Sermon – July 12, 2020 Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Listen! It’s an attention-getter, isn’t it? It makes you sit up a little, pay attention, alerts you – this is important. Your entire mind needs to be focused on just this. Put aside your other thoughts. If a teacher says listen, what follows might save your grade. If a safety instructor says listen, what follows might save your life. If the Lord Jesus says it, what follows may save your soul.
To listen, of course, means more than just to hear noises. One can be in the presence of someone speaking and the words may not even register. This may even be happening right now. But insofar as we are considering the words of Jesus, we owe it to him to listen. And to listen with understanding.
Jesus uses an image that his hearers would have been familiar with in order to move them to something else. This is not about seeding practices or soil conservation, important though these things may be. This is about God, and his people. This is about what God intends for his people, and about what can get in the way of what God intends for his people.
And by virtue of being baptized into Christ’s death and hearing his words, you are part of this people. You now are the seeded ones, the ones who are destined to bear fruit for God. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel his disciples heard that they were to let their light shine before others so that others may see their good works and glorify their Father in heaven. Now in a parable we hear that we are seeded to bear fruit for the kingdom.
The seeding is the beginning. But to bear fruit, a seed must be buried in the soil, take root, and have space to grow. There are many obstacles, as the most rank amateur gardener knows. A thin layer of dirt can hide a bed of rocks which prevents a plant from taking hold. Invasive, unfruitful plants can choke out a small fruit-bearing plant struggling to stay alive. A good gardener will make sure that the soil is deep, rich, clear and prepared so that the seeds can take root and produce what was intended.
I did say this parable wasn’t about gardening, right? This is about listening to understand, and when understanding happens there can be action. God intends for us to bear fruit. He intends for his Word to dwell in us and that it should transform our lives so that we are messengers of his kingdom to others. But there are many obstacles.
We may not be in the first group Jesus likens to the seed that falls upon the hard path on the edge of the field. These are the hard-hearted, those who will not even receive God’s word initially. We might be proud of ourselves for that.
The second group are the rootless. Note carefully that they do not immediately reject the Word like the first group. But when the going gets tough, their faith withers and shrivels up. Their surface faith is not strong enough to withstand persecution.
People are fond these days of saying that Christians are persecuted. Perhaps so. There are many kinds of hard and soft persecutions. We in America do not have a claim to the life-and-death persecution that others face. We have recourse to lawyers and courts and our nation has a long-standing Constitution guaranteeing the freedom of worship.
But there is a soft persecution all must face. It is a persecution that would deride us as silly and stupid for even believing in a God at all. It does come from our opinion-forming elites. And it is difficult to deal with, not least because it makes us defensive and angry.
The point is that any persecution, whether it be the hard persecution of the threat of life or expulsion from the body politic, or the much softer persecution of elite snobbery, demands more than a surface faith.
The third group are those who are choked out by other plants. The soil is warm, welcoming, and deep, the root has grown to its full extent. But other plants grow tall and overshadow, preventing the sunlight from reaching the small plant, and it does not yield the potential it has.
Now we may be on familiar territory. We all must deal with the cares of the world and the lure of wealth, which Jesus says choke the Word so that it does not produce. All of us have cares, and all of us need some of the wealth of the world, for God intends for us to live and flourish. However, there is another flourishing which is beyond the power of wealth to give and with which the cares of the world can interfere. For Jesus says in another place,
So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat,’ and, ‘What shall we drink?’ and ‘What shall we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who worry about such things, and indeed, your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.’
When we are overly focused on our cares and our needs, then we push out the necessity of the Word to dwell in us. But when we seek the kingdom, our cares and our needs are ordered correctly.
Finally we reach the planted seeds that have reached their full potential. They fall on the deep rich soil, root themselves deeply, and the sun and rain reach them. They stretch themselves toward the sky and bear fruit in abundance.
The ones who hear the Word and understand it are like these seeds. Understanding leads to faith, and faith also begets action. This is the life to which we are called, so that we also can spread the knowledge and understanding of God’s Word.
And yet what if we do not understand? This is not an uncommon worry – for we often feel like those who simply cannot comprehend the mysteries of God’s Word to us. We may wonder if we are not more like those seeds on the path, not deep enough for the Word to take root in our lives.
What do we do in such a situation? We ask Jesus for understanding. This happens in prayer, but it also happens when we turn to those who have taught and interpreted the Word in the Tradition of the Church. Matthew is such a one, but there are others. And we glean what we can from their knowledge, and we ask God to complete our lack of understanding.
For this is what the disciples did, when they were at a loss. They did not go away, but stayed with Jesus and asked him in private what his words meant. And Jesus was gracious in giving an interpretation. He does not despise our lack of understanding, but he rewards those who ‘seek the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness.’
May this be our aim, to understand the Word, that we may be those seeds sown in hope and harvested in gladness, having borne the fruit of faith and action for the kingdom of heaven.
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz
St. Stephen Lutheran Church