Sermon: Stories Around The Campfire: Crop Rotation
Scripture: Matthew 13:1-9
Date: June 28, 2015
I really like it that Jesus talked a lot about gardening and farming because I fancy myself to be quite the gardener. However, I know that is not a completely accurate assessment. I like to work in the yard but I am not on a par as a gardener with many of you. Mostly my claim to fame is buying plants on the clearance rack and reviving them and planting them. There’s more Miracle Gro than ability to my gardening. My gardening doesn’t always meet with a lot of success. So I can really relate to the gardener in Jesus’s story, who just throws the seeds out there without much thought about where they might land, in hope that they will somehow take root and grow. At least in telling this story, it seems like Jesus is my kind of gardener. And Jesus talked a lot about gardening. Grape vines, fig trees, farm crops, wildflowers – they all found their way into Jesus’s teachings and stories. Which is a little surprising for a boy from Nazareth – where the biggest crop that they grew was rocks. But he spent most of his adult life in the area around the Sea of Galilee and in the Valley of the River Jordan, and so he had a lot of opportunity to at least observe the farmers.
And so because of its familiarity, I thought, this story of the Sower ought to be a little easier to deal with. But in reality this story can take us in several different directions which all lead to important understandings, though perhaps not exactly what Jesus had in mind.
For instance, traditionally scholars have tended to focus on the differences in the soils as the key to understanding the story. Each type of soil represents a particular group of people who may be exposed to the Gospel with differing levels of receptivity. In fact there are those who call this story the Parable of the Soils.
And so the first group are those whom Jesus had in mind when he said that some seed fell on the hard path. We’ll call them the hard path soil people because Jesus tells us that the ground was so hard that the seed just lay on the path, never really established any roots and so the birds came and devoured it or carried it off. The point is, of course, that it is very difficult for the seed of God’s word to take root in soil that has been trampled down by life over and over again. So the hard path soil people are those with hardened crusted over hearts, and who refuse to listen to the Gospel when it is presented to them. I suspect we all know people like this. It is very difficult for the Gospel to take root, because they can’t really see how it’s going to make any kind of difference in their life.
And then there are the Rocky Soil people. Now the farmers in the crowd would know all about Rocky soil. The rocks, and the sandy soil, and the lack of moisture, and sometimes extreme heat made farming difficult in most of Israel. In fact there are only two kinds of plants that can really survive and thrive in the environment in Israel. There are those like the Olive Tree which tend to send their roots deep into the ground so they might tap into the underground water tables for moisture. It is said that you can’t kill an olive tree because even if you cut it off at ground level, it will eventually send out new shoots from those deep roots. The second type of plant that tends to thrive in Israel are those plants whose roots grow near or on the surface. These are plants that are easily irrigated or that can quickly absorb the infrequent rains or the morning dews. They grow quickly and produce a quick crop but often times they are also quick to shrivel and die out. Farming can be a very difficult profession in Israel. And so for a brief time Rocky soil people are excited and enthusiastic about faith, but often they are quick to shrivel and fade away. I call these mountain top Christians. They are fine as long as they can go from one mountaintop experience to the next. But when they find themselves in the valley, they struggle to survive because they have no roots to sustain them. In the church, these are the ones who are in and out. They come and join the church with great enthusiasm and excitement, but within a few months they are exiting out the back door because they never establish any roots that will hold them in place when the excitement wanes. In the average church, up to 50 % of those who become members are out the back door within six months and that percentage is often higher in larger churches. They are the Rocky Soil people.
And Jesus talks about a third group of people when he tells about the seed that grows in the midst of the thorns. James Moore talks about this group as people with mixed up or conflicting priorities. The seed of faith may have taken root in them and may even be growing. But there are a lot of other things that they have allowed to take root in their lives. In their minds, God is just one of many options for finding fulfillment and meaning in life. They attend church sporadically, not because they have anything against the church, but because they have so many other things to do that come in conflict with attending church. We lament the decline in church attendance and place the blame for that squarely on the church but part of the reason for the decline is because schools and recreational leagues and other organizations no longer consider Sunday morning “sacred space.” Reserved for church and worship. In recent years so many other things are scheduled that create conflicts with time traditionally reserved for church. And so church attendance has continued to decline and now we say that if you and your family are in church once a month, you are a regular attender. Well in Jesus’ telling that makes us thorny Christians.
And then the final group that Jesus has in mind are described as those for whom the seed fell on the good soil. The conditions were ideal for both sprouting and producing but also for good root development so that the plants can grow and thrive. Most churches are filled with good soil people. They hear and receive God’s word and they bloom and blossom and produce. And though Jesus, in telling this story presents this as the ideal growing environment for the church, there are a couple of inherent dangers with Good soil people. First, Good soil people can become blinded to the fact that not everyone is living in the midst of good soil and so they can become confused and distressed when the seeds don’t grow and thrive in others. The seeds are the same, so why can’t we all be “good soil” people. Or secondly, Good soil people can choose to simply focus on the good soil. Only plant seeds where we know they will take root and abandon everyone else to the thorns and the birds and the hardened lives. Good soil people can easily focus inward, or seek to reach out in their ministries only to other good soil people.
So that’s one way to understand Jesus’s story. And in the church we focus on the soil and a lot of our ministries seek to prepare the soil to be receptive to the Gospel. When the focus is on the soil, then we think in terms of a more social gospel. Our understanding is that before a hungry person can really be receptive to the Gospel, we must feed them. Or a homeless person must have adequate shelter before the seed will begin to germinate. And there is nothing wrong with that. Food banks, clothing closets, food kitchens, and many other forms of outreach that the church engages in is a reflection of this understanding of this story.
But I think there is a second way to understand this story. Still focusing on the different kinds of soils but instead of categorizing groups of people based on the kind of soil they represent, recognizing that during our individual faith journey there will be times when each of us will experience each type of soil in our own lives. And so there will be seasons in our life when we will become hardened by life and reluctant to accept or trust the Gospel, lest we set ourselves up for the hurt and disappointment that sometimes comes through a softer more vulnerable exterior. And then there will be seasons when the journey will be a rocky one. When we experience great highs, mountaintop experiences, only to see them wither away in the valleys. When our faith fails to establish deep roots we become vulnerable to every storm that will inevitably come our way. And then there will be those seasons when we will be distracted by other things. The thorns and thistles will grow up alongside our faith seeds and sometimes overshadow them. Sometimes it is so easy to get attracted by worldly things and lose sight, if only for a while of our faith. And, of course, others will not be able to see it in us either. But there will also be those seasons when our lives will be rich and fertile soil for the Gospel and we will grow in our relationship with Christ. And so the key to being effective, life long disciples is to be aware of the crop rotation that often takes place in our own journey and when we experience those seasons when the Gospel is struggling to take hold in our lives, we need not give up but keep pushing through until we reach that place of rich and fertile soil.
But here’s the thing about this story, it is one of only a couple of Jesus’ stories that are told in two parts. The first part is the story itself which Jesus told to a large crowd of people. And so He focused on the soil, trying to help the people identify their own receptivity and what might be preventing them and others from truly hearing the Word of God and having that take root in their life. Hear me, He says. Are you hardened by life – your heart crusted over by life – your heart hardened by the scars of past heart breaks? Or is your journey a rocky one? Seemingly every time you are poised to produce a great harvest, things dry up and wither? Or do you have a lot of distractions, other loves, in your life that keep you from focusing your life on God’s Kingdom? And the message is clear: For God to truly transform our lives, for us to constantly grow in wisdom and knowledge and love, we must do all that we can to prepare the good soil in which the Word of God can flourish.
But the second part of the story, and the reason it makes our list of campfire stories, is told only to the Disciples. (Matthew 13:13-23) It is Jesus’ explanation of the story they had just heard. And so He reminds the Disciples about what the Prophet Isaiah said about the people not being able to understand the word of God, He tells them how the parable ought to be understood. But in His interpretation, Jesus shifts the emphasis from the soil to the Sower. In fact, He tells us that this is really a story about the Sower. And so, around the campfire, Jesus is telling the Disciples to look at the story from the perspective of the Sower, and not the soil. There are some scholars who believe that this story is the most autobiographical of all the stories that Jesus told, and that by sharing it like this with the Disciples around the campfire, he was sharing with them some of his own discouragement concerning His teachings and the receptivity to those teachings. So rather than speaking in broad generalities, He has certain people in mind as He describes the different kinds of soil. So, Disciples, just between us, the Hard Path people are the church leaders, who know the teachings, the words of the prophets, even the freedom of the law, but whose hearts have become so hardened, that the evil one has robbed them of their joy and so His teachings cannot take root in them. Remember the Rich Young Ruler. And what about Nicodemus, the member of the Sanhedrin who came in the night.
And then by talking about those for whom the seed falls on Rocky ground, Jesus no doubt had in mind those people who hear his teachings and followed Him but then were persuaded by others to reject him. It’s interesting that Jesus concluded many of His teachings with the invitation to follow Him, and we’re told that many did follow Him for a time. In fact, there were a couple of occasions when we see Jesus going off on his own to escape from the crowds that were following Him wherever He went. But yet, in the end, where were they. At the last supper there was just the 12 and at the Cross even fewer than that. I suspect that it was the Rocky Soil people that Paul had in mind when He wrote to the Ephesians:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.
These are the Rocky Soil people. Jairus, the woman at the well. The people who welcomed Him as a King on Palm Sunday and then joined with the priests calling for His crucifixion on Friday. Judas.
And then there were the thorny people. Now this is where the Disciples might have gotten uncomfortable.
James Moore contends
The thorny soil people represent the mixed up Disciples. They hear Him, but they don’t quite understand and consequently they are giving their energies to the wrong things. Right up to the end, they are saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Right up to the end they are squabbling over which one of the them is the greatest and over who will get the best positions in the New Kingdom.
If there was one thing I learned in my time as a District Superintendent, it is that there are a lot of thorny soil, mixed up disciples in the church. Too often, we let a lot of thorns distract us from the good seed of the Gospel.
But then there are the Good Soil people, who hear and understand and believe and follow. Jesus wants the Disciples to be good soil people, of course. And some of them like John, and Peter most of the time, did get it. Did understand Jesus’ teachings – his stories. But at other times He had to explain it to them. You see, by telling them this story from the perspective of the Sower, Jesus was reminding the Disciples that the job of the Sower is to sow the seed. But to really understand what Jesus is telling them requires an understanding of farming techniques in Jesus day. You see the technique that the Sower used was the common method of farming. So the Disciples would have understood what we may not. Today farmers spend a great deal of time preparing the fields for planting. They analyze the soil and determine what crops would grow well in the soil. And they rotate crops accordingly. Then they plow the field, loosen the dirt and plant the seed in neat rows, and then cover the seeds back over. The emphasis is on the soil. But to really understand this story from the Sower’s perspective, we’ve got to get all of that out of our head because in Jesus day, farmers did just the opposite. They broadcast the seed over the land, irregardless of what type of soil it was. They did nothing to prepare the soil ahead of time. One writer says:
(The Sower) sows the seed indiscriminately, unconditionally, generously. He does not judge. He does not analyze. He does not decide, he does not assess; he just sows the seed and leaves the success to God.
And so the farmer would sow the seed first and then would come back at some later time and plow the seed into the ground wherever it landed, knowing that much of it had already disappeared and other would not take root. But Jesus tells us that even though ¾ of the seed fell on ground which was not good for growing that the harvest was up to 100 times of that which had been sown. And so this story, which begins on a rather discouraging note concerning the receptivity of persons to the Gospel, ends with a great note of celebration that the faithfulness of the Sower, in spite of often discouraging conditions, ends up with a great harvest. In the end this story is intended to be one of great encouragement for Disciples who would try to Sow the seeds of the Gospel and to the church today which is struggling to see the harvest in an increasingly secular culture. James Moore says that what Jesus wants to communicate to Disciples is that our task is to spread the Gospel, to be the story tellers – to put the Gospel out there indiscriminately and not get discouraged if it falls on inhospitable ears, and believe that the power of the Gospel will be greater than the deafness and seeming unreceptiveness of the hearer. He concludes:
We are to love unreservedly, unswervingly, unflinchingly, unconditionally! No strings attached. We are to broadcast the seeds everywhere we go. We are to sow the seeds of loving-kindness on all alike.
Because he says the harvest will be plentiful even though the workers are few.
In a book entitled Whoever Finds This, I Love You, Faye Moskovitz shared a modern day version of this parable when she told the story of an eight year old girl growing up in an orphanage in New York City. She was a lonely little girl who kept to herself and had no friends. The Superintendent of the orphanage had noted that she spent a great deal of her time staring out to the street, watching as people went by. Sometimes she would venture close to the fence as though she was watching for someone in particular. One day, as the superintendent watched from his office, the little girl summoned up the courage to walk all the way to the fence and place a note in the fence. Then she retreated into the shadows of the building and watched the people pass by. Occasionally one would stop and pull the note from the fence, read it, and search the yard to see who wrote it. And then they would place it back in the fence for the next passerby. Late in the afternoon, a young man took the note from the fence, shook his head and wadded it up and shoved it back through the fence. And the Superintendent watched the little girl abandon her place and return inside the building. Curious, the Superintendent made his way to the fence and picked the note up. The little girl had written in crayon: Whoever finds this I Love You. The Superintendent could only imagine how heart broken she had been as she watched all the people pass by, unaffected by what she had written and then the young man who threw her note on the ground. And so he was surprised to see her early the next morning walking to the fence and placing another note in the fence. And as he watched an old man came shuffling along the side walk in front of the orphanage. His clothes were tattered and dirty. He looked as though he might be one of the many who made their homes on the streets. He took the note from the fence, read it and searched the grounds until he spotted the little girl. And he smiled and waved and carefully folded the note and stuck it in his pockets and walked on. But the next morning he came back and he placed a note in the fence and after he had moved on the little girl went running to the fence and retrieved the note. Every day for the next few months the old man would return and leave a note for the little girl and she would write him notes and draw him pictures and leave them for him. And the little girl began to mix better with the other children and form some friendships. But then one day the man didn’t come. And the next day. And the next. It became obvious that he wasn’t coming back. And so the little girl, undaunted, took a piece of paper and wrote in crayon Whoever finds this I love you, stuck it in the fence, and then watched to see who came and received her love note to the world.
The Gospel is God’s love note to the world, and the sowers are the ones he chooses to share it. And the thing is, you and I are the Sowers. So don’t be discouraged church when there are those who refuse to hear and receive. Remain faithful to the task of sowing because even though the laborers are few, in God’s hands we know that the harvest will be amazing.