Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 10A] - July 13, 2014 (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

Does anyone here remember secret decoder rings? I’m sad to say that I never actually had one, myself, but I knew all about them growing up. Secret decoder rings (or devices) were simple little gizmos—usually they were plastic—that food companies would hide in boxes of their product—usually it was cereal or snack foods. You’d open the box of cereal and fish around down in there to find it. I think technically you were supposed to pour the cereal out and patiently let the decoder ring fall into your bowl whenever it naturally did so, but what kid does that? Anyway, the point was that the company would send out secret messages that you couldn’t decipher and understand unless you had that secret decoder ring. The secret decoder ring was the key to figuring out what was being said. I don’t think many companies use secret decoder rings anymore, which is too bad. I guess we’ve gone more high tech now. Maybe cereal would instead need to come with a secret log-in password to a website. Bor-ing.

But why am I talking about secret decoder rings? Is it because most of us probably feel we need one to understand these rambling sermons? Maybe we should put one in the doughnut box every Sunday. Find that thing and the sermons will finally make sense!

"The Sower" (Vincent Van Gogh)
In all seriousness, that’s how I’ve always thought of this parable of the sower who goes out to sow some seeds all over the place. This parable is like the secret decoder ring of all the other parables. What’s a parable? A parable is a short-ish story or scenario involving commonplace images which Jesus tells teach a lesson. In a way, they are kind of like Jesus’ sermon illustrations. This one is like a decoder ring lesson because once we understand what Jesus is saying with this lesson, then we can start to understand all of the rest of the lessons. In fact, I think that’s why Jesus tells it first, before any other parable. It’s also probably why Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the three gospel writers who include this parable, all are so careful to include Jesus’ own explanation of it. It is like actually wants us to fish through the cereal box right at the start and find the clue that will help us grasp his teachings. That is, not only does this parable introduce Jesus’ listeners to the concept of the parable, but because in a lot of ways it is the parable about parables.

So, just what is the parable trying to say? If we didn’t have Jesus’ own explanation of it, it would be much more difficult for us to decipher that—as if part of the secret decoder ring had fallen apart. In fact, only a very small handful of Jesus’ parables come with Jesus’ explanations in the New Testament. The point of the story is that a sower goes out casting seed fairly vigorously and somewhat recklessly. Rather than carefully confining his sowing to one area where he knows there is good soil, he broadcasts it far and wide. In fact, he casts the seed so wantonly that some doesn’t even make it onto soil at all. It ends up on the path. That seed never really has a chance. Birds come and eat it. Other seed falls into rocky soil that has not properly been prepared for growing things. Some falls among thorns, which prove to be too much competition for the young seedlings. Eventually some of the seed does fall in the good soil, but there is a surprise there, too: not every seed produces the same amount of grain.

Thanks to the explanation of this parable that Jesus gives in private with his disciples, we know this is not a lesson about how to grow a garden. If it is that, then it’s clear Jesus doesn’t know how to grow a garden. That is a very wasteful, careless way to go about it. No, this parable, as it turns out, is a lesson about how Jesus is going to spread God’s Word and how it will grow—or, as the case may be, fail to grow—in the lives of those who hear him. The different soils are metaphors for different types of people in the various life circumstances they may find themselves at any given time. Sometimes people are like the path, where the word of God never really has a chance to grow. It can’t even begin to take root. The Word also experiences difficulties in reaching its fulfillment of producing righteousness in the lives of those who are like rocky or thorny soil.

But, lo and behold, the Word does sometimes land in the lives where things are, for whatever reason, well-prepared to hear what Jesus teaches and faith takes root and prospers. Maybe the soil has been prepared by careful attention to devotional practices. Maybe the soil has been tilled under and made ready because they’re experienced a particular tragedy in their life and they’re hungry for a fresh perspective. Maybe they just got a good night of sleep. Who knows? But the Word takes root and grows. Sometimes that growth results in a bumper crop. Sometimes it results in a more modest yield. But the growth is always somewhat mysterious and never really up to the expert planting ability of the sower himself.  Let anyone with ears, listen! 
And that right there is how this parable is the decoder ring. It is like Jesus is saying: “I’m going to tell all kinds of stories and preach all kinds of sermons and perform all kinds of deeds of power and sometimes it’s just not going to seem to make a difference to people. They’ve clearly got those ears, but it’s going to go in one and out the other.” This parable explains, more or less, why these differences in reactions occurs even to us. Sometimes we cultivate great worship attendance patterns and sometimes we read up on our Bible and we get all involved in other faith practices and we still just don’t get it. Either things don’t make good sense on some days or nothing appears to have much effect on us. Sometimes hearing Jesus’ own lessons, teachings, and miracles doesn’t produce faith in us. We don’t grasp the story that’s behind the parable’s story, or the point that is behind the miracle. At other times we find we do understand these life-giving things. Faith grows, but maybe only thirty or twenty-fold.

Does any of this mean that God is not real or that God is not active in the life of the universe? Does it mean that God has withheld God’s Word from us? Not at all! But it does mean that in a world still shrouded by sin, even God’s Word can encounter challenges in producing what it is given to produce. With this decoder ring we can start to understand, “a-Ha! Because of that strange sowing technique, Jesus includes all people—even me!—in his kingdom, and sometimes that good news will cause me to grow and change and give thanks, but at other times people—even I—will scratch their heads and wonder what in the world is going on.”

I think we could go one step farther, however, and say that this parable of the sower is not just the key to understanding the other parables. It is, in fact, the key to understanding how God works, and what kind of God God is. Like the sower in the parable, God is overly generous with his life-giving Word. God does not pick and choose who gets to receive the love made known in Christ. God does not go out and find only the good soil and drop his grace there. God broadcasts that stuff everywhere. All over the place. It may seem like a waste of time to us, but does an eternal God really need to worry about wastefulness? It may seem like a misuse of resources to us, but doesn’t the Source of all Goodness, the one who created the resource in the first place, get to decide how God wants to use the Word?

Yes, this is how our God operates, generously bestowing that Word of life everywhere God wants, over all of creation. In teaching, in preaching, in healing, in prayer…God is at work in myriad ways and myriad places with the confidence that one little seed will grow somewhere and produce many more times than that in faithfulness. Eventually the way God casts this Word will lead his Son to die on the cross in order to have his Word take root in the hearts of his people. He will cast that kernel of grace and righteousness on the most godforsaken, bloody, lifeless piece of ground. Come to think of it, there were thorns there, too. He will cast his whole life there in the hope that anyone who ever appens to be that kind of soil, too—anyone who feels parched and desolate from the turmoil of sin and death—will still have a chance to rise with Jesus and be included in God’s kingdom.

It stands to reason, then, if the secret decoder tells us how people receive God’s Word and that this is how God works in all things—spreading his Word and his grace and his love so liberally—then that is how the church should be, too. We are the ones who go out and spread this message in our lives. We know we’re not supposed to keep it in the seed bag to ourselves. And we’re really not supposed to carefully pick and choose who we think is worthy of receiving it, either, which is what I’m afraid any of us can be guilty of at times.  Good soil, you see, isn’t always apparent on the surface. In fact, we can pretty much say that good soil is almost never apparent just by looking at someone’s surface. The point is that we’re never really in charge of those people’s growth in faith in the end, anyway. Our job is to hear the Word spoken and sung, to be fed at the table and washed at the font, and then spread God’s Word of love and joy to all people following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ who in this morning’s text sees so many people with ears to hear that he steps out into a boat on the shore and delivers the message.

I think you all understand this concept more fully that you might realize. This morning, for example, your backs rest against one of the seeds of faith and love that you’ve been sowing. You’ve also been sewing, you see: Quilts for LWF! Over a hundred of them, carefully stitched by dedicated volunteers over the past several months. They will be flown to various distant parts of the planet and placed in the hands of villagers and urban residents who need them.

Now I hate to break it to you, but some of them will be distributed and received…and then never used as they’re intended. Some may not even be used at all. Some folks will receive them and cut them up for clothes, or maybe even tossed aside. Others might use them for shelter. Some for a floor covering, others for warmth. But in the midst of all that, I bet more than one newborn baby will be wrapped in one of these quilts you’ve made today. And that’s pretty amazing. Hundred-fold yield.

The point is, you know you’ve not made these quilts with the thought that you will hand-select those you deem worthy to receive them. You’re simply making them, blessing them, and handing them over to the soils of the world and trusting in the providence of God’s care and the Spirit’s growth as they go.

May it be so with all your demonstrations of faith and service, your Sunday School teaching and confirmation mentoring, with all your efforts to share your faith, with all the conversations of compassion and care you have privately with those you know. You’ve been given the Word, and you know it has, from time to time, grown in you. Well, now you have the secret decoder ring, too! Get to spreading the Word.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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