By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
July 12, 2020
Matthew 13:1–9 (ESV)
1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”
Matthew 13:18–23 (ESV)
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
The story of the sower is probably one of the most important stories in my Christian life. I grew up in a farming community, and that lifestyle is central to my soul. But many today do not identify with the sower, because the agrarian roots of our culture have become distant. We may know someone that owns a farm, that person might even be a relative, but to many if they are asked where the food, we eat originates those origins end at the store.
This is a serious issue. When people are unaware of the vast networks that are involved in feeding three billion people in this world, we begin to have trouble. When governments began to issue stay at home orders, they were quick to label the people that work at the grocery stores as essential workers, but that is not where the food chain begins. It begins out in the middle of nowhere, in places that most people call fly over country. The backbone of every society is not the urban centers where much of the financial wealth is found. The backbone of society is where the food is grown, and where the livestock is raised. When the crops fail, when those that raise the crops can no longer afford to keep their business going, the entire economy will collapse. The reason Jesus took the bread during the last meal he shared with his disciples before his arrest, was because that bread is the simplest meal. That bread is the most basic nutritional staple in our diet. And bread is basically flour and water mixed, and baked. The staples of human life begin with the grinding of grain, which is the fruit of one little seed.
What keeps us alive begins with one little seed. It might seem insignificant when compared to everything around us. We can walk into a grocery story and see aisle of various food, and it may not even occur to us that everything we see and buy to see began as one small seed. But if that one seed were not planted, imagine where we would all be.
The ancient world understood the importance of the seed. Even those that made their living doing something other than growing crops, depended on local farmers to bring their goods into market. When Jesus went out that day and sat by the sea to teach, they could see the fields in the distance. They may have even walked by or through one of the fields as they walked to the sea. And when Jesus began to teach, they could see the words being done all around them. The seeds were being scattered. Those seed would become the source of their daily bread for the next year.
Jesus focuses their attention to the sower. The sower is walking through the field carrying a bag of seed. As they walk, they reach into that bag and they pull out a handful of seeds, and they scatter that seed along the ground. It sounds like a simple process, but it takes skill and technique. I grew up on a farm and I have used my hands to spread many things, but scattering seed is not a skill that I developed. I have tried to scatter chicken feed in this manner only to attempt to keep chickens from pecking each other, but unfortunately, I tend leave most of the feed in one spot.
We often focus on the sower, but the parable focused on the soils. Jesus says that some of the seeds falls on the path, some fell on rocky ground, some fell among the weeds, and some seed fell on good soil. We might ask why this sower, if his livelihood is based on getting the seed in the ground, would be so wasteful? Remember sowing seed takes skill, but it is never precise.
A farmer will first prepare a seed bed. This means that they will go into the field with a plow of some sort, to open the soil. This tillage will cut the roots of the weeds so that those unwanted plants will die, leaving the field clear for the crop. The way and the tools that farmers have used to do this has changed over the years, but many of the tools we use today are like the tools that farmers have used since the stone age. Shapes and materials have changed over time, but the concept remains. As a farmer does this, either with a hand tool or a plow pulled by a beast of burden, the soil will be left with little ridges. It is these ridges that will allow the spacing of the seed. Once the seed bed has been prepared then sower will walk through and as the seeds are scattered, they will largely fall along the rows left by the tool used to prepare the soil.
That prepared field is the area that Jesus calls the good soil. But again, sowing seed is not precise. Along the edges of the field are areas that were not prepared. It is difficult to get the edges prepared to the same degree as the middle of the field. There are usually barriers of some sort that caused people to stop the field preparation where they do. Maybe a stream or river, a roadway, or rocks near the surface. Maybe the ground was too hard, or the weeds were just too thick to get the tools in deep enough. But that edge is unprepared. When the sower is out there tossing the seed, they cannot completely control where the seed will fall, and some of that seed will fall in areas that are unprepared.
Jesus tells us that some of the seed falls on the path where birds come and eat it. Some of the seeds fall among the weeds and they sprout and are choked out by the other plants. Some of the seed falls in stony soil where it sprouts quickly but it soon withers because there are no roots. And some of the seeds fall on the good soil. I love this story. I love it because of my heritage. My sweat is in this story, and this story is in my soul. I want us to really consider this story, but I want us to think of it in a way that we might not have before.
Imagine you have just moved into the area. You have obtained some land and it is untouched, and wild. What will you do? You have this land and you know that if you are going to keep the land you must use it in some way. You stand on your property line and you notice the slopes, and the trees. You can see areas that are open meadows and you can see some rocks. You like the shade of the trees but know that the shade it gives would not be beneficial to foster the growth of a crop. So, you begin to walk to the open areas. You begin to cut away the grasses and the weeds and find that you have a nice area that could make a good field. Then you dig. Hour after hour you cut through the roots of those untouched grasses. You labor for the entire day, you dig up rocks and chop out roots, and it looks as if you accomplished nothing. You rest and get back to work the next day. This goes on for a while and finally you have your field. You have prepared the bed and now you begin to sow the seed. And as the plants grow you remember the labor you put in, and what you found in the soil. You watch as the plants continue to grow, and you notice something, some areas are greener than others, and you remember that area.
The first year, you have a harvest and once that is in you begin to prepare for the next year. You go back to the areas that did not grow well, and you dig deeper and find that there was a large rock just a bit deeper than you dug the previous year, so you remove the rock and carry it to the edge of your field. You prepare the same field as you did the previous year, and this time it gets easier, and you decide to extend your field a bit more this year because you have some more time. The edges are moved out and more land is prepared, and again you sow the seed. You watch your field as the seasons change and you notice more areas that need attention. The pile of stones along the edge of the field begins to look like a wall as the stack get larger. Each year the soil is easier to work, and each year you can prepare more land until all the open space is being used.
Each year you prepare the soil. Each year you put in work. Even the good soil requires work. And each year there are improvements. Jesus speaks of good soil, but even good soil requires work. What would happen if you were to not work the soil for one year? It is a common practice to let land sit for a year without a crop, but while it sits the weeds return. And every year that the soil continues to return to it wild state. And within a few years the field you spent so much time preparing looks like an untouched meadow once again.
We often look at this story and we see it from a seasonal perspective. Jesus tells us that the seeds the sower scatters is the word about the kingdom, and we understand that at times the seeds fall in many places. We look at the fields as being the people around us, and we make a few judgements based on the interpretation Jesus gives us. What we often miss is that God is working the soil, and we are there to help.
If you were to read the writings of some of the first Quakers, you might see a concept called a day of visitation. This phrase was developed out of the observation that there is a moment where an individual is at a crossroad in life and they can turn one of two ways. One direction is toward God, and the other is to the world. Those first Friends would observe themselves and those around them during these moments and would say that God was visiting you on that day. I like the concept surrounding this. To be able to recognize that God is at work is amazing, but there is one aspect of this that I do not care too much about. Many times, those early Friends would regard this as a singular event, and if you did not turn toward God in that moment they would stop. To me this is like preparing the field once and expecting it to continue to yield fruit without any more management.
I do like the idea of multiple days of visitation though. There are moments within all our lives that we have trials, and in that moment, we can respond in multiple ways. Those trials are weeds growing in our soul, a worn path, or maybe hardening. God is visiting us in those areas. Are we tending the field?
We look at the world today, and we see young people leaving the church and we wonder why. Could it be that they have had so many people walking all over them, compacting the soil and wearing them out that they become hard? Jesus says that the seed cannot grow because they hear but do not understand and the evil one snatches the seeds of life away before it even has a chance. A path is developed over time. Constant traffic in one area slowly turns the soil hard. Constant traffic, but no understanding. No one is taking the time to encourage understanding. Sadly, the church has contributed to this. We often hear of the legalistic church. This expression is focused on performance over understanding and relationship. A generation is leaving the church, because they are being trampled, and they do know why, they hear the gospel but all they see is judgment and they have already been trampled enough so they leave.
We look out and might say there is not the commitment to the church in this generation as there was in previous ones. This is like the weeds choking out the seeds. When we consider the emerging generation what do we really expect? When those that graduate from college, have fifty to one hundred thousand dollars of debt that they are trying to pay off with a minimum wage job how are they going to survive? We can argue opinions in this matter, but the reality remains that our society pushed for college education, our companies require college education, and we are no longer willing to pay wages on par with previous generations with college degrees. The worries of the world are choking out the emerging generation, what are we doing to encourage them?
Then the stones. The response to the gospel but when trials come there is no root so the plant withers. I speak about the emerging generation, but I want us to remember that we are all fields. Each of us are within our own day of visitation every day of our lives. It does not matter if we have been a Christian for sixty years of two weeks, at any moment the word of God might visit us, and we may respond or reject the one we love. We might be worried, we might be worn and trampled, and we might have a rock under the surface restricting the growth of our roots. This stony problem is a plague in the American Church and culture. When we hear an opinion different than our own the relationship withers. When a decision is made within a church that we might not agree with instead of working through the issue, we leave and go to a different church, or start a new church.
Jesus is telling a story of a sower scattering seeds, but how is the field? We all go through seasons of life where we might not be open to the word of God, and seasons where those words will grow and bear fruit. Are we willing to listen to God? Are we willing to allow God to word in us so that we can encourage those around us?
Jesus took the bread and blessed it and said this is my body broken for you. Bread the most basic staple of our diet. Bread made from the flour and water. Flour derived from the grinding of grain, that came from one seed that fell in good soil to bear fruit. We can look at the world and see everything that is wrong with it, or we can look at it and see where we can help. As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of friends, I encourage us all to examine the soils of our lives, and that of our church. Is the way we respond to the trials we face assisting others in their day of visitation or are we contributing to their destruction?