Last week, I had the opportunity to preach at Scottdale Mennonite Church, another congregation in Allegheny Mennonite Conference. It was a treat to go and experience worship in another AMC context and to see some of the folks I have met at conference events over the past few years in their home setting. The community was full of joy and hospitality. I took greetings to Scottdale from HMC and this week, I likewise bring greetings back to HMC from Scottdale. This sermon is an adaptation of the one I preached there…with some alterations as I sat with it this week.
I learned early in my seminary career that the foundation of a good sermon was a good story. I think I knew this in my being because I grew up in a pastor’s household and very often bits of my story would be incorporated into my father’s sermons. In fact, I remember the day I was doing something quite mundane [driving away from my parent’s house in a standard transmission car] and saw my father standing on the porch watching me. I knew in that moment that I would somehow be making an appearance in the sermon. Sure enough, come Sunday morning, my father stood behind the pulpit and talked about how I had gone from not knowing how to drive at all, to being practiced and skilled enough to pull away from a parked position and drive down the street in a standard transmission car without stalling or grinding any gears. I don’t remember if that was a particularly good story for his sermon, but it was, as my seminary prof always loved to emphasize – a story.
In today’s scripture, we see that Jesus too believed in story as a powerful means of teaching and preaching. His preferred story medium of choice was the parable – a parable is a story that offers a lesson – it is what theologian John Dominic Crossan refers to as a metaphorical story. [From the book: The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus] A metaphor is a tool that allows us to use one thing/idea in order to understand a separate thing/idea in a new way. The word metaphor comes from the merger of two greek words – meta – “over” or “across” and pherein – “to bear” or “to carry.” A metaphor has the potential to carry meaning across a divide in order to bridge a possible gap in our understanding. Parables make use of metaphors as an expansive teaching device. Parables are intended to expand our thinking and help us ‘see’ and understand in new ways. The word parable also has greek roots combining para – “with” or “alongside” and ballein – “to put” or “to throw” – A parable, then, puts one thing/idea alongside of another thing/idea allowing us to learn more about the one by the consideration of the other.
Sounds potentially confusing right? Well, that’s true. Jesus’ parables are on the surface simple accessible stories, and they are also much deeper than a surface hearing of them would initially indicate. It is one of the wonderful things about parables, we can read or hear them again and again and find ourselves learning something new each time. We can see ourselves and even God in different roles within the stories in different times of encounter. We can preach on them one week and then find another avenue to explore in the same text the following Sunday! As I said earlier, it is an expansive teaching device, it can stretch us and help us grow in new and exciting ways. It can also confuse us.
We are not alone in the moments of confusion. Jesus knew, even as he spoke these parables in his time, that there would be many who would not be able to fully grasp the message he was offering. Some might even suggest he was counting on it. It is possible that, in some cases, he was counting on his message being somewhat cryptic because at this point in his ministry, he was starting to be questioned and challenged by the powers in place in the religious community of his day. Parables offered Jesus a way of proclaiming some bold messages about the nature of God’s kindom that challenged the structures of the religious community without tearing it to pieces. Jesus wasn’t attempting to destroy the establishment. He was, instead, at work breaking the establishment open so that all could more fully experience and live in the love of God.
Even as they may be confusing, the parables of Jesus are also accessible and Jesus, himself affirms that:
“Let those who have ears to hear, hear this!” – Open yourself, receive!
How are we listening? How are we opening to the Word?
Let’s listen again to this Parable of the Sower, as it is so often called, and explore what we might hear it saying. And even in so doing, I also remind us that the exploration we take today is only one path of exploration of this story – as active listeners and even more than that, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be constantly on the path of exploring what it means to live in, with, and live out the teachings of Jesus in our lives.
I invite you to listen:
“One day, a farmer went out sowing seed. Some of the seed landed on a footpath, where birds came and ate it up. Some of the seed fell on rocky ground, where there was little soil. This seed sprouted at once since the soil had no depth, but when the sun rose and scorched it, it withered away for lack of roots. Again, some of the seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. And some of it landed on good soil, and yielded a crop thirty, sixty, even a hundred times what was sown. Let those who have ears to hear, hear this!”
Often when we study this parable, we focus on the types of ground that it mentions. And that is what Jesus himself speaks of when he explains the meaning of this story to his disciples. You see this is one of few parables in scripture that we actually get to hear Jesus directly interpret. He tells us that the seeds being sewn are the message of the Kindom of God and that the types of ground are how we, as people, receive and experience God’s kindom when it comes near us.
Sometimes we are impervious footpaths that receive the kernels of God’s love, yet don’t realize what we have received until it has gone away.
Sometimes we are rocky soil, excited about an encounter with God’s love, yet unable to retain the joy that it brings to our lives because it isn’t offered space to put down a solid root system.
Sometimes we are prickly and thorny, and while we are receptive to God’s love and have the capacity to let it take root, we also cling to our worldly anxieties and the lure of wealth which end up choking out the capacity of God’s love to effectively bear fruit in our lives.
And sometimes, sometimes we are rich soil, we not only receive, we also understand and take action with the love of God that comes into our lives. When that happens it takes root within us, expands and offers abundant life beyond any and all expectations.
It is natural for us to hear this categorical break down of soil types, to judge them, and claim that one is clearly better than the others. Yet, our human experiences should also remind us that life isn’t that cut and dry. We are not always open and receptive beings, neither are we always distracted and suspicious. We are a lively and lovely mix of humanity – we are beings that are constantly learning and growing and changing. We may be rich soil today, open to the presence of God’s love in our lives and yet tomorrow we may find ourselves unable to grasp or even sense the presence of that love. This parable isn’t about separating ourselves and others off into containers of graded soils and making sure that we are the ones labeled with a quality grade. This parable is a reminder that how we listen for and open ourselves up to the love of God makes a difference in how we receive it and experience it manifesting in our lives.
Through this parable, Jesus is inviting us to make space for and welcome the love of God to take root in our lives so that we may experience rich growth and abundant life. And we are talking super abundant life. Now, I am not a farmer, so don’t quote me on this, but from what I have gleaned in my readings, a normal return on a crop could be anywhere from 5-15 fold. What Jesus’ parable states is that for those who open themselves up fully to the love of God and allow it to take root in their lives, that love grows exponentially, almost absurdly. In some cases 100 fold, some 60, some 30. Even at its lowest output, the love of God stretches us beyond our independent capacity and certainly beyond our expectations.
My father-in-law passed away three years ago this month. He was a wonderfully quirky man who was excited about learning things. In the last few years before his death, he put a lot of time and energy into learning about gardening. He read books and articles about gardening and he also learned through the practice of gardening in his backyard. He was a scientist at heart so everything was done with intention. Including the preparation of the soil he used for his garden plots.
Steve didn’t just go out in the back yard, till up a plot of earth and plant some seeds. He measured out square patches for each of his selected seed types, carefully dug up the soil, and then sifted it into a giant barrel through wire mesh. I would help him sift soil when we would visit. It was a slow, tedious task lifting one shovel full at a time onto the mesh and then raking it down into the barrel so that large clumps would be broken up and any unnatural irregularities could be removed. And by unnatural irregularities I mean both trash and treasure. In the soil we found plenty of scrap plastic from our consumer culture, we also found bits of metal and even some old coins which turned into a fun adventure of cleaning and identifying. I admit, I was skeptical of the process. Steve however seemed undeterred by the amount of effort it was taking. Over time he amassed several barrels of lush, rich, sifted top soil which he would then use in his measured and labeled plots to grow tomatoes, peppers, beans and more.
I can’t say for sure that Steve’s efforts at sifting soil made a remarkable difference in his crop yield. But I admire his commitment to the process. He saw an opportunity to enhance his gardening efforts by making better soil out of what was there in his yard and he invested himself in the work of reviving it.
The message of God’s kindom is a message of abundant life. Yet we only glean abundant life from that message if we open ourselves up to it. Let those who have ears, listen! Listening is a choice. It takes work. It takes practice. Once again I refer to the work of John Dominic Crossan who expands the translation of that phrase to this: “You have ears, use them! Listen! Think! Respond! Comprehend!” Jesus is inviting us not only to listen for God in the world, but to also hear – as in understand and respond to God’s presence with our living and in our relationships with each other. And that journey of discovery and response is a life-long process.
The Mennonite Church USA biennial convention took place a little over two weeks ago in Orlando, Florida. At that convention there was an event called: The Future Church Summit. It was a time for hundreds of representatives from across the denomination to sit down at tables together and openly talk together about our hopes for the future of MCUSA. You might even say we were listening for the seeds of God’s kindom together. Many things could be said about that gathering and the key points that came out of those conversations, but one of the themes that struck me at the time and has stuck with me was this: Listen. Learn. Change. Repeat.
Listen. Learn. Change. Repeat.
Listening with our ears and being open is one step, hearing with our hearts is another. We hear with our hearts when we let our lives be transformed by what we experience when we open ourselves up to the presence of God’s love. It is a choice to listen and hear – just ask my three year old son Simon, who several times in the past weeks has looked me directly in the eyes and literally said to me, “I can’t hear you, my ears are closed.” Which was then followed by “Wait. Wait…okay they are open now.” Jesus’ parable calls us to open our ears and hearts, to choose to listen, hear, and be transformed over and over. We are called to attend to how we listen for and open ourselves to God in the world.
We are given ample opportunities to encounter God in the world. As we see in this parable, seeds of the kindom are being sown lavishly, extravagantly, and sometimes seemingly recklessly in all places, all the time. There is potential to connect with God in all moments. Look at my Dad who gleaned a sermon metaphor – an insight into the kindom – simply by watching me drive a car. God is a generous sower concerned more with possibility than practicality.
And here is where I will throw in something I have been thinking about this week as I have continued to ponder this passage again. While I do believe that this parable offers a description of what it looks like when we open ourselves to the presence and love of God. I also hear in this message a word of encouragement for the journey. I have been preaching here for almost 4 years and if you haven’t picked up on it yet, let me clue you in to the fact that my theology is rooted in participation. I believe that we are called to participate in the seeking, finding, experiencing, and sharing of God’s love in the world. In the framework of this parable, I believe that we are to be receptive soil for the seeds of the kindom and that we are also farmers in the field, sowing those seeds.
This parable not only calls us to be open to and listening for the seeds of God’s love in the world, it also reminds us that when we act on that love, it may not always turn out as we hope or expect. We can sow and sow and sow the love of God in the world and hardly ever see or feel a return on that effort. In these days it is easy to feel disheartened and discouraged. I am certain it was similar for Jesus’ disciples in their day. They too lived in the midst of empire and with a desire for a revolution of justice. Even as they journeyed with Jesus they saw that not all the seeds he sowed took root and bore fruit. And yet, here is Jesus saying to them: sow anyways and keep sowing, scatter the seeds of love everywhere you go. Many of them won’t grow in the ways you hope or expect, but those that take root will thrive and flourish beyond understanding.
So I say this again: God is a generous sower concerned more with possibility than practicality. May we meet God’s generosity with open ears and willing hearts so that we, and others, may continuously grow and live in the expansive love of God.
Let those who have ears to hear, listen!