Growing Conditions

Matthew 13:1-8, 18-23

I want to begin this morning with a logistical observation.  This is a detail that is probably not going to set any hearts aflutter, you're not likely going to be deeply spiritually edified by it.  But I think it's interesting and relevant and worth paying attention to, that this part of the story begins with a very practical decision.  Jesus has just gotten the crowds' attention in a big way.  He's been preaching and teaching and he's just told anyone who would listen that what he's on about, this kingdom of heaven business, is something even more than they'd imagined.  It has to do with a whole new existence, a whole new way of relating to one another--it transcends every other commitment and has more to do with who we truly are than any other relationship.  He's told us that even our closest, most defining relationships can't compare, in depth or meaning, to the relationship we're called into with the One Jesus calls Father. 

Jesus' mom and his brothers are trying to get his attention.  Matthew doesn't tell us that they think he's lost his mind (like Mark does), but they're obviously here to have a word with him about just what he thinks he's doing.  And his response to his family's messenger, who says, "Your mom and your brothers are outside, wanting to speak to you," is: "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?  Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."

That's not our passage for the day, so I don't want to spend a lot of time unpacking it, but suffice it to say, something in this declaration of divine kinship, with anyone--literally anyone--who wants to be part of the family of heaven blows the peoples' minds.  So that, when he goes out of the house for a break by the sea, he's mobbed.  And here's the logistical detail, the practical decision that I think is relevant for us, individually and as church: Jesus gets into a boat and preaches to the crowd on the shore. 

The area that Jesus happens to be in has cliffs and hills that would have turned the beach into a kind of amphitheatre.  If he'd stayed on shore, he could have spoken to some of the people--the group that managed to get closest to him, for whatever reason, and by whatever means.  But instead, he moves out, uses the space that he's in, so that his voice can be most clearly heard, by as many people as possible.  It's a small decision, but significant for our imagination of what it means to share the gospel--to be attentive to our space, to use whatever's at hand to share the hope and promise of the kingdom, to allow the invitation to heaven's family to be flung far and wide.  Which I think is what we're pretty much called to do.

Let's pray: God whose goodness, mercy, and love are flung far and wide--well beyond the bounds of heaven, and into this time and this place, into every time and every place--we give You thanks and praise.  Plant new kingdom seeds in our hearts this morning.  Tend to the growth You have already brought forth.  Teach us to live in wonder, love, and praise wherever we find ourselves, whatever we're doing, so that we might grow into our glorious identity as Your daughters and sons.  In Jesus' name: Amen!

I may be overworking this image of Jesus in the boat, making himself hearable to as many people as could cram on the beach.  But I really think he's actually modeling what comes next, this well-known parable.  He's embodying the truth that he knows in his heart and soul.  He's acting like the sower.  In the parable, we've got this sower who sows like no one ever sowed in the history of the world.  He's wasteful with the seed.  He's flinging it recklessly, every-which-way. We don't have to be master gardeners to know that this isn't the way things are done. 

But let's pay attention to this.  The image of the One who sows for the kingdom is not of a careful, systematic gardener, putting one seed after another in a nice, straight line.  For the seed to end up all over the place like this, I have to imagine this sower skipping and twirling, dancing the seed around--seed spilling over the seed-bag, flung in every direction without any apparent concern for the proper order of things.  Who knows?  Something might grow here and there and everywhere! 

Ours is not a God who is stingy in his planting; ours is not a gardener who guards her seeds, lest she runs out, or worries that something beautiful might grow where it ought not.  This is where our story begins.  This is the God we're dealing with, whose word is scattered well outside heaven's boundaries; whose grace and love and hope and mercy are not meted out in careful rows and proper arrangements, but who is quite happy to have them land in places where growth is not guaranteed--but it is possible.  Oddly, the growth--which is going to happen in measures beyond any farmers wildest dreams--seems to be secondary to the joy and wonder of the planting. 

Of course, that's not to say that the growth is irrelevant.  Fruitfulness--nourishing, reproducing, beautiful growth--is the basic gospel image.  It's what God wants in us and for us.  I have to imagine that it's what the people who packed the beach that day two thousand years ago wanted.  I believe it's what every person ultimately wants, because it's what we're created for.  We want to live life lushly.  We're made to bring flavor and color and beauty to the world, to provide sustenance and health to a world hungry in so many ways, sick from so much artificial flavor and empty calories.  We're meant for growth and abundance of a type and scale that only our twirling, skipping Sower can imagine--which, incidentally, may bear no resemblance to the ways we've been told we ought to grow, or produce. 

The fruit we're meant to bear into the world, that I think our hearts long to see grow in and around us, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control.  Which, it turns out, is not as easy a crop to grow as we'd hope.  There's a lot working against us.  The conditions are often hostile to gospel fruitfulness.  We are not always the most receptive soil.  Mercifully, that's not the end of the story.  But it is a reality that we need to attend to, if we want to grow as we're meant to. 


Although it's not super helpful to preachers that Jesus goes ahead and explains this parable (I mean, what am I supposed to say now?), as Christian, I'm grateful.  What Jesus tells us can keep us sharp, faithful in our fruit-bearing.  It helps us attend to the kind of soil we're working with, and to do what we need to do to be and become the type of soil that allows for the kingdom word to root and grow and flourish in our lives. 

Because I think it's true that we all know what it's like to be each of the kinds of soil Jesus is talking about.  I certainly know that I can be as hard and worn as a path, as fickle and thin as rocky soil, as anxious as thorns, and by grace and mercy, as rich as the good soil that sees kingdom growth.  I don't think it's particularly good news if anyone is eternally one kind of soil or another.  And in any case, the One who sows is also the One who makes the world with a word, who can raise dead bones to life; whose love is able to turn the hardest path, worn down by a million steps, full of rocks, into the richest soil.  "I will take your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh," says this God; "I can turn the hardest ground into the richest loam."

Jesus tells us three things that keep the kingdom word, the hope, peace, joy, and love of God for us and all things, from taking root and multiplying in our lives.  The first is the straight-up nature of sin that keeps us from hearing clearly, and understanding.  Jesus reminds us that we aren't just up against the visible, tangible details of our lives, but that there is a spiritual battle taking place in and around us.  Our battle isn't against flesh and blood, St. Paul says, but our battle is a spiritual one. 
We tend, in our tradition, for various reasons (some of which are healthier than others) not to talk much about the reality of evil.  We're even less inclined to talk about a personified evil, who is actively at work seeking our ruin.  We don't tend to spend a lot of time reflecting on, say, St. Peter's image of the devil as a prowling lion, seeking to destroy its prey.  Of course, as with much in the gospel, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not has little bearing on its truth. 

Nevertheless, however we understand and experience the reality of sin and brokenness, in our lives and in the world, I think one of its most common effects is distortion.  Sin keeps us from seeing clearly, the way God sees.  Whether it's a distortion of who and how God is, or of the divine image in us and our neighbors, or a distorted relationship with the rest of creation, sin keeps us from seeing clearly, keeps us from loving wholly, keeps us limping under heavy burdens rather than running in wide space of God's grace.  Sin keeps us from hearing the word and understanding it; grace, love and salvation are distorted.  The path-hard heart can't understand why love should triumph, why forgiveness and reconciliation are kingdom commands, why wide-open generosity and hope are stronger than manic grasping and fear.

I think we could say that what's at the heart of the gospel of Jesus is God's work to make clear the way things are, to call us back from other distractions and distortions, and to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth with divine love, righteousness and justice.  We are not doomed to see dimly.  If we lack wisdom and understanding, St. James tells us we can ask for it and God won't hold back.  If we confess our sin, St. John assures us, God who is faithful will forgive, will reconcile and make new, will transform our worn down paths into paths lush with righteousness. 

The second thing that hinders gospel growth is impatience.  In our time and place, we may be especially prone to idolizing the immediate, the instant, the flavor of the week.  But evidently, it's just our means that are different.  On that beach, when Jesus' words first rang out, there were folks who wanted immediate benefit; no delayed gratification!  But, like any healthy growth, gospel fruit takes time and patience, attention and diligence.  Learning the ways and rhythms of grace takes a lifetime or more.  Learning to love an enemy, or notice the least of these well, or be lavishly generous can take decades.  Receiving healing and wholeness can take days and weeks and months and years.  Gospel roots go deep, and they need time to establish.  They need patient, loving prayer.  They need scriptural fertilization.  We need to spend time in the Sower's care.  Gospel joy is a long game, not a flash of enthusiasm.  If we expect an immediate bounty, the slightest challenge (and challenge is inevitable) will wither whatever shoots we've managed to grow.   

The third thing that chokes off gospel growth is about as straightforward as Jesus gets: the cares of the world and the lures of wealth.  There are so many things that distract us from the will and way of Jesus.  We are a culture that glorifies busyness--we fill our calendars to prove our importance.  We are a culture that covets upward mobility--we fill our bank accounts to prove our worth.  We try to do what we've been taught to do: we make a life for ourselves.  But that life is easily withered; it's never life that is truly life, because it is disconnected and distracted from the Maker and Sustainer of all life.  Our work and our worth, Jesus says, is revealed not by the opulence of our accomplishments or our things, but in the true light of the One who created us, who knows us, who loves us beyond measure, and who made us for life, and life abundant.  Our lives are not limited to what we can manage to accomplish; our lives are bound up in the One who is able to do more than we can ask or imagine, who works in us and through us with the power that raises the dead.

Our lives are designed for abundant fruitfulness: we are made to bring forth the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control.  We're meant to receive "the word of the kingdom," as Jesus puts it, and to join in its increase.  These lives, these bodies, this time and place, all of it is meant to be a kind of first-fruits of heaven's tree, which bears fruit in every season and its leaves are for the healing of the nations.

May we not just hear the promise, but may it sink in, root deep, and bear fruit--30, 60, 100 fold!