Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23
by Daniel Harrell
So we’re trying something different this year for our kick-off Sunday. Since a strength of Colonial Church has always been its community life, we thought rather than split the congregation in half according to worship style on this first Sunday back from summer, why not leverage our community strength and kick off the year all together? The advantage (aside from my having to preach this sermon one time) is we get a snapshot of who we are all at once. So take a second and take a look around. Take a picture. We are Colonial Church.
I told you a few months back about how while in Los Angeles last winter, that megalopolis of immense and sprawling multicultural diversity, I’d introduce myself as a minister at “Colonial Church.” Internationals and racial-ethnic others in particular would stare at me with wide-eyed puzzlement and sometimes disdain. Was this a joke? A middle-aged white man, without a hint of irony, admitting he’s the minister of a church brazenly named for the imperialist, racist exploitation of native peoples and lands? I’d sheepishly explain how our name derived from colonial New England congregationalists passionate for religious freedom and the gospel. “Oh, you mean the congregational colonists who wiped out the Wampanoag Indian tribe in Massachusetts and sold their women and children into slavery?” “No, no,” I’d say, “we’re in Minnesota.”
As for church, skeptics in every state bring up centuries of ecclesial overreach and arrogance, witch trials and monkey trials, indulgences, prohibition, blue laws, segregation, hypocrisy, greed, judgmentalism, institutional and clerical abuse, shady political affiliations, cultural accommodation, basic irrelevancy and bad science, all the while holding to such oddities as virgin births, deities in triplicate and resurrections from the dead. Used to be you had to explain to the neighbors why you attended a congregational church. Now you have to explain why you attend church at all.
All that to say I’m glad you made it this morning. The temptation is to make ourselves seem more normal by highlighting our good works of service or our beautiful facility, two poke stops and a gym. But by definition, as church, we are much more than the good things we do or this place where we meet. We sing the songs we sing because we believe God exists and is worthy of our worship and obedience. We read the book we read because we believe there is truth to be known and followed. We pray the prayers we pray because as much as we’d like to think we’re in control, we know that we’re not and never have been and desperately need all the help and grace we can get. We do this together because you can’t be church by yourself. And we do it together on Sunday because its the day Jesus rose from the dead, a reality that shapes every other reality and fuels both forgiveness of the past and hope for the future.
Skeptics abound. According to Jesus, three out of every four reject the gospel. We sow seeds but miss pay dirt. The church doesn’t grow. Eager for a better rate of return, we conduct research and take soil samples. We market and modify what we plant. We put on a good show and tell people what they want to hear. While in North Carolina, my brother, while not a regular church-goer, told me he’d started listening in his truck to Joel Osteen, the toothy televangelist with the largest church in America, his sermons watched, downloaded and read by millions each week. Not that I’m envious. Joel Osteen preaches such bromides as, “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us.” “Focus on being a blessing to others and God will make sure you are always blessed in abundance.” “You cannot be around negative people and expect to have a positive life.” My brother said good news is supposed to feel good. Life’s too short to ever get negative. I told him he’d better not download my sermons. He said he never had.
You’ve probably heard Jesus’ parable of the sower a thousand times. It’s one of five parables that appears in all three gospels with parables—Mark, Luke and Matthew. (John doesn’t do parables). Given its length and location in three gospels, and the rare fact that Jesus interprets it, many consider the Sower to be the most important parable, more than the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan. The Sower explains the purpose of all other parables, which Jesus admits is mostly to keep people confused. The parable begins with “a sower went out to sow seed,” but the sower is either a lousy throw or needs glasses. He has no idea what he’s doing. Unlike actual horticulturists, this sower slings seed everywhere, on roadsides and sidewalks and in the bushes. Had Jesus given this talk at the State Fair they’d have run him out of the Horticulture Building. Obviously he’d never sown a real seed in his life.
For Jesus’ original audience, mostly rural Galilean agrarian-types, talking about a near-sighted sower would have gotten a chuckle. Jesus handlers, however, anxious that their candidate’s coming off unqualified to be Messiah, pull him aside wanting to know why he’s ventured into farming. Dude, stick to carpentry. Jesus answers by tossing out a few Scripture verses and pronouns as randomly as his sower threw seeds. His explanation as to why parables—which we’ll look at next Sunday—only further confused and even offended, excluded and hurt people’s feelings. The good news was bad. Jesus accused people of having hard hearts and closed ears, eyes that cannot see and minds that cannot comprehend. Dumb as dirt, you might say. The he proceeds to interpret the parable, one of the few he ever explains, in part, perhaps, so his disciples would realize Jesus did understand human nature.
The different soils represent different ways dirt deals with what Jesus calls the “word of the kingdom.” In Mark and Luke, Jesus calls the seed the “word of God,” but Matthew, being much more devotedly Jewish, never dares write out God’s name. As for the sower’s identity, Jesus never specifies. We assume him or her to be any Christian who shares “the word” with others. Some of you saw our own Carla Golterman’s Facebook post about her wearing an “I Can Do All Things Through Christ” T-shirt to the State Fair. Somebody thought they would test this theory and yelled out to Carla, “Walk on your hands!” So as any former gymnast would do, Carla kicked up into a handstand and walked on her hands. The crowd was stunned and her skeptic silenced. Carla confessed it was a good thing he hadn’t challenged her to do that on water.
Her skeptic would fall under that soil type who “hears the word of the kingdom but doesn’t understand;” roadside dirt whose seeds get snatched away by the birds. Jesus ties the birds to the devil, which while being tough on the birds, at least confirms how demons believe God’s word is good enough to eat. In the gospels as in life, birds recognize seed for what it is even if the pavement doesn’t. The devil knows “the word of the kingdom” has real power.
I mentioned last Sunday how “kingdom” means power. Having defied the devil in the desert, Jesus stepped up in Matthew’s gospel to announce “the kingdom of heaven is near.” We traditionally interpret this as a heart relationship with Christ that gets us to heaven. But for Jesus’ original audience, chosen people chafing under Roman oppression, to hear heaven is near—an adverb that can also be translated as at hand, or even right here—signaled something other than heaven out there, or even heaven in your heart. For Jesus’ audience in Matthew, to hear the reign of God had arrived could not have been construed as anything other than a radical denouncement of imperial power. God’s people longed for the strong hammer of divine justice to drop, but with Jesus, kingdom power proved paradoxical. It would not boom like thunder or shock like an earthquake. No fire, no bright lights, no screaming or yelling, no armies, no political coercion, no cultural overthrow, no market domination or celebrity endorsement. Jesus says kingdom power’s a seed you can’t hardly see. Plant it and you can’t see it at all. The word does its work underground, in secret and not for applause, its left hand never knowing what its right hand is doing.
The key to success is finding the right soil. Not the rocky soil that can’t take the heat and withers. Not the thorny soil that worries more about finances and football. The word needs good soil, strong people of faith who know how to pray and do the right thing, who can leverage their God-given gifts to grow the church, spread the word and change the world! Our own facilities staffer, Bob Dahm, aka Organic Bob, gave talks at the State Fair about improving soil for higher yields. Organic Bob says the key to fertile soil is an even application of decaying compost and cow poo. The very best dirt… is so full of crap. How’s that for a parable?
I’m not sure Organic Jesus is talking soil improvement. Good dirt is still only good as dirt. God’s power is in the seed. God speaks and everything happens: time and space, stars and planets, light and life, dirt itself and human beings out of it. Unlike people whose words lie and deceive and misrepresent, God’s word is his word, so much so that there’s no distinction between what God says and who God is. Open John’s gospel and the first paragraph gives it to you straight: “in the beginning was the word and the word was God.” Not only that, but the “word became flesh and lived among us,” meaning Jesus. Therefore it might be when Jesus says the seed is the word he’s describing himself.
It would make some sense. It would make God the sower and not such a lousy shot after all. The Father sows his son everywhere, in every type of soil and in every piece of dirt, the crappier the better. The seed’s present even when unrecognized or misunderstood. By describing himself as a seed, Jesus acknowledges how his best work is done underground, after he’s dead and buried. As a small seed, Jesus confirms his best work operates in disproportion to expectations. Not just any small seed, Jesus often talks about herbal seeds, which are ridiculously small, but do show how much Jesus cares about flavor. Finally, and most importantly, the seed does its work despite the dirt. In this parable, it sprouts every time. It can get choked and wither; Jesus does not force his love and grace to grow. Seeds lie dormant, they can wait. As for the devilish birds, those foul fowl who gobble up the word and poop it out, they think they’ve put an end to God’s power. But we know bird poop only expands a seed’s reach. God redeems the worst evil the devil can do.
Today marks an especially evil day for our country. Fifteen years ago, close to 3000 died on this day, followed by hundreds of thousands more because of this day. I preached the funeral for one victim, a man from my Boston church killed when his hijacked plane plowed into the second tower. Looking out out over a grieving sanctuary packed full of of every kind of soil, what could I offer but words that felt absurdly small tossed into such a chasm of horror. A much younger and zealous preacher back then, I had the nerve to quote Jesus straight. In Luke’s gospel, the brutal Roman procurator, Pontus Pilate, had ordered a synagogue full of worshippers viciously butchered and their blood poured out on the altar. Justice screamed for retaliation, for Jesus as God to call down heaven’s hammer. But instead, in what felt like to some as callous indifference and blaming the victim, Jesus responded to this act of terror by observing, “you know, that could have been you.” That man from our church, a young father of two, was only traveling to New York for work. Drunk drivers hit mothers, perverted men hurt children, bullets strike passersby, disease erupts with no reason, bad food and bad luck send people to their graves every day. Everybody dies in the end. At our best we are still nothing but dirt, we come from dust and to dust we shall return.
But not the seed. Bury it deep and it comes to life. It’s how they work. In the closest Jesus ever came to a parable in John’s gospel, he said, “unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it cannot bear fruit,” meaning, of course, his own death and resurrection. Though difficult to accept, let the word do its dirty work and you will bloom with the beauty and flavor of grace. Your yield will be spiritual fruit instead of character manufactured by your own effort. The late theologian (and food critic), Robert Capon, argued how the fullest “enjoyment of the word’s fruitfulness comes to those who interfere with it least.” Unimpeded and allowed to grow, the word produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control— fruits of the spirit that are the best human traits, “the very rightness for which our nature was made.” Finally and fully ourselves in Christ, this happy experience on the plants’ part “is what the seed always had in mind for us.”
In first century Galilee, the highest return one could ever expect from a seed was a seven to ten fold yield. Here Jesus guarantees returns of thirty, sixty and one hundredfold, admittedly making him sound a little like Joel Osteen. A hundredfold return would make you rich, but Biblical prosperity is not about the money. Spiritual fruit flourishes in relationships of love, a contentedness and confidence money cannot buy. Turn to Mark’s gospel and the hundredfold promise pays out now in human capital: a hundredfold return, Jesus guarantees, in brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children. Who are all these people? Look around one more time. See what we have. We are for each other a rich return, and not just for this life, but perennial beauty and flavor, lasting into eternity. We are Colonial, but most importantly and powerfully, we are Church.