Where We Are on Life’s Journey

Sermon for July 16, 2023

Part 1

The setup is important. In this morning’s scripture reading, Matthew describes a scene where a crowd gathers by the lakeshore, so Jesus speaks to them from a boat on the water. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve heard others say this before, or whether I came up with it on my own, but I suppose I’ve always assumed that Jesus got crowded off the land, and that’s why he spoke from the water.

But then I read N.T. Wright’s commentary. Wright is a retired Anglican bishop and one of the world’s great New Testament scholars. And in his book, Matthew for Everyone, he tells of a visit to Israel. He was with a large group, and this stop was at the Sea of Galilee—the very body of water where today’s reading took place. As the group gathered on land on a peaceful morning, the tour guide had a fisherman take him in a boat out to the middle the inlet. Then he opened his Bible and he began to read.

The passage he chose was the very one the elder read to you a few moments ago. And because of the properties of the water and the fact that they were surrounded by hills, every word the tour guide read came loud and clear to those standing on the shore. And so when Matthew tells us that Jesus got into a boat and spoke to the crowd from the water, he’s telling us how it was they could hear him. I’m going to remember this the next time our sound system’s on the blink, and preach to you all from a kayak in the baptistery.

What Jesus had to say that day, of course, was more important than anything I say. For one thing, most of what I say is trying to explain Jesus to you—and I’m far from perfect, so I might get it wrong sometimes. And that actually seems to be what Jesus might have been getting at. He told them a parable based on something they were all familiar with: a farmer planting seeds. It’s possible they were expecting a story in which God was the farmer and they (the people of Israel) were the seeds being planted, safely and securely, in their own land, there to flourish, bear fruit, and be harvested by a triumphant God.

But the story Jesus told was not quite like that. He told a parable of failure and success. And because he knew this wasn’t what they were expecting, he did something he almost never did when he told a parable: he provided an explanation. And it went like this (according to the NLT):

The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message about the Kingdom and don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches away the seed that was planted in their hearts. The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced. The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!
—Matt. 13:19-23

In other parables like this, the seed being planted is Israel itself—God’s people. But here we see that in this parable, the seed represents the word of God. It is the land that represents the people. Sometimes the land is good and sometimes not. But what I think is really interesting about this is that in the Hebrew scriptures, this might be a play on words. Right at the beginning of the Bible, we find two creation stories—one in Genesis 1 and the other in Genesis 2. And the first part of Genesis 2:7 says that the Lord God formed a man from the soil of the earth.

The man—adam—was formed from the adamah—the earth. So here in this parable, it’s as if Jesus is going back to the beginning, to the human origin story, to describe how it is that we receive the word of God. And there are four basic possibilities here: some seeds fall carelessly along the path, some fall on rocky soil, some fall among thorns, and some on good soil.

Part 2

I think we often fall into the trap of being too literal with the metaphor we hear in this parable. We let ourselves think that the kinds of land onto which these seeds fell are constant—that is, that the person represented by the path is always a path, that the person represented by rocky soil is always rocky soil, etc. And beyond that, if we don’t stop and consider what we’re saying, we let ourselves think that the seeds are sown once, and never again.

But I don’t think that’s true. To me, the different kinds of earth Jesus talked about don’t represent people in their permanent states, but people at different stages in their lives. There are certain things about each of us that remain constant. But there are even more things within us and around us that change. None of us are the same now as we were when we were younger. And each of us is able to listen differently than we did when we were younger—we’re able to hear things that our ears might have been closed to in the past.

So let’s look at the places where the seeds fell in Jesus’ parable. First he describes those that fell along the path—a place where the earth would’ve been pretty hard-packed because of all the movement on it. Here the seeds were easily picked off by the birds (and probably by other animals, too).

To me, this describes people on the move, people who are searching, people who are in transition. Jesus said they don’t understand the word, so it can’t take root. Very often, these are young people. They’re still becoming. But this might just as easily describe a person of any age whose circumstances are changing. Such a person might even seek answers in God’s word. But the questions are just too great, and the answers too remote. And the seed planted just can’t grow… yet.

And then there’s the rocky soil. The seed planted might take root immediately—the word might be heard enthusiastically. But there’s just too much other stuff, and the plant can’t take root, God’s word just isn’t a priority. This has to do with faith, but it also has to do with community. There are lots of people who profess a faith, but just lose interest. And there are lots of people whose interest in the beloved community wains when they realize that it takes more commitment than they’re willing to give, or simply that getting up on Sunday morning just isn’t worth it to them. They’ve got too much other stuff going on to allow faith to transform their lives.

And then there are the seeds that fell among thorns. This is when people want badly to respond, when they need change and long for change, but the problems of the world simply close in and choke their development. This can happen to anyone, great or small, rich or poor. Sometimes these “thorns” are seen as positive by the culture we live in—money or power. But money and power are among the greatest dangers for our souls. They have the power to choke the fragile things of the spirit that try to compete with things that bring more immediate satisfaction. But there’s also abuse and oppression and war—things that threaten to eradicate a spiritual life that might have been on the verge of thriving.

None of these metaphors works for everybody. There are young people, people on the move, people in transition, who have deep spiritual lives. And there are rich and powerful people who do, in fact, listen to and act on the word of God. And certainly there are many oppressed people and people living in the midst of war who are incredibly faithful and who have deep spiritual lives. So just as these places the seed might land don’t describe people throughout the whole of their lives, they also don’t describe everybody that might find themselves in one of these situations.

But finally comes the good news, the good soil, the lives into which the seed of God’s word is planted, where it grows deep and produces abundant fruit. The life where God’s word has taken root and grows might produce an inner spiritual life beyond the imagining of those who only see the surface of a person. It might produce such a desire to spread the good news of God’s love that many others come to faith through them. It might produce courage that creates justice for many others, or make peace in a war-torn land, or speak patient wisdom in the midst of willful ignorance. So the harvest that Jesus talks about might take many forms.

When we’re invited to the table in this church, we often hear the words, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” To me, this parable is like a simple map of all the places God’s people might find themselves on life’s journey, all the places where the seed of God’s word is being sown, the places where the good news of God’s love is being shared. At different times in our lives we might find ourselves in a different place in this parable. But through it all, there’s one constant: The good news that Jesus came that we might know the love of God and the embrace of the beloved community. I believe that God won’t give up sharing until his love takes root in our lives. Let those who can, listen.
—©2023 Sam Greening