Since we’ve been at home more than usual, we’ve done a lot of planting. We thought it might be fun to establish some things while we were actually able to water them! We’ve planted a garden, growing tomatoes, peppers, peas, and various types of greens. We planted herbs for the first time in years, making our own pesto and mint tea. We’ve established some small green giants in the back yard that we are watching grow. My mom planted a moonflower vine with my son Isaac that’s already grown all the way up our bird feeder. The crepe myrtle tree in our back yard was fertilized and watered this spring and is blooming for the first time since we moved in our house! The flowers in our front porch planter are actually still alive! We are normally not home long enough to even notice these things, much less water them, and we’ve enjoyed watching our plants and trees come alive and our garden yield fruit. I am known for my lack of watering, and my mom has poked fun of my husband and me a few times, saying, “See what happens when you actually water and fertilize!” It’s a classic illustration of the old saying, “You reap what you sow.”
It’s true a lot of times that we reap what we sow. If you put in the time, dedication, and hard work, you can often count on seeing the fruits of your labor. But we all know that the old proverb doesn’t always ring true. There are times when no matter how much attention you give a plant, it just doesn’t grow or before you even notice, it gets eaten up by a beetle. There are times when you put a great deal of time in a project only to watch it all fall apart, and you have to start all over again. There are times when you are dedicated to changing some behavior pattern and no matter what you do, you can’t seem to change. There are times when you are work hard at a relationship, and regardless of your sacrifices, it all falls apart. We don’t always reap what we sow.
It’s something Jesus knew well. He tells this parable in the midst of great opposition to the gospel he was preaching. He was sowing, but all his work wasn’t producing fruit. The seed of Jesus’s teaching had fallen on rocky ground filled with thorns. The Pharisees were challenging him; he was about to be rejected in his own hometown; and John the Baptist’s head was about to be put on a platter. In Matthew 13, in the midst of this opposition, he tells eight parables about what the kingdom of God is like. Jesus’s teaching is stirring up crowds; it’s so many people that he has to get into a boat to preach while the crowds stand on the beach. While Jesus allows the crowds to overhear what he’s saying, he is most concerned with teaching the disciples what the kingdom of God is like.
In our text for today, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like a generous sower. The sower in this parable is extravagant, wasteful even. It’s like he knows absolutely nothing about farming. Why is he not tilling, preparing, and carefully calculating? Did he even bother to weed or water or fertilize? Why is he just throwing seed everywhere? Why is he wasting good seed, throwing it on rocks and shallow ground? Why is he not just saving his seed for the good soil? The sower sows with reckless abandon, unchecked generosity, undisciplined abundance. As perhaps should have been expected, the seeds that fell on rocky ground sprang up quickly, but since they had no depth of soil, they were scorched by the sun. Since they had no root, they withered away. The seeds that fell among the thorns died as the thorns grew up and choked them. The seeds that fell on good soil brought forth grain though. And while that might have been expected, it didn’t just yield normal results. The seeds that fell on good soil brought forth a yield of a hundredfold, sixtyfold, thirtyfold! As one theologian says, “Sevenfold meant a good year for a farmer, and tenfold meant true abundance. Thirtyfold would feed a village for a year, and a hundredfold would let the farmer retire to a villa by the Sea of Galilee!”[i] This magnitude of growth is a miracle!
Even though what happens seems to not be entirely up to the soil, these questions arise: What are the necessary conditions for fruitful discipleship? Why is some ground hospitable and other ground not hospitable to the values of the kingdom of God? The text says that the evil one can come and snatch away what is sown in our hearts. It warns us that if we are not rooted, we will fall away when faced with trouble or persecution. It cautions that the cares of this world and the lure of wealth chokes out the word of God’s kingdom. We are tempted here to find a way to distance ourselves from the bad soil, claiming that surely, we must be good soil. But it’s not that simple. I imagine we have all types of soil residing in us and in our communities, and we need to open ourselves up to the possibility of what we need to do to cultivate good soil. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, “Like Peter, we think that we will be able to follow Jesus, but when faced with the power of Rome, and the leaders of Israel it is hard to remain faithful to the crucified Lord. Peter, like so many of us, is too ready to follow Jesus. To be too ready to follow Jesus means that we fail to understand that we do not understand what kind of Messiah this is. Discipleship will hurt. The word cannot flourish among those who continue to be shaped by the cares of this world…The lure of wealth and the cares of the world darken and choke our imaginations…The gospel becomes a formula for ‘giving our lives meaning’ without judgment. Too often those who propose strategies to recover the lost status and/or membership of the church do so hoping that people can be attracted to become members of the church without facing the demands of being a disciple of Jesus.”[ii]
But to stop with a moralistic story about what kind of soil we should strive to be misses the main point. A seed produced an amazing yield in spite of many setbacks, and the extravagant, generous sower is the one who makes it all possible! This story isn’t ultimately about us; it’s about a God who shows extravagant love to all of us and seeks to take root in even the most unlikely places. As disciples, we might try to do what is wise, cautious, and careful. We might try to run our churches like good businesses, making the kingdom into something that it’s not. But as another theologian says, “The sower in this text is anything but a good businessperson. He seems willing to just fling that seed anywhere. Maybe he does so in order to remind us that the gospel might be bigger than good business principles, bigger than just good soil. Perhaps this sower throws seed just anywhere in order to suggest that ‘anywhere’ is, in the final analysis, the arena of God’s care and redemptive activity. This sower throws seed not only on good soil, but also amid the rocky, barren, broken places, in order to suggest that God’s vision for the world is itself often apprehended in strange and broken places.”[iii] This parable is about the generous sower, a God who will never give up on us, a God who will keep flinging boundless love, a God who seeks to take root in even the most broken of places.
How do we show the world what the kingdom of God is like right now? How do we model the love of the generous sower in a time when our mindset of scarcity has taken over? Our soil is filled with thorns. We are anxious and fearful of what the future is going to bring. We are carefully calculating all our decisions as we attempt to plan for the upcoming fall and winter. We are dry and in desperate need of water and fertilizer. We are feeling untethered from our roots, as the COVID-19 crisis continues to affect our nation at an alarming rate. There is no end in sight. All we see is what we lack. We are consumed by worries about lack of resources, lack of PPE, lack of enough ICU beds, lack of funding for our school systems to have what they need to open safely for both our students and our teachers and staff, a lack of time for increasing demands. These are very real problems, and yet it seems like there has to be another way. It seems like if maybe the world valued different things and put its resources in different places, we could navigate this crisis differently. What should our response be as disciples of Christ?
As a church we find ourselves trying to figure out how to best care for our community in the midst of this crisis, and at the same time, this crisis has amplified our worries about the future of churches. The cares of this world are consuming us. The desire for stability is threatening to choke out our imaginations. And yet God keeps throwing seed on us. God keeps trying to bring life into barren places. And God is calling us to be disciples of that kingdom, to be like the generous sower, to be extravagant in our love, to believe that growth can happen after many failed attempts, and to believe that God can actually work a miracle!
The Faith and Leadership Institute asked a number of leaders about the long-term viability of churches in the wake of this crisis. Bill Wilson, who worked with us during our visioning process, responded this way: “The Church has an opportunity to show the world what healthy people do in times of crisis. Rather than panic and devolve into self-absorption and self-protection, we run toward the needs in our culture rather than away from them.”[iv] Another ministry leader said, “God loves the church. But God loves the world more. Do whatever you can to love the world now, and don’t worry about your infrastructure. If churches focus on the money, they’re going to have a hard time. If they focus on what they can do culturally, I think they’ll have a fighting chance.”[v]
As the shelter in place orders were put in place in Wichita Falls, Texas, and it became clear we were facing a global pandemic, First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls reached out to its local healthcare system, United Regional, to ask how they could help. The human resources director of the healthcare system told the church that what they really needed was childcare for essential workers as many of the daycare centers had closed. First Baptist had shut down its own childcare center when the county schools shut down, but they agreed to help. They now offer exclusive care to employees of United Regional so that the healthcare workers can focus on doing their jobs and not worry about their children. [vi] When Greenwood Baptist Church in Boone, NC recognized there was a huge need for childcare for essential healthcare workers in their community, they turned their licensed center into an Emergency Child Care Provider site and became a place where healthcare workers could secure free childcare spots through the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.[vii] Even though First Baptist Church in Woodstock, GA had closed its doors for Sunday and Wednesday night services, it opened its doors to provide free childcare exclusively to employees of the healthcare providers and other employees of its local hospital. The pastor of First Baptist Woodstock said, “I don’t think it’s the role of the church to run from a problem. We have to run towards it and do what we can to help.”[viii]
We can’t take our cues from the world and lose our ability to dream of another way and work to make that other way possible. As Bebe Moore Campbell writes in her novel, Singing in the Comeback Choir, “Some of us have that empty-barrel faith. Walking around expecting things to run out. Expecting that there isn’t enough air, enough water. Expecting that someone is going to do you wrong. The God I serve told me to expect the best, that there is enough for everybody.”[ix]Greenwood Forest, you are filled with the spirit of generosity and are always looking for ways to show the love of God to our community. Don’t let fear or the cares of this world choke your imagination for how we can keep showing up right now. While you might feel dry, we do not lack abundance. Don’t give into the temptation to panic and devolve into self-absorption and self-protection. Open yourself to being tilled and watered and fertilized, to being shaped into a disciple of the kingdom of God. And take heart, because no matter the state of our soil, God is in the business of miracles! Jesus can enter into the most broken of places and create life and growth. Be like the generous sower. Love with wild abandon. Seed with extravagant generosity. Even though you don’t know how it’s all going to turn out, let God spread you on the rocks, on the weeds, and on the road. Amen.
[i] Talitha Arnold as quoted in “Pastoral” reflection in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, Edited by Bartlett and Taylor, 236.
[ii] Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible – Matthew, 129.
[iii] Theodore J. Wardlaw as quoted in “Homiletical” reflection in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, Edited by Bartlett and Taylor, 239.
[ix] Bebe Moore Campbell, Singing in the Comeback Choir, 131.