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Sermon for 12 July 2020

First Reading                                  Isaiah 55:10-13

10“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 12For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

Psalm                                                    Psalm 65:1-14

1You are to be praised, O God, in Zion; to you shall vows be performed in Jerusalem. 2To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, because of their transgressions. 3Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out. 4Happy are they whom you choose and draw to your courts to dwell there! they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house, by the holiness of your temple. 5Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O Hope of all the ends of the earth and of the seas that are far away. 6You make fast the mountains by your power; they are girded about with might. 7You still the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the clamor of the peoples. 8Those who dwell at the ends of the earth will tremble at your marvelous signs; you make the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy. 9You visit the earth and water it abundantly; you make it very plenteous; the river of God is full of water. 10You prepare the grain, for so you provide for the earth. 11You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase. 12You crown the year with your goodness, and your paths overflow with plenty. 13May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing, and the hills be clothed with joy. 14May the meadows cover themselves with flocks, and the valleys cloak themselves with grain; let them shout for joy and sing.

Second Reading                         Romans 8:12-17

12So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Gospel                                             Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9He who has ears, let him hear.”

18{Jesus said to the disciples,} “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

A Dirt Story

A Sunday school teacher had been teaching the children about creation and about how God created Adam from the dust of the earth.  One little girl in the class—who just so happened to be the pastor’s daughter—said with alarm, “You mean I’m made out of dirt?”  His teacher responded, “Well, in a sense, yes.”  She thought about this for a moment, processing this information through her four-year-old brain, then stated wide-eyed, “My Mom is NOT going to be happy about that!”

Have you ever stopped to ponder the implications of this?  That of all the things God could have used as a base material for forming us, God chose the dust of the earth.  When we read this part of the creation story, all we hear is dirt, and dirt isn’t something we associate with as good.  But what is dirt?  Consider this; out of the ground comes all the things we see as precious; things like gold, silver, copper, iron, diamonds, oil.  Additionally, the ground sustains life for all living things.  Dirt holds and gives back moisture, it provides the medium and nutrients for plants, which in turn support life on this earth.  Ponder this as we look once again at the very familiar story Jesus tells us in our gospel reading for this morning.

Jesus, it seems, was a keen observer of the world around Him.  His observations resulted in many of the parables that He told, and today’s story is no exception.  Interestingly, this simple parable appears in all three synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—which suggests that it’s something to which we should pay special attention.  Listen again to Jesus’ words: “A farmer went out to sow.  As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.  Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil.  It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.  But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.  Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.  Still, other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

Now when many of us read this story we think of how we plant our gardens.  Seeds are placed with purpose in neat rows spaced in a way to maximize the yield and minimize waste.  However, to appreciate what Jesus is teaching we need to think of how farmers planted large fields with crops like wheat and barley.  When we think of mass planting we think of large tractors, some of which have air conditioning.  But of course, none of these were available when Jesus walked the earth.  Sowing seed was done by hand, so things weren’t so precise.  Here’s another interesting thing I learned this week.  Did you know there really was a Johnny Appleseed?

Yes, Johnny Appleseed did plant apple trees, but he also had a passion for spreading another kind of seed.  Occasionally, he would take a break from sowing apple seeds and he would sit under the shade of one of his trees and invite passersby to join him as he read passages from the Bible and other books.  I thought that was interesting.  But imagine how inefficient this farmer that Jesus talks about must have been in his scattering of the seed.  According to Jesus’ description, the seed was going everywhere.  The only real way for me to picture the farmer in Jesus’ story was to recall the last time I planted grass seed. 

The last time I planted grass seed, some of that seed fell on the driveway where it couldn’t possibly grow and some of the seed fell on a patch of rocky soil where the road and driveway meet.  Some of that seed fell in among the vines and daylilies around the trash can enclosure where the emerging grass was choked out.  The rest of the seed fell on good soil.  This last group of seeds has now grown up and made for a nice-looking patch of grass.  On the surface, the farmer in Jesus’ story seems pretty slip-shod in his work, wasteful even, therefore, one could conclude that this parable isn’t about farming at all.  If this story isn’t about farming practices, then it must be about the farmer or God—God and the seed which He sows, His seeds of grace.

When we think about this story in this way, we first must stop and thank God for His generosity.  For God, sowing His seeds of grace isn’t so much about efficiency as it is about His generosity.  Thankfully, God scatters His grace generously all over the place.  And thankfully the soil on which the seed is sown is us.  In fact, it’s everyone in this world.  So, in that sense, we are all dirt.  But, as we see in this parable, not all dirt is the same.  God’s grace is generously available to everyone, but not everyone responds to His grace in the same way.  Because God gives us the freedom to decide our own destiny through our decisions and actions, and He will not force Himself into our lives.  And because we have free will, God’s grace works differently in different people’s lives.  I believe this is primarily what this parable is about.

It’s also interesting that this is one of the very few parables that Jesus bothers to explain, which signifies that this is an important teaching.  In this parable, Jesus describes four kinds of soil.  Again, Jesus isn’t really interested in teaching us about growing crops; He’s describing four kinds of people.  The first category of people Jesus describes is the unbeliever, the rebellious, the hard of heart, the agnostic and the atheist.  Listen then,” said Jesus, “to what the parable of the sower means: When 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.”

Imagine for just a moment a dirt driveway or roadway.  Hundreds or even thousands of people and cars travel this path on a regular basis.  The road or pathway is of course hard and bare of vegetation.  That’s what makes it a path.  The soil over time is beaten down and in the dry season, it becomes as hard as rock.  It becomes so hard that even in the rain, more water washes off, than is absorbed.  When some of the seed does fall on the pathway, birds come along and gobble them down.  Therefore, even though God’s grace is generously scattered, that mercy shown has little chance of taking root.  But God is aware that there are cracks that form in the hard surface and when that seed of mercy falls in the cracks, grass does indeed grow.  Knowing this, God continues to generously scatter.  And there’s something else we need to consider here.

Jesus said the seed that falls on the path is like people who hear the Gospel but do not understand it.  Now I didn’t particularly care for the way this was translated from the Greek into the English.  I believe a better translation of the Greek word “synientos” is perceive.  Translated this way, I believe this verse is better read, “Jesus said the seed that falls on the path is like people who hear the Gospel, but do not perceive it’s importance.  I believe it’s more than they don’t comprehend it, they don’t take it into their hearts.  They hear the Gospel, but they don’t understand how important it is to their lives, therefore, they have no interest in making it their own.

Next, Jesus points us to a second group; we could call this the “morning-glory” group.  This is the group of people that are rocky soil.  “The seed falling on rocky ground,” says Jesus, “refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.  But since they have no root, they last only a short time.  When the trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.”  Now we need to pause here once again and take note of the modifying phrase, “because of the word.”  These are the folks who are easily swayed by social pressure or political correctness.  As soon as something challenges their newfound belief, they abandon God’s gift of grace and return quickly the status quo.

As you know, rocky soil isn’t quite as precarious for planting seeds as the hardened path.  A few plants might at least grow initially in rocky soil.  But the prospects are dim, because the soil is so shallow that the seed doesn’t get the nutrition it needs.  Without the proper support, nothing grows like it ought to grow.  I referred to these folks as the morning-glory group because of something I read about professional baseball players.

In professional baseball, coaches talk about the “morning-glory” syndrome.  Morning-glories are called this because they unfold into full bloom in the early morning.  Then they start to fade.  So, this name, morning-glory, is given to young recruits in professional baseball who perform marvelously in spring practice, but then as they travel north and experience the lengthy baseball season, they begin to wilt like a morning-glory flower.  By June their batting average drops to an unacceptable level.  And by July they are released from their team.

Seeds that fall on rocky soil is like that.  It may take root initially, but because it doesn’t get the nutrition it needs it eventually wilts and dies.  Morning-glory is a name that could be applied to many Christian believers who make an initial commitment to Christ, but because of social pressure, they fall away.  A few will be sincere, but when they get out in the world, they waver, then wither.  Only a handful experience the joy, the new meaning and purpose that only Christ can give.  In truth, the rocky soil is scarcely better than the barren path.  Remember, the barren path is the nonbeliever.  The morning-glories are those with a shallow minimum of faith.  And then there is the third group Jesus talked about.  We could refer to this group as “the distracted.”

The third group, says Jesus, consists of the seed that falls “among the thorns.”  Here Jesus is referring to someone “who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.”  These folks are not so much affected by political correctness or social pressure, these are the folks who have little gods or idols in their lives that they put ahead of God.  These little gods or idols are the things like, wealth, power, prestige, status, personal comfort and such, that are seen as more important than a life of discipleship.  It’s these little gods in our life that if not removed or put in their proper place, will grow much faster than the good seed and, because they are so strong, they throttle the life out of the good seed.

I call these “distractions” because that’s what worldly worries do to us.  They keep us from focusing on Christ and His will for our lives.  We talk nowadays about distracted driving, but what about distracted living where we focus on nearly everything except Jesus and His will for our lives?  We’re told that General George Washington faced immense hurdles when trying to build an army to face powerful British forces.  One of the most perplexing challenges he faced was maintaining troop strength.  His biggest foe was distraction. 

Most of Washington’s soldiers were farmers.  When planting and harvest seasons rolled around, these fighters’ hearts and minds turned homeward.  They worried who would sow the seed and gather the crops that enabled their families to survive.  In such seasons, Washington and his generals faced a huge drain on the army’s strength as troops, whose attention was pulled from the battlefield to the harvest field, laid down their weapons and walked home.  That’s the seed that is sown where there are weeds and thorns.  Three groups—unbelievers, the morning-glories, and those who are distracted . . .  Jesus knew that many of those who listened to His teachings would fall away or, at least, would give only minimal service to His kingdom.  Fortunately, there’s one more group that Jesus describes.  

This final group is the seed that falls on good soil, we could call this group, the company of the committed. Jesus says the good soil refers “to someone who hears the word and understands it.  Again, Jesus uses the same word He used before “synientos”, or to perceive, with this group.  This group is the opposite of those in the hard path group.  The committed hear the word, they comprehend it’s importance in their lives and they allow that word to work and grow and mature, thus they “produce a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”  This company of the committed refers to people that Christ can always count on.

I believe that Jesus is saying that when we listen, apply, obey and give Christ our best service, our work is magnified more than we ever dream possible.  God, working in our lives, will have an influence on our family, our community, even our world in a way that’s greater than we can possibly anticipate or understand.

There’s an inspiring book titled Second Calling by Dale Bourke.  Bourke writes that, years ago, she attended a publishing conference.  A friend named Bruce offered her a ride to the airport.  As they were about to leave, the doorman from the hotel stopped them and said that the hotel bus had broken down.  Would they mind taking another passenger to the airport?  They agreed, and the man who would be riding with them gratefully jumped into the back seat.

On the way, Bruce asked the man where he worked.  The man mentioned a Christian publishing house affiliated with a campus organization.  Bruce perked up at this and said, “I have really fond memories of that group, because I attended a weekend retreat one time, [sponsored by that organization], and that’s where I became a Christian.  It was in 1972 in New Hampshire.”

Bruce then went on to explain that he had not only become a Christian that weekend, but a year later when he gave his testimony, his entire family came to Christ.  His sister eventually became a Wycliffe missionary and translated Scripture for a group in Africa.  His parents turned their publishing interests to Christian books and published some of the biggest Christian books of the next few decades.  Bruce had become the owner of a major Christian publishing house himself and brought many significant Christian books to the public.  It was obvious that the impact of that retreat had reverberated throughout the world.

Their passenger, the man who was with the organization that sponsored that retreat, grew strangely silent.  Then he said quietly, “I led that retreat.  It was my first time as a conference leader, and I felt like a total failure.  Until this moment, I have always believed it was one of the biggest failures of my life.”  We may never know.  With God’s help, we sow a small seed into someone’s heart—and without us even being aware of what the Holy Spirit is doing in that person’s life, that seed sprouts and grows.  As Jesus reminds us in John chapter 4, sometimes we sow, sometimes we reap, but in the end, we both will rejoice. 

The question we need to be asking is, to which group do I belong?  Since you’re here today, or watching this online, I doubt that any of us are in the hardened path group, the nonbeliever.  However, there may be a few among the morning-glory group.  At one time they were excited about their faith, but social pressure and political correctness has overtaken the joy and the word has faded in their lives.  Deep in their heart they know they have fallen by the wayside.

I suspect that there a good many folks in the distracted group.  We’re all so busy today, it seems no one has time for God.  We live in the most prosperous and secure society in the world, yet there are so many who are desperately lonely . . . uncertain about life . . . are guilt-ridden . . . and afraid.  Something is missing in their life and deep in their heart they know what it is: It’s a living relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

So where does this leave the last group of folks, the committed?  It’s through the committed that God keeps generously showering the seed of His word, even in the places that don’t make sense, in the hearts and minds of people that seem closed off, unreceptive, who seem like a waste of our time.  For the faithful, our hope and prayer is that God will work through us to produce thirty, sixty, or even a hundred fold for the kingdom—that our life might have purpose and peace and that the world will be enriched because we have encountered Christ.  The good soil group are God’s faithful children and the inheritors of His kingdom, and it’s through us, that God sows and harvests for eternal life.


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