By the Rev. Darren Miner
I’ll let you in on a little secret: preaching during the green season of the liturgical year can be a problem. In this season, the Old Testament readings in our lectionary have nothing to do thematically with the other readings. Often the preacher simply skips the first reading in the sermon. But sometimes the reading just won’t allow that! That’s the case today. So, I’ll start out by saying a few words about that first reading, then switch to the main point of the sermon, the Parable of the Sower.
The reading from Genesis tells the story of two twins: Esau and Jacob. Esau was the first born. By custom, he should have been in charge of the family upon the death of his father, and he should have received a double share of the estate. But Jacob finds a way to trick his brother out of his birthright. Finding his brother famished, he gets the admittedly foolish Esau to trade his inheritance for a bowl of chili. Thus begins an international rivalry that was to endure for centuries. According to the Bible, the rivalry between these two twins explains the origins of the bitter rivalry between the Edomites and the Israelites; for Esau was the forefather of the Edomites, and Jacob was the forefather of the Israelites. The rivalry between these peoples came to a climax with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, for the Edomites chose to side with the Babylonians against their neighbors, the Israelites. But the Israelites eventually got their revenge. In 125 BC, the Jews conquered the descendants of the Edomites and forced them to convert to Judaism. So the Edomites disappeared as a separate people. But the story doesn’t end there. By a strange twist of fate, the descendant of an Edomite convert became the King of the Jews. His name should sound familiar—Herod. So, in a way, Herod’s massacre of innocent Jewish babies can be traced back to the dysfunctional relations between two twin brothers.
So much for the reading from Genesis! Now let’s turn to the Parable of the Sower. As a teenager, I was a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason stories. More often than not, Gardner gave his novels an alliterative title. Here are a few choice examples: The Case of the Perjured Parrot, The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe, and last but not least, The Case of the Drowning Duck. Well, if Erle Stanley Gardner had written today’s Parable of the Sower, he might have named it “The Case of the Prodigal Planter.” Or possibly, he might have called it “The Case of the Several Soils.” Both titles give us insight into the parable.
Let’s start with “The Case of the Several Soils.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus does something he rarely does—he explains a parable! The sower is Jesus himself, spreading the Word of the Kingdom of God. And the point of the parable is to explain the mystifying, and disappointing, rejection of the Good News by so many people. Jesus explains that the rejection of the Gospel has everything to do with soil, which allegorically represents the mindset of those who hear his message.
Jesus enumerates four distinct kinds of soil, four distinct mindsets. First, there are those who don’t understand what he is trying to tell them. Now, when Jesus speaks of their not understanding, he doesn’t mean that they can’t understand his speech. He means that they just don’t “get it.” They just don’t take his message to heart. It goes in one ear and out the other!
The second mindset is that of people who joyfully receive Jesus’ teaching, at least at first, but then abandon the faith when the going gets tough. The early church suffered various persecutions, and they saw many abandon the faith rather than risk imprisonment or death. These lacked stick-to-itiveness. Their faith was a surface faith, having no depth to help them endure in times of trouble.
The third mindset is that of people who hear the Gospel, and even accept it, but then are so distracted by everyday worries that nothing comes of their faith. Jesus is talking here about those who put the Gospel on the backburner. Because of their anxiety, they give first priority to the comfort and security that money promises to provide. Since their primary focus is on themselves, such people are unable to make the sacrifices necessary to bear spiritual fruit.
Finally, we get to the fourth and final mindset: the mindset of those who hear the Good News, take it to heart, make it the core of their being, and then work tirelessly to live out their faith. These are the people who freely share their experience of God’s love by word and by deed. These are the ones who bear an abundance of spiritual fruit.
Now, the question that begs to be asked is this: what kind of soil am I? What mindset do I bring with me when I receive the Good News of Jesus Christ? Well, I’ve asked myself that very same question. And the honest answer is that I don’t fall neatly into any one of the four categories that Jesus speaks about. There are times when I just don’t “get it.” For example, I have a hard time putting mercy above justice. And yet, if God put justice first, we would all be condemned! I can’t say that I’ve experienced abandoning the faith in times of persecution. But I do wonder if I could endure the suffering that Christians experience every day in some parts of the world. I certainly have experienced mindset No. 3: letting worry and distraction and the love of money take top priority. I’m a worrier by nature, and it’s hard for me to trust that God will provide. And yet, sometimes I’ve experienced that fourth mindset, the mindset of the true disciple. If I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t be a Christian priest.
But enough about me! What about you? What kind of soil are you? What mindset, or mindsets, do you manifest in the face of the Gospel? And if you aren’t the most fertile soil, what are you going to do about it? How might you transform yourself into a more fruitful matrix for God’s Word? These are the hard questions that we all need to ask ourselves over and over again if we would be disciples of Jesus. These are the hard questions that we all must answer for ourselves. So ends my exposition of “The Case of the Several Soils.”
Now for “The Case of the Prodigal Planter”! In its original context, the sower of the seed represents Jesus himself. But as disciples of Jesus, we too are called to spread the message of the Kingdom of God. We too are called to be planters of God’s Word. What lessons, then, might we learn from the prodigal planter of today’s parable?
Well, the first lesson is to be truly prodigal! The farmer in today’s parable scatters seed on all types of ground. He even manages to spread it on the road! No real farmer would be so careless and so wasteful. But this farmer sows everywhere! This goes against the advice that church consultants give us today. They tell us to study the demographics, to narrow the focus audience, and to tailor the message to the desired demographic. But that doesn’t seem to be Jesus’ way. He tells his message to everyone. And those who are willing to hear and ready to understand will respond and, in turn, will produce fruit.
The same applies to us today, I think. We are called to spread Jesus’ message by word and by deed, without worrying overmuch about what kind soil we’re dealing with. All we can do is plant. The growing depends on the soil, and on God. We may wish that those we care about would take Christ’s message to heart, but we can’t make it happen. What we can do, however, is to be ready to sow that seed again and again, year after year, in the hope that, with the passage of time, the soil might have become more fertile. For the reality is that people do change. That friend or family member who used to disparage your faith, or treat it as if it were only a hobby, just might come to adopt that same faith someday!
So, when you look around this sanctuary and see so few faces, don’t give in to despair. Just keep living out your faith to the best of your ability. Keep sharing that faith with everyone you encounter—not just by telling them about God’s love, but by demonstrating it to them. And then remember the promise of abundance that today’s parable holds out. When the message that you share reaches the right person with the right mindset, it will yield a great spiritual harvest. Now, your efforts may not grow this particular parish (though they might!), but you can be sure that, if you persist in sharing your faith, your efforts will grow the Kingdom of God. And that is the more important goal, by far. So trust in God, and keep on sowing, unceasingly and unstintingly! Amen.
© 2014 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
The readings can be found here: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Pentecost/AProp10_RCL.html (Track 1).