Pentecost 4A Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
So, how many of you have your tickets for the midnight showing of Harry Potter next week? I’ve been waiting for quite a while for this movie, not just because it is the final one in the series but because now I can read the books. To me, movies are a different kind of storytelling genre and, therefore, the differences between the movie and the book are often significant enough that I’d like the movie to stand on its own. But now, I’m looking forward to the books.
The story of Harry Potter is one that has captured countless imaginations of all ages around the world. Even if you haven’t read the books or seen any of the movies, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of Harry. While the story is about a lot of things with a lot of characters, personalities and tons of sub plots and lessons that could be learned, the overarching theme is good vs evil.
Before Harry Potter, there was Luke Skywalker and Star Wars; the epic battle of good vs evil across the galaxy and across a generation. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is another fine example of this same theme played out in mythological and yet incredibly human settings.
Movies and books and even good television are full of metaphor. Did J K Rawling know she was writing a metaphorical story about the struggle of good against evil? Maybe. Maybe not. The Chronicles of Narnia, To Kill a Mockingbird, Planet of the Apes, The Scarlet Letter, 1984, The Wizard of Oz, Pale Rider, most Disney Movies, Batman, Spiderman and nearly every superhero story known to mankind are all stories that tell us evil is real but so is good and it really does matter what we choose to do with and in our lives.
You know, I could just say that very thing. Evil is real but so is good and it really matters what we do, matters a lot not just to ourselves but to the people and places we love as well. Yet, no matter how many times we might hear that statement there will always be a point where we need to know what that really means. What does that look like?
Jesus must have understood that need very well. He could have simply stopped with the Sermon on the Mount, “repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”, and the greatest commandment of love the Lord with all you have and your neighbor as yourself. But he did not stop with that because he knows that at some point we all must ask: what does all that really mean? What does that look like? Rather than just heaping more words of explanation on top, he told stories. We call them parables.
The parables of Jesus teach us three things: something about ourselves, something about our relationship with God and something about who God is. There are other things that parables can teach us as well, but these are the big three. However, they are often not meant to teach us about such things as how to be a good farmer as we can see in the parable from today’s gospel reading.
Jesus has so many followers gathered in this one spot that he gets into a boat and moves out from shore a bit so that he can speak to all of them at once without being overwhelmed. He begins to tell stories. A sower went out to sow.
A woman went out into her garden to plant sunflower seeds. This woman was a different kind of gardener from most because while most people would carefully put each little seed into the ground, she would scatter seed everywhere! Seed is expensive stuff and most gardeners would have been very careful with it so as not to waste it in any place it wouldn’t do well, but the woman went out to sow and flung the seed everywhere! Putting her hand into her bag of sunflower seeds she would wave her arm around and seed would just fly all over the garden, landing all around. Over and over her hand would go back into the bag and she would sow the seeds without care.
Some of the seed ended up on the little pathway that led to the garden and before you know it, the birds came down and snapped them up. The great big crows loved those big tasty sunflower seeds the woman flung around and were quite happy to peck them up right behind her. Some of the seed fell along the rocky ground in the garden. Every good gardener knows that seeds there would spring up quickly, mostly because there wasn’t any soil to put roots into and the only way to grow is up. But it would not be long before they would be scorched and burnt up by the sun because, without roots, the plant would dry up and die.
Some of the seeds that the woman sowed ended up on actual soil. But part of that was in a section of the garden that had thorns and thistles and brambles of all kinds. Those plants were merciless when it came to competition for sunlight and soil and those little seeds were choked out before they even had time to bloom.
There were some seeds, however, that ended up in the good soil. They were far enough away from the crows, had soil into which they could stretch their roots and no competition from other plants for all the water and sunlight they needed. These plants grew into great tall sunflowers and the woman had more flowers in her garden than anyone had ever seen.
When Jesus told the parable of the sower to his disciples he did something that he does not often do in the gospels. He gives an explanation of the metaphor. The evil one snatches away those who do not understand just like the seed on the path that was gobbled down by the birds. Those who are excited about their faith and though they have a genuine belief but have no roots, no support system in their faith, they may fall away when the difficulties of being a disciple start showing up, just like the seeds on rocky ground. Then there are those who have no real opportunity to grow in their faith because of all the outside influences of the world choke it just like seeds that fell into thorns. And then there are those who hear and understand, who bear fruit from what they hear and these are like the seeds planted on good soil. A great harvest, indeed.
Jesus’ parable tells us a little bit about ourselves, a little bit about our relationship with God and a little bit about who God is. It is tempting to think of ourselves as being one kind of soil or another. Surely, we are all good soil, right? When we studied this in Sunday school last week, one person immediately said that he could think of times in his life when he has been like all of those places where the seeds fell: the path, the rocky ground, the thorny soil and the good soil. Perhaps the garden is full of lots of different people at many different places in their lives, able to hear and receive the word of God—the seeds—differently based on both their own lives and those of others. Perhaps the garden could also be our whole life, stretched out before the great gardener and at different times in our lives we have been vulnerable to being snatched up by crows or rootless and scorched by the sun or choked out by thorns and thistles and other times we have been good, deep rich soil for the seeds to grow and bloom and bear fruit.
Whatever kind of soil we are at any given moment, wherever we are in the garden, we receive the seeds from God. Regardless of the state of growth, the garden is made by the gardener. The word of God (the seeds) comes from God and if we have a life filled with beautiful flowers it is because of God’s gracious gift. Without the gardener, the garden is just path and rock and dirt, but with the gardener, it is beautiful.
One of the interesting things to think about is how we can be good gardeners, too. The parable won’t necessarily tell us how to be a good farmer, but that is not really what the story is about. How can we spread the word of God? This is a good thing to think about and it seems that Jesus might tell us that we can imitate this gardener. After all, the parable tells us about ourselves, our relationship with God and about what God is like. Remember the way the gardener sowed their seed in the parable? They do not think the seed is so precious that it must be carefully planted in only the places that look good. They do not spend time looking for Just The Right Place. They scatter the seed everywhere. God is so generous that he tosses out his grace in the word of God everywhere across the garden. So, too, can we be so generous. Since the master gardener has been so generous with us, we, too, can be giving, loving, and sharing with people without having to wonder if they will respond in the way we wish or not. We do not have to ask ourselves whether or not this is a ‘good’ person in which we may invest our time and energy. God has not waited for us to be good soil before he gave us his Son. Instead, God gives generously to the whole garden.
Besides, there might be a well-beaten down path somewhere that is really good soil just waiting for God’s rain.