[[This was a short ten-minute sermon given as part of the Festival of Young Preachers at the Cooperative Baptist General Assembly last week in Atlanta. If you are not familiar with the work of the Academy of Preachers, the host of this event, you should be. The Academy is finding and equipping new leaders in the church for the ministry of preaching. It's an ecumenical effort involving all Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians in the United States. It's one of my greatest pleasures when I can participate in their festivals, and I would love other people to experience them, as well. If you know a young preacher or are a young preacher, visit the Academy of Preachers website today!]]
CBF General Assembly
27 June 2014
“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”
And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
Mark 4:3-9, NRSV
That last line has always irked me. “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” It makes it sound so simple as if I would just listen, I would understand. If you’ve got ears, hear it, Jesus says. Well, I have ears that can hear, but I have to say I do not understand. Jesus compounds my frustration as the passage goes one with that charming little quotation from Isaiah’s commissioning where he says, “for those on the outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they [apparently meaning me] may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven” (vv. 11-12). If that was not enough to make me feel a bit insecure about my confused state, Jesus asks: “Do you not understand this parable?”
Well, no, Jesus, I don’t.
There is a lot to be confused about, my friends. Right now, I work for a non-profit that connects farmers and their excess produce with food pantries, food banks, and shelters. So, I have spent more time than I ever had before talking with farmers. Just last week, I was down in rural Alabama with a farmer helping him harvest squash he was going to donate. And I can tell you, upon reading this description of farming, he would be entirely as confused as I am. It is irresponsible and downright foolish. First of all, this sower sows seeds on the path. Why are you sowing seeds on the path? Nothing grows on that path. That’s why it’s a path. None of the farmers I work with sow seeds and then walk on where they just planted them. They don’t sow seeds in rocky ground or thorny ground either. Are we even sowing seeds on a farm? And then to compound the problem, despite the sower’s lack of skill at … well … sowing, he still gets a decent crop. What’s that supposed to tell us? What’s the message here? A broken clock is right twice a day?
So, I start thinking that, and I start feeling confident in my confusion about the parable, right? I think maybe Mark had some first century typos going on in chapter four. But then Jesus takes it one step further and explains the whole thing. Nothing quite humbles you like the Good Lord’s condescension. He says, “The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown in the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”
I would be lying to you if I said that helped a whole lot. The grammar is horrible. Are people the soil or the seeds? Are we supposed to be good dirt or lucky seeds? What I have heard my whole life is that I was supposed to be good soil so that the Gospel could be a seed in me. That’s not exactly a motto to live by though: be good dirt. Dirt doesn’t really choose if it’s good dirt or not. Some soil in some parts of the world are good for farming and others are not. In the Birmingham area, the soil isn’t good for farming anything more than small stuff like blueberries. That’s why there’s a big city there now. Up in North Carolina, there’s so much good soil in my part of the state that things are a whole lot further apart from each other. Now, you and I can damage soil, but the soil didn’t have much choice in the matter. We can buy soil and put it in a raised bed and that’s good soil, but the soil didn’t have much say in the matter. So, “be good dirt” as the point of this parable didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
So, I sat with this passage for a long time. It’s bothered me for a while. The longer I sat with it, the more I think I understood what Jesus might be telling us today in our churches. You see, dirt doesn’t have a lot of choice in how good it is for soil, but you and I are pretty good at manipulating soil. Our churches, our congregations, are in the business of providing soil: that soil that our children and youth grow up in, that soil people of all ages live in. And when I thought of it that way, the parable started to hit home.
I know people who are victims of Satan’s robbery, like those seeds caught up by birds. I think of children whose ambitions and passions are squelched because they are told, “that’s not what girls do,” or “that’s not what boys like.” I think of little girls who get called “bossy” and little boys who get called “sissy.” I think especially of little girls who are told they can’t pass the offering plate, preach a sermon, or teach a Bible Study. I think too of a whole generation of born again atheists who left the church because they were told to check their brains at the door, they were told not to think, not to question, and not to doubt. I think of those who left the church because of mistreatment and derision. I think of those who walk away from God because the church told them God did not love them for who they are. I think we all know people whose seeds got thrown onto a path instead of a church of good soil.
Do you not know seeds sown in rocky ground? Do you not know those with great gifts and passions who suffer from lack of support? I think of the poets and artists who wanted so much to use their gifts for God, but they were met with hostility by the church because they were too controversial, cerebral, or postmodern for Jesus to handle. I think of youth who were fed junk food theology and worship with artificial flavoring, youth who went off to college and the church had given them nothing to stand on. And we wonder why they leave. When they find themselves with no support in their gifts and encounter trouble and persecution, the church has given them no reason to stick it out. I think we all know what rocky ground looks like.
I think you know what the thorns look like, too. Have we seen what the world has to offer up and down the streets of Downtown? I think of banks and corporations that provide fulfillment through money that looks a whole lot more attractive than the lackluster vision many of us provide on a Sunday morning. I think of the big businesses (legal and illegal) that provide fulfillment through addition and highs. I think of the tabloids, movies, and television programming that provide fulfillment through escape. I think of all those thorns that offer self-destructive sources of fulfillment that look so much more appealing to whatever we Christians are pedaling these days. We have failed all too often to offer a better story and without sharp enough shears, we let these thorns choke the word until it yields nothing.
With all of those obstacles to growth and flourishing, the situation seems dire. You might as well throw in drought, blight, and locusts for good measure. It couldn’t get much worse. Where does this message leave us?
There’s a reason Jesus talks about a fourth sort of dirt. “Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” The point of parables, many have said, is in the reversal. The last thing a good farmer would expect to hear when confronted with the description of this sower’s earthy malpractice is for any crop to come of it. He needs to find a different plot of land, because this one is clearly not working for him. But there it is: thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. I think in that reversal is the central meaning of the parable. In a world of bad soil, the church needs to be good soil for the seeds God sows.
What’s good soil look like? Good soil embraces girls and boys just like they are. Good soil fosters their gifts for the Kingdom, encourages their hearts and minds. Good soil doesn’t make people leave, but invites them in. Good soil encourages people of all kinds to be exactly who God created them to be. Good soil provides a vision of the world, of a church, and of a God that’s worth sharing.