Image courtesy of Life of Jesus Mafa
Jason Byassee: Scattering seeds
What wild, unexpected seeds might you be holding in your hands? In the parable of the sower, the planter flings seeds everywhere, without regard for where they land. What kinds of ministry spring up when Christians pursue innovative ideas, however unlikely they may be?
November 1, 2011 | Editor's note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. Jason Byassee delivered this sermon on July 17, 2011, at Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C.
The image above is from Life of Jesus Mafa, an organization that has developed 62 images from the New Testament in an African context. The artworks were created by a French team in response to the desire expressed by the Mafa Christian community of Cameroon. Used with permission, all rights reserved.
You will notice as I read the Gospel that Jesus addresses a rather irregular congregation here. In our day, we have our normal religious gatherings -- in buildings like this, with seats like these, an ordained person like me, worship this or that way.
In Jesus’ day, they had similar conventions, and Jesus observes them at times -- in Luke chapter 4, he goes to synagogue, reads from the scroll [of Isaiah] and sits down to preach. (Preachers sat back then; everybody else stood up -- perhaps a change we should instigate.)
But here in Matthew 13, Jesus walks by the lake. His congregation is everybody else by the lake, his pulpit is a boat, his altar rail is the waves.
Hear this word:
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. (NRSV)
So what kind of soil are you?
I first had this question put to me on a mission trip to inner-city Boston. My youth group was there visiting a pastor in Roxbury who had a remarkable ministry to gang members. He did something extraordinary. He became their friends. Got to know the gang members, learned their needs, tried to suggest other ways to live than the street. And here he was asking us, in his church’s Sunday school room, what kind of soil we wealthy kids from the suburbs were.
My friends and I looked around at each other. We knew what the right answer was. The parable lays it all out clearly. Who wants to be among those who fail to produce a crop? But the right answer was also wrong. Who could claim they’re good soil -- producing 30, 60, 100 times what was planted?
So most of us hedged our bets. “I think I’m a little bit rocky,” one said. “Maybe a few thorns,” another said. We wanted to say something religious, but we also didn’t want to lie.
Don’t you hate those Sunday school sorts of questions?
Another African-American preacher I heard on this passage also wanted to know what sort of soil we are. Are we the path? Rocky soil? Thorny soil? Or good soil? But then he made a turn I didn’t expect. He said in his neighborhood there aren’t a lot of kids with advantages. Most were poor; those who weren’t still had bad schools to attend; those who made it through those had few job prospects.
“There are thorns and rocks all around,” he preached. “We have to get our hands in the soil. We have to dig in that dirt. We have to pull up those rocks. We have to root out those thorns. It’ll hurt,” he promised, “but if we do, we can turn bad soil into good, so that it’ll bear a crop for Jesus!”
Look at this image. There’s not only Jesus sowing; there are people laboring, preparing the soil. In this way of looking at it, the question isn’t whether we’re good or bad or rocky or thorny soil. The question is, who around us has obstacles in their way? Then we dig in deep into their lives, getting our hands dirty, cut, nicked, pulling up roots and rocks and thorns, so that Jesus’ seed can take root and a harvest can follow.
So who here is willing to get their hands a little dirty and a little banged up and cut up for Jesus? If your hands hurt from the thorns, look over at the one gardening with you and notice that his hands already have holes in them.
Some wise teachers in the ancient church asked about the different kinds of bad soil.
“Some seed fell on the path,” Jesus said. The path is sunbaked. It has no moisture, so it doesn’t open up for the word, and the birds come and eat the seed. That’s us when we fail to understand the word. The moisture that waters the soil is humility. When we don’t soften our hearts with humility, they fail to open to God’s word, and the birds come and eat the seed.
What about the rocky soil? Jesus says that’s a person who receives the word of the kingdom with joy but endures only for a little while and then falls away with any trouble or persecution on account of the word.