Matthew 13:1-9 (NRSV)
13 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!”
Last week we talked about our soil production: how good soil is cultivated through the building up of the soil with organic compounds, in the church we see this most clearly though the saints of past and present. This week we begin to think about planting our seeds. In modern day planting, especially when it comes to things like commercial farming, gardening is a science. Farmers know the precise depth and distance apart seeds need in order to ensure optimal results. Even in our own gardens, the plants and seeds that we pick up from Lowes, Plant Park or Kenyon Bailey, they come with specific directions on the depth and distance apart on how best to plant your squash, lettuce, pansies, or whatever is going in your gardens. Things are controlled and specific because they are proven and tested to succeed.
In our text today, we see the farmer sowing the seeds in the ancient way of sowing seeds, scattering them broadly. “In hand sowing, you would have some seeds that would fly or carry further than others and you would get some seeds that would broadcast and sow on different parts of land, some scattering on the hard ground or path. Unlike when you row plant.”[i] It may seem like an inefficient way to plant, causing the seeds to scatter in random areas, but the farmer doesn’t seem to worry all that much where his toss may land the potential crop.
If we look at the seeds and where they scatter based on our story, we might want to take more precaution than the farmer did sowing the seeds. Maybe the sower should have invested more time into precise row planting, carefully measuring depth, distance and quantity to maximize growth potential. We may view the sower to be reckless, wasting of resources, time, energy and even potential crop through the method of scattering. Really, there is no way of guaranteeing good optimal results. And we have resorted in becoming a culture that is driven by results. We want to know that what we do, where we invest (both time or money) will achieve success. If something is too risky, very rarely do we even try.
It is the same thinking in the church, we are results driven, this program works because 20 people show up regularly, that ministry was a failure because it did not bring in young people, that event was a success because much of the community came out and participated, the church is dying because the pews are not filled. Right? We look at the life and work of the church and we try to quantify what goes on to then make a call as to whether or not something is successful. And too often when looking into new or different opportunities in the church, we are anxious to do something new, untested, unproven to work. We are too caught up with failure to even try: why waste good seed if it might not grow? Why should we try a new or different service, how will we know that people will even come? Why should we partner in that ministry with that church, we should be doing our own thing to get people interested in us? We need to just stick with what we know and what we do right, we don’t have enough people or resources to make that happen. Too often in the church we stifle creativity and energy for mission, resisting new ideas for fear they might not work.
And then there are lots of times when sowing does not lead to reaping. It even happened to Jesus, he was rejected by his own community, he was a persona non grata with the Pharisees, and the disciples didn’t always have a great grasp on what he was doing. Jesus was consistently encountering hostility, a plethora of people who disregarded his message and ministry and mission, but it didn’t stop him from continuing to extravagantly sow seeds.
Despite some of the lofty sounding promises in the Bible, we just can’t always count on results, no matter how hard you try. Often times we end up sowing and weeping and sowing some more. We can find ourselves in the place where we are sowing but not reaping, or not reaping to our expectations. And the very expectation that our faithful sowing of seeds ought to lead to reaping a harvest leads to resentment and bitterness when the results fail to appear.
However, in our parable today, the sower keeps sowing generously, extravagantly even in the least promising places. The sower doesn’t take into account what types of soil he scatters the seed on. The sower doesn’t take into account the history of growth in that area, or use methods that have produced results in previous years. The sower isn’t effected by history, or failure, or fear, but rather, scatters with confidence and faith, that there will be fruitful growth. That is what God, our great Sower, does as well. God has seed to spare and like to see what can grow where it not supposed to grow. God is yearning for us to be extravagant in our sowing, to not worry always about planting with precise measurement, rather be open to letting things go, and seeing what becomes fruitful and bountiful.
In my education on gardening this week, I learned about volunteer plants. Those are the plants that sprout in unexpected places, sometimes in the compost pile, in another garden bed, or in a seemingly random area. These volunteer plants crop up where they’ll have the best chance to survive and reproduce, if they are allowed to grow. And from research and talking with some of y’alls volunteer plant experiences, when allowed to grow, can produce the tastier, prettier, or more fruitful crop than what you intentionally planted.
I read this week that when John Wesley came to North America, he absolutely failed in parish ministry (which is what he intended to do in the first place). How might you ask? Well he fell in love with a woman in his congregation who didn’t love him back and eventually kicked him out of the church. But after being booted from his congregation he continued on in other means of ministry and ended up creating the first English hymnal in American colonies, and he started the first Sunday School. So though his intended crop failed (and might I add completely and utterly failed), these two volunteer crops, or crops that were part of scattered seeds, became very fruitful. So what are or could be volunteer plant opportunities, wild ideas that someone chose to take a risk and grow, right here in our church, in our community?
What are we willing to try planting, and risk that it doesn’t take growth, or takes only a little growth, but then dies out? Or perhaps takes growth and flourishes? What are we willing to risk in order for something else to voluntarily crop up?
Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.”[ii] The sign of a dying church, is a church that fails to continue to sow seeds. That chooses to not take risks, and does not allow for new growth to occur. So the challenge for the church is to actually being willing to continue to sow the seeds, to be extravagant in our sowing, being willing to risk failure, and still continue to on planting. As the living church, we should never be done sowing the seeds. This parable functions for us as both an exhortation and encouragement, to keep on pressing forward. As Jesus told His disciples, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:8). If we are called to live and plant our seeds in good soil we do so through how we live our lives, how we interact in our community as a church family and how we serve others in our midst. When we are willing to be more open and generous in our seed planting, sometimes unsuspecting growth can happen.
So may our prayer be to not be discouraged when we do not see the reaping of our labor, or when our seeds scatter and do not bear fruit. May we continue to be persistent, tend to our soil, and be extravagant in our sowing. May we never be done with sowing the seeds and pass on our principles. And may we always hope for the Kingdom of God to thrive in our midst. And may it be so. Amen.
[i] Modern Parable, Sower.