This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on July 13, 2014.
Preacher, tell me if this sounds familiar: You visited at the nursing home, you sat through Church Council, and you sold concessions at your daughter’s soccer game. You’re finally home and ready to unwind when the phone rings. And “that same day” a pastoral emergency arises. The call is a blessing, but you know what it feels like to minister at the end of an already long day.
The setting for Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13 continues an already long day. Rewind to chapter 12: Jesus is in trouble with the Pharisees and healed a man with a withered hand. Jesus is followed by ‘many crowds’ not once or twice, but three times (Matthew 12:15, 23 and 46). People ask Jesus for signs (this isn’t the gospel of John!) and Jesus’ mother and brothers need to talk to him. Matthew 13 begins with Jesus sitting by the sea “that same day”, but it’s not long before crowds gather again. Jesus responds to the crowds not with frustration, but as an opportunity to tell a story. Jesus responds by sharing a parable.
One of the challenges of preaching familiar parables is congregants may think they’ve got the point before the sermon starts. It is more than a little ironic, then, that the word ‘listen’ bookends the parable (Matthew 13:1b, 9 NRSV). The parable may be familiar, but it’s possible we haven’t really heard it yet.
Jesus interprets the parable in Matthew 13:18-23. Those sown on the path hear but don’t understand; so the evil one will snatch away what is sown in the heart (Matthew 13:19). It isn’t difficult to sow seeds on the path, preacher. In fact, it takes no effort at all: The seeds simply fall to the ground. Preachers, be weary of short-cut faith. Don’t mistake spiritual “success” for a quick take. Sincere faith takes root in the heart of the believer and cannot easily be snatched away by anyone or anything.
Those sown on rocky ground fall away. At first there are signs of life. Because there are no roots growth comes quickly; but when the heat of life turns up, the plant withers. In other words: At the first sniff of trouble these folks bail. Preacher, faith is for the long haul. Don’t be fooled by gimmicks promising to “Grow your church by 1000% in 10 days” in 12 easy installments of $99.99. These church growth tactics mirror diet fads, which may result in extreme weight loss quickly…only to return 3 months later. The only seeds grown overnight are those without roots. Don’t get me wrong: It is good for the church to want to grow, but we want to do so with our eyes on the whole picture—not only what satisfies today.
Those sown among thorns are choked. Unlike those sown on rocky ground, no signs of life are shown amongst the thorns. We are given a vivid picture as to what the ‘lure of wealth’ does (Matthew 13:22b NRSV). Quite simply: It chokes us. We think we need more. We want to keep up with the notorious Jones family, and yet we are yearning for emptiness. Seeds are given no chance amongst the thorns. They are choked immediately.
You can know your priorities by looking at your checkbook. This is a tired cliché, but it’s a true one. Preacher, how is the lure of wealth threatening to choke you? What about the church you pastor?
Those sown on good soil bear and yield grain. These understand the word and bear fruit. And not only is grain yielded—it multiplies! Scholars debate whether the harvest in verse 8 is plentiful or not. I’m not sure this matters practically, since gardeners will tell you even good soil doesn’t yield a bountiful harvest every year. Some seasons are plentiful and others are threadbare.
The same, of course, is true of sincere faith. Some seasons are lean: A lost job, a broken marriage, or a church in conflict can be tough on the harvest. The faith is still sincere and the soil is still good, but the nutrients are being used to keep the plant alive.
But other years the harvest is overflowing with love, grace, truth, understanding, humility, and growth. Sometimes the elements will be just right: Everything is smooth sailing at work, the marriage is strong, the church is making disciples and the children are memorizing scripture! The harvest is plentiful and others will receive from this bounty!
I wonder if mouths were gaping open when Jesus finished the parable. I wonder if they were surprised by how many seeds didn’t grow. Maybe Jesus wanted the disciples and crowds to know following him wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops. Maybe we should remind the crowds in our churches on Sundays, too. Certainly the Apostle Paul, who suffered beatings, torture and prison time—would agree.
Preachers: Are we peddling an easy faith to congregants? Are we lauding quick growth on the rocky top? Are we ignoring thorns and hoping for survival?
An easy faith is an easy sell, but it isn’t the gospel of Jesus Christ. Following Jesus Christ is absolutely good, but it isn’t always easy.