In today’s Gospel we are met with a familiar scene. A crowd has gathered from miles around to hear an unusual, prophetic teacher speak. The people had been hearing for hundreds of years that a time would come in which God would judge the world and divide the righteous from the wicked. The crowd longed for the day when they would be rescued from all oppression and live in peace and happiness. That is why the large crowd flocked to Jesus. They were starting to suspect that the long foretold judgment had begun and the Jesus of Nazareth had something to do with it.
What the people wanted was for the old prophecies to be fulfilled. Like a farmer starting a new agricultural year, they expected that God would sow his field and burn off the chaff but what happened next was NOT what they expected.
To escape the crushing force of the masses, Jesus gets in a boat and goes out into the water. It would have been easy for Jesus to paddle that boat away from the crowd and take the day off, but instead, Jesus turns back to the crowd and prepares to cast his proverbial “net” towards the shore. Jesus proceeds to tell the parable of the sower, about a farmer who throws his seed on various types of ground. Some seed fell on the road and birds ate them before they could grow, other seed fell on rocky ground. It grew quickly but did not have roots deep enough to sustain it. Even more seed fell in with thorns. The thorns grew up and choked the plants before they could develop. The climax of the parable comes with some seed falling on good soil and bringing about a massive harvest.
The story is cryptic. It’s a story of success and failure. Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears listen.”, which meant, “I know this isn’t obvious; you’re going to have to think about it.”
After Jesus tells the parable, the disciples are confused by what he meant (which seems to be their default). So they walk up to Jesus and, I imagine that Peter would be the one to say, “You know, that was a great story, but we are a little confused.” This is where we get a real miracle, for those who have to preach today at least. Jesus lays it out, in pretty simple terms, and tells the disciples exactly what he meant:
‘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.’
I spent a big chunk of my life in Lower Alabama, in a house that was in pretty close proximity to a lot of farm land. That being said, I don’t know much about farming. One thing that I DO know about farming is that when you are laying seed you put the seed exactly where you want the plant to grow. You don’t throw the seed, willy-nilly, wherever you please.
But that’s what the farmers in first century Palestine did. In fields that were only divided by a small line of rocks, the farmers would walk up and down, throwing the seed to every part of the land – rather indiscriminately.
The farmer in the parable throws the seed so that some lands on the road, some on rocks, some in thorns, and only a fourth of the seed lands on good soil. I don’t know about you, but I would say that by today’s standards, this is a bad farmer. Some would even call the farmer irresponsible.
Heather Murray Elkins tells a story in her book, “Holy Stuff of Life”, about asking a long-time farmer about the parable of the sower. She asked the farmer why the sower in the parable threw perfectly good seed onto rocky soil. The farmer replied with a question, “How long do you plan to be farming? “That,” he said, “is the right question to ask.”
You see, a seed encounters a rock. Sprouts roots, creeps into cracks, struggles for room, dies. What happens to the rock? One very small piece is cracked open. It’s the first step in a rock becoming good soil.
If that irresponsible farmer in the parable is the Lord, while the seed is the Word of God, what does that tell us about God? It tells us that God is just as indiscriminate with love and grace. Just as the farmer did not plant based on soil as it is but rather, how it could be, God does not judge based on the soil in which His love is planted. God is looking to the future of the soil. God sees the potential, not the current reality.
In 2011 we love to be in control. With smartphones that keep us updated on everything, all the time. Bluetooth headsets so we can talk on the phone while doing anything. 24 hour news. Meals in a bag so we don’t have to get out of our cars. We love to maximize, streamline, improve, develop. We love to prejudge things based on whether they will or won’t work. The same is true with modern day farmers. Crops in well planned rows. Harvests in a nice, orderly fashion. If it doesn’t rain, we can use sprinklers. If the sun is too hot, we can install covers.
In First Century Palestine, the time in which Jesus is telling this story, they left more to chance – in fact, they took more chances.
In Jesus’s day, the Pharisees were doing the “safe” things according to the Law. Jesus, on the other hand, was taking a lot of big chances in eyes of the Law. Healing on the Sabbath, eating with sinners, fraternizing with the Samaritan woman. All of these things were extremely irresponsible for a religious teacher in Jesus’s day, so much so that it got him killed. The Law was VERY clear. And Jesus was in violation of the LAW.
Here’s the catch. In the epistle this morning, Paul tells us that Jesus has flipped the script when it comes to the Law. Verse one of the reading tells us that “there is therefore now no condemnation…in Christ Jesus.”
Did I hear that right?
“There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus”?
A Barna poll conducted between 2004 and 2007 showed that 9 out of 10 non-Christians found Christians too “anti-homosexual,” and nearly as many perceived it as “hypocritical” and “judgmental.”
That doesn’t seem like a Church in which there is “no condemnation”.
There is a man, named Brother Micah, who travels to college campuses on the east coast preaching a message of condemnation and hate to today’s generations. I have had the unfortunate pleasure of watching him “preach” at JMU several times. His favorite mode of preaching is standing on a pedestal, yelling at anyone who walk by, accusing them (rather blindly) of adultery and fornication and going so far as to threaten them with the fire and brimstone of the Lord. His argument comes from the punishments in the Old Testament, the punishments that originate with the Law, but Paul tells us plainly today that God has done what the Law failed to do.
The Message paraphrase of the Bible puts it another way. It says that the Law was a Band-Aid over sin, while Christ Jesus offers deep, real healing.
To continue Jesus’s allegory, the Law wanted seed to be planted in good soil and good soil only. In nice, neat rows where it could be monitored and tracked, where the profits could be maximized. Brother Micah, and all the people who preach the fire and brimstone judgments and punishments of God, are holding tight to their notions of what constitutes good soil. For them, the main point of the story is the good soil. The eternal truth that should be taken away from this parable, however, is not that God works only with good soil, but rather that all the seed that God plants is good seed. There is no bad seed in the parable.
Despite what the world looks like today, we, as followers of Jesus Christ, are called to something BIGGER AND BETTER. The Gospel paints a picture of a God who is indiscriminate with love and grace. A God who put death to death and has given us the gift of grace and eternal life. A God who plants the good seeds of the Word regardless of what the soil looks like. That is what we are called to do, my friends.
In our Baptismal Covenant we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves” and we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”. It sounds to me like the writers of that Book of Common Prayer didn’t leave much room for bad seed. They were working under the assumption that all we’ve got is good seed.
A few weeks ago in the Good Book Club that meets right before this service, we were discussing the creation story. When we got to the point in the story in which God breathes Spirit into the nose of Adam, the question was asked, “What does this mean for us?” One voice spoke up from the side. Claire Wilson said quietly, “It means we can do what God does.”
We can DO what God DOES.
We have the creative capacity to do what our Lord does.
The Gospel reading today shows us what God does.
God loves. God cares. God gives mercy. God plants the good seeds of grace. And God does it all quite irresponsibly and indiscriminately.
So what does that mean for us? It means that as freely as we have been given the gift of love and grace, so too must we give it out. We must be irresponsible with our love. We must not judge the soil, instead we must plant the good seeds of grace and love, and if we do, Jesus says the harvest will be one for the record books.
It is very easy for me to stand up here and say that we all need to be more loving. I am sure you can remember many times when a preacher has told you that from the pulpit. But if our love was TRULY as irresponsible and indiscriminate as Jesus calls it to be, we would live in a changed world.
That is the difference today. Don’t just tuck this sermon in your head. Don’t walk out of this sanctuary having changed nothing. Irresponsible, indiscriminate, and radical love is not easy; it is not a hobby to take up in our free time. It is hard, but this is what Jesus Christ, who rose from the grave and sits at the right hand of God, tells us that we MUST do.
Christianity isn’t about cozy little lessons to make us feel better. It’s about what God’s doing in the world – what he’s already done in Jesus and what he wants to do through us.
God breathed God’s Spirit into us.
We can do what God does. We must do what God does. We must take the grace that has been so irresponsibly given to us and give it out to all we see. Theologian William Sloane Coffin said, “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”
Remember that message.
We must live as though our smiles, our kindness, our hugs, our very lives are the good seeds of God’s love. Throw it in every direction. Like the farmer who indiscriminately plants seed; like our Lord who indiscriminately plants love and grace; we too must be willing to be indiscriminate with our love and grace. So go forth and love. Love irresponsibly. Love indiscriminately. Give grace to all you meet.
Do what God does.
As Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears, listen!”