Sunday, July 10, 2011

Jesus Didn't Drive No John Deere...

I owe much of this sermon to Elisabeth Johnson and Scott Hoezee. I hope you enjoy it.

Genesis 25:19-34
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Romans 8:1-11
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law — indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 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. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
“Hear then the parable of the sower. 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. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 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. 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. 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.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our Gospel reading this morning is one of the most widely known and understood of Jesus’ parables. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot left to say about it, since Jesus takes the time to explain, carefully and specifically, precisely what he means by the story.

The challenge with this parable, then, isn’t what the allegory means, but what we humans – we Christians – tend to do with it.

Christ says, “Let anyone with ears listen!” And at its most basic, it’s a parable about hearing, really hearing, the Good News.

What do you think of when you hear about the ground that the seed was cast upon? For far too many people, images come to mind of other people – individuals or groups – who either do not follow Christ, or don’t follow Christ as well as they do.

They interpret the parable to mean that when they cast their seed – meaning when they speak their doctrinal position, share their theological worldview, or make a Gospel witness – some people will hear their message or their worldview, be reasonable, and see it their way (the good soil). The ones who dare to disagree, or not care, have only themselves to blame for being bad soil.

Some of those people have built pathways, even roads in the soil of hearts, hard-packed from the busyness of life, by the claims of science, and by the cynicism and arrogance of the age. They sneer at the very idea of God, religion, faith. The seed of the gospel can just bounce off such a hard heart. Maybe a bird of the air will eat it. But by golly, it won’t grow.

Other folks’ hearts aren’t as hard-packed, but the soil is shallow – made so by a get-rich-quick, instant gratification culture of indulgence and fads. They’ve been trained by the media to always be on the lookout for the next big thing – the newest, the nicest, the fastest. Sometimes the seed of the gospel shoots up like kudzu in people’s hearts… but withers when the next reality-show comes on television.

Still other hearts are just plain crowded. It isn’t that these folks are callous or shallow; in fact, the soil of their hearts is deep. Lots of stuff grows there... too much, in fact. The seed of the gospel sprouts just fine, but it’s in competition with the plants of commerce and business, the shrubberies of the 401k fund, the Roth IRA weeds, the stock market portfolio vines, and all the stuff sucks all the nutrients out of the soil, and there’s nothing left.

But the story that Jesus tells here is not a measuring-stick for the faith of others, or a guideline for who is saved and who isn’t (although that seems to be a preoccupation of many of us today). Charles Cousar says it well: “As hearers, the disciples are not allowed the luxury of armchair quarterbacking, of deliberating over someone else's positive or negative response as to who gets the credit or blame. The text bluntly asks, How do you hear? What type of soil are you? Does your hearing lead to understanding?”

It’s a tough question. I mean, I’d like to think I’m good soil… but I can be cynical. I can be self-centered. I get distracted from prayer and meditation and study way too easily. What if I’m not good soil at all? What if there’s really no hope for me?

Well, if we’re honest, we can all find evidence of all kinds of soil in our hearts at once, can’t we? Depending on the day we’re having, the time of day, what time of year, and who knows what-all, we can have hardscrabble paths worn into places where we’ve made up our minds and no one can tell us different, shallow patches where we’ve been jealous about someone else’s car or smart phone, choked-up sections where we’ve exhausted ourselves over worrying about paying bills, and, yes, deep, rich, fertile spots where God’s joyous Good News thrives.

It’s interesting to note that, nowhere in the parable or in Jesus’ explanation of the parable are we commanded to be good soil. Soil can’t make itself good or bad. Dirt doesn’t choose to take up residence amongst rocks, or decide to be home to weeds. It’s dirt, it’s soil, it lives where it is. This analogy can’t go too far, because we humans do have the responsibility to be open to God’s work in our lives, but we can say this: in exactly the same way that soil can only be changed by the work of an outside agent – someone to dig out the rocks, pull out the weeds, work in the fertilizer – our hearts change only through the working of the Holy Spirit. And in the same way that a farmer can’t wave his hands and make a rocky patch into a fertile, tilled field ready for a garden, the change that God brings to our hearts is a long-term – lifelong – process.

When you get down to it, this parable is known far and wide, and as far as I know always has been known far and wide, as the Parable of the Sower, and for good reason. If this were real life, and the sower a modern-day farmer, we would think he had lost his mind! The sheer extravagance of flinging all that seed everywhere at once! It is as if the sower got on his John Deere, hooked up the Model SS10B Broadcast Spreader, and before he even drove out of the barn, pushed the PTO button that started the hopper spinning. As he drives to the field, seed is slinging everywhere! On the driveway, in the grass, bouncing off of passing cars, whizzing into the weeds on the side of the road, and finally – finally – as he drives into the field, the seed flies where it’s actually supposed to go!

It makes no sense… if you’re a farmer.

If you’re God, it makes perfect sense. God is, after all, extravagant, ebullient, fervent in his love for all of us, for all of creation. It makes perfect sense that the word of the kingdom, the Good News of eternal life and reconciliation with our creator through Jesus Christ, would be scattered with wild abandon, with no prequalification or exclusion or second-guessing.

Jesus never played it safe. He invested his time and effort into a ragtag cluster of a dozen fishermen and malcontents, ate his meals with prostitutes and tax collectors, showed mercy to the Roman oppressor and the pagan foreigner, touched the leper, even demanded that the grave give up its dead, and gave his life for the loftiest and the lowliest of sinners.

And Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears listen!”

We who inhabit the Body of Christ are entrusted with Jesus’ ongoing mission in this world. Instead of being egregiously generous with the love, forgiveness, and acceptance that we, ourselves, have enjoyed in Christ Jesus, we too often play it safe, sowing the word only where we are confident it will be well received, and only where those who receive it are likely to do us some good in return. In the name of good stewardship, we hold tightly to our resources, wanting to make sure that nothing is wasted. We stifle creativity and energy, resisting new ideas for fear they might not work -- as though mistakes or failure were to be avoided at all costs.

Jesus gives us freedom to take risks for the sake of the gospel. He endorses extravagant generosity in sowing the word, even in perilous places. Though we may wonder about the wisdom or efficiency of his methods, Jesus promises that the end result will be a bumper crop.

The coming of the seed and its success—when that happens—is all grace. Maybe that’s why the farmer keeps lobbing seeds at even the unlikeliest of targets. It’s not that the farmer doesn’t understand the long odds. It’s just that when you’re talking about salvation by grace, it’s not finally about the odds but about the persistence of the Holy One who won’t stop.


1 comment:

  1. Beautiful sermon, John and exactly the words I needed to hear this morning. Thank you for being a vessel for God's word.