A Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10 – Year A – 13 July 2014
John Edward Miller, Rector
Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 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 went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 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. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
“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.”
– Matthew 13:1-9,18-23
O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Jesus attracted crowds of curious and suspicious onlookers. Mixed with them were people who were longing for a word of hope in hard times. There were rumors that he might be the one, God’s long-expected Messiah. So wherever he went, they gathered in throngs, and pressed in on him. Everyone wanted to know what he had to say. On this occasion Jesus boarded a boat near the seaside, and pushed off, giving himself a little cushion of space, as well as a natural sound system for speaking. He knew his voice would carry well over water.
Jesus looked at the people pushing together near the shoreline. And then he exclaimed, “Listen! A sower went out to sow.” And I believe that he had his listeners’ attention from the outset. They knew that he was going to tell them a story, and they were all ears.
People were getting used to Jesus’ main method of communicating. He was not a lofty lecturer or a spouter of rules. Jesus spoke mostly in parables, stories about God’s nature and about living in God’s kingdom. To depict those things Jesus had to rely on the language of metaphor. That’s because God surpasses our understanding; we can’t speak about God without reaching for analogies and symbols that point beyond themselves to a higher reality – one that cannot be tangibly grasped, but can only be painted as an impression. The real thing always eludes us. Nevertheless we continue to try, because we sense the immense magnitude of the subject.
Jesus had intimate knowledge of the subject. Plus, he was a master storyteller, mixing the familiar with the contradictory, challenging the mind to move past the mundane and to walk the way of the divine. His parables challenged people to tune in, and open up to new ways of understanding.
Thomas Long, who teaches seminarians the art of preaching, is convinced that another name for parable is “riddle.” According to Matthew, Jesus’ rationale for using parables was to “utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” These eternal meanings are difficult to decipher because they are expressed in riddles, which are puzzles to be solved, stories with mysterious depths to be plumbed. Another commentator said that a parable is a story that employs a figure of speech drawn from everyday life that is at once so vivid and so strange that it causes you to doubt its meaning. It irritates the imagination into thought. The hearer gets personally involved, and tries to work out the parable’s point. Figuring it out comes through wrestling rather than reasoning.
Jesus tossed them the riddle of the sower like a curveball. They had to concentrate to connect with it. The story at first sounds familiar, but it soon reveals its mind-bending twist. So we must pay attention, keep our eye on the ball, and be ready for a pitch that is new and full of possibilities.
If you’ve ever tried to grow anything from seed, whether it’s a lawn, or flowers, or a garden of vegetables, then you can relate to the notion of the sower. It’s part of your experience. In that same way those who listened to Jesus by the sea knew what he was talking about, because Judea’s culture was largely agricultural. But once he spins out the story, everyone who knows about seeds and sowing knows that this is not the way to plant seeds, and that this is no ordinary sower.
Jesus’ sower does not mark out a field, prepare the soil, carefully plant the seeds, water and fertilize them, and then watch out for pests, and weeds, and birds that might destroy his efforts. On the contrary, the parable tells us that the sower simply broadcast the seeds, threw them willy-nilly, and let be what was to be. Some seed fell on the path, and they were snatched up by birds; other seed fell on rocky soil, and they sprang up only to die quickly in the withering heat of the day; others fell among brambles, and were choked out and died; and a certain portion of seeds fell into good soil, where they grew robustly, sending roots deep into the earth for nourishment. These seeds produced much grain, and the crop was abundant. Jesus topped off the parable by adding, “Let those who have ears hear.”
That must have left them shrugging their shoulders and scratching their heads. Huh? What in the world . . . ? At first hearing that is a common reaction. The image is clear but it is also bizarre. Jesus has left all of his hearers (including us) with a real riddle. What was his point in doing that? Well, it was like everything else he did or said. He leaves us with a question, drawing out of all who truly listen an answer that may be life-changing.
Jesus shows us a sower who is as extravagant, careless, and wasteful. He sows copious amounts of seed, but most of it is lost. The sower does not take aim; he lets fly in every direction, seemingly unmindful of the conditions onto which the seed will land. No planter on earth acts like that. And that’s exactly right. This sower, this giver of life, is not earthbound; he is divine, and his capacity to give for love’s sake excels everything that we know and depend on.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20th century’s best known ethicist, once preached a sermon entitled, “The Providence of God.” His message focused on the impartial nature of God’s love. Niebuhr stressed that God’s gracious impartiality is the reason for loving not only your neighbor, but also and your enemy, and praying for those who persecute you. Niebuhr’s text was from the Sermon on the Mount, wherein Jesus justified such indiscriminate love by saying that God is like that. Jesus said that any authentic child of God should be like that too, “for [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Niebuhr affirmed this metaphor from nature as good news – as the Gospel of God – over against any misguided notion that God grants special providence to particular people or groups. He declared:
It is not true that God gives special favors . . . Though Jesus is concerned about the whole dimension of the gospel, it is not so much whether these things are true or not upon their own levels, but whether they would be right. God’s love would not be right if it were this kind of a love. This is the point that Christ makes in the Sermon on the Mount, that God’s love would not be right. The Christian faith believes that within and beyond the tragedies and contradictions of history we have laid hold upon a loving heart, the proof of whose love is first impartiality toward all of his children, and secondly a mercy which transcends good and evil.
That impartial love is the sower’s seed, the grace of God, broadcast at all times, in all places, and upon all people who on earth do dwell. The sower does not discriminate according to race, gender, social class, political affiliation, gender, citizenship, or sexual orientation. As the sun rises on the evil and the good, and the rain falls on both the just and the unjust, God plays no favorites. God simply and magnanimously loves.
Jesus illustrates this basic truth over and over again in his parables.
God loves like the father who embraces both of his sons, the prodigal who came home after living a riotous life and wasting his father’s resources, as well as the grumbling older brother who begrudges his father’s generous welcome of the son who was lost.
God loves like the Samaritan who surprisingly stopped and showed mercy to his natural adversary, a Jewish man who was beaten and robbed and left for dead not only by the muggers but also by priests of his own religious tradition who refused to get involved.
God loves like the vineyard owner who pays the same wage to those laborers hired an hour before quitting time as he pays to those hired to work at the beginning of the day.
The gospel message is the same throughout. God doesn’t reckon as we reckon; God doesn’t judge as we judge; God doesn’t give only to the worthy, as we tend to do, but gives equally, extravagantly, unconditionally to everyone.
That’s who God is, and that is good news for us all.
The sower’s seed is freely given to the world, which is God’s own field. The love broadcast is continuous. It is showered upon us by the God who provides, sustains, and encourages; however, our loving God does not force outcomes. He allows and awaits in hope.
That brings us to the second part of the parable. The seed lands on soils of all sorts and conditions. For Jesus the spectrum of soils and circumstances is the diversity of reception and response to the love of God. We are made in God’s image. That is to say, we are endowed with creative freedom – freedom to choose what is right and good, as well as freedom to reject it. Built into our character is a trait called responsibility. When the love of God is given and received, it comes with an invitation to respond in kind. In other words, the sower’s seed contains an RSVP. God expects a favorable response, a loving response that shows no partiality.
God may not get one. We have the capacity to decline, and to our shame, we do that all too often. Nevertheless, God will not abandon us. The Creator, the one who is love, abides with us. The sower keeps sowing the seed. That is our hope, and that is our eternal opportunity. Today we have baptized Thomas Ellstrom Whitlock, welcoming him as “sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” That means, in the words of another child, “God loves him no matter what.” Our task as a Christian family is to assure Thomas that God’s acceptance will support him all the days of his life. In response to that unconditional grace, we pray that he will permit God’s love to take root and blossom in him, and that he will join us in a ministry of gratitude.
Can we do any less than to say, “Yes!” to our Lord?
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, may it be so. Amen
 Dr. Thomas G. Long is the Bandy Professor of Preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
 Matthew 13:34 quotes Psalm 78:2.
 Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Providence of God,” a sermon delivered at Union Theological Seminary, New York, February 3, 1952, in Justice and Mercy, edited by Ursula M. Niebuhr (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1974), pp. 14-22.
 Matthew 5:45b.
 Op.cit., Niebuhr, p. 20.
 Luke 15:11-32.