1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
4 When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: 5 “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. 6 Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. 7 Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. 8 Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
9 Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’
11 “Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. 14 As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.
In churches across the world today, countless sermons are being preached on the classic Easter Sunday text: The resurrection of Jesus, found in all four gospels. Unless today is the very first time you’ve stepped into a church, I suspect you’ve probably heard that message many, many times. And it’s a good one–one we will undoubtedly return to in years to come.
But this year, and for the next five weeks, instead of preaching about the resurrection of Jesus, I’d like to resurrect some of Jesus’ most important teachings about the Kingdom of God–the teachings known as parables.
What are parables? As the title of this sermon series suggests, they are some pretty small stories which contain some pretty big ideas.
The word “parable” comes from the Greek word παραβολή (parabolay). παρα is a preposition that means “next to” (cf parachute, parasite, paramour) and βάλλω is a verb that means, perhaps surprisingly “to throw.” So a parable is literally to throw something near or next to something else. In this case, it’s to throw a story near or next to–but not precisely at–it’s actual meaning. A parable is a parallel, an extended analogy, or a story where something fictional represents something real.
Parables are associated with Jesus more than any other historical figure, and they were certainly his favorite method of teaching. But Jesus didn’t invent the parable. In fact, one of my favorite parables is an ancient Jewish parable whose purpose is to explain parables themselves! It goes something like this:
One day, TRUTH wandered into the local village, seeking lodging in the homes of mankind. But when people saw naked TRUTH, they were terrified and ashamed, and they closed their doors in fear. Disappointed, TRUTH sought out her old friend STORY. STORY dressed TRUTH up in narrative, clothed her with metaphor, and adorned her with the jewels of symbol and imagery. STORY sent TRUTH back out into the village, and renamed her PARABLE. This time, when she knocked on the doors of the people, they received her warmly, invited her into their homes, and honored TRUTH in their hearts.
In every parable, we have a natural tendency to ask the question, “Who am I in this story?” And in the parable I just told, it’s pretty apparent. I’m one of the villagers. I am often terrified and repulsed by the harsh, naked truth, but if you tell me the truth in a story, I’m much more receptive.
And that brings us to today’s text; to our first parable, the Parable of the Sower:
A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.
Who am I in this story? Am I the sower? Am I the seed? Am I the soil? Even though Jesus explains the parable to his disciples, he doesn’t really say. I’ve heard many sermons that say I am the soil, either receptive to God’s word or not. But a close read of the text doesn’t support that either. In his explanation, Jesus says “the ones ON the path are those… the ones ON the rock are those…” He doesn’t say, “the path are those… the rock are those.”
So maybe I’m the seed. But Jesus tells us plainly in verse 11 that the seed is the word of God. So I’m not the seed.
Maybe I’m the sower? A lot of people believe the sower is God, the one who sows the word of God. Jesus never actually says that, but again if “the ones (plural) on the path are those (plural) who…” and there’s only one sower…then I’m probably not the sower, either.
So, who am I in this story? Well, in this instance, I think that’s probably the wrong question. A better question is…who are “we” in this story? Because what Jesus is describing is an ecosystem, an interaction between sower, seed, birds, travelers, rock, thorns, moisture, and soil. In the forest, it takes just the right ecosystem for a seed to grow and bear fruit.
But for people to thrive and grow, it takes a healthy community. That’s our ecosystem.
So…what kind of ecosystem, what kind of community are we in this story?
The first ecosystem we encounter in this parable is the well-traveled path. There is a famous poem by Robert Frost, in which he says, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
I think Jesus would agree. The problem with the path in this parable… is too much traffic. Too many travelers trample the seeds, and too many birds cary them away. This ecosystem is too crowded. Some communities, (perhaps even some churches) are like that. The seed, or the message, is great! The community is great–lots of people all the time! But there is no opportunity for depth, to put down roots. With all the coming and going, it’s easy to get carried away. Is your ecosystem, your community, like that one?
The second ecosystem is the rock. The rock is not a crowded place, and the seed does its job–it grows! But it’s isolated from the soil, isolated from moisture, and it quickly dies. This reminds me of people who try to grow spiritually all on their own–I don’t need a community, I can worship God anywhere all by myself! I’m spiritual, but not religious. There is some truth to that–the seed grows for a time. Jesus says in his explanation that they receive the word with joy–in other words, they get it! But without the support systems that a community provides, without nourishment, that joy quickly fades. The second ecosystem is really no ecosystem at all. Are you dying for lack of an ecosystem, for lack of a nourishing community in your life?
The third ecosystem is where the thorns grow. Obviously, this is a great ecosystem–the soil is great, the nourishment is great, stuff is growing, our seeds are growing! But the problem here is that everything is growing–good stuff and bad stuff alike. This reminds me of communities without focus or a sense of purpose. Everything is equally valid…and therefore nothing is truly valuable. And eventually, the things that have no real value choke out and destroy the things that do. Is your community…is OUR community like this one? In chasing after everything and everyone, do we find nothing, and no one?
The fourth ecosystem is just as mysterious. We are told that it’s good soil, and produces a hundred fold, but not much beyond that. Jesus doesn’t say what makes it so productive, except perhaps for the lack of all the negative features of the previous three. There are some clues in verse 15: an honest and good heart, patient endurance, and obviously, the evidence of what your community actually produces.
If you’re a visitor here today, I want you to leave asking yourself the question, “What kind of ecosystem, what kind of community do I find myself in?” Is it a healthy, nourishing community? Is it too crowded? Is it too isolated? What is it growing, what is it producing?
And if you are a member of this community, First Presbyterian Church, I want you to ask the question, what kind of ecosystem, what kind of community are we? Are we those who hear God’s word… and our own words… and everyone else’s words… and go frantically chasing after them all? Or are we those who hear God’s word and hold it fast in our hearts, bearing fruit with patient endurance?
Today is Easter Sunday. Today we celebrate resurrection and new life. Like a seed, Jesus was buried in the ground, sealed in a tomb. And from the fertile soil of his life, his teachings, his ministry, the living Word of God sprung forth, and took root in our world. It continues to spread today,
wherever there are faithful communities with ears to hear God’s call
wherever there are faithful people with voices to proclaim God’s love
wherever there are faithful arms to reach out and embrace God’s children.
And wherever we find these seeds, we will find resurrection and new life.
Three old friends were sitting around one day, discussing death. One of them asked the others, “What would you like for people to say about you at your funeral?” The first friend replied, “I’d like them to say ‘He was a great humanitarian, who cared about his community.'” The second one said, “I want them to say ‘He was a great husband and father, who was an example for many to follow.'” And then the third friend, the one who had asked the question, thought about it for awhile…and then finally looked up and said, “I’d like for them to say, ‘Look! He’s still moving!'”
People of First Presbyterian Church — We are still moving! May the seed of God’s word take root in our hearts, breathing resurrection and new life into this community and into our world.