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Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 12, 2020
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
In hard times, Americans turn some dirt and plant a garden. It happened with the victory gardens of the World Wars. It happened with the “back to the land” movement of the 1970s, during a time of deep recession and inflation and malaise in American life. It is happening again today in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Seeds and soil and gardening tools have been flying off the shelves. YouTube videos offering gardening advice have been getting a lot of visits.
There is something therapeutic about getting your hands in the dirt. There is something calming about being grounded in the earth. And of course, there’s nothing better, nothing more rewarding, than the fresh produce that springs up. I’ve already been enjoying the lettuce my wife has been growing, and we’ve got snap peas and tomatoes and rhubarb and mint coming along nicely as well.
As wonderful as that all is, there is nothing more therapeutic, nothing more calming than God’s Word. There is nothing more grounding than being rooted in God’s Word. There is nothing more delightful or more nourishing than the harvest that comes from God’s Word being planted in us.
Today we hear one of Jesus’ parables wherein he offers what appears on the surface to be gardening advice. He speaks of a sower who goes out to sow seeds. He speaks of common problems with getting those seeds to sprout: There is the hard soil, the path, where the seed falls only to be eaten up by birds. There is rocky ground that prevents those seeds from taking root. There are thorns that choke those seeds out. And then there is the good soil. There is the rich, receptive, dark earth. There is that good soil that is not hardened or rocky or covered in thorns. The good soil brings forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. “Let anyone with ears listen!” Jesus says. In other words, “Listen up, this is important!”
Of course, Jesus isn’t doling out gardening advice here. It’s not bad advice for gardeners, such as it is, but this is more than that. This is a parable. Usually Jesus just lets those parables hang there for us to scratch our heads over and figure out, but here is a rare occasion when Jesus tells us EXACTLY what this parable means! Jesus is describing different scenarios which made it difficult for God’s Word to be planted.
Jesus tells us that the seed that falls on the path and is eaten by birds represents the Word being heard but not understood, and so the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart. How we understand the Word is so very important! There are those who see the Bible as little more than a rule book to follow, and when they discover that they can’t possibly keep all the rules, they fall away in frustration. There are others who see the Bible as an oracle, as a book that predicts the future with secret codes, and when those schemes don’t come to pass, they fall away with disappointment. There are those who see the Bible as little more than a collection of ancient documents to pick apart and discard at will, such that they never hear the voice of the Living God speaking through them. But that isn’t what the Bible is. The Bible is a lot of things, but it is best understood, Martin Luther said, as the manger that holds Christ. We go to it to see him! We go to it look upon our savior! If we don’t understand the Bible in this way, the evil one can snatch the gospel right out of our hearts.
Jesus tells us that the rocky ground represents those who receive the Word with joy initially, but they fall away when trouble or persecution arises because they aren’t rooted, because there is no depth to their faith. We see this happen with consumer Christianity, where people rejoice in the Word when it meets their needs and when it is fun and entertaining, but they fade away when it becomes challenging or difficult. We see this happen as cultural Christianity fades and those who were regular and even enthusiastic churchgoers when it was the popular thing to do wither away as it becomes increasingly countercultural to follow Jesus. Without deep roots in the Word, without a depth to their faith, they wither away.
Jesus tells us that the thorny ground represents the cares of the world and the lure of wealth, which choke out the Word that was planted so that it yields nothing. We all know how busyness and distractions and keeping up with the Joneses and endless scrolling on our devices can choke out the Word in our lives. We let less important things grow up around us until God’s Word is obscured by all the weeds that we let fester.
And then there is the good soil. The good soil isn’t hardened, it is freshly turned and receptive. The good soil isn’t rocky and thin, it has roots and depth. The good soil isn’t covered in thorns, it is weeded so that there is space for the Word to grow in us. This good soil bears fruit a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or thirtyfold. “Let anyone with ears listen!” Jesus says. “Listen up, this is important!”
Anyone who has spent any time gardening knows that you can’t make a seed sprout. You can’t make the sun shine or the rain fall. You can’t control the process of photosynthesis. You can help create the conditions in which a seed can sprout, but there is so much that is beyond your control, that is up to forces beyond you and your efforts. The same is true with the planting of God’s Word. It is the Spirit that creates faith when and where it will.
But Jesus challenges us this morning to roll up our sleeves and get our hands in the dirt to help create the conditions in which his Word can thrive in us. He invites us to be receptive rather than hardened, so that the evil one won’t snatch away what God is trying to plant in our hearts. He challenges us to be rooted, to go deep, to grasp God’s Word and hang on for dear life when the hard times come. He calls us to weed out the distractions to give his Word the space it needs to grow in our lives.
We have a rough row to hoe these days as church life has become so much more complicated in these days of pandemic, but Jesus calls us to continue to tend to this garden so that he might continue to plant his Word in the good soil of our hearts. This garden is more therapeutic, more calming, more grounding and nourishing than any garden we could ever plant. It is a victory garden like no other! As his Word takes root in us, by his grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, it bears good fruit indeed.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church