Sunday, July 13th, 2014 – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Matthew 13:1-9,18-23
Hymns: “Wonderful Words of Life”, “I Need Thee Every Hour”, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”, “He Leadeth Me”
“And Sow On…”
So a few months back, after I had been here for five or six weeks or so, stuff started turning green. Believe me, it was a welcome respite from the gloomy grey of winter that had pervaded everything not just since I had gotten here, but also in North Carolina prior to my departure. And I gotta say – even though I’m somebody who grew up in a place where most things are brown and those things that are green you want to avoid lest you end up looking like a porcupine, I LOVE a good green spring. Therefore, when my lawn started to grow up, all lush and green, with absolutely no effort on my part whatsoever, I was quite pleased.
Unfortunately, along with the grass came the dandelions. And my goodness, were they vicious. I could mow my lawn on Saturday morning, cutting everything down to the same height, and by Saturday afternoon, the dandelions would be a foot high again. There was one patch in my back yard that was especially infested, and it got so bad that by a certain point, there was nothing in that patch BUT dandelions – everything else had died.
In desperation, I took to Facebook, seeking advice. A couple of conversations ensued, and a few days later, Jayson Watkins showed up at my house, bearing a potent weed-killer that sounded like something off of the TV show Breaking Bad. He sprayed all my dandelions, and sure enough – within 72 hours, those evil weeds were toast.
The problem is, that one big patch in my back yard is now barren. There’s nothing left there except for a few blades of grass here and there. The weeds are dead and gone now, to be sure, but nothing has grown up to take their place. It was all choked and died long before the anti-weed chemical warfare turned that patch into scorched earth.
Now, I won’t presume to preach to a congregation with a whole bunch of farmers in it on the nature of planting crops, but in part based on the crater in my back yard, I’m going to go ahead and assume that Jesus’ description of the seeds sown in Matthew 13 is fairly accurate – seeds sown on hard soil can’t take root, seeds sown on weed-infested soil get choked out by the weeds, seeds sown on soil with on a shallow layer of nutrients starve, and seeds sown on good, well-tilled, nutrient-rich soil are the ones that prosper and grow well. If Jesus and I got that wrong, please be sure to tell me afterwards.
Obviously, Jesus wasn’t ACTUALLY talking about farming here. Let’s be real, Jesus wasn’t a farmer – he was a carpenter by trade, and an itinerant rabbi by calling. Yes, he was the Son of God, but as a human, he probably didn’t know any more about farming than I do. One would hope that he had somebody like a Vance Bodenhausen or a Dean Walkup amongst his apostles to talk to about this parable before preaching it, if only to make sure he had things right!
No, as Jesus explains later in chapter 13, he was referring here to the effects of the Word of God on a person. If they are like the hard, untilled soil, the Word doesn’t have the chance to sink in, and thus has little effect on their lives. If they’re like the shallow soil, then the seeds sprout quickly and enthusiastically, but unable to put down any meaningful roots in that person’s life, the resultant faith quickly starves and dies. If they’re like the weed-infested soil, then the other concerns of their life choke their faith before it has a chance to grow, but those who are like rich soil will see their faith grow and prosper. These people, Jesus says, will in turn plant the Word in others they know, and see their “crops” propagate and grow strong and fruitful.
When I was younger, so much younger than today, first of all, I never needed anybody’s help in any way, but additionally, whenever I heard this parable of the sower, it was always accompanied by a very narrow-minded interpretation of it. Basically, the people who related this parable to me would look at it as saying that some people – the hard soil, the shallow soil, the thorny soil – are beyond help. There’s just nothing you can do with them – they hear the word of Christ, but they can’t be reached. At the time, as a kid in Phoenix, I could relate to that! There’s lots and lots of soil in Phoenix that is simply beyond help. For example: my parents’ back yard. The ONLY thing that grows out there is weeds. And we’re not talking garden variety dandelions here, either. You could hit it with Jayson’s Meclamine-D, you could hit it with a thermonuclear bomb, it doesn’t matter – that back yard is never going to be fertile ground.
That having been said, the hard packed soil does make it easy to have an above-ground firepit…
But I digress. The thing is, Jesus was not at all saying that there are people who are like 90% of the ground in Phoenix. While that sprawl of concrete and dirt might largely be unable to support life, Jesus would never have said that any human being is beyond help – some just need more work to get them to a point where they’re able to support a living faith is all.
To me, though, this parable is about more than just faith. This parable is about serving the Lord as well. This parable serves as a perfect metaphor for the people who serve in a church.
If you ask Darrel House about the people who serve a church, he’ll readily tell you that one thing he doesn’t want to see Gower Christian Church become is an “80/20” congregation, by which he means a church where 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. And that’s not where we’re at. We have a far more equitable distribution of work at this church than that. However, it is very easy for a church to turn into an “80/20” congregation. How?
Well, let’s look at your hard soil. You’re going to have certain people in every congregation who simply don’t want to do anything for the church. They show up on Sunday morning, they sing the hymns, they put their check in the offering plate, and that’s it. They don’t want to do anything beyond that.
But what I have found from talking to those people is that it’s not necessarily that they don’t WANT to do anything, it’s just that they haven’t been ASKED. They’re the folks that aren’t necessarily willing to volunteer to do things, but if asked to help out, will pitch in with great fervor. Basically, the person asking is tilling the soil – breaking through the hard crust, bringing the good, rich soil to the surface.
Then there’s your shallow soil. To me, these are the people that do EVERYTHING. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way denigrating the people who seem to do everything in a church. The thing is, they get too easily worn out. They are like soil that has been drained of its nutrients, and there’s only a little left in the top layer. And the longer they keep doing more and more, the more easily they’ll get burned out.
These “shallow soil” folks are the ones who need to take a break. They either need to take a season of life off from church leadership, or they need to do something different – maybe something easier – or they need to do less. Mark my words, we as churches owe these people a debt of great gratitude, but there’s a reason that farmers either rotate crops or let a field lie fallow – just as you have to let the soil recover, so too do the body and soul have to recover and replenish. Sometimes a change of scenery does just that. That way, when they’re ready to take on something new, their soil is deep and rich and ready to produce immeasurable amounts of fruit.
Then there are those stuck in the thorns and the weeds. These are the folks who try to do right by a church, but find that their good intentions are choked off by outside concerns and worries. The weedy soil people, more often than not, tend to be those of us who occupy the pulpit. How many preachers, do you think, have had in mind a message that they felt God moving them to bring to the people, but have held back because they were afraid they’d offend one or two people in the church? How many preachers, do you think, have had their members come to them, wanting them to do something radical and outside the norm, but have held back because of one five word phrase that a well-meaning board member put in their ear – “What will the visitors think?” How many preachers, do you think, have felt that they needed to hide their true selves because they were worried about being judged by a congregation that was different from them?
Now, to assuage any fears that might have grown while I was presenting those points, don’t worry, I am not any of those preachers. But do you know why it is that I am able to maneuver through the outside concerns and worries without being choked off by the dandelions of life? It’s because this church has a board that is highly supportive of me as a minister and a pastoral care committee that serves as a vital buffer and line of communication. And that’s something that many ministers are not so fortunate to have. So basically, you have to have gardeners, in the person of supportive lay leadership, to keep the weeds from growing up around the minister.
Finally, of course, you have the good soil. The good soil is, potentially, 100% of any given church. The hard soil can be tilled, the shallow soil can be given time to recover, the weedy soil can be cleared, and all can be good soil. And it is when a church is operating with as much good soil as possible that it is at its best.
This week, the executive board will be undertaking the annual task of appointing the nominating committee, which will in turn nominate individuals to serve the church throughout the next business year. Over the next couple of months, I would encourage each of you to think about what kind of soil you are. If you feel like you’re hard soil, think about letting the church break through and serving, even if in just a small way. If you feel like you’re shallow soil – like you’re already over-committed, or you’ve just given too much of yourself to the church over the last few years – consider taking a break. Nobody will begrudge you that, and you’ll be welcomed back to leadership with enthusiasm when you feel ready once more. If you feel like the weedy soil, like there’s just too much going on in your life, too many things to figure out – well, my door is always open if ever you need to talk. And if you feel like you’re good soil and you just haven’t been given the chance to serve yet – well, make sure to let the board know who you are, and this church will happily put you to work in God’s service!
Really, though, I know that there’s good soil in each person in this congregation. We just have to figure out how much, so that every person can be fruitful for the kingdom of God. And then, those seeds planted in you will produce thirty… sixty… even a hundred times as much as was scattered.