Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sermon for July 10th: Matthew 13:1-23

Jesus and His Family Farming Business

Over the past few years we’ve had some pretty good ‘bring a friend’ services here at St. Margaret’s. These services are opportunities for us to share the good news of Jesus by inviting friends – people who don’t normally come to church - to join us for Sunday worship. ‘Back to Church Sunday’, on September 25th, is going to be our next ‘bring a friend’ Sunday.

Of course, the really vital element in a ‘bring a friend’ Sunday is you – you, the people of our parish family, actually taking your courage in your hands and speaking those scary words: ‘Would you like to come to church with me?’ Over the years many of you have done that, and many of your friends have accepted your invitation.

But not everyone has said ‘yes’; let’s be clear about that. I myself have invited friends who’ve been glad to come, but others haven’t. Some of them have told me that they want to come, but the date in question won’t work; others just aren’t interested. That’s the way it goes: the seeds are scattered, some of them bear fruit, and others don’t.

This was Jesus’ experience too. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is describing his own ministry; he’s been travelling around Galilee and Judea, scattering the seed of the Word of God – that is, sharing the message of the Kingdom and calling people to put their faith in him and to follow him. Huge crowds have been attracted by his healing miracles, and have stayed to listen to his teaching. But, contrary to what people often think, his teaching hasn’t always gotten through to them. His stories don’t always make sense at first hearing; you have think about them and try to work out what they mean. Not surprisingly, this turns out to be too much like hard work for some people.

And so the response to Jesus’ preaching isn’t always a stunning success story. Some people hear the message and can’t make sense of it; Jesus says that it’s as if the devil comes and snatches it away from their hearts, and so they don’t believe.

Some people are wildly enthusiastic about the message when they first hear it; they seem to be thoroughly converted and follow Jesus enthusiastically. But after a while they start to run into opposition, and perhaps even persecution, because of their new found faith in Jesus. They hadn’t bargained for this; they thought it was going to be plain sailing all the way, and so they get discouraged and give up.

Some people hear the message and believe it, but they’ve got too much else going on in their lives, and their love for their material wealth is like a chain around their hearts. So the word of God doesn’t produce a harvest in their lives; there are too many weeds growing up along with it, and the weeds drain the life out of the soil.

But some people hear the word and understand it, and put it into practice in their lives. The word bears fruit in them; their lives are transformed and they are able to share the message with others also.

This is the way it was in the ministry of Jesus, and this is the way it will be for us today as well. Jesus calls us to share the message of his kingdom and to make new disciples for him. Some will respond and some won’t. Some of those who respond will be faithful for a while and then fall away. And some will put the message into practice, change their way of life, and take the good news of Jesus to others as well.

Let’s think of this parable from two points of view. First, let’s see ourselves as the recipients of the seed of the Word; how do we make sure that we are like the good soil that bears a rich harvest? Second, let’s see ourselves as joining Jesus in the business of scattering the seed of the Word. What might we learn about that work from this story?

So first, how do we produce a rich harvest in our own lives? Jesus tells us that we do this by paying attention, by listening carefully to what he has to say, thinking it through and working out what it means for us to practice it.

In verse 9 Jesus says, ‘Let anyone with ears listen!’ As you know, not all listening is attentive listening. The runner who says “I was listening to my mp3 player while I was jogging’ and the mother who says “My three-year old just won’t listen to me!” aren’t describing exactly the same kind of listening, are they? Jesus calls us to a careful and attentive listening to him. He says, “But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, in another thirty” (v.23). This is not just hearing the words of Jesus as background noise; this is pondering them, thinking through how we might actually obey them in our daily lives, and then putting them into practice. If we do this, Jesus says, we will produce a wonderful harvest.

So we have to think carefully about Jesus’ teaching and what it might mean for us to live by it. For instance, what would it mean for us to be so habitually truthful that no one would ever think of asking us to swear an oath; they’d just know that we never lie? What would have to change for us to obey Jesus’ teaching about turning away from anger and loving our enemies? What would our lives look like if we truly did not store up for ourselves treasures on earth, but concentrated instead on the kingdom of God and his righteousness? What would it mean for us, if we’re married, to be faithful to our marriage partner, not only in body, but also in mind and heart? When Jesus tells us to sell our possessions and give to the poor, how do we put that into practice in a world where we need to provide for our families in a northern climate?

There are legitimate questions and disagreements about the meaning of Jesus’ teaching, and so we need to think hard and pray honestly about what obedience might look like in our daily lives. What is not an option for us, if we’re Christians, is to say, “I just never think about obeying Jesus in that area of my life”. Remember what happened to the foolish man who built his house on the sand? And Jesus says that the foolish man represents the one “who hears these words of mine and does not act on them” (Matthew 7:26).

So much for our responsibilities as the recipients of the seed of the Word. Now, what about when we take our place on the other end of that process – when we join Jesus in the family farming business, so to speak, helping him to spread the good seed of the Word of God? In the parable, of course, Jesus was talking about his own ministry, but at the end of the gospels he tells his church to join him in this work; he calls all of his followers to go out and spread the good news, to make new disciples for him, and to teach them to obey his commandments. For obedient Christians this is not an option; it’s just part of the normal Christian life.

We Anglicans tend to get all uptight about this; we think we’re being asked to preach like Billy Graham or go up to total strangers on the street and ask them if they’re saved, and because we know we can’t do that sort of thing, we conclude that we’d better ‘let other people talk about their faith while we just live it’. But the Billy Graham model isn’t the only option open to us! After all, God designed each one of us; he gave us our temperaments and personalities, and he knows what we can do and what we can’t do. But he also called all of us, without exception, to be witnesses for him. That must mean that there is a way of scattering the seed of the word of God that would feel right for me, with the particular temperament God has given to me. Here are some examples.

Perhaps you put a church calendar or a Christian poster up on the wall of your office. Maybe one day someone makes a comment or asks a question about it, and you share briefly about what it means to you.

Or perhaps a fellow-worker finds out that you are a Christian and goes out of her way to tell you that she thinks Christianity is an emotional crutch for weaklings. You listen and you say that you have known others who shared that opinion. Then you go out of your way to care for that person, not because you’re trying to prove her wrong, but because you believe she needs extra love.

Or perhaps, in conversation with a friend, both of you are talking about difficult times you have gone through. You don’t try to pretend that Jesus took all your pain away, but you do say a bit about the help you found in your faith and your church.

Or maybe a friend shares with you that her daughter’s new baby has some serious health issues. You reply, “Would it be okay for me to pray for them?” By the way: if you’ve never done this, you will be totally amazed at how appreciative most people are when you make this offer! This is perhaps one of the easiest ways for most Christians to start sharing their faith with others, and over time it can lead to all sorts of opportunities for conversations about God.

Or perhaps a friend who knows you are a Christian asks you about The Da Vinci Code and other books and movies like that; don’t those books show that the gospel stories about Jesus aren’t true? You tell your friend that you don’t know much about it, but you’ll try to find out. So you ask your trusty parish priest to recommend a couple of good books on the subject, and then you get together with your friend again and talk about what you’ve learned.

You see, these are all examples of ways in which we can help to scatter the seed of the word. We aren’t responsible for results; as Paul says in one of his letters, “I planted the seed, someone else watered it, but God is the one who made it grow”. And believe me, if you start being more intentional about scattering the seed of the word, you are going to see some of those seeds growing!

Of course, not all of them are going to come up, and not all of the ones that come up are going to last. Every gardener knows that. We plant peas or beans, but not every seed produces fruit, and not every pea or bean plant survives to produce a harvest. In the same way, not every conversation we have with a friend leads to a new disciple for Jesus, and not every new disciple of Jesus sticks with him forever. But some do, and for them the result is tremendous blessing.

Let’s go round this one last time.

Jesus is in the farming business, sowing the seed of God’s word in people’s lives. The purpose of the seed is to produce the blessing of a good harvest – the transformation of lives by the love of God, and the sharing of that love with others so that they too can experience God’s transforming power.

So let’s receive the good seed of the Word of God, and let it produce a harvest in our own lives. Paul says, ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control’ (Galatians 5:22-23). Those are good things, aren’t they? Those are wonderful things; I’d love to be that kind of person, and to live in a world full of that kind of people. And Jesus tells us that the way to do that is to listen carefully, to try to understand his message, and to learn to live by it. Let’s resolve to bring forth that kind of good fruit in our own lives, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

But the other side of this is that we, too, need to be scattering the seeds of the Word of God. In our daily lives we have all sorts of opportunities to speak a word for Christ, and I’ve given some examples of ways we might do this. There are many other ways as well. One of the most wonderful experiences a Christian can have is to speak the right word at the right time to the right person, and see that word starting to bear fruit in people’s lives. I’ve had that experience, and if you haven’t had it, then let me encourage you to start looking out for opportunities to spread some seed around. Believe me, the Holy Spirit will use the words you speak in the most unexpected ways, and the harvest will be wonderful!

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