…in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty…let anyone with ears listen”!
Join us as we thank The Rev. Cal Chinn on this, his last Sunday with Calvary.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 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.’
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I registered for an Alban Institute seminar, “Finishing Strong and Ending Well,” in preparation for my anticipated retirement, after 16 years serving the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown. One of the helpful insights that I took away from the seminar, especially for pastors who are finishing a long pastorate, is that there are members of the congregation who have not been served well by you. Your preaching has not touched them and they have not been fed spiritually by you for a long time. So for their sake, a change of pastors is welcomed and needed. What a gift it is for a church like Calvary to be served by several pastors, each of us meeting the diversity of needs in the congregation, the point being no one of us can please everyone. So let’s not forget that not everyone was happy with Jesus. Jesus encountered all sorts of resistance in his brief years of ministry. The chapters surrounding today’s reading provide us a glimpse of the resistance he ran into. The previous chapter to today’s reading, Chapter 12, narrates several stories of Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees, who are now plotting to destroy him and have accused him of working for Satan. By the end of chapter 12, Jesus appears to be at odds even with his own family and at the end of chapter 13, Jesus will be rejected by his hometown. Why is Jesus encountering so much hostility? Why do so many disregard his message and discredit his ministry? Today’s lectionary reading, the Parable of the Sower, I believe, probes the mystery of the mixed responses to Jesus and to his ministry. For my last sermon here at Calvary, as I wrap up my tenure as your Transitional Pastor, I could not have asked for a better text to preach on, especially a text that just about preaches itself. I am tempted to make this a short sermon. I really don’t have to do much work interpreting the parable for you. A peasant farmer goes out and sows seeds which fall into four different types of ground with quite different consequences. Seed that falls on a path is eaten by birds; seed that falls among rocks sprouts quickly but, lacking depth of soil, dries up in the sun; seed that falls among thorns is choked by them; and then seed that falls into good soil produces an abundant crop. Furthermore, we get help from Jesus who responds to the disciples’ request for help understanding the meaning of the parable. In the second half of today’s reading, Jesus unpacks the meaning of the parable. Well, tempting as it is for me to make this a short sermon, there is a lot more in today’s parable than meets the eye.
The reading begins with Jesus leaving his house; he’s tired of being quarantined for so long. He goes to the beach by the sea and is immediately surrounded by a huge crowd of folks equally tired of being sheltered-in-place, most of whom aren’t even wearing a mask. So he climbs into a boat leaving the crowd behind on the beach. And perched in the boat, Jesus teaches the crowd in parables, today’s being the first of 7 in chapter 13. As we listen to his description of the four different types of ground, we all gravitate to the good soil. None of us want to be identified with unproductive soil. Who wants to be labeled a weed? Who wants to be described as someone with shallow faith, as one who is tempted and lured by wealth and worldly cares? Hearing this parable, we all want to be identified as good soil! But who qualifies as good soil? Another troubling question is this—since soil cannot change itself, is there any hope for the hardened, rocky, and thorny soil? Are these destined to be unproductive forever? There are many in Matthew’s story who “hear the word of the kingdom and do not understand”, including the religious leaders who are antagonistic to Jesus’ ministry from the beginning. The crowds respond positively to Jesus, especially to his miracles of healing, yet turn against him at the end and demand his crucifixion, leaving us to wonder whether they ever truly understood. Even the disciples themselves might be included among those who fall away “when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word.” And the rich young man unable to part with his possessions provides a stunning example of “one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” What about Calvary Presbyterian Church? After telling several more parables, Jesus asks the disciples, “Have you understood all this?” They answered confidently, “Yes!” Yet subsequent events will reveal how little they truly understand and how quickly they will desert Jesus to save their own skins. In every church I have served, people have left—some unhappy with the preacher, some unhappy with the stances the Session has taken, especially on issues of race and sexuality and hospitality.
What is remarkable is that in spite of failings, Jesus never gave up on the disciples. In fact, he continues to invest in them, even to the point of entrusting the future of his mission to them. Jesus calls Peter the rock upon which he will build his church, even though Peter’s understanding of what it means that Jesus is the Messiah is confused at best. This brings us back to the parable. Even though our attention has been drawn to the variety of soil, the main character in the parable is the sower. The sower scatters his seed carelessly, recklessly, seemingly wasting much of the seed on ground that holds little promise for a fruitful harvest. Jesus invests in disciples who look similarly unpromising. He squanders his time with tax collectors and sinners, with lepers, the demon-possessed, all manner of outcasts. There is no plan, no strategy, no technique of ensuring optimal placement of seeds; nothing that we would translate into modern church marketing. These days, when we wring our hands about declining membership and financial resources and target demographics and craft business plans in order to increase productivity and efficiency, what are we to do with Jesus? Not once does he mention soil analysis nor is he concerned about the nature of the soil; he just flings the seed, letting it fly scattershot in every direction. His parable is not concerned about viability. Beneath this parable is the bedrock assumption of abundance that we too rarely trust. There is seed enough to lose, and the God who makes sun to shine and rain to fall upon both the righteous and the unrighteous is indiscriminate about sharing. Grace is flung and wasted everywhere!
There is so much that goes on in our various fields, our streets and our neighborhoods that we cannot know or understand. Soil conditions change. The woman who moved out of town years ago reconnects with the church, thanks to online worship services. The man who left the church when he left for college, shows up at worship many years later—he and his wife had separated and the last of his 4 children had left home. A young woman from the Midwest arrives in the city with her lesbian partner, looking for work and housing. After 2 weeks in a hotel, they find an apartment in North Beach. Daughter of a Presbyterian minister, one Sunday morning she goes out on a walk and happens upon the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown where she is welcomed warmly. One of the few non-Asians in the congregation, she ends up serving as a Deacon,
It is not for us to judge those we perceive as having shallow faith, who worship the idols of the culture, who vote for the wrong party. The parable reminds us not only that it is not our place to judge, but also that it is the power of God to grow a harvest. There is no explaining why seed grows in this place and not that place, on this ground or on that path. The miracle is God’s power to bring out of the harvest—fruit that will yield mercy and justice, compassion and forgiveness. After all, Matthew’s Gospel contains the Great Commission. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, we hear: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” So it was to fewer than the full 12, and to these not-so-sure believers/doubters, that Jesus gave the Great Commission anyway. From the start, Jesus called believers/doubters to the task, so perhaps he can use you, yes YOU, as well, no matter the soil. The sower keeps sowing generously, extravagantly, even in the least promising places. Jesus’ investment in his disciples shows that he simply will not give up on them, in spite of their many failings. We trust that he will not give up on us either; but will keep working on whatever is hardened, rocky, or thorny within and among us. We trust in his promise to be with us to the end of the age.
So let us not settle for playing 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 become contributing members of our congregation. Let us not, in the name of stewardship, hold tightly to our resources, wanting to make sure nothing is wasted. For otherwise, we stifle creativity and energy for mission, resisting new ideas for fear they might not work—as though mistakes or failures were to be avoided at all costs. Jesus’ approach to mission is quite at odds with our play-it-safe instincts. He 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!