The following sermon was preached on July 12, 2020 at Glory of God Lutheran Church in Wheat Ridge, CO. The gospel text for this sixth Sunday after Pentecost is Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23. Season And Story subscribers may also download this sermon manuscript as a PDF.
Matt. 13:1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 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. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”
Matt. 13:18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 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. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 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. 22 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. 23 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.”
Last week I ended my sermon with the first verse of a song I’ve not yet posted online due to the unexpected travel that happened over the last couple days (but the tune will get online this week). That first verse again is this: I’m with Jesus, standing right here, his name is your name, to be perfectly clear, if I can know him I need to know you, and walk with you hand in hand through your bright and your deepest blue…With that verse back in our minds it is a good place to start a reflection on this week’s reading from Matthew. The song incorporates communal aspiration in that it goes from making I statements in the first verse to we statements in the last verse. That last verse reads: We’re with Jesus, as we walk through each day, in every person, in every way we’re with Jesus, when we bridge the divide, He’s risen here too on the other side.
In the song I’m sort of asking us to do what Martin Luther suggests in his explanation of the 8th commandment. As you remember this commandment is “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”. Part of Luther’s explanation is that “we are to come to our neighbor’s defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”
I think we kind of see this 8th commandment model, just like we see Jesus, as kind of the “gold standard”. Truthfully, I think this is a fine way to view the commandments and a really horrible way to see Jesus, and I think we do it all of the time. We make Jesus into a rule, and not surprisingly a rule in which we are the arbiters of its value (much like gold), but Jesus is so much more than the value we ascribe to him… so too our neighbors are more valuable than the value we assign to them.
So Jesus is constantly having to decenter us and remind us that we’re still the learners here. So again, as with last week’s reading, this weeks reading from Matthew cuts out some significant verses from the middle in which Jesus says some things that are really challenging. What I find most interesting about the verses which have been cut from our reading and which speak a word of judgement is not so much the words Jesus speaks as the audience he chooses. He does not address the assembled people who are so in want and need that the power of mass assembly is one of the last powers they still have. He chooses to speak to the needy assembly with a story of abundance, yet spells out the significance of the story to his closest disciples. I find it really helpful, even beautiful that Jesus doesn’t judge the masses who’ve assembled for their deep need. He sees their need and invites them, and us, to consider what God’s abundance can do.
Let’s just think a bit more deeply about this character who’s sowing the seed. I mean this gardener really is a character. They are not the kind of sower who anyone in any era would accuse of being wise. Think of how Jesus’ first hearers would have heard this story. They are an oppressed people; their resources are meager (unless, of course, you happen to be part of the ruling class). Their first fruits go with begrudging consistency to benefit their conquerers. This gardener is throwing good seed onto bad soil. And some of it’s really bad soil. Some of it’s rocky, some of it’s filled with weeds, some of it’s literally a walking path. One of my former seminary presidents David Lose wrote this comment concerning the sower in this parable: “you get the feeling this God would probably scatter seed-love-mercy-grace on a parking lot! Why, because there is enough!”
There is enough seed. Please take a moment and let this sink in. As God continues to break into this world, one of the things Jesus consistently points to is that God’s wisdom looks like foolishness to us. God isn’t stingy nor discriminate with where he throws the riches of God’s abundance. In God’s abundant wisdom God seeds everything every day. With this in mind I’d like you to consider this week where you might find yourself in this story. God’s extravagant abundance is the “gold standard” so don’t hesitate in attempting to put yourself in each of these storylines:
When have we been the seed? When have we been the sower? When have we been like a bird which took a seed not meant for us and used it for our own benefit? When have we been the rocky soil or the scorching sun, or the weedy soil or even one of the thorny weeds choking out God’s extravagance? Finally, when have we been good soil? How and when did we become soil that received God’s abundance joyfully? Was this work of becoming good soil our work? No, in our Lutheran tradition the initiator of this work is always the Holy Spirit.
One question I have for you this morning is are you coming to this sermon as one of those who assembled on the lake shore? If so, know you are welcome, Jesus has a great story for you. It’s a story of abundance in which even the thorniest and most hard hearted among us receive a good measure of seed. If however you come to this story as a disciple, then Jesus has some more teaching to do. This teaching is not for everyone, because honestly, some of us just can’t handle it. Some of us just get stuck on that lakeshore hearing a weird and pretty story. Some of us hear of God’s abundance and quickly ascribe the gift as something of our own doing. That seed lacks the roots it needs or worse yet is chocked out by fast growing wealth.
Now please notice one last thing in the conclusion of our reading. Jesus states that the exact yield is less important than the fact that the seed found purchase in the soil, even the rocky soil, even the soil a mess with thorny weeds is still soil. We can, in the abundance of God’s grace assume that the seeds in the good soil which bear a harvest 100 fold are no less important to the seeds who bear identically good seeds though fewer in number due to being in less than ideal soil. So again this is a story of abundance even for the seeds which grow one day and fail the next because those daily deaths eventual form the rich soil in which a seed will bring a harvest.
But what about those seeds which fall along the path? Some of us may be old enough to remember when the interstate system was built throughout many of our American cities. Some of us have heard these same stories through books and our own research. I took a class in seminary titled “Wealth, Poverty, and the Church”* which helped open my eyes to how we in America have constantly covered over the good communal soil of black and brown neighborhoods by laying the equivalent of an interstate highway through the lives of those who are most in need. America, in our rush to accumulate a thorny abundance of fast wealth and ill-gotten gains, has consistently paved paradise and put up a parking lot, and in some places we actually used the interstate system to do it.
The funeral I attended yesterday was in Minneapolis. After the funeral Aimee and I walked the neighborhood streets around where George Floyd was killed. I am hopeful today because there are more of us today seeing that God’s abundant seed and how God spreads it is good. The problem isn’t the seed nor really the soil which will in God’s abundant timing bear a harvest once there is enough organic material made of the daily failings of our lived experiences. The problem that I heard in yesterdays chants of “no justice, no peace” is that we’ve put a path through our neighbors garden. May we all find the strength to rip these highways of ill-gotten gains out and expose the soil underneath to the water, and sun, and seed of God’s good abundance. Amen.
Back in the spring of 2018 I was taking the course “Wealth, Poverty, and the Church” in Philly and performing at the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly in Denver. While at the Assembly I was also presenting a review via Zoom from my hotel room of Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.”
As part of the review I took this photo from the Assembly stage to give my classmates a sense of where I was and what I was doing in Colorado. This class and Rothstein’s book have been foundational in my understanding of the protests sparked by George Floyds murder. I highly recommend this book. Segregated By Design is a 17 minute video narrated by Rothstein which covers the basics. Segregatedbydesign.com has more information too. Lastly, if you want to inform yourself about the specific ways in which my former and beloved home city of Minneapolis has enacted segregation policies upon people of color check out the documentary “Jim Crow of the North“.