Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: July 12, 2020
Year A, Proper 10: Psalm 119:105-112; Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
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The kingdom of God is like…
The kingdom of God is like…what? We don’t hear that phrase in this particular gospel passage, but it is the fundamental question that will confront and challenge us over the next few Sundays. Over these coming weeks, our Gospel readings are drawn from what we can call the “parable chapter,” a collection of Jesus’ teachings in Chapter 13, so-called “parables of the kingdom.”
Parables are a form of comparison. The word “parable” literally means “to throw one thing up against another,” to “set, side by side.” A parable is not a fable, like Aesop’s, which has a clear and concluding moral. No, parables are trickier – they are both illusive and elusive, at least as Jesus understood and used them. The Greek word used in the New Testament for “parable” is directly related to the Hebrew word mashal. A mashal can be “like a riddle, intended to tease the mind into insight rather than to communicate a simple idea by means of an illustration.
In our Gospel reading today, we heard Jesus tell a familiar parable about seeds and sowing. It seems very apt for the middle of July to hear from Jesus about planting and growing.
I grew up in the Garden State. Some people, especially those who have only ever been on the New Jersey Turnpike, don’t have a clue that New Jersey is home to the best tomatoes, and is a considerable producer of cranberries and blueberries. But New Jersey has nothing on the Shenandoah Valley where farming is the backbone of the local economy. Planting and harvesting are familiar to many of us…I’ve been excited to pull radishes out of the pots planted by Marty and can’t wait to try the tomatoes that are growing larger by the day.
People have planted fields and harvested crops for thousands of years. Seeds go in the ground; plants rise up; grain and other crops are collected. Farmers and gardeners repeat this ritual every year; they sow seeds every winter or spring and gather their crops every summer or fall.
But in our Gospel reading, notice what Jesus says about this particular sower, and remember that seed was (and still is) very expensive. It seems like this sower is very wasteful. He didn’t seem to care where the seed fell. “…some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on the rocky ground…” There was no careful digging and trenching, no careful placement of seeds to maximize growth.
But the sower also managed to find some good soil, sowed seed there, and was able to harvest the grain, thirty, sixty, and a hundred-fold. Just to put this in perspective, a typical yield from grain was seven or eight times what was planted in good soil. A ten-fold return would have been most advantageous.
But, of course, this is a parable. So it’s about more than soil, it’s about more than seed.
As I reflected on this gospel passage, I couldn’t help but think about a school lesson, I think, from when I was in first grade. We were to learn about planting and growing. We were to bring pots and soil to school and plant seeds. My mother was a grower. She could grow beautiful plants and flowers. We didn’t have much, but when it came time to do things like this, my mother would make sure we had the best. I went to school with my pot and fertile, rich potting soil. Whatever it was, we planted never grew in that soil. My friend who had taken her pot to school and used a bunch of dirt, her plant grew and flourished. My mother was fit to be tied because that pricey potting soil hadn’t done its job.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “…I have great faith in a seed…I am prepared to expect wonders.”
Think about the wonders of a seed. It sometimes results in a plant that grows in ordinary dirt, not pricey potting soil. It’s sometimes a seed that sprouts from almost nothingness.
When you think about it, doesn’t pretty much everything start with a seed? I mean, trees begin with a seed, so the wood we use to build fences and decks all can be said to start with a seed. Much of the food we eat starts with a seed. Cows and chickens and pigs all eat grain that starts with a seed. Wild animals all eat some kind of plants or vegetation that all, at some point, begins with a seed. And now that I think about it, many cosmetics we put on our face and body, and in our hair, all come from plants, and those plants begin with a seed. So many of our basic needs all start with a seed.
The kingdom of God is like…a seed that is sown everywhere.
Jesus isn’t giving us instructions on how to plant corn or a wheat field. No, the story Jesus tells us is about the kingdom of God. Just as the sower was ridiculously generous (or ridiculously wasteful depending on how you look at it) with the seed, God spreads the word of Christ everywhere with abandon and does not test the soil or buy expensive potting soil before trying to plant something.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can probably find evidence of several kinds of soil in our lives on any given day. Jesus doesn’t urge the disciples and listeners to find good ground. There is hope even in unproductive soil. The sower keeps sowing generously and extravagantly even in the least promising places. Jesus’ investment in his disciples shows that he will not give up on them, despite 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.
That’s a message that we desperately need in these times. We don’t know when, where, or how God will spread that seed in our lives, which creates some fundamental tension for us. How is it that when we plan so carefully and work so hard that the seeds that are scattered are not predictable. Some seeds never sprout. Some lives never flourish in the kingdom of God. But God’s love is abundant and everlasting. God does not put limits on it. Jesus talks to the disciples over and over again, teaching them in parables to understand the love of God. Jesus scatters the seed of the Gospel with reckless abandon, and even when he makes it clear to the disciples, they don’t get it.
The good news is that the limitless love and grace of God is available to us all. At times we may refuse to hear the Word; at other times, we may reject it what we hear; other times, we may “fall away” after we hear. And then there are the times that we actually listen and try to live out our lives as part of the kingdom of God.
The parables we will hear in the weeks to come are about faith, justice, judgment, and the value of the kingdom of God and our faithful participation in it. I hope you’ll join with me as we hear those parables in reflecting on how the seeds of faith know no bounds. Ask yourself, how has God nurtured you? How have others benefited from your faith? How have you given thanks for the unexpected feasts in your life? Where is God sowing seeds in your life right now and in the life of our parish that we need to share with others? What will you say when asked the kingdom of God is like…?
 Hare, Douglas. Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster – John Knox Press, 1993), p. 147.
 Matthew 13:4-5, New Revised Standard Version
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