Proper 10a, July 16, 2017

July 17, 2017

Our Master Gardener

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, 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 brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!” 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 is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on 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 such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately 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 lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”


I’m going to add an additional verse to this parable. I’m adding this additional warning: But some of those seeds that produced enormous yields were attacked and plundered by squirrels before the grain could be harvested. Jesus would have included that verse if he had been trying to raise tomatoes in Newport. I’m not exactly sure what the interpretation would have been. Maybe this would have been some kind of warning to not let our defenses down when we think we’ve finally gotten our lives in order.


Jesus utilized stories about everyday matters in order to get us thinking about our spiritual lives. I’ve poured a good amount of time and energy in to the challenge of keeping squirrels away from our tomato plants. I’ve built a little frame that’s draped with some thin netting and so far it’s worked, but I have some fear that a squirrel is going to figure out how to get in and then get panicked when he tries to get out. That isn’t going to be a pretty sight. I think the point of that story will be that I should have paid more attention to the state of my soul than the condition of my tomatoes.


And if that happens I’ll try to accept that lesson. Jesus told parables in order to disrupt our familiar thinking about reality, and this parable provides us with some shocking truths. One thing it portrays is the seemingly unlimited amount of seeds that are available to God. Jesus portrays God as being a planter who has no regard for what most planters would consider to be a precious and limited resource.


I know this has been a tough spring and summer for a number of farmers around here, and I’ve heard stories of farmers having to replant their crops more than once because of the abundance of rain. And having to replant is a costly undertaking for a farmer. God certainly knows the feeling of crop failure, but God isn’t concerned about the high costs of production. In Jesus’ parable, God’s concern isn’t about the cost – God’s concern is focused on the low level of production that comes from the abundant amount of seed scattering that God does in the world.


Now it can be argued that God doesn’t utilize the most productive means of planting. I don’t think there’s a bank that would provide a loan to a farmer who treats their seeds like God does in this parable, but parables aren’t intended to reveal the truth about everything. This is not a lesson on proper planting techniques – this is a parable about the possibilities and the pitfalls of fruitfulness.


We’re told that Jesus spoke this parable from a boat because the shoreline was crowded with people. I’m thinking this image of a sower casting seeds everywhere could have been prompted by Jesus’ view of all the people on the shore. It’s as if Jesus saw all of these people as seeds that had been sown by God. And in this sense the parable points to the way in which all people are valuable and full of potential, but sometimes people land in places with really poor growing conditions, and sometimes it’s due to no fault of their own. Sometimes we contribute to the poor growing conditions that we find ourselves in, but sometimes people just land in bad places.


The truth is that we don’t all get perfectly placed in spiritually fertile conditions. Some people are simply born in to spiritually toxic environments. I suspect that a good portion of the people who are housed in our prisons are people who were conditioned as children to behave badly. I don’t know this, and I don’t really know what to do about it, but I believe there are a lot of children who are born in to this world with a very slim chance of becoming spiritually, mentally, and emotionally healthy adults.


Now this is not to say that some people are simply doomed. I believe there’s always this possibility of abundant life for us all – in fact in many cases people find the avenue to spiritual development after they’ve landed in prison or experienced some other form of profound failure. I’m inclined to believe there’s almost always some form of miracle involved in the process of becoming a spiritually productive person, and some of the least likely people have become God’s most productive individuals. It’s hard to predict such things, and you never know what will come together in a person’s life to generate that fertile environment for the love of God to flourish, but sometimes it happens, and when it does it’s an astonishing thing.


Kind-hearted, gentle and gracious people will sometimes emerge from horrible environments, and the opposite can be true as well.

Of course there isn’t a good way to measure what any of us produce, and we always need to be cautious about how we judge one another. We also need to be careful about how we measure the quality of the soil in which we find ourselves planted. I dare say some of the most spiritually arid places are in what we would call nice neighborhoods, and some of the most spiritually fertile land is in some of the sketchiest places. It’s just not easy to determine what will make for a rich spiritual life, but it never happens apart from the grace of God. We don’t produce our own salvation experiences nor is God unavailable in any situation.


There are a number of ways for us to go with this parable. Jesus may have just wanted us to think of ourselves as the seeds that God tosses into the world to take hold where we can, but it’s not unreasonable for us to think of ourselves as the soil onto which God has chosen to drop these good seeds. And if we choose to think of ourselves as the dirt into which God has chosen to plant it’s good for us to ponder the way in which we have nurtured God’s divine seeds. Are we being as spiritually fertile as possible? And what can we do to guard ourselves from becoming hard packed, rocky, or weed infested?


John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, held fast to the wonderful theological concept of growing in grace. Wesley considered salvation to be a life-long process, and while he considered it to be a process that was fueled by the grace of God, he believed we have a strong role to play. He thought our task was to learn to cooperate with God, and he had a beautiful way of describing this process. He said we are to learn: how not to resist the promptings of the Holy Spirit.


As the parable indicates, there were more situations that were hostile to the seed than there were fertile situations. It takes a good many things to come together to provide the right environment for God’s seeds to flourish in our lives. John Wesley didn’t want us to think of ourselves as being one kind of soil or the other – as either fertile land or hopelessly rocky ground. Wesley wanted us to think of ourselves as soil that can always use improvement. Some of us need a little compost, some of us need some sand, some of us need some lime, others might need a little Roundup.


John Wesley believed that spiritual development is an ongoing process for all of us. Instead of thinking we are either good soil or rocky ground it’s more helpful for us to think of the ways in which we are being faithful and the ways in which we are neglecting those promptings of the Holy Spirit to serve God and our neighbors. We’re never perfectly aligned with the will of God or too far removed to be touched by God. We all have times of fertility and times of barrenness, and there are ways in which we contribute to both of those conditions.


Wesley described the process of growing in grace as: moving on to perfection, and he believed there was a method to becoming more perfect. He believed we become more fertile by attending worship, by receiving holy communion, by studying scripture and other spiritually oriented materials, and by engaging in the work of helping others. He had an actual list of things to do and not do if you wanted to turn yourself in to more spiritually fertile soil. And he required the early Methodists to participate in weekly meetings where you would be asked how well you are attending to these spiritual practices. It’s a whole lot easier to be a Methodist now than it was in Wesley’s day, but I don’t think it’s gotten easier to be fertile.


I think it’s important for us all to ponder the question of what it is we practice in order to become more perfect. I don’t think God expects perfection from us. In fact God probably expects resistance from us, but God uses us anyway, and I think this is the good news.


God continues to cast seed in a ridiculously abundant manner. Whether we see ourselves as the seeds of God who are provided endless opportunities for magnificent productivity or the ground onto which God casts the seeds of life we are clearly the beneficiaries of a God who wills for us to experience spiritual abundance. And we need to keep in mind that we contribute to our success or failure in this regard. It’s possible for us to live in such ways that we remain lifeless and weed-ridden or fertile and fruitful. And this can change – we can get better or worse.


There are many ways to look at this parable and a number of images to ponder, but regardless of how you look at it you can’t ignore the bountiful opportunity for growth that the sower provides. This God of ours throws seed with reckless abandon. We have a God who knows us well and who has seen all the ways in which we fail to respond to God’s gracious initiatives and powerful promptings, but who continues to grab new handfuls of seed to bestow upon us.


Our God is gracious, but this growth process is hard. God can’t seem to produce in our hearts the will to live in response to these gracious opportunities. There’s something required on our end in order for this relationship to flourish and for God’s garden to grow. We all have abundant opportunities to turn away from arid existence and to experience abundant life, but it isn’t an easy process. We have to be willing to see ourselves clearly and to do the hard work of becoming less self-serving and more life-loving. This isn’t the easy path to take, but it is the most rewarding journey.


None of us serve God perfectly, but we can get better at it. We can practice our faith in ways that make us more fertile soil for God’s good seeds. It doesn’t happen easily or predictably, but we can be those rare seeds that fall on fertile soil and who produce abundant yields. But we can never let up because there are these pesky squirrels out there who are ready to spoil the most perfect tomatoes. Living a spiritually fertile life requires endless vigilance and produces eternal joy.


This parable invites us to see ourselves as being God’s cherished garden. It’s a beautiful image and a powerful invitation.

Thanks be to God.



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