Scripture: Matthew 13:1-9;18-23
It is often the case that actions taken with the best of intentions lead to unforeseen consequences. This was definitely the case when as part of the New Deal the Civilian Conservation Corps began a project to help with soil erosion. In the 1930’s after the disastrous dust bowl that impacted the Great Plains, soil conservation was an area of major concern. One of the ideas promoted by the department of agriculture was to use a specific plant on slopes. The thought was that this vine like plant would help hold the soil together and prevent erosion. For over a decade this planet was purposely cultivated and planted mostly in southern states. The problem is this plant is kudzu. If you have ever driven in a southern state, then chances are you have seen kudzu because once it takes root it covers everything.
Today kudzu is known as the vine that the south. That is not an exaggeration either. Today kudzu covers seven and half million acres of land in the United States. Again, covers is the accurate description because as a creeping vine it is a structural parasite and it grows on top of anything else from trees, to power lines, and even untended houses. Despite constant attempts to keep the growth of kudzu under control, the United States Forest Service estimates that Kudzu consumes 1,200 more acres of land every year. Under ideal conditions kudzu can grow up to a foot per day, and the climate of the American south with hot summers and mild winters creates perpetual ideal conditions for this plant. The out of control invasion of kudzu is the unforeseen consequence that arose out of the good intentions of trying to prevent soil erosion. In hindsight though this should not have been a surprise. When plants are given ideal conditions, they grow. Not only do they grow they grow bountifully. This morning’s scripture points this out when the seeds fall on good soil not only do they take root, but they multiply. Once a plant takes root in ideal conditions, not only will it grow but it can help but multiply and eventually yield a crop that is thirty, sixty, or a hundred times what is sown. The gospel is a bit like kudzu it seems in that once it find the right conditions it becomes almost uncontainable in its growth. I think the question this scripture really challenges us with is how are we providing those ideal conditions?
We often think about Jesus teaching in parables, which is why it can be kind of a surprise to realize that in the gospel of Matthew this is the first parable that Jesus tells. We also often confuse parables with fables. A fable is a short story with the intent of illustrating a moral, but parables are a bit more like riddles. The point may not be entirely clear at first, and often parables are meant to be thought on, wrestled with, and interpreted. This morning’s scripture really illustrates that because this is one of the few parables that Jesus actually explains. The parable was told to the crowd, but the explanation was only given to the disciples so the majority of the people who heard this morning’s scripture for the first time had to think it out on their own. The idea of the stories Jesus told was to prompt the hearers (and modern day readers) to contemplate the kingdom of God and how truths of that kingdom were revealed in the story. When it comes to this morning’s parable, traditionally the focus has been on one of the two main elements, either the sower or the different types of soil. Both of these elements are worthy of our consideration. Religion professor Greg Carey points this out in his book Stories Jesus Told where he wrote, “As readers we are left to ponder twin mysteries: a sower who scatters seed that has little chance of bearing good fruit, along with the wonder of a bountiful yield.”
Carey’s first point, about the sower who scatters seed with little chance of bearing good fruit is perhaps the most notable part of this story. Jesus told this story while around the shores of the Sea of Galilee and his audience were members of an agrarian society. A farmer sowing seeds so carelessly would have immediately stuck out to them as nonsensical. Especially if a farmer knew where good soil was, why not sow all of the seeds there? Why would anyone ever sow seeds along a path? Of course, modern farmers would likely have the same questions. The cost of seed has increased by 200% over the past twenty years, so today’s farmers also know that seeds are too valuable to just throw anywhere without any care and see what sticks. Yet, that is exactly what the sower does in this story.
The most traditional understanding of this parable cast Jesus or God in the row of the farmer sowing the seed. This morning’s scripture implies in verse 19 that the seed that is being planted is the good news of the kingdom of God. The seed is the good news that we are created by God, loved by God, and because of God’s great love we can be forgiven of our sin, be made new, and be fully reconciled with God through Jesus Christ. Yes, that seed is valuable but it is also does not have to be in limited supply. The only reason why the original hearers of this scripture would have found the idea nonsensical is because of scarcity. The amount of seeds available was limited so they should not be wasted, but if approached from a position of abundance then the actions of the farmer make a lot more sense. The seed is available so why not use it?
One of the truths that I think this story reveals is that the gospel, the good news of Jesus, is not a scarce commodity to be hoarded. The good news of Jesus is not only to be shared when the conditions are ideal. As John 3:16 so famously states, “For God so loved the whole World that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes him will not perish but have eternal life.” The message that Jesus saves is for the whole world, so it is not to be kept to ourselves. It is meant to be shared, it is meant to be cast far and wide. It is a message that is not just for the elect or the specially selected it is a message that we are to share with as many people as possible as often as possible. The seeds of the gospel are not a scarcity. We all have an unlimited supply. So are you keeping those seeds to yourself or are you spreading them?
John Wesley, the found of the Methodist movement, helped create a list of twenty-two questions for personal reflection. These questions were meant to be reflected on every day as a spiritual exercise to develop a healthy faith. One of those daily questions for reflection is “when did I last speak to someone about my faith?” This question is a reminder that we are supposed to be regularly sharing the good news, and spreading the seeds of the gospel. We do not have to stand on street corners with a bullhorn or shoehorn Jesus into every conversation. However, on the flip side we also should not be keeping our bag of seeds closed up tight and never opening it. The parable already tells us that that not every seed will take root and grow into a faithful disciple, but despite that the farmer spreads the seed everywhere. If the farmer in this story represents Jesus, he was not shy about spreading the good news everywhere and we should not be either.
The seeds represent the good news of Jesus and these seeds have the potential to yield a disciple, but that only happens when it falls on good soil. The message is the seed, and the soil is the environment that the seed is planted. The soil represents the environments that lead to a strong faith. This scripture challenges us to consider personally how well we are doing at spreading the seeds of the gospel, but this scripture challenges us corporately with the question what kind of soil does our faith community present? Of the four types of soil presented, which one are we?
The fist type of soil is a path, and for this we should be imagining a dirt road. We should be picturing hard dirt that has been packed down by years of foot traffic and baked by the son. This is soil where the seeds could not take root, because they could only sit on top of the packed dirt. Unfortunately, there are churches that exist that fit this description. These churches tend to be stuck in remembering their glorious past. They cling so hard to preserving their traditional way of doing things that they become like hardened soil. United Methodist Bishop Dottie Escobedo-Frank wrote about to identify these kind of churches in her book Restart Your Church. She wrote, “Each dying church I came to had signs that read ‘Do not _____.’ They were written on 8×10 sheets of paper and plastered all over the church.” The first type of soil is represented by churches that have become unwelcoming spaces because they are more concerned with preserving their own past and comfort than they are with new faith growing.
The second type of soil is a rocky soil where the seed can begin to blossom but it eventually withers away because the rocks crowd it out so that it can never take root. Perhaps this can represent faith communities where there is a lack of community. There is the potential for gospel seeds to sprout and grow, but new discipleship cannot take root because new disciples cannot develop a support network to help them deal with the troubles of lives or they cannot make meaningful connections with other believers to grow together. A lot of churches faces this issue, and it is called the Lego problem. A standard Lego brick has eight pegs with which it can connect with other bricks. Research has found that most people have no more than eight meaningful relationships with people they attend church with. If everyone’s bricks are all filled up then that is like a rocky soil. The chance for new connection is limited and the opportunity for new growth is stunted. The only way around this one is those disciples who are already established have to be willing to draw the circle a little wider and make more room for everyone else.
The third type of soil is one where thorns which represent the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word and make it unfruitful. Unfortunately, this can be a description for the environment of some churches. The mission of any church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ and unfortunately there are times when some churches loose the plot and stop making the main thing the main thing. It has become increasingly common to read about the fall of some megachurch where corruption seeped in because the focus became building bigger for the sake of being bigger not for making new disciples. On the flip side, there are churches that have long stopped focusing on making disciples and their own only focus is keeping the doors open for the sake of keeping the doors open. In either event concerns other than the good news of Jesus Christ have been displaced as the main thing.
The fourth soil mentioned is good soil. This is soil that is fertile and earthy. This is the kind of soil that is wet and deep. This soil is free from rocks and life chocking weeds. This soil represents when we are a place in our lives where the gospel of Christ can take root and flourish because we have chosen to be at a place where our hearts can receive it, where we can say yes to God’s love and acceptance for us. This is a kind of soil that is welcoming and affirming of all people, where there is always room for one more, and where Jesus is the main thing. This is the kind of soil that should the church should embody, we need to be a dirty church where the message of the scriptures is nurtured in all people, where people who are journeying from one of the other soils will stay and where God is glorified and disciples are made.
This is the type of soil, the type of environment that all churches should strive to create. The good news is that it is possible for every faith community to become good soil. Soil by its nature is malleable. The three other types of soils mentioned in this scripture can be made good soil. The hardness of the path can be broken up and made soft, the suffocating rocks can be removed, and the choking thorns can be weeded out. In the same way all faith communities can choose to be more welcoming and forward looking, they can choose to be more inclusive and open to deeper community, they can be fully committed to keeping the main thing the main thing. Every faith community has the potential to be a dirty church where disciples are made.
At the end of this parable Jesus makes it clear what happens when the good news of the gospel is shared and finds itself in this kind of soil. It blossoms. It produces a crop that yields up to one hundred times what is sown. Because of course it does. When a plant is given ideal conditions, it grows unchecked. In the same way when the gospel finds itself being spread by a faith community that provides a good environment, then the good news of Jesus will spread unchecked. Disciples will be made and disciples will make disciples. So may we be committed to being that kind of church. May we as individuals not be afraid or shy about sharing the good news of Jesus with others and may we be a dirty church where that good news can take root so that we live into our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.