Sunday, July 10, 2005

Sermon for Seaside UMC: Hear, Understand, Bear, Yield

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’a

18‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When 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. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet 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.c 22As 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. 23But 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.’

Sermon Text


Good Morning. It's such a pleasure to be with you this morning. I've been preaching at several Methodist Churches while I've been back in Oregon for the summer – this is the sixth one, actually – but this is the only time when preparing a sermon has felt like a vacation. Honestly, how does anyone ever get anything done living here in such a beautiful place? I guess I've still gotten a lot done while I've been here; I've just been a lot more relaxed about it. This is a great place to get refreshed and centered and to feel close to God.

And it's interesting to note that that is precisely what Jesus is trying to do at the beginning of today's passage: he's trying to get away for a little break. Did you know Jesus actually had a little vacation home? A beach house actually, a little getaway for when he was tired of the road. Not many people notice this: Matthew is the only gospel that reports it. Way back in Mt 4:13 we find, "He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea…" From that point on in the Gospel, Matthew is constantly reporting that Jesus is going to and from "the house" in Capernaum. So, there it is. Jesus has a little seaside beach house, and that's where he is at the beginning of this story.

And, as everyone likes to do when they’re at their beach house, Jesus decides to go out for a little walk on the beach and sit down and watch the water. I did that quite a few times this week when I was trying to get some inspiration, and it sounds like that's what Jesus was doing too.

Unfortunately for Jesus, he's a much more popular guy than I am, and people just can't seem to leave him alone for a second. A few people notice him there, "Isn't that Jesus sitting by the shore?" "Yes, I think it is." And before you know it, there's a huge crowd around him, jostling to get closer to him. They start pressing in on him so much that they're about to push him into the sea. Fortunately, there's a little boat just off shore, and Jesus climbs in to get a little distance from the crowd. ((Does that ever happen to you when you're walking on the beach, Pastor? No? Well, anyway…)) Jesus, interrupted once again but always the patient teacher, sits down and starts to tell a story.

"What do you make of this? A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the road, and birds ate it. Some fell in the gravel; it sprouted quickly but didn't put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled by the weeds. Some fell on good earth, and produced a harvest beyond his wildest dreams. Are you listening to this? Really listening?" (The Message)

Now, what on earth does that all mean? It must be important because of that whole "if you've got ears to hear then you'd better listen to this" bit at the end. But do we have ears to hear this message?

This same story appears in the both the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke. In both, the story is left completely up to our interpretation. Matthew is different. Matthew decides to include a helpful little sermon on the topic. (See, this morning you're getting two sermons and you didn't even know it.) Anyway, scholars think that it probably wasn't actually spoken by Jesus, but added later, but it's still a rather interesting bit.

The sermon interprets this whole parable as a sort of allegory: a story where everything represents something else. The seed appears to be "the word of the kingdom," whatever that is exactly, and the story tells us about what happens when that word is sown on different types of soil: that is, different situations in the real world. So:


Situation number one: the seed on the path and eaten by birds is like when someone hears the word but doesn't understand it – it just gets stolen away. That makes sense, doesn't it? Haven't you ever read a passage of scripture or heard a sermon and you just didn't understand it? That happens to me all the time. Let's have a show of hands: is there anyone here who understands every piece of scripture that you read? Anyone? No I didn't think so.

Why don't we understand? Well, it's awfully confusing isn't it? For one thing, it's really long. And inside this [ lift up bible] is not just one book, but a whole library of different books, written in different times, different cultures, by different authors, and for different purposes. There's everything from legends to poetry to court records to love songs to letters to biographies in this thing, and it's hard to figure out sometimes. [set down]

On top of that, no seems to agree about what the Bible says. Even if a passage of scripture has some sort of defined meaning on the page, as soon as two people read it, it all of sudden has two meanings. Once ten people read it, it's got ten meanings. Once a billion people read it… well, you get the idea. How can we understand it when there are voices from all sides telling us that it means this, or that, or something else? Reading and trying to understand the Bible is not for the faint of heart; it can be a bit of a contact sport even, from time to time.

For me personally, I've just decided that if there's one thing I know, it's that I don’t know everything. I am not always going to be able to understand. I will make mistakes. Sometimes the word sown in my heart will just be picked up and eaten by the birds.


Situation number two: the seed on the rocky ground with the shallow root is like the fair weather disciple who gets really excited at first, but doesn't have the staying power to follow through. Oh, does that sound familiar. This is what I like to call "New Year's Resolution Syndrome." You know, we hear some word of faith, and we get all excited, all fired up – we're ready to change our lives forever – get out of my way, I'm moving, and then… um, we wake up the next morning? The fire isn't there anymore.

This can be really common among religious people. Have you heard people talk about a mountaintop experience? I'll bet a lot of you have had them. Sometimes at camp, or on a retreat, or at some big gathering – once in while (though not very often) even in response to a sermon – someone feels absolutely on top of the world. Everything has changed. They feel closer to God than ever before. It's a wonderful feeling, and then… it ends. Some people spend their whole lives just trying to get back up on that mountain and stay there.

But no matter how much we might want that, the truth is that the vast majority of life is lived in the valley. We spend most of our lives in the day-to-day ordinariness of real life. Sometimes it's hard to remember that God is still around when we're busy at our jobs, taking care of children, running errands, paying bills, cleaning the house, trying to get in our exercise, etc., etc… Sometimes it's hard to be a Christian once we leave the four walls of the church. Sometimes we just whiter out in the oppressive heat of the pressure-cooker that is the "real world". We get baked by the sun.


Situation number three: the seeds among weeds are like those of us who get distracted by wealth and power and all the other alluring things of the world. This is perhaps the most sneaky of all the situations. In USAmerican culture, we seem to be especially susceptible to the allure of wealth and power. You know, out of all the things Jesus talked about, the thing he talked about most in the Gospels – far more than any other topic – is not sex or marriage or crime or drugs or anything else that we seem to put into the category "morality" these days: it's greed. Jesus talked most about greed. And yet, in the richest nation in the world – did you know we have 10 times as many billionaires as any other country – we seem to just skip over that little bit about greed. We have books that tell us we should be "blessed to be a blessing", that is, that we should ask God to give us wealth… oh, yeah, and I guess we'll share it with others. This is a culture that demands we live extravagantly and keep seeking more and more. While millions of hard working people try to get by on less than a dollar a day, we never seem to be satisfied with what we have, no matter how much it might be.

Oh yes, money can be distracting. Some say that money in itself is neither good nor evil, and I suppose that that's true, but Jesus talks about money as if it is a rival God that is vying for our attention. Many of us fall in the trap. I imagine we all do from time to time. We let our desires, and wants, and even our fears get the best of us. We let the weeds and thorns of the world come up and choke us, and we end up not being the disciples that we could be.


So is there any hope? When we have a confusing message; and when we get so easily discouraged; and when we get caught up in our desire for more, more, more; is there any chance that we can be true disciples? According to this parable of Jesus, yes there is. Sometimes the word falls on good soil.

But how can we know when this has happened? What are the marks of Situation: Good Soil? They are this: we know that something good is happening when we don't just hear the word, when we don't just hear and understand it, but when we hear and understand the word AND… we bear fruit and yield. Bear fruit and yield a harvest. In other words, we know that we are in Situation: Good Soil when we actually do something about the lessons that we hear: when we live out our faith in the world.

But what does that mean? How do we live out our faith in the real world? Does it mean evangelizing a bunch of people? It might mean that, but that's not all it means. Does it mean being morally upstanding people? It might, but that's not all it means. Does it mean working for justice, making decisions about your money based on your faith, living each moment as if it were owned by God, treating other people as if they were Christ himself, loving your neighbor, loving your enemies? Yes, and more. That's what bearing fruit looks like. It's giving birth to the Kingdom of God right here in the here and now by the way we live our lives. When we are in Situation: Good Soil, we get to be like Mary on that Bethlehem night: an instrument for bringing God's love and grace into the world. It's not our own grace that we give. No, it is the fruit of God's grace sown within us. At it can yield a harvest well beyond our wildest dreams. It can truly change the world, if we let it.

Will we always be in that situation, when good fruit is being born inside of us. No, we won't. The world still has it's distractions. We are still human. But may we all be good soil, as often as we possibly can, by God's grace. Amen.

1 Comments:

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