ireland is considered to be the Emerald Isle, but the field though rich were also filled with rocks left buried after the glaciers of the Ice age receded from the land. For the farmers in Ireland to use the land to grow crops they had to dig into the ground and pull these rocks out, and they would then carry them to the edge of the field and stack them up. Eventually they removed so many rocks they build walls between the fields, walls that have become monuments to the persistence and dedication of man to survive. In our lives rocks could be many things. They can be addictions or choices that we may not be able to overcome on our own. This is where the church is so important, because it is in the church where we find others that have had similar issues and are willing to help us dig and carry the stones to build monuments of grace. To remove the rocks from the soils of our community requires the Disciples of Christ to become vulnerable and open to others. We become willing to share the areas of life that we have struggled and are willing to help others if asked. It also requires us to be willing to ask for help when we see a need in our own lives.
Prayer and worship assist us in removing the weeds and the rocks of our lives, but it also opens our eyes to be able to see the areas of our community where the seeds of grace are being devoured by the wild birds of the evil one. In the spiritual rhythm Jesus taught and showed us that worship and prayer leads us into service and ministry to the ones least in the community. These are the people that have been exploited and trampled and are so hardened in life that they cannot even begin to contemplate God. But hard soils can be remedied. It requires us to get out into the community to constantly work the soil, using the gifts and tools that God has given us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and help cleanse the ones that are unable to help themselves. These are the ones that will despise us and persecute us but they do that because they have hardness in their hearts and the grace and love of God is being snatch away before they have a chance. To break through the hardest soils requires time and work. Breaking up the soil in to chunks and then letting water seep in, then as it dries up you work it again until you get just enough soil that the seeds of grace can begin to take root.
It is those hard areas God wants us to labor. These are the ones God is calling us to share our lives and our stories to. Those are the ones we invest our time into, and expend our gifts. Working back and forth, up and down, always laboring even if we never seem to see any results. Then suddenly after a while we may see little glimmers of hope, and little shoots emerging in the cracks.
Let anyone with ears listen. Each of us have areas of hardness and areas of goodness. There are areas in our lives where the seeds of grace rapidly take hold and wither away and areas where they yield much fruit. Let us not forget that there is always room to improve. Let us not neglect our own spiritual lives and allow the weeds to encroach on us and begin to choke out our life. And let us be willing to engage our community even though we may face persecution of various types. Working in those hard areas showing and living the love of Christ even among those whose lives have been trampled and exploited in various ways. Soils change, and Christ is calling us to labor in His fields. Getting into the fields to pull the weeds, dig out the rocks, and break down the hardened pathways.
As we enter into a time of open worship and communion as Friends, let us examine our lives and identify the rocks and weeds keeping us from enjoying the abundant life in Christ. Let us also be open to the Spirit’s leading and see where God may want us to focus our time and talents in the lives of the least in our community. Let us have ears to listen.