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Sower Went Out to Sow"
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
I was born and reared in the wheat country of North Central Kansas. I say "wheat country" because it is impossible to grow up in that part of the world without being very aware of the how dependent the life blood of the community is on the wheat.
I spent many summers driving tractors, combines, trucks; getting dirty, greasy, sweaty, and gaining a real appreciation for farm work. But the most significant learning I've gained about wheat country has come across the years.
In the early nineties, when my father was still alive, and about this time of the year, I called back home to check on my folks, and Dad reported that the wheat harvest was very good. Wheat was averaging fifty bushel to the acre. Now, if you don't know anything about wheat, that might not mean much. But I can remember forty and fifty years ago when twenty bushel to the acre was an outstanding harvest, one to be truly thankful for.
And I remember one of those years, while I was riding with my father as we were driving by the wheat fields, when he said to me, "Looks pretty good, doesn't it?" I said, "Yes, it does." And he went on to say, "When I was in junior high and high school [which was in the late 1930's] I can remember five years when we worked the ground in the summer, drilled the wheat in September, and nothing came up." He was, of course, talking about the dust bowl years, and although that was before my time, I nevertheless marvel that people survived those experiences.
And it is that broad experience that Jesus appeals to when he speaks his parable of the sower, an experience that people can know and understand.
At the beginning of the thirteenth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, I think it's important to pay attention to the tone that Matthew establishes. I can't imagine it being more low key. But this is altogether fitting considering the simplicity of the parable.
We are told, "That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea."
We are NOT told that he went out of the house for the purpose of teaching, but in fact might even conclude that he really wanted to be alone.
And then we're told that "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 sent out to sow.”
If he were speaking to us today, he might just as easily say, "A person went to work," except that doesn't carry the same kind of determination, the same involvement in the creative process that "A sower went out to sow" does.
And as Jesus continues with the parable, the true strength of the picture of the sower becomes very apparent.
Now, there are at least three ways of looking at this parable. First, we might look at it as just an interesting story, just a description of a farmer at work. And on the surface, that's OK.
But second, Jesus is telling his listeners the variety of ways in which they might respond to him. It becomes, then, a parable about parables. And this is so important to Jesus that he spends verses eighteen through twenty-three explaining the parable.
Finally, a third way of looking at this parable, and this is personally important to me, is to see it as a way of viewing our prayer life and our personal trials and tribulations.
Jesus points out that there are four things which can happen to the seeds which the sower sows.
First, "And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up."
The fifth verse of the eighth chapter of the gospel according to Luke adds that some seed "was trampled on."
But the point here is that the seeds don't make it into the soil. Those seeds are like words that are not heard, messages we don't listen to. They're also like prayers which are too mechanical, which we don't really work to have a feel for. And they're like all the unsuccessful efforts in our lives, all those things which just don't work.
But a second thing can happen to the seeds.
"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."
This brings to my mind the person who is converted by every evangelistic revival meeting that comes along. But the conversions don't last. That same person may fall victim to every fad and fancy that hits the market. Enthusiastic about everything--for a day or two. The problem is that the enthusiasm has no root, and withers away. I think that sometimes in our personal prayer lives we are enthusiastic when things are working for us, but too often feel like giving up when things are not working. Likewise, the projects of our lives keep our attention when they succeed, but when failure haunts us, we feel like giving up. We need to ask ourselves, where are our roots?
But not only can we see ourselves as seed; we can also--we SHOULD also--see ourselves as soil. And in our church, are we deep soil or are we shallow soil? Do we provide for roots for fellow parishioners, or does their membership among us wither and die?
And for children, parents and teachers can also be either deep soil or shallow soil.
And yet, a third thing can happen to the seeds.
"Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them."
We might even think of the thorns as weeds, but the image is still there. We're talking about the temptations, the interruptions, the noise in our lives. All those things that crowd out what we should be hearing, what we should be doing, what we should be believing. And those thorns are frequently of our own choosing. We allow them to grow. We even encourage them to grow.
I know that whenever I punch the button on my remote to turn on my television and end up watching some mindless blather instead of picking up something intelligent to read, I am encouraging the weeds to choke out the wheat.
Finally, a fourth thing can happen to the seeds.
"Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty."
But although we have these four categories, I think it would be a mistake if we were to ask ourselves which ONE we fit into. Rather, I think that there is a broader purpose to this parable.
We don't, each one of us, fit into just one category, but we fit into ALL of them, at one time or another. No life can possibly be lived entirely "on good soil," but our awareness of how we grow in our lives can enable us to strive for such a life.
When things do not go well for me, it is my understanding from this parable that such is the natural course of life, that there will be times when there is no soil, there will be times when the soil is too shallow for roots, and there will be times when thorns will crowd out growth. But knowing that there IS good soil, I do not lose faith, but persevere.
To close the parable, Jesus says, "Let anyone with ears listen!"
And I think he's trying to tell his audience, "Look, I've tried to make this as clear and simple and easy-to-understand as I possibly can, because I want you to know what I have to say."
He later explains to his disciples, "The reason I speak to them in parables is that "seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand."
Therefore, he uses parables to provide a different way of seeing, hearing, and understanding in order to get their attention.
Finally, Jesus goes out of his way to explain the parable of the sower to his disciples, and it's interesting that the explanation is about twice as long as the parable itself, and even that doesn't exhaust the possibilities for interpretation, which I think says much about the strength of this parable.
And Jesus tells his disciples, "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."
But what IS it that provides us with understanding? What IS it that gives us roots? What is it that allows us to prevail against temptation? How are WE to receive "the Word"? And for these questions there are as many answers as there are Christians.
And even United Methodist pastors differ in the extreme in their answers. Personally, I prefer to hold to the principles established by John Wesley, set forth in some detail in the Book of Discipline. But to put them very briefly this morning, I would cite for you from the study helps section of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
In addressing the Centrality of Scripture: "When we try to understand God's message to us and to live life in accordance with the will of God, we turn to the SCRIPTURE and TRADITION of the church for guidance, to our own EXPERIENCE for verification, and to our REASON for the tools with which to bring Scripture, tradition, and experience together."
But let's return to "wheat country," that land which was so barren seventy years ago, but now appears to be so fertile.
The barren years were times which caused many farmers to be driven out, but many others stayed on, keeping the faith that there would be better times. In those intervening years times did get better, but not consistently so. Dad had 55 acres of bottom ground that he figured was good for one year out of five. The other four he was prepared to lose to flood, or drought, or hail, or frost. Those aren't good odds.
But the point I would like to make in all this is that if we are prepared to seek the good soil, if we do persevere, if we do keep the faith, we WILL reap the rewards.
We must remember that when the sower sows, there is no INTENTION that the seed fall in the path; there is no intention that it fall in shallow soil; there is no intention that it be choked out by thorns. Rather, these are simply natural things that will happen.
In our lives we don't plan for things to go wrong. We don't have to. Being human, things WILL go wrong. But it is in our believing that things will go RIGHT for us that we will ultimately attain the good ends that we seek.
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