Ordinary 15A / 16A – Sower & Seeds, Soil & Weeds: A Sermon from Matthew 13

This is my sermon from last week. If you are a pastor, feel free to copy and steal everything.

2014.07.13 – Discipleship
Matt. 13 – Sower & Seeds, Soil & Weeds

During a sabbatical a few years back, Kristin and I took a trip to Ireland. We rented a tiny car, drove south along the coast all the way to the southern tip of the island, then up along the Western side. In hindsight I think it’s possible we were lucky to survive the trip—mostly owing to the fact that I couldn’t remember to drive on the left hand side of the road. In my defense: not only do you drive on the left, you do it from the wrong side of the car. Irish cars put the driver’s side on the right. Oh, and their cars are all standard transmissions. So while you are driving on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the car, you get the added little bonus of trying to shift with your left hand. It was all terribly disorienting. I think the low point was my attempt to parallel park in front of our hotel in Dublin. Let’s just say when children point at you laughing, and call you a tourist—you are not having your best day.

The Southwestern coastline of Ireland faces out to the North Atlantic, a rugged & beautiful convergence of tall cliffs, green fields, and blue waters. I’ve never seen anything like it. Everywhere you look you are greeted by amazing green hillsides, most of which are checkered with fastidiously built rock fences. These fences are everywhere.
Not just around the edges of the fields, but crisscrossing the fields & hillsides like squares on a checkerboard.

Now, where I grew up there are really only two reasons to build a fence: either you’re trying to keep somebody out, or keep somebody in (usually trespassers out & livestock in). So we naturally figured the fences had something to do with grazing livestock, delineation of lands or something like that. We soon learned the fences kept nothing out & nothing in. In fact they weren’t even fences at all; they were rock walls. They were built because the land we were gazing at was once completely covered with those rocks & the people wanted to farm it.

Ireland’s population was once much larger than it is now. At one time around 8 million people lived on that tiny island. Just to give a little perspective, today there are only about ½ that many people living there. They needed all of the pasture and cropland they could find. The problem was that the rugged grey rocks covered much of the ground, making it virtually impossible to farm. So the Irish began clearing the rocks, stacking them into a latticework of rectangular walls and fences that still cover the hillsides and farms. They did this work by hand, stacking millions of tons of rocks.

Once the rocks were dealt with the farmers ran into another problem: The soil underneath the rocks (if you could call it soil), was so thin that it could barely sustain a covering of short grass or moss. Crops seemed pretty much out of the question.

If you’ve ever been to the ocean you’ve probably smelled a kind of fishy odor hanging in the air. It’s not actually the fish you smell, it’s the smell of rotting seaweed. You know there are some serious bacteria living in the stuff if the smell of it could fill the air for miles and miles. So the Irish farmers would take their donkey & cart and go down to the ocean at low tide. They’d fill the cart full of seaweed & sand, then cart it all back up the hillside where they’d stack it, allowing it to rot. It was large scale composting.
They’d cover the newly cleared land in layers of kelp & sand, often mixing in a little fishmeal & manure (to help w/the smell I’m assuming). They’d let it rot in the sun & rain, dig in it, turn it, mix it with whatever natural soil they found under the rocks, and over time, they could actually create their own soil.

It was backbreaking work. They literally had to create the soil one cartload at a time in which they would try and grow potatoes or a simple garden to feed their families. Can you imagine? Entire hillsides acres & acres, hundreds and thousands of square miles of agricultural land that was created from seaweed and sand that was formed into soil.

It’s not as though they were just making dirt. They were making soil. Soil is, after all, the bedrock of human existence. Every cell in your body, every piece of food you’ve ever eaten can be traced back to soil. Ever think of that? Look at your arms and hands—look up really close. The cells of your body were once soil. Plants, which have the ability to convert sunlight into usable energy, drew nutrients from the soil. You at the plant (or ate something that ate the plant), and your body converted that energy into skin & bones & tissues & life.

All of human life is completely dependent upon and derived from soil, and yet soil comprises only about 6% of the earth’s surface. It takes 500 years to create a single layer of soil 2cm thick. 500 years for a strip of soil too thin to grow anything but weeds. And yet there are more living organisms in a single tablespoon of soil than there are people on the earth. 1 tablespoon… some 5 billion bacteria, 20 million fungi, and 1 million protocists. Not to mention all of the ants, spiders, beetles, earthworms, centipedes, and slugs that call your garden home. Nearly all of the antibiotics used for human and animal health have their origin in soil.

Wendell Berry says: “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

Soil is essential to all of life. And it is one of the main characters in our text for today. Two parables: one often called the parable of the seeds and the sower, but it could just have well been named the parable of the soil, the other about wheat and weeds. Both concern themselves with sowers & seeds, harvests & weeds, and most of all: soil. The first parable is told like this:

3…“Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, 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 brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen.”

The second parable goes like this:

24… “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Both are followed by Jesus’s explanation. He doesn’t always explain his stories, but he does here. In the first, Jesus explains that there are four different kinds of soil: sun-baked path, rocky ground, thorny ground, and good soil. The seed on the path never digs in & the birds feast upon it; teaching us that the message of the kingdom can’t penetrate a closed mind or a hard heart. The seed on rocky ground immediately germinates & starts to grow, but it quickly dies away because there’s no depth; teaching us that at the first sign of trouble or persecution shallow faith dies away. The seed among thorns will germinate & begin to grow, but “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” choke the seedling faith and it dies off. Teaching us… well you know exactly this teaches us.

The seed on the good soil takes root, and grows, and produces fruit; a lot of fruit.

In the 2nd parable we’re told Jesus is the sower. The field is the world. The weeds are the work of the devil. And the wheat belongs to the kingdom. In both of these stories Jesus is talking about discipleship. What does it mean to follow Christ? And what can be obscured in all of the details is the idea that God is sowing seeds into all kinds of soil. Yet, some kinds of soil are more hospitable to the message, and even some of the really good soil struggles with the weeds.

Jesus seems to be telling them that the life of discipleship is not without its difficulties. So they needed a more realistic picture of what they were facing. With the law it was cut & dried, black and white: either you kept the law & you were good, or you failed to keep it and you were in trouble. But with God’s kingdom, at least as Jesus proclaimed it, things get a bit more complicated.

As evangelicals, we face this dichotomy a lot. Maybe you can think of a parent or teacher who saw the world in terms of black and white. Maybe you have a friend or two who argues that the world often has gray areas. I think Jesus explodes those categories in these parables. I think Jesus is saying the kingdom of God is neither black and white, nor is it gray. The kingdom of God is full color. Not only that it’s 3 dimensional, not flat 2D, but comes with depth, and perspective. What’s more, the kingdom is dynamic, moving, changing, and growing—often in ways we do not understand. It is Organic.

In other words, I think Jesus is painting a rich picture of the kingdom that defies easy categorization. And all of it top to bottom depends upon the faithfulness of God. In both parables, God sows the seeds, God prepares the soil… and it is God who prepares the harvest. But even this reality doesn’t ensure the flourishing of the plant and a bountiful harvest.

One of the commentaries I read on this passage suggested that these parables are stories of “temporary and provisional pessimism, but ultimate optimism.” I think that’s pretty good in part because these parables are delivered to a Jewish audience. The 1st readers of this parable knew the Messiah had been largely rejected by his own people; those who embraced him were persecuted.
And yet the fact is (and this really should inspire mystery & awe), Jesus tells us that the purposes of God remain a sure thing.

Jesus isn’t trying to get us to see the world in terms of black and white. He’s just reminding us that the world is not always a trustworthy place… not even among the people of God. It’s a place of wonder and beauty to be sure, but also a place of deep violence & cruelty; of joy & courage & sacrifice, but also of pain & fear & selfishness.

And over all of it, these parables teach us, is the promise that what God has begun in our lives, God will continue to accomplish until it flourishes and blooms and serves it’s intended purpose. Paul says it explicitly in Phil. 1:6 “be confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

God prepares the soil, softening hard ground & removing stones. God fills the soil w/nutrients that will sustain growth. And yet there is this problem: the evil one has sown weeds among the wheat. In the first story it’s the thorn bush, in the second it’s what the King James Version translated as the “tares.” The actual Greek word is zizanion (zē-zä’-nē-on). It refers to a specific plant herbologists subsequently named lolium temulentum, or what is sometimes called “false wheat.” It’s a weed that looks just like regular wheat until the grain appears. In false wheat the ripened grain is black in stead of brown, and it is poisonous, causing blindness and even death.

Back then the farmers would go through their fields twice a year pulling the tares so as to avoid having to separate the seeds after they are harvested (which would be tedious work). The problem was the two looked so much alike; workers would often begin to pull the good wheat along with, or even instead of the bad.

Jesus isn’t just waxing poetic here; this is a great metaphor. It just rings so true to our experience: sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a good plant and a weed. Sometimes the pictures not so clear… not cut & dried. Cut and dried: another great agricultural metaphor. It comes from herbalists. Back in the day you could buy your herbs one of two ways: living, still in the soil, or “cut and dried,” hanging in the shop. This is the contrast Jesus is making. Is the kingdom of God cut & dried, or is it dynamic & growing like a field? Because if it’s cut & dried you don’t have to worry about the weeds. But if it’s growing? Get ready to live.

Ever heard of Kudzu? This is the American South’s version of the tares. Kudzu is this insanely fast growing vine that will take over literally anything in its path. It can swallow whole groves of trees assuming their shapes, killing them in the process. In the south you’ll often see telephone poles, abandoned cars & even full houses completely blanketed in kudzu. It takes on the form of whatever was there, covering it in this lush, green, leafy, vine. Everything ends up looking like Edward Scissorhands was just there.

Kudzu was first brought to the U.S. in 1876 for the Japanese pavilion in Washington D.C. during the centennial celebration. It quickly became popular. Kudzu grew so fast they thought it might replace hay & even cotton. During the great depression it was promoted to stop soil erosion. Government nurseries produced 84 million kudzu seedlings and planted them all over the south. The Kudzu Club of America had 20,000 members. There was even a kudzu queen crowned in the South (there just had to be, right?). Pretty soon the plant’s amazing growth rate became a problem.
It began to overtake orchards and farms. It’s thick vines clogged bailing machines.

It wasn’t long before kudzu nurseries shut down, the Kudzu Club disbanded. No word on what happened to the Kudzu queen, but the U.S. department of Agriculture classified it as a weed, which is by their definition, “a plant that does more harm than good.” How’s that for an interesting definition?

Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between a good plant and a weed, especially when it could go either way. The strange twist of these parables is that Jesus seems to believe God’s plan is to let it all grow together—the good and the bad—sorting it out at the end. Which means that the weeds are going to be a persistent part of the human experience, so we better get used to them.

If a weed is a plant that does more harm than good, anything that keeps us from flourishing in the roles for which we have been designed, then my experience confirms Jesus’s assertion. I am constantly plagued by weeds.

I shudder at the number of times I’ve heard these parables taught in support of some thesis like, “If your life is overgrown with weeds, you better get to pulling them or else. But that’s not really what the story says. The weeds are there because they’ve been sewn by the evil one. You have to work to catch the deep wisdom of that. They are not necessarily your doing. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. Either way the weeds are persistent. This side of forever, they will always be a part of our lives. And they have been sewn there by the devil—which is the Hebrew way of personifying the powers & principalities of evil.

In the 1st book I wrote I talk about this extensively, because I think it’s easy to forget that there are super-personal forces of evil at work in our world. When evil gets up a head of steam, it begins to pervade every system it can: government, economics, education, healthcare… Family systems, even church systems are all susceptible to this kind of kudzu-like take over. So we’re always going to have to deal with them. The wheat and the tares—Jesus says—they will grow up together, and it won’t always be immediately obvious which one is which.

Now, I do not think this is a reason to be passive in the face of evil. For one thing: there are many other places where Jesus tells parables that teach us to get to work on injustice. For another thing: these 2 stories contain the promise that the weeds will ultimately be destroyed. But the problem comes when we start to think the weeds are all “out there” somewhere, and not “in here,” too.

If we are honest, we can admit that we want this story to be about how our lives are like the wheat—the good wheat, not the false wheat. But we are not the wheat in these parables. We are the soil. And the truth of our lives is that we are growing all kinds of things, some of it good, some of it bad, some of it the jury’s still out. I mean let’s just tell the truth. We are growing a lot of nasty stuff in the soil of our lives. Much of it we are unable to identify.

The promise Jesus makes is that the weeds will be taken care of one day. Evil is temporary, goodness will endure forever. So the parable is supposed to lead us to a place of hope about God’s future. We live in a world that is plagued by evil (weeds & thorns), and nothing we can do will ever completely eradicate that. But that was never the heart of our vocation anyway.

The heart of the human vocation is to live as faithfully and obediently as we can today, as persons, but mostly as communities, tending the soil of our lives, living in confidence that God will grow what God needs to grow… and God will work out what needs to happen to the weeds in due time.

Back when Redemption Church first started, one of our elders, Elaine Brown, began to share her story with us concerning God’s call on her life. Her story is pretty amazing. At age 7 she became a Christian and accepted what she perceived as a call to mission work. As a Southern Baptist girl, she was told, “That’s great. Find yourself a good Southern Baptist man who is called to become a missionary & marry him.” So that’s what she did. Then came the war in Vietnam. Her husband was drafted and went off to war. After only a few months he was sent home riddled with shrapnel and loaded down with anger. He had been so sure of his calling, so sure God would protect him, that he couldn’t wrap his mind around how God could let this happen. They had kids & tried to make it work, but over the years he walked away from his faith, and then walked away from his family. Elaine was living in the weeds.

It took decades. We’re talking about 25, almost 30 years for Elaine to sort through raising her family and working toward her calling. She went to seminary & helped start our church. She persevered & by sheer force of will, wound up in Africa. Elaine has been in Ghana for the past 7 years, most recently working with street children to try and plug the gaps in their education, and to find ways to help them stay in school. She’s building partnerships & making a difference.

The weeds that grew up in her life were not really her doing. They were not under her control. It took incredible patience to try and live through that time without losing her own faith, or her own sense of calling.

In Ireland, the Irish people always knew they’d live a hard life. It’s a rugged environment. They had to make their own dirt for heaven’s sake. You’ve heard of the Potato Famine, when in the mid 1800s their crops failed. Over a million people died, & a million more emigrated to other countries. In just a little over 5 years 25% of their population was gone. It left a deep mark on their national identity. More evidence was necessary to figure out why one should stick around Ireland than why one should go. This was the normative state for the Irish psyche.

During the 1990s the tech bubble fueled a huge boom in the Irish economy. All of the sudden their economy was rolling. For the first time in generations the Irish had real financial success. A generation of Irish children were raised to believe they could have a better life than their ancestors (this was the first time in centuries this could be said). They began to hope. They were sure it was a new page in their history. New housing developments and subdivisions were built. People started buying 2nd homes in the countryside. Then the crash came & Ireland was devastated.

If you drive around the countryside today, you see what they call “ghost estates,” especially near the entrances of cities. Kristin & I had a cab driver in Dublin who told us all about how he & his wife bought a 2nd house in the country during the boom. They were struggling to keep theirs, both of them working two jobs. Most of the houses around it were already sitting empty. Some of the developments are eerie looking—ghost towns with their own ghost pub & ghost post office.

The job market has dried up again. Tourism is down. Unemployment is up / poverty is growing.
So—as John Jeremiah Sullivan says—today, as in the past, “To be Irish is to make up your mind about whether or not to leave Ireland.”

I think this is part of what the parables ask of Christians as well. Maybe to be a Christian is to constantly make up your mind about whether or not to remain a Christian… to be faithful to the way of Christ. Every day is a challenge to our integrity. We have to choose to live as Christ taught us to live, to be faithful regardless of the apparent results…. To be a Christian is to constantly make up your mind about whether or not to be a Christian…

Jesus’s parable doesn’t really resolve in the span of our lifetime. The weeds and the wheat grow up together, and you can’t really tell which is which until toward the end of the story. Even then, it’s God who does the reaping & sorting. This seems to me to be a deep truth about the human experience. The weeds are always around us, growing out of the soil of our own lives & those of our family & friends… even our society. Sometimes what looks like a weed turns out to be part of the crop. Sometimes what we thought was part of the crop turns out… weed. Sometimes we have to wait an awfully long time to start to tell the difference… and even longer to begin to bear the kind of fruit we know we are capable of bearing.

What I draw from Elaine’s story, & from this parable as well is this: the call to tend the soil of our life is more than just a call to pull weeds. It’s a call to constantly make up our minds about whether or not we are going to live as Christians. Will we allow God complete access to every part of our lives? Will we trust God completely—patiently…which is the hard part—believing that God will work it all out in the end. Will we be faithful no matter what? Will we take shortcuts (miracle grow & weed killer). Will we just pretend, put up some plastic plants or something?

The weeds are a problem. But they may not necessarily be our problem to solve, at least not in the way we usually think. The weeds have much to teach us. They need not strangle our faith. It bears repeating: the heart of the human vocation is to live as faithfully and obediently as we can today, as persons, but mostly as communities, tending the soil of our lives, living in confidence that God will grow what God needs to grow… and God will work out what needs to happen to the weeds in due time.




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