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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sermon from July 10, 2011 + Ordinary Time, Sunday 15 (A)

“Guaranteed Harvest”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Isaiah 55:10-13; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; Psalm 65

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

When I was young, living on the prairies of southwestern Minnesota among lots of farmers, we always heard the saying that the corn should be “knee-high by the Fourth of July.” But having served as a pastor in a rural congregation, and having lived the better part of my adult life near farm fields, I’ve noticed that the current corn hybrids have made a mockery of that standard. Corn is often chest high or better by July 4.

But not this year. With the wet spring, and I’m assuming later planting times factor in as well, the corn has been tiny. In fact, near the end of June this year there were plenty of fields I passed on my drive into church that didn’t look like they’d make the old standard. Now it seems as if most did, and the corn is starting to look pretty good.

But you never know, do you? Rain comes and rain goes. Sometimes you have too much sun and heat, sometimes not enough. Sometimes the rainstorm brings hail. Farming crops is a huge leap of faith. You prepare the soil, you put the seed in, you care for it. But ultimately the crop is in God’s hands. So you pray.

Today’s Gospel, the first reading, and the psalm, all sound familiar themes for people in the Midwest: rain, seeds, growth; risks like weeds, rocks, pests. And harvest. Only the harvest Jesus and the prophet Isaiah are talking about isn’t corn, or beans, or wheat. It’s faith and trust in the hearts of people. It is a harvest of children of God who love God and each other and bear the fruit of faith, living in peace and harmony with God and each other.

To listen to Jesus this morning, it doesn’t look like a very favorable forecast for a good harvest. And for you and me, who live in a world which challenges our faith and causes us doubt, which gives pain along with joy, we can understand that. Now in fact, there is a promise in God’s Word today which gives us hope for a much better harvest.

But let’s work with Jesus’ image for a little bit first, that faith starts with a seed.

This metaphor of Jesus was familiar to his hearers – they knew what it meant to plant tiny things and have to trust in a future result because you can’t always see what the end result will be.

It’s a great image for faith. If you’ve ever grown anything, even planting a seed in a Styrofoam cup in elementary school, you know it’s amazing to see what comes from those tiny seeds. Big six-foot cornstalks from a tiny kernel, enormous sunflowers from a little shell of a thing.

The reason the metaphor is so apt is that when faith is growing, like a seed, you can’t always see what the end result will be. In faith – ourselves or the faith of others – as in gardening, we can’t always tell what the fruit will be like from the seed. And when seeds are planted, remember, they are hidden. So it is only with patience that we can see God’s results.

There’s another thing about this seed image of Jesus’: it’s amazingly inefficient farming. The sower throws the seed everywhere, not just in one place. This was the practice in Jesus’ day, but still – it’s worth considering what he’s saying.

I love the orderliness of farm fields – the rows of corn and beans, the regularity of the design. When Mary plants flowers and perennials and the areas around our house, it’s always intentional and carefully thought out. Not so with this sower of Jesus’ parable.

Jesus insists that God scatters the Word everywhere, not only to a select group of people in perfect circumstances. So with this image we are encouraged to believe that God has in fact planted seeds in places we do not control, that there are fields God is working apart from us. We still are tasked in our field, in our place – but God’s Word is scattered throughout this world without even our say so.

But what are we to do with the rest of Jesus’ metaphor – that there are good soils and harsh soils, threats to growth of faith, threats to discipleship?

It would be easy to push the metaphor beyond Jesus’ intent here and make it a simple moral tale: don’t be bad soil. But look at what’s really happening in each of these locations.

Things threaten the growth of faith, to be sure. There is hard ground, places where when God’s Word is preached it seems to bounce off of concrete or asphalt, life that is harsh and unyielding and ungracious, and people in such straits have hardly opportunity to grasp it before it’s snatched away.

There is thin soil, life which is precariously balanced on the edge, where the Word barely has a chance to grow and without roots is vulnerable to the first difficulty or stress.

And there is thorny soil, life that is complicated, life that has worries and concerns that seemingly become so great that faith becomes impossible to imagine or sustain.

But there is great compassion in Jesus’ telling – he clearly understands why faith seems to struggle, why people can have difficulty following. This is the voice of the Teacher who looks sadly at the rich young man when he decides he cannot follow Jesus if it means giving up his wealth – Jesus loves him, and is filled with sorrow to see him go. But he also understands why he goes.

It seems that here Jesus is more interested in helping the listeners to this parable reconcile the power of God’s Word with the apparent lack of production of faith. The disciples in particular have followed Jesus and heard him preach to all sorts of people. They’ve even gone out and preached themselves, or will soon.

And the results are indifferent – some believe, some don’t. Some begin to follow and fall away when it gets challenging and threatening, others never seem to catch on at all, others fret about so many things they have a hard time following and trusting.

And even within the disciples they might recognize the effects of the choking concerns of the world (could those who left family and home to follow Jesus just simply forget those responsibilities and cares, or even should they do so?), or the power of the fear of the heat of the sun of persecution and retribution and its impact on their less than deeply rooted faith.

It doesn’t seem that Jesus’ point is to moralize or even to criticize as much as to help us understand. And what he would have us know is more about God than about us. In fact, as one commentator has said, this parable is best described not as a parable about good soil, but a parable about the Good Sower. “This sower is not so cautious and strategic,” he writes, “as to throw the seed in only those places where the chances for growth are best. No, this sower is a high-risk sower, relentless in indiscriminately throwing seed on all soil – as if it were all potentially good soil. . . . Which leaves us to wonder if there is any place or circumstance in which God’s seed cannot sprout and take root.” (1)

Now that’s something to think about with this parable. And that’s where Isaiah comes in and gives us the Good News.

Because through the prophet Isaiah, God the Farmer, God the Gardener, God the Sower, promises that this Word will bring fruit.

These words from Isaiah 55 have long been important to the ministry to which God has called me. As we prepare to receive a Vicar here again, I’ve been thinking back to my internship year. And I remember especially fretting about my sermons early on. The questions I seemed to ask myself were impossible to answer: Did they like it? Did it make sense to them? Will they change? Will they be transformed by it? Will they learn?

But at some point in that year I ran into Isaiah 55, especially verses 10-11. And I stopped asking those questions. They weren’t necessarily bad ones – I’m sure the disciples asked similar things. But they weren’t the right questions. And I realized that I didn’t need them anymore.

Because here God promises that his Word will do whatever God wants it to do. God brings the growth, not any preacher, not any of us when we witness. It’s not my job to make God’s Word speak in people’s hearts and grow faith – that’s God’s job. And I’ve truly never worried about the task of preaching since then.

And that promise is not only for preachers. It’s God’s full answer to the parable we’re considering. “My Word will not return to me empty,” God says; “it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” – as Jesus says, thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold.

What a magnificent promise. God will guarantee the harvest. God will bring faith and love to grow in our hearts. And God will bring fruit from all the seed that is scattered in this world, wherever it is, however it got there. The Spirit of God is working and alive and will bring this growth.

This is Good News for us and for the world. When we feel that we have been mired in sinful habits and problems and will never change, or when we struggle with faith and life, when we feel weak in the face of what life has in store, we can trust that God is still at work, growing faith, giving us life. God’s Word will bring forth faith and its fruits in you. In me. In the world. It is guaranteed.

Even when we look around and see only the challenges to faith, when we see Christians acting in ways not of Christ, when we worry that the forces of hatred and oppression and violence and anger and selfishness – all the things that threaten life and joy – are stronger than anything we can know, God says: in the end, I get what I want. My Word will do what I need it to do, for I have overcome the world.

And so we rejoice. We rest assured of God’s gardening skills and nurturing love.

Our faith is still growing in us, in spite of anything we might think or see or experience. And the seed of God’s Word, the spread of God’s love, is happening in the world, in spite of evidence to the contrary.

But what we can do is pray that we might also become sowers of this seed ourselves, indiscriminately throwing the seed of God’s love wherever we go, trusting that God will grow the fruits of harvest there, too. Because that’s part of our fruit, that we bear the seed of God’s Word in the world. And while we pray we can rejoice, shout for joy and sing as the psalmist says, because God is growing a harvest that overflows with plenty. That is guaranteed.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

(1) Theodore J. Wardlaw, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, vol. 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors; Westminster John Knox Press 2011; p. 241.

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