Sermon: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

July 13, 2014
(Global Mission Sunday at Trinity)

The following is a guest sermon by the Rev. Carolyn Schneider, who will begin missionary service in Hong Kong this fall.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

My guess is that, having just heard the famous parable Jesus tells in our gospel reading, you are probably thinking about what kind of soil you are. You may be thinking, “Well, I didn’t really understand that; I must be that hard soil on the edge of the path.” Or maybe you are thinking, “That was a nice story, but I don’t know what it will mean for me tomorrow or the day after, when life gets hard and I dry up like that rocky soil.” Or maybe your thoughts run like this: “There’s an awful lot on my mind and I can’t clear those thorns away.” Or maybe you are hoping that you are the good soil and wondering whether you are producing 100-fold, 60-fold, or 30-fold, whatever that means.

We do tend to hear this as the parable of the soils and we think about ourselves as the soil. After all, the English word “human” does come from the Latin word for soil, “humus,” just as the Hebrew word “adam” comes from the Hebrew word for soil, “admah,” in the ancient story about how God molded us earthlings from the soil with God’s own hands. But when we focus on the different kinds of soil in this parable, we focus on ourselves, and when we focus on ourselves this parable can fill us with anxiety. What is it exactly that we are supposed to produce? And what if we don’t produce it? What if we’re already working our hardest and this is just one more impossible task? How can we make ourselves be good soil?

Our ears have become self-centered, and our self-centeredness has caused a lot of problems for this earth and the earthlings on it. The tendency of our human nature to focus on ourselves has become a burden even to ourselves, as we constantly measure and evaluate ourselves and others and always find something lacking. It is almost a relief to hear Paul say in his letter to the Romans that we just heard read that human nature has nothing to look forward to but death; God won’t let this last forever.

But then Paul says this amazing and shocking thing: God sent his own Son in the same human nature as any sinner. Even though Jesus, the teller of this parable, did not let sin come to expression in his own life, he still carried sinful human nature until it was dead and buried. He was soil, like us.

But Jesus was not only soil. Planted in our flesh and buried with that soil was the word of God’s kingdom, the seed. In his death Jesus became rich soil, sending that seed shooting up fresh and green with new life. The plant of Jesus’ risen life bears more seeds of the same human nature made right, not just 100 times more, but endless times more. Jesus is not done speaking. He returns to his followers as the sower, sowing that seed of God’s kingdom among us and breathing his own Spirit into us to water, fertilize, and nurture the seed in us through baptism, through words of forgiveness, through holy communion, and through Bible readings. Jesus is the soil, a human being like us; he is the seed, the Word of God sown in us; and he is the sower, the God whose Spirit makes that word happen.

The parable Jesus tells does not say exactly what the word of the kingdom is. But Isaiah spells it out in our first reading. Isaiah writes that God’s word is, “Yes, you will go out with joy and be led away in safety. Mountains and hills will break into joyful cries before you and all the trees of the countryside clap their hands.” In other words, God is saying to us, “I am saving you earthlings and all the earth has the promise of my salvation.” This is why Paul writes, “Thus condemnation will never come to those who are in Christ Jesus.” God’s word is never unfulfilled. It always achieves what it was sent to do. Since the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead has made her home in us, then our hearts and minds and lives are changed, even now on this side of the grave, as we receive and trust God’s promise of life and peace. And on the other side of the grave, Paul tells us, the God “who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies also through his Spirit living in you.”

So if condemnation never comes to us now from God, we can give up condemning ourselves and condemning others. We have a new life together and new ears, so that we can take the focus off of ourselves and hear what Jesus really says in the parable he tells. He says, “Listen, a sower went out to sow. …So pay attention to the parable of the sower.” Jesus says it twice. This is not the parable of the soils; our old human nature hears it that way. With gratitude we can lay that aside. This is the parable of the sower.

This is a story about God and how God farms the earth. God is not like a normal farmer, who buys just the right amount of seed and plants it carefully in measured rows. Rather, God is a farmer with an endless supply of seed, flinging it everywhere. If some of the seed doesn’t sprout, this sower can just throw out some more; there is always more where it came from because this seed is God’s endless Word.

God is extravagantly persistent. Jesus is sitting there in the boat, telling this story to a big crowd of people, some of whom will get it and some of whom won’t. We don’t always get what Jesus is saying, but he never dwells on that. He scatters seeds again and again with many other stories of the generous love of the God who saves. Even more, Jesus lives out his life as the generous God who saves, as we have seen.

It is in God’s nature to give life and to save it. You could even say that God does not really have a choice about that. It’s just what God does, part of God’s godness. Paul calls it “the Law of the Spirit,” the Lord and giver of life. Thank God every day that your life and growth are in God’s hands and not your own. There is no place in Jesus’ parable where the sower commands the soil to get ready, to water itself, to churn itself up with fertilizer. Instead, the sower just sows seeds here and there and everywhere.

God makes the growth happen. We are like children who don’t see or even think about their own growth. They just grow. What if it doesn’t seem to you that there is any growth happening? Turn your eyes elsewhere, away from yourself. Look at the sower. Growth is happening because the sower has gone out to sow and God’s word does not fail in its purpose. The Holy Spirit is at work watering your furrows, blessing your shoots, clothing your valleys with grain. When and where? One place for sure is here. What do we do in this place? We baptize people with water in God’s name; we listen to God’s word; we receive in our bodies the body and blood of Christ in, with, and under the bread made from 1,000 wheat seeds and the wine made from 1,000 grape seeds; we comfort one another and pray for one another.

The transformation and growth that happen when the Spirit makes us alive in Christ is called the crop or the harvest in Jesus’ parable. On some days, usually when we have to struggle with something hard or when a big opportunity for life-changing service comes to us, it grows quickly. On other days, the growth is less spectacular, but it’s always happening, whether at 30, 60, or 100%.

Once that growth starts to happen, our sprouting selves produce seeds that are just like the seed that was sown in us. We begin to develop words and language about what God has done for us, for others, and for the creation itself. We have stories to tell. When we begin to tell those stories, we look a lot like the sower, scattering seed right and left. The motto of our national church body, the ELCA, is, after all, “God’s work, our hands.” You scatter the seeds of God’s Word personally in the ways you interact with those around you. You scatter the seeds together as a congregation in your worship, Bible study, Sunday school, and local outreach in this neighborhood. You scatter seed further through your participation in the work of the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin, and you fling seeds to the whole world through your support of the ELCA, especially our Division for Global Mission. You and others, for example, are sending me to Hong Kong to teach church history at the Lutheran Theological Seminary there. Because of you, churches in many Asian countries will have able pastoral care and leadership as they grow, and they will know that they are not alone but are connected to the church of earlier times and to the present church across the globe. We sang in the Psalm today that God our Savior is the hope of the whole wide world, even the distant islands, and that God’s signs turn panic into shouts of joy at the gateways of morning and evening, that is, from the farthest east to the farthest west of the world.

God’s nurturing is needed not only here. Everywhere the people are in an uproar; and everywhere God is saving people and making them fruitful with hope and joy. Many of the students at the seminary in Hong Kong are new Christians so eager to learn more that the seminary has had to make a rule that I have never seen at a seminary before. People who are applying for the program that prepares students for pastoral leadership must provide a copy of their baptismal certificate to show that they have been baptized at least three years. They have to live and learn from the church for a while before they start to lead it.

We do learn from each other, locally and globally. You are not the only ones scattering seeds everywhere. Other Christians and church bodies are, too. For example, much of this sermon today was inspired by a devotional booklet given to me by one of the members of St. Andrew’s United Church in Cairo, Egypt, when I lived there a couple of years ago. It was written by an anonymous deacon of the Coptic church, and it was quite different from any daily devotional book I ever saw put out by an American church. Instead of having a short daily Bible reading with thoughts about how that reading relates to the activities of our daily life, this Coptic devotional had long, rapturous reflections for each day on how loving and gracious God is beyond all description. It gave examples of how to make God’s goodness the lens through which to read many passages from the Bible. Every day in that booklet was a day to sing the praises of God. It was not about me.  That’s what made me notice that Jesus’ parable of the sower is actually about the sower, not about what kind of soil I am.

I look forward to gaining new insights from the Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Indonesians, Burmese, and other Christians that I am about to meet and work with. And I look forward to sharing their seeds with you regularly in writing and personally when I come back to visit every couple of years. I look forward to seeing how your own seeds have sprouted in the meantime.

~Carolyn Schneider, ELCA missionary to Hong Kong

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