Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 13, 2008

2008.07.13 “Lessons from the Farm, Part 1”

Central United Methodist Church

“Lessons from the Farm, Part 1”

Matthew 13: 1 – 9, 18 – 23

July 13th, 2008

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

“Hear then the parable of the sower. 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.”  – Matthew 13: 1 – 9, 18 – 23, The New Revised Stand Version)

‘Tis the season of growing things, even in Chicago, and for most of us, it isn’t long enough.  The predominant colors are light green and dark green, under blue skies, even though of late there’s been a good mix of gray for rain and clouds, but that’s good, too, because rain makes things grow.  

 

            Even though we are “city-dwellers”, many of us have not always been so. Some of us grew up on or at least near farms, so growing things means more to us than trees and grass or backyard gardens.  It meant a life centered around the seasons and cycles of the soil, around “growing” things.  Some of us got all of that life we wanted, others of us continue to practice it as best we can in backyard gardens.

        Even though we are “city-dwellers”, we shouldn’t forget that we live in the middle of some of the very best farmland in the world, which can be encountered by about an hour’s drive in any direction (except east.)   I used to love riding my Harley out from West Chicago in the one undeveloped direction (NW), which most quickly took me back out through nature preserves and farmland. I discovered that when you ride a motorcycle (as opposed to in a car) you can smell things: newly mown grass, fields of corn (yes, you could actually smell it), the smell of livestock, like cows and pigs.  Each smell brought with it associated memories. 

        Regretfully, we are short-sightedly — it seems to me — covering up the world’s best farmland with subdivisions and asphalt, about as fast as we can. Each year, it moves successively further north, west, and south.  It’s sad, really, the world of small farms — that shaped so many of our lives even if we didn’t live on one — is increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

        Even those of you who grew up in other countries are aware how life has changed.  In most countries of the world, people and families long existed through subsistence farming, by growing enough food to eat. The colonial powers came in and said, “No, we’d like your land for cash crops, like coffee and tea. Then the economy shifted from subsistence farming to a cash economy, and suddenly, nobody had enough.  Now, all over the world, people flee rural areas and to head to the cities, often living in squalor while looking for work.  From that, come a host of social problems, like poverty, education, child-labor, prostitution, and disease.

        So if we sometimes long to go “back to the farm”, this morning Jesus takes us there, with a wonderful story about a farmer who went out to sow. 

Although we know little about Jesus, it’s likely that if he grew up in Nazareth, he was a small town boy.  If he and his family made their way as carpenters, it’s unlikely they were farmers, but in any case it was an agrarian economy, where if people didn’t grow their own food, they were at least surrounded close to those who did.  Not that those farmers were wealthy; evidently many of them were poor sharecroppers, getting squeezed from the top and the bottom, by those who charged them rent and those who sold them supplies.

One of the great skills of Jesus as a teacher was his eye for the world around him, such that his teachings are full of picturesque stories — known as parables — stories about farmers and fishermen and fig trees and poor widows.

Jesus’ parables were pictures of life, usually with a shocking twist. They weren’t meant to be explicated or lined out; in fact, most scholars would tell you that the second part of our text today — the explanation to the disciples — was probably added later, in dissatisfaction with Jesus’ original parable, to neaten it up and make it clearer.

Scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer says that Jesus’ parables serve a purpose like that of a Zen koan – those ‘riddles’ like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” The point of a koan — or a parable — isn’t that there’s a correct answer.  It isn’t supposed to inform or comfort you. If anything, it’s the opposite. It’s supposed to confound us, to dislocate us from our usual ways of thinking. A parable doesn’t inform; it transforms you as you wrestle with it. If we ever read a parable and don’t find something shocking or surprising, we’ve probably missed the point.

Now, I would like to do what I just said you shouldn’t do, and focus on two points in this parable, in the form of two questions.

The first of those questions is, “What kind of farmer is this?”  That’s what everybody who heard the story had to be thinking.

        It’s not surprising that most of the seed didn’t grow, given where the farmer sowed it.  This isn’t a rich man we’re talking about here: this is a poor farmer, a tenant farmer who only ekes out a living for himself and his family if he makes wise choices about where to sow, and is blessed with good weather and a lot of luck.  But this farmer tosses seed about while standing in the closest thing he can find to the Wal-Mart parking lot, where the pigeons will eat it if thousands of feet and truck tires don’t grind it into the pavement first.  What is he thinking?

What is Jesus’ saying?  Is he saying, “God is like this foolish farmer, who sows seed extravagantly, all over the place!”

        Do you believe God is like this foolish farmer, always sowing, sowing, as in the words of the old song, “sowing in the morning, sowing in the noontide, and the dewy eve”?

We Methodists go so far as to posit something called prevenient grace, the belief that God is working in our lives before we know it or are even aware of it. We practice it in baptism, before a child can understand. Occasionally someone will come to me and say, you know, I was baptized years ago and it didn’t have any effect, could I be baptized again?  And I remind them, wait a minute, you’re standing here in a church, interested in a deeper spiritual life, who said it didn’t have any effect?  God is always sowing, casting seed in the world in all kinds of ways.

What does that say about all the ways and means we use to reach and influence people?  What does that say about the worship services we hold, and the sermons I preach, which admittedly, sometimes I can’t remember the day after I preach them? What does that say about Sunday School and Bible Studies and Disciple Classes and the outreach programs we participate in?  What does that say about the financial gifts we invest into the ministry of the church, sowing seeds which produce a harvest whose quality and quantity we may never even know.

In fact, that one of the most amazing things about this parable. God blesses this farmer beyond his wildest dreams. Normally, the farmer who reaps a twofold harvest would be considered fortunate. A fivefold harvest would be a cause for celebration throughout the village, a bounty attributable only to God’s particular and rich blessing.  But this foolish farmer who, in a world of scarcity, casts his seed on soil everyone knows is worthless is blessed by God in shocking abundance: a harvest of thirty, sixty, and a hundred times what he sowed.  Who knew?

Preacher Fred Craddock tells a story about the time he got a phone call from a woman whose father had died.  She had been a teenager in one of the churches he had served as pastor twenty years before, and he would have sworn that if there was ever a person who never heard a word he said, that teenage girl was it. She was always giggling with her friends in the balcony, passing notes to boys, drawing pictures on the bulletin. But when her father died, she looked up her old pastor, the Rev. Fred Craddock, and gave him a call. “I don’t know if you remember me,” she started. Oh, yes, he remembered. “When my daddy died, I thought I was going to come apart,” she continued. “I cried and cried and cried. I didn’t know what to do. But then I remembered something you said in one of your sermons . . .” Fred Craddock was stunned. She remembered something he had said in one of his sermons! It was proof enough that you can never tell how the seed will fall or where it might take root.

The second question this story poses for each of us is of a more direct and personal nature:  To put it bluntly, “What kind of soil am I?”

The mystery of why some people hear the Gospel and respond eagerly, while others hear and remain resistant or indifferent is a question that has always perplexed the Church. It perplexed the disciples during the ministry of Jesus, and perplexed the early Church around the time of the writing of St. Matthew’s Gospel, around 80 A.D.

Even today, we wonder the same thing.  How is it that some people — even our friends and family members — have so little spiritual interest?  How is it that some are interested for awhile, with great enthusiasm, but then, to our disappointment, drop out or drift away?  How is it that even in our own hearts, we have our seasons: spring-like seasons of spiritual fertility and growth, but also winter-like seasons of coldness and stagnation.  Why is that?

In this parable, Jesus does not give us a definitive answer of why the seed is productive in some lives and not others.  Rather, what Jesus does through this parable, is to take it out of the arena of speculation and make it personal. As hearers, we are not allowed the luxury of armchair quarterbacking, of deliberating over why or how someone else responds, or who gets the credit or blame. 

Rather, the parable of the Farmer asks us: How do you hear? What type of soil am I? Does your hearing lead to understanding?   Do we have staying power that will lead to a fruitful harvest? What Christian disciplines, such as worship and prayer and the reading and study of Scripture — are you engaging in to till your soil and fertilize it?  How are watering your soul? Is there any evidence of fruit springing forth, either the fruit of the spirit — “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, and gentleness”, or the fruit of new disciples be attracted to Christ, by what they see in you.  Or — in the worst case scenario — is your soul dried up, dusty, and dead, perhaps blown away a long time ago?

Then it’s time – perhaps long past time — to start watering and fertilizing and rotating our spiritual soil.  Time to get back to worship. Time to form or join a Christian accountability group.  Time to get back to Scripture.  Time to find a time and place for private prayer. Time to challenge yourself by engaging in new forms of outreach and ministry.

Way back in the 13th century, the greatest of all medieval teachers, Meister Eckhart, put it this way: 

“The seed of God is in us.  If you are an intelligent and hard-working farmer, it will thrive and grow up into God, whose seed it is, and its fruits will be God fruits.  Pear seeds grow into pear trees, nut seeds grow into nut trees, and God seeds grow into God.”

        May we be faithful farmers: nurturing the seed God has sown extravagantly in our lives, and extravagant in sowing God’s seed in the lives of others.   Amen.

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