Text: Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23.
Let us pray: Almighty God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts on your Word be acceptable to you, our Rock, our Redeemer, our Sower and Friend, Amen.
I paused in my head-long rush out the door a few evenings ago and watched a hummingbird in its flight. It came quite close and drank from nectar lovingly prepared, hanging suspended in its glass offering. As the hummingbird also hung suspended, it’s wings whirring in that soft and unmistakable music that only they can make, its 30 second meal was taken on-the-fly, so-to-speak, right before my eyes; and then, in a blink, it was gone. I know he’ll be back, though. Can you believe a hummingbird drinks on average 8-10 thirty – second to sixty second meals an hour? And each time, it drinks deeply so that it gets enough to burn the energy it needs to keep going. An apt spiritual lesson for us in this day, no?
Now, I don’t know about you, but I happen to be quite fond of eating. I know my figure doesn’t show it all that much, but I especially am fond of sweets. One of my favorites is ice cream, and another is cookies. In fact, at Menucha Retreat and Conference Center, where I work, I am affectionately dubbed the local Cookie Monster because of my near addiction to those delicious cookies we make from scratch in the Menucha kitchen.
But that’s not my worst habit. When it comes to a sit-down meal, unfortunately I am an extremely fast eater. Fifteen minutes into the meal I’ll be looking around the table with my plate all cleaned up wondering where the desert is while everyone else is only on their fourth or fifth bites. While I’m not quite as fast as a hummingbird; for human standards, as my wife will attest, I eat much too quickly to really enjoy a sit-down meal.
This leads me to my first set of questions for all of us today. How often do we take our sustenance “on-the-fly?” Are we drive-through eaters or are we sit-down eaters? Do we participate in the slow food movement or are we completely sold over to the fast food establishments of our day? Do our eating habits affect our spiritual habits? To put it bluntly, do we fly into church on Sunday to hear a bit of good news only to fly out again in an hour or so to get on with our lives, or do we take time to stop, slowly drink in the Word of God throughout the day, and find deeper meaning to life? And finally, and this is a hard one, does Christianity even offer any relevant sustenance in today’s contemporary culture?
I think all these questions can be addressed with careful attention to our reading from the Gospel of Matthew and the central question it seems to be asking, which is: What kind of soil are you?
First, let us take a quick, hummingbird’s eye view of the Gospel of Matthew and the community for which it was written. The Gospel of Matthew is a study in contrasts. It was written in Greek, so it’s original readers and hearers were Greek-speaking. However, Biblical scholars tell us they also seem to have been Jews, as there are elements throughout the Gospel that point this out. Some examples include Matthew’s concern with fulfillment of Old Testament passages, his tracing the decent of Jesus from the Jewish patriarch Abraham, his use of Jewish terminology such as “Kingdom of Heaven,” which points to the Jewish hesitancy to use God’s name when reading or speaking. Then there is Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus as the Son of David, linking him to the Golden Age of Ancient Israel when both church and state were linked inextricably together and David expanded the Kingdom almost to its furthest reach.
However, Matthew also includes intriguing examples of a universal outlook, stretching the claim of Jesus Christ as Lord and Messiah to those outside the fold of the Jewish flock; for example, the coming of the Magi. They are most definitely not Jewish, yet come to worship the infant Jesus, King of the Jews. Also woven into Matthew’s account is the view that Jesus saw the harvest as the entire world, not just a harvest of Israelites. Matthew’s full statement of the Great Commission makes this abundantly clear:
Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age. (Mt. 28:19-20).
Finally, all these clues paint an intriguing picture, and Biblical scholars agree, that Matthew and his community are caught somewhere in the transitional process from Jewish sect to Christian religion. Some of the pressing issues continually addressed center around wrestling with the validity of Jewish law and its traditions and the fulfillment of scriptures for a new age. Hmmm, sound familiar? Could it be possible that these stories from 2000 years ago have relevance to us in today’s contemporary culture after all? Now that we’ve been given the hummingbird’s eye overview of the Gospel of Matthew, let’s hover for a moment over today’s scripture passage.
In today’s text, Matthew records that Jesus offers an interpretation and explanation for one of his parables, something Jesus is not known for doing very often. Why then, do we find this explanation included?
First, perhaps we should ask, “What, exactly, is a parable, and why does Jesus keep using them?” That, I can tell you: a parable is a brief comparison story drawn from nature or everyday life. It is designed to tease the imagination, challenge accepted values, or illustrate a point. Why does Jesus keep using them? We can make an educated guess: because any of us who experience real life (and I’m guessing–or at least hoping–that’s all of us!) learn new concepts best if they first relate to something we already know and understand. Jesus masterfully draws his hearers in by relating stories of real life experiences they know and understand, then making a connection to something new that he wants them to learn, in this case about the Kingdom of Heaven and what Kingdom of Heaven experiences should look like.
So why do we get this rare look into how Jesus himself interpreted one of his own parables? I submit to you perhaps the reason we get this rare glimpse is to give the original hearers, and Matthew’s original readers, a chance to ask the very same question we have before us today: “What kind of soil are you?”
With this in mind, listen again to what the parable of the sower means:
19When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
This leads me to my second set of questions for you today. What kind of soil are you corporately, in your community of faith? In your particular local mission field, if you will, what is the crop your seeds are supposed to produce? In the bigger picture of the life of your community of faith, what factors were in place at the time when you produced your best crop? Is that time today or was it some Golden Age in yester-years of yore? At what time have you been least fruitful, and why? Have you, or are you, learning from that? Today, what is the most likely “thorn of worry” for your ongoing work as representatives of the Kingdom of Heaven? What steps can you take to improve the condition of the soil of your spiritual lives and that of your larger community? Have you opened your eyes to see and opened your ears to hear the opportunities in this day and age that are all around you in your community? What have you seen and heard?
Thomas Merton, a prolific Christian writer from last century, wrote,
“Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in her or his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men and women. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.”
United Methodist pastor Carl Gregg has an interesting reflecting on this quote. He writes,
“Merton is inviting us to see that Jesus’ Parable of the Sower is not about the occasional moment when God or a human evangelist sows a seed about God. Rather, everything at every moment of every part of our lives is a seed suffused with life-giving spiritual import. This claim is not to say that everything that happens is good or controlled by God; instead it is to say that the sort of soil that we are — good or bad, rock-filled or thorn-infested — in each arising present moment effects how we receive the seeds of experience that are always being sown around us and within us.”
Again I ask, what kind of soil is your community of faith? The only answer to that question will ultimately come from within yourselves as you work out your salvation with fear and trembling, seeing and hearing, envisioning and engaging the ministry that is set before you.
My advice for you is this; when your vision is clear, put your hand to the plow, gaze unwaveringly into the future, and walk. Then, like the hummingbird, pause often in your daily toil to drink deeply from the Well of Eternal Life.
May all glory be unto the One who came, lived among us, and died only to rise again to live among us so that whenever two or more are gathered in His name, He is there; yes, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.