Text: Matthew 13:1-9
We have cucumbers in our garden this year – lots of them relative to the very small raised beds I plant each summer. The tomatoes in a similar bed aren’t doing much, but we’ve got cucumbers – so many that every evening, the dinner question is, “What are we having with the cucumbers tonight?” We’ve got lots of cucumbers this year and I really don’t know why.
Our back yard is very shady and that has been my challenge for some time. So we got someone to do some trimming over the bed where I planted the cucumbers. But the tomato bed has better sun than the cucumber bed, yet my appetite for a home-grown tomato sandwich isn’t getting fed very often. Honestly, I really don’t know why we have cucumbers this year. I planted three varieties in my tiny plot of dirt and all have done well. I’ve been grateful for every one of them since I’m a big cucumber fan, but it’s a mystery to me.
It seems that under the surface beyond my sight, something generative and life-giving, something nourishing has been happening in order for those tasty cucumbers to appear. I know it’s a combination of light, nutrients and water. I know the process of photosynthesis turns light into food. And to a degree I have contributed to our abundance. I tried to enrich the soil, loosened it, planted, watered and fertilized – not insignificant contributions for sure. But something miraculous turned my efforts this year into the makings of many a tasty cucumber sandwich, and it’s a miracle.
When Jesus told the parable of the sower, he’d had an incredibly busy day. Our text begins with the words, “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.” It’s no wonder he needed to sit on the beach for a while. We can all identify with how he felt. Sometimes we just want to get a chair and sit – on the beach, or on a porch overlooking the mountains, or in our backyard among the trees.
In the case of Jesus, it’s a bit difficult to figure out when the “day” began, but it appears that this “same day” was the Sabbath. He’d been through the fields picking grain to eat because his disciples were hungry. But then he had to answer for it when challenged by religious leaders because you weren’t supposed to harvest on the Sabbath. Next he went to the synagogue and was met by a man with a withered hand. Jesus healed him and then had to justify why he broke another rule by doing this kind of work on the Sabbath. After he left the synagogue, crowds followed him and he cured a bunch of them including someone with mental illness. With each act of healing Jesus shared a teaching with his growing audience. Then the synagogue leaders asked him for a “sign” that he was really speaking for God, so Jesus had to explain that he didn’t do tricks on command. He was told his family was waiting for him and he had to clarify that his “family” went beyond his relatives to include all who follow God.
After all of that Matthew says he went out and sat on the beach. Bless him. Most of us would have been crawling under the covers at that point. Then after a brief moment to himself on the shore, another crowd gathered – so much so that he had to get into a boat to avoid the press of the bodies. Then he told them another story, the one we know as the “parable of the sower.”
This parable is one we have all heard – repeatedly? too often? ad nauseum? Pick your personal favorite based on your affinity for this passage or lack thereof. Usually the verses we’ve read are followed by verses 18-23, which explain what this parable means. You likely remember the typical interpretation. The seeds snatched by the birds stand for people who are confused and led astray; those sown on the rocks represent the person whose faith dies because it has no roots; seeds that fall among the thorns are people who get excited but then their commitment is choked by the cares of the world. The interpretation Matthew offers is not only interesting, but it has also been helpful to many a Christian over the centuries. Preachers have typically encouraged us to decide which kind of soil we are. The most creative and, I think, honest preachers help us to recognize that we are ALL of them at some points in our lives and maybe even in the same day.
This parable was first recorded in Mark, the earliest gospel. Matthew also included it but apparently he thought it needed some explaining. So it’s believed he added the allegorical answers to the question, “What kind of soil am I?” in the verses that follow so his readers wouldn’t miss the point. That didn’t come from Jesus who tended to tell a story and leave it for his audience, which included his often- clueless disciples, to figure it out. I did not include Matthew’s explanation in our scripture reading for this morning because I’d like us to consider another message in this tale.
In the parable of the sower, Jesus isn’t interested in agricultural details. As in all of his parables, there is more than one meaning. The brilliance of these stories is that they can frequently be interpreted in multiple ways that are instructive. More importantly, they are also capable of teaching us how to respond to issues or dilemmas we face today that were completely unknown when Jesus told them.
But Eugene Boring, New Testament scholar at Brite Divinity School, suggests a message imbedded in the parable that I want us to consider today. In his words, this story “is not…about the natural, slow, evolutionary progress of the kingdom of God, but portrays the mysterious, concealed working of God, who miraculously brings the harvest.” Remember the ending: “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” Among scholars, an interesting debate has been generated by this verse. Was 100, 60, or 30-fold an exceptional harvest or was it just the ordinary pickings? Some believe it was a remarkably good crop and others believe it was realistic and normal for farmers at the time. They have collected evidence from literary data in multiple near-Eastern countries to back up their positions, but I’m not sure it matters for us. What speaks to me is the fact that even if all the sown seeds didn’t grow, the farmer’s act of sowing was fruitful. In other words, even if everything invested didn’t produce the desired result, the overall gain was real and valuable.
In these days, it’s hard not to get discouraged if you’re a progressive, liberal or even moderate person. Congress is at a standstill governing-wise. It seems that all they do is fight with one another. Our president is besieged by emergencies like ISIS in Syria and Iraq; unaccompanied children at the borders; government agencies snooping on Americans; veterans dying because of their inept medical system. He’s even being sued by the House of Representatives. And to be honest, many are disappointed that he’s turned out not to be as progressive or bold as we hoped. As I said last week, our North Carolina House and Senate seem to be in a contest to see who can be the meanest toward poor people and they only want certain people to be able to vote. There is much to be distressed about in these hot summer days that we know will turn into cold distressing days in just a few months. Consequently, it is tempting to simply resign oneself to political dysfunction and to focus one’s energy on the daily tasks of eating and sleeping and working and raising kids and saving for college or retirement and staying healthy and maybe having a little fun in the process. After all, so much of the work we do for justice can seem fruitless because nothing seems to change.
So this morning I want to remind you of something I hope you already know. I’m not into delivering feel-good sermons, but I do want you to hear this: the work you are doing for justice is valuable and makes a difference. Like the seeds planted by Jesus’ sower, it is significant and it will be fruitful. I want you to remember that by definition, the work of justice – not the essential charity that keeps people fed and housed until justice comes – but the work of justice is slow and the results of our efforts aren’t always obvious. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” When I hear this, I often think, “But it’s too long and it bends too slowly.” And, by 21st century standards, that is true. Doing justice is about changing systems benefitting the powerful few that have been in place for a long, long time. Unlike individuals who can change quickly when sufficiently motivated or inspired, systems change very slowly.
So this morning I want to remind you of several things, the first of which is this: God is working in ways we cannot see. That’s what happened in the soil that produced my cucumbers. Something was going on under the surface that wasn’t visible to me. Then suddenly, there’s this baby green shoot that gets bigger with each day’s heat and a little water until I can pick the fruit and enjoy it. Sometimes I’m stunned at how much it can grow in one day or even overnight. There’s this miraculous life energy under the earth and invisible to me that is working for good. This is how God’s empire works to overcome other empires. In the case of my cucumbers, the result I desire is achieved in a couple of months. With God’s justice, the pace is a lot slower. But the process is the same. Millions of people all over the planet are doing their own small but important, life-giving work. We don’t know their names and we don’t even know what they are working on. But the One who created us does, and along with the rest of creation is clapping hands with each effort we make.
Remember, too, that God uses whatever we have to offer. Our gifts are many and varied. I’ve told a number of people over the years that if the world depended on me to do something medical, we’d all be “up the creek,” as they say. The sight of blood, people in pain…that is not for me. When Felicia fell down the steps and gashed her hand on the way to our Easter baptism service, I was very proud that I didn’t get queasy en route to the emergency room. But I have a niece who is a wonderful, caring physician who was born to be a healer. She’s a hospitalist and she loves the part of her job that involves teaching patients about how to take care of themselves and get healthy when they go home. Many of you are or have been in the healthcare field as well. Physical and emotional healing is your gift. It’s not mine, but it’s yours. It’s what you have to offer. The essential thing is that you offer it not just for your own benefit, but in the cause of justice.
As I noted earlier, our text refers to the harvest that came from the seeds the sower planted, which it describes as 100, 60 or 30-fold. The seeds did not all produce the same amount or generate the same result. But together the harvest was bountiful. In the famous parable of the talents, not everyone receives the same amount, but all are expected to increase what they’ve been given rather than bury it because they don’t have as much as others. Comparing ourselves to other people can be motivating, but it can also be discouraging as well because we can always find someone whose work for a more humane world seems to be better or more effective than our own. When we believe that’s the case, the temptation is to minimize the value of our efforts or even discontinue them completely because we don’t think they matter. The even bigger problem is when we refuse to plant seeds of justice because we don’t understand ourselves as farmers; we think we aren’t very good at it; we’re worried about people criticizing our gardens; or we’re just too busy doing our personal stuff to plant anything for others.
We are called to sow the seed of God’s justice and peace wisely, but at another level without regard to visible results. This is a countercultural act. Almost everywhere we turn in today’s culture, clear results are demanded – measurable results, countable results, often unreasonably-quick results. Yet so much of what needs to happen in the world can’t be confined to numerical evaluation, as hard as we try to do so. Just ask any nonprofit service organization like the Hope Center at Pullen. They are holding the hands of young people who have spent years in foster care without their parents. Some of these young adults have had foster care placements in the dozens during their short lives. Yes, you can measure and celebrate if they move into safe, affordable housing, or if they enroll in or graduate from Wake Tech. But how do you count the results of the seeds of kindness planted by the Hope Center staff and mentors? How can you measure the confidence that emerges from being aided and trusted by a caring, reliable adult? You can’t. Now I’m not discounting the need for accountability or the importance of using best practices to achieve measurable goals. But working with those young folks – with anyone who faces challenges regardless of age – isn’t necessarily going to produce visible results in the short-term. But we expend the effort anyway because miracles happen when we do and we know we’re not doing this work alone.
We don’t include many prayers of confession in our worship here at Pullen but this is a weekly component of worship in other Christian traditions. Following the confession, there is typically an “assurance of pardon.” It reminds the worshippers that although we all fall short of our best at times, God appreciates our efforts and forgives us when we miss the goal. Well, this sermon is not an assurance of pardon, but it is an “assurance” of the value of your work for justice. It a reminder that we are all called to work toward a more loving and peaceful world using who we are and the gifts we possess in large ways and small ones. All of our efforts are not only important, but essential. The work of each of us is valuable even when we don’t see the results or we think the seeds we’re sowing are falling on rocky or thorny soil. God has not abandoned us or others who thirst for justice.
Just because we can’t see the life-giving, mysterious, divine work going on, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. There will be a grand harvest some day and I’m not talking about heaven. It may not happen on this earth in my lifetime or yours. But you can be assured that the life force that pushes a tiny cucumber seed through dark earth and into light will use the seeds you plant to produce justice and mercy. You are helping God do miracles. So keep planting, good people of Pullen, keep planting.