First Congregational Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin

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Labor in Love
September 3, 2000
(Edited version of a sermon preached 3-10-1991)
Matthew 13:1-9,18-23           The Rev. Carol DiBiasio-Snyder

Introduction to the Scripture:

Today is our final sermon in our summer series on the parables. Often called "The Parable of the Sower", you will probably remember this one when you hear it. Even though it is harvest time here, let us listen for God's word to us in this parable about planting seeds.
          Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

          Every year about this time Ralph and I participate in a family ritual that is generations old in my family. Ralph and I have been doing this for 25 summers now. We get bushels of Roma tomatoes and can up all our sauce for the year. The house is full of the smell of tomatoes, the humidity rises considerably and the bees swarm on the other side of the screens. We've been getting our tomatoes from the same farmer for close to 20 years now. He grows wonderful produce.

          So as I think about gardens and harvests, I remember the first garden I had after Ralph and I got married. We were living out in the country in an old house the farmhand had lived in surrounded by corn, wheat and alfalfa fields. There was a garden plot, about 20' by 30' on the edge of our yard and in the corner of a farm field. When the farmer, who was also a member of our church, prepared that field -- discing and fertilizing -- he generously did the same to our garden. We had beautifully prepared soil, rich in all that would make a prolific garden.

          My mother sent me packets of vegetable seeds, and I carefully followed the instructions on the back, planting my garden with loving care and great expectations. To my surprise and delight, little sprouts appeared in the rows. What joy!

          However, there was one thing neither the packets nor my mother told me: I did not need to plant ALL the seeds. But I had! It wasn't long before I realized I had "the mother of all gardens!" I had two twenty foot rows of radishes! (Ralph won't even eat them!) I had so many greens I wished the rabbits would come: two long rows of Swiss Chard, two of lettuce, two of spinach! Bush upon bush of green beans and yellow wax beans grew strong and productive. And to those of you who garden, or those of you who know someone who does, all I have to do is say that frightful word: zucchini! It was a bumper crop. The two of us did our best to eat what we could. Living in the country, EVERYONE had a garden so no one needed my excess. I quickly learned to freeze things. I think we still have a couple of packages of those green beans at the back of our freezer!

          This abundant kind of crop is what the sower was hoping for in our parable for today. Again Jesus uses common experiences to make his uncommon point. Many of his listeners would be very familiar with farming. As he spoke they could easily see the sower in their mind's eye. They could imagine the golden seed, rich with life, broadcast from a pouch by a steady rhythmic sowing of the farmer's arm, covering the whole area from which the sower already anticipates a crop. And as we know, some seed fell on the path, some on rocky ground, some among the thorns, and some on the good ground. Three kinds of seed were wasted and one kind grew far beyond expectations.

          It is unusual that we are given in scripture an interpretation for the parable as we have here. Most scholars believe this interpretation was not part of Jesus' original teaching, but added later, perhaps by Mark, the first to record this story. The interpretation tells us the meaning of the sower, the seeds and the four types of ground. The parable points to four kinds of responders to the word of God, four types of people who hear as the message spreads. We all know people of these various types.

          First there are the seeds that fall along the hardened path. The seed just lays on the ground, easy feed for the birds. Mark tells us that it is Satan who comes and snatches them away. We all know people like this, folks who have no roots, those who find themselves on the path, out where people will see them, out where the action is. They are given the message but haven't understood it. They are easily swept away, or snatched away since they have no roots with which to anchor themselves.

          The second group are those that land on the rocky ground. Here they find a thin layer of soil covering a shelf of rock below that. In contrast to the first group, they do sprout and grow, but their roots are shallow and as the scorching sun beats down upon them, they wither and die. There is no depth to these people. They have heard the call of God, but have not firmly grasped on to the values of the kingdom. They are probably likeable and charming, but are the "flash in the pan" types. They jump on board, but when the demands of the gospel are too great, they whither and die. When life puts their principles to the test, they cannot stand.

          The third scattering fall among the thorns. These seeds take root and actually grow, but the "cares of the world and the delight in riches" choke the life out of these plants. Here we have a battle between the wheat seeds and the weed seeds. The pleasures and pressures of the world slowly strangle these folks. The addictive pursuit of worldly things becomes like the spreading thistles, growing bigger and bigger, leaving no room for the values of the reign of God in their lives. One writer suggests that "Jesus knew that when possessions and pleasures, when works and wages take over most of your time and talent, you have a briar-patch Christian faith." We all know people living these kinds of suffocating lives.

          Finally there are the seeds that fall on the good ground, the ground that is rich and ready for nurturing their lives. These are the seeds that take root, deep root. The ground is free of weeds and the plants grow and flourish. They survive the entire growing season; through good weather and bad, making it to harvest time, laden with excellent yields -- some thirty, some sixty, and some a hundredfold. In Palestine of Jesus' time, twentyfold would have been considered a bumper crop. This group far exceeds all expectations. These are the ones who hear the call of God, who answer, who survive, who grow and who then spread it. They stay through the growing season, they weather the demands of the values of God's reign, they have so deeply grasped Christ's priorities for themselves that they thrive and flourish. Ah, that we could all be like these seeds!

          Now before we start judging those first three kinds of seeds and ground too harshly. Let us consider that the seeds did not choose where they would land. Things are not always as simple as they seem. There are complicated reasons why people's faith may seem not to hold up under difficult circumstances.

          And let us remember these are not just people we know, these people are us too! There are times and situations in our lives in which we are like the seeds on the pathway or the rocky ground or in the weed patch. There are times when the demands of our faith are too great for us and we realize that we have missed the point totally, or we find that our roots are not as deep as we had hoped or we let the worries of the world and our desires for material things get the best of us. So let us not judge others, rather, let us look to ourselves, doing all we can to make the ground of our lives a fertile place in which the word of God might grow and produce fruit.

          But this is not a parable only about seeds and soil. It is not just a parable that exhorts us to be the good soil, the fruitful seeds. This is a parable of encouragement as well. This is a parable about the sower. Who is the sower? Well, the sower might just be you and me. As Jesus told this parable to his disciples and as Mark, Luke and Matthew passed it on to the early Christians, it is a parable that says, "Things might look bleak. As you try to work to bring God's kingdom to earth, you might feel like you are scattering seeds on hard ground, rocky soil and weedy patches." Sowers of the word often experience set-backs, frustrations, unreceptive hearers and barriers to their efforts. Perhaps you have worked for years, and see no harvest. The parable says, "Scatter the seeds, some of it WILL bring forth fruit and much more than you expect. True, some seeds will be lost, your beginnings might be disappointing, but the results will be great."

          Perhaps you are a teacher, and you wonder whether all the work and effort you put into your job really makes any difference. Maybe you are a parent, trying twenty-four hours a day to help your children learn and incorporate good Christian values into their lives. You might be in another kind of profession where the results are not quickly and easily observable.

          Certainly some seed you have sown will fall on hard or rocky or weedy ground. But some of it, guaranteed, some of it will fall on good soil and will not only produce healthy results but those results will be increased beyond what you might imagine or know.

          Occasionally we are fortunate to have that rewarding experience of someone coming to us, perhaps years later, and telling us that something we said or did or were had an effect, made a concrete difference in their lives. It is likely they passed that on to others as well. When we see only the seeds that fell in the wrong places, or when we just never know what happened, we can become discouraged. However, the parable of the sower tells us that when we sow the seeds of the kingdom of God, when we patiently persevere there will be astounding results, an amazing harvest. Really!

          So while I think we can see ourselves and the seed or the sowers, I want us to also consider God as the sower as well. Let us look at this image of God as the farmer, scattering seeds everywhere. We witness a God of reckless grace, sowing in all kinds of soil. This farming God went out with a pouch full to sow, not to judge the quality of the soil in which the sowing was done. This Sowing God casts the seed everywhere, giving it all a chance -- no pre-judgments, no pre-conditions. The yield, the results of the sowing are out of the sower's hands. And the amazing thing is that in spite of the careless planting techniques of the Word-sower, the harvest is astonishingly plentiful.

          This is the kind of God we have come here to worship today. One who sows the word of grace with reckless abandon into our lives. This is the kind of God we have come here to worship today. A God who invites us to become both seed and sower, spreading the word of truth and life in all directions, producing a harvest bigger than our barns can store. The time is always right for God's garden. The time is now, let's plant the biggest garden ever! Amen.

Rev. Nancy A. Taylor - Pastor - Contact FCC OR Contact Staff
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