Thursday, July 27, 2017

Of Seeds and Sowers

Of Seeds and Sowers (7/16/17)
 JESUS MAFA, The Parable of the Sower

On Sunday, July 16th, we examined the Parable of the Sower in the Gospel of Matthew. We examined this parable in light of Jesus' teachings in Matthew 25:31-46, and we considered our inability to tell which soil is fertile and which is not.
Of Seeds and Sowers (7/16/17)

          Good morning. I’m happy to report that everyone survived Vacation Bible School—including me. Seriously, we had a good time, with no major crises or excitement. This week, I was reminded of something that happened at the church in Houston, PA, where I served last year. It was one of those things they don’t teach about in seminary.
          There’s a nursery school at the Houston church, too. The classrooms are in the basement. One morning, just before the end of the school year, one of the teachers came into my study, just after the students had been dismissed. She said, “I think there’s a bat in my classroom. I’m not sure if it’s alive or dead.”
          So, I went downstairs.
          Sure enough, there was a little brown bat in her classroom. The poor little thing was lying on a little ledge, underneath the radiator. (The radiators in the basement are on a ledge that’s about waist-high.) It wasn’t moving. It was a Monday; it’s possible the bat had been in the building all weekend.
          I wasn’t going to reach under the radiator and grab the bat. If it was alive, it might bite me. And some bats have rabies. If it was dead, well, that’s gross. I didn’t want to handle a dead bat, either. So, I went back upstairs and I grabbed a broom handle and an empty box, figuring I could use the broom handle to sweep the bat into the box.
          I came back down to the classroom and gently nudged the bat with the broom handle. It moved! But only a little. The poor thing was probably exhausted, disoriented, and dehydrated. Carefully and gently, I slid the little thing into the box and took it outside.
          I gently slid the little bat onto the grass. It crawled in the grass a little bit, but it didn’t fly away. There was a light rain that morning, so if that little brown bat was dehydrated, it was able to drink some of the rain water on the grass, I suppose. Then I realized that I should take a picture, so I went back to my study to grab my phone. When I got back, the bat was gone.
          Of course, I had to post this story on Facebook, and my post got a lot of responses. I had lots of responses that said, “Eww!” But then there were other folks, like me, who thought it was kinda neat. The best response came from one of my mentor, Dave Carver. He told me, “you should have baptized it—that way, it’ll leave and never come back.”
          Not everyone laughs when I tell this story—different people have different responses, even though it’s the same story. Most of my clergy friends think Dave’s joke is hilarious. There’s a little bit of bitterness in Pastor Dave’s joke, and many church members are a little dismayed that a pastor would make light of people leaving the church. Me, I’d rather laugh than cry. And I think Dave’s joke points to a greater truth, in much the same way that our lesson from the Gospel of Matthew points to a greater truth.
          For many of us, the parable of the sower is a familiar story. Jesus is teaching the crowds and he tells them this parable about seeds falling on a well-trodden path, on rocky ground, among weeds, and also in good soil. Then we skip a few verses; Jesus is now back with the disciples and he explains the parable:
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.
          This is the only parable that Jesus explains, but he doesn’t explain it to the entire crowd; he only explains it to his disciples. (Actually, it’s not the only parable that Jesus explains, but it is one of the few in which Jesus offers a complete explanation. I offered a correction on the following Sunday.) Recently, many scholars have questioned whether or not verses 18-23 actually came from Jesus. Some argue that these verses actually came from the early church and were added by Matthew to explain this parable.[1]
          Their argument is convincing, but insufficient. As an academic debating point, I think their basic premise is correct: Jesus didn’t offer detailed explanations of the other parables, so this is probably an addition by the gospel writer. What’s more, Jesus’ parables are powerful, in part, because Jesus doesn’t explain them. The parables continue to have power in our lives because there is room for explanation and understanding. But even if verses 18-23 were added later, we can’t just ignore them—this explanation has been used by the Church for close to two thousand years.
          In this case, I think it’s best to consider the parable of the sower—both parts of our lesson this morning—in light of another reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, verses 31-46. This is sometimes referred to as the Judgment of the Nations or the parable of the sheep and the goats, though it’s not exactly a parable. You may remember, I preached on this text in January.
          In this story, Jesus addresses the disciples and the crowds that have gathered around him, and offers a definition of righteousness: The righteous people are those who feed the hungry, provide water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners and the sick, and welcome the stranger. Those are the sheep, the people who follow the call of the shepherd, the Christ.
          The people ask Jesus, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” Jesus responds that whenever anyone does any of those things for anyone, they have done it for Jesus.
          Conversely, those who fail to feed the hungry, provide water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners and the sick, or welcome the stranger—they are the goats. They are the ones who haven’t followed Christ’s call. The goats will be sent away for eternal punishment, while the sheep will follow Jesus into eternal life.
          What is striking about this story is that neither the righteous people nor the unrighteous people—neither the sheep nor the goats—recognize which one is righteous. None of them realized they were serving or ignoring the suffering Christ. And I think that’s what we need to take away from the parable of the sower.
          When we sow the seeds of faith; when we share God’s love for humanity; when we share in Christ’s work of reconciliation, we are sowing the seeds of faithfulness. But the truth is, we don’t know when we’re scattering seeds on the path or on rocky ground. We don’t know which fields will be choked with weeds. We don’t always recognize fertile soil when we see it, and even when we do, we don’t know which patch will yield a hundredfold, or sixty, or thirty.
          This is true here at the baptismal font and it was true all week at Vacation Bible School. We assume that the children we raise in this congregation are fertile soil, yet many of them leave the church. Many of the kids that come through VBS will also drift away from the Church, but that doesn’t deter us from offering God’s love to them every summer. It’s a chance for this congregation to live into its mission and sow seeds, whether or not the ground is fertile.
          We have to sow those seeds everywhere we can. We must continue to sow the seeds and nurture the soil in the familiar places: we have to continue to teach and nurture the children of this congregation and we also have to continue to reach out to the children of this community through Vacation Bible School. At the same time, we have to look for new ways to reach out to the community; we have to look for new fields to plant our seeds. And we have to go out there in the belief that any field might be fertile, because the truth is, we can’t always tell which soil is good and which is rocky. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Go forth and sow the seeds of God’s love and mercy. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] O. Wesley Allen, Jr. Matthew: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2013), p. 136.

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