Matthew 13.1-9 (and 18-23)
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
If you are like me and Jane Anne, you may have expanded your springtime gardening experiments during the lockdown. What better time to germinate some vegetable seeds, nurture them along as they sprout, weed out the strongest ones, mix in some well-seasoned compost to the soil, put in some drip irrigation, and transplant them outside and hope that neither the hail nor the rabbits kill them off. So, if I were writing a parable, I’d use a setting like that, because it’s commonplace, and that is what Jesus used: everyday settings.
Parables are a particularly meaty form of teaching that Jesus employed throughout his ministry, and they are recorded primarily in the synoptic gospels — the three accounts in our Bible that see things through a similar lens, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel of Thomas, outside our canon, is also packed with parables. Our word “parable” takes two Greek words, para (next to) and ballo (to throw) and combines them to describe a literary tool that throws one thing down next to another. You and I know that this is not essentially a story about sowing seeds…Jesus tosses out metaphors in order to challenge and reveal a truth in a memorable, more engaging, and less obvious way.
Jesus used parables to shake up his hearers, revealing their assumptions, often turning them upside down. For instance, his audience would know that the only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan…so what could a Good Samaritan show us?
Jesus’ parables also need to be understood as spoken, not written. So, what we have in the gospels is a condensation of a good, long yarn that Jesus may have spent 30 or 40 minutes developing, and the compilers of the gospels gave us their distillation. But imagine yourself being part of the crowd that gathered to hear Jesus on the beach. Don’t you imagine that there would be some dialogue among the hearers and Jesus? Can’t you imagine someone shouting out, “Are you saying that we are the seed or the sower?” or “Is he saying that we are rocky soil?” or to one another, “Crikey, don’t you just wish he’d make his point and move on?” It would probably look more like a scene from Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” than anything else. So, there is some back-and-forth, some puzzling, engagement, and stimulation of their imaginations.
John Dominic Crossan, one of Plymouth’s past visiting scholars, has written more incisively than any other New Testament scholar about the function of parables. He sees them as fulfilling a different role than stories, which provide a narrative or even a myth that explains something, like the Genesis story we heard last month about three visitors who are offered hospitality by Abraham and Sarah. What Jesus spins for his hearers is akin to a riddle or an example or a challenge, often concerning the kingdom of God.
The Parable of the Sower is in all three synoptic gospels, and the earliest is Mark’s gospel. And here is the odd thing: in all three gospels, a few verses after the parable itself, the writer of Mark’s gospel gives an explanation of the parable. (You just never do that! It’s like explaining the punchline of a joke, which means the joke failed. You can hash it out orally with someone, but the presenter never says, “Here’s what the parable really means.” Jesus would not have done that. It is as if a Zen master offered a koan —a parabolic riddle — to a pupil and then explained what the answer was…it means the student doesn’t learn by struggling with it. That is what we are meant to do with parables.) The Parable of the Sower also occurs in the Gospel of Thomas without “explaining the punchline,” which leads some scholars to think that Thomas provides the earliest copy of what Jesus said.
Let’s look at the text itself. This is the part where you have to really engage…I’m not giving it away, so you might even take down a note or two to ponder. This parable is a long sequence of metaphors. Jesus throws down a word, but alongside it, you, the hearer, have to fill in the blank for each metaphor.
The first character in the story is the sower herself. She sets out to broadcast seed and has some failures and some stellar successes? Are you the sower? Is Jesus the sower? Is God the sower? The parable turns out differently as you cast the role differently, and it’s fun to play with it that way.
What do you think Jesus meant seed to represent? Is it his own ministry? Is it the law and the prophets of Judaism? Is it the alternative commonwealth that he proclaimed?? Is it holy wisdom?
The next metaphor is the birds, who are swooping in to satisfy their hunger by snatching some of the fallen seed that has fallen from the sower’s bag onto the path. What do to the birds represent? Are they the Pharisees who Jesus always seems to tussle with? The Temple authorities? Satan? The occupying Romans?
The third metaphor is rocky soil, onto which the seed falls and springs up quickly, only to wither and perish in the heat of the sun. Is the rocky soil the tradition of pro forma religious observance that looks good from the outside, but doesn’t produce a resilient faith? A faith journey starts out strong but shallow and isn’t sustainable over the long haul? Is the rocky soil the mind and heart of someone who is a bit shallow?
The fourth metaphor is the thorns, and the seed that falls among them is choked by them as they grow, kind of like bindweed does here in Fort Collins. Are the thorns like the things that distract us from spending time studying our faith and developing spiritual practices? Perhaps for you the thorns are the priorities in your life that may need some realignment…priorities that occupy your mental and spiritual space — whether it’s work or worry or acquiring material things or addiction — that block out your ability to really commit yourself fully to God’s service.
And the final metaphor is the good soil: the kind that has had good, rich compost mixed into it, that is aerated and well-watered. It’s ready to receive the seed and provide an environment that will not only allow itself to flourish, but to provide a huge yield of new seed for future generations of the plant. So, what is the good soil? Is it the life of a person who lives faithfully? Is it a community that nurtures and nourishes people in their faith? Is it the world itself, ready to provide all we need, if only we can learn to be good stewards and share resources?
Imagine what it would be like to create a parable for the middle of the year 2020. Perhaps we could see God as the sower and the wisdom of Jesus as the seed.
Perhaps the birds who come and consume the seed is the busyness in our lives. Maybe we ourselves feel as though the pandemic has tested our faith, since we don’t have the physical community to rely on, and the coronavirus birds came along and ate up what we thought was at the core.
Perhaps our faith isn’t as resilient as we would like, and its roots aren’t as deep as we think they should be. Is our sense of scarcity like rocky soil? Do we fixate on the lack of money, influence, health, or ability and let that form our dominant narrative?
I wonder if fear is the thorn bush that holds many of us back: the fear of not being acceptable or accepted, the fear that we aren’t [blank] enough: young, rich, thin, fit, smart, confident…whatever descriptor keeps you hamstrung.
And where do we find good soil? How do we become good soil from which the kingdom of God can rise up? We can add the compost of our faith, which is historically and theologically deep. We can fertilize it with truth, which can be tough to take, but it increases our yield. We can aerate it with time to contemplate and pray, which is so hard to find if you are a young parent or trying to occupy your kids and work from home. And we can water it with love, patience, kindness, and understanding.
We need to bloom where we are planted, and my prayer for you this week is that you will find something that makes your life and your faith flourish and grow.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
July 16, 2017
Plymouth Congregational Church UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Will you pray with me? God, great gardener of our lives and of this planet, I pray that my words this morning may be nourishment for your soil, for this plot, for this congregation, of your embodied, earthen, earthy people. Amen.
I have been told that the raising of the rafters of this Sanctuary was very much (or pretty much exactly) like a good old-fashioned barn raising also known as a “raising bee.” Ethnically German farmers who emigrated from the Volga region of Russia founded Plymouth. One of our senior members here at Plymouth whose parents helped found the church, Ray Becker, often likes to tell me about the tractors, the excitement, the rooting and planting of community on that day. It was a day when the culturally German farmer immigrants from Russian and their families gathered in a field (then far away from CSU) down the road from the renowned pig farms (yes, the NW corner of Shields and Prospect was a pig farm) for the raising, the cultivating of a new fellowship barn… our church.
This place was built to gather the harvest of the beloved community, just like the barns they were building for each other on the edges of Fort Collins. The rugged and community-minded (not wealthy) Russian-German immigrants saved every penny they had to build it, leveraged noodle making dinners for fundraising, used their own tractors and hands to make this Sanctuary for us to sit, sing in, preach from, and worship God safely within today. Our recent consultant, John Wimberley, was fixated and fascinated by this fact that we built our own church. This is our barn of blessings. This is our storehouse of love. Can you still hear the loud hum of the 1950’s John Deer 94 horsepower tractors and the thick accents, many still speaking German, murmuring, blessing us through the walls? [PAUSE] I can. I do every day as one of your ministers.
Learning the agrarian roots of our congregation and digging in that dirt (getting my hands dirty in that history) has helped me to better understand the deep rootedness of our Scripture passage today and what it can mean for us as we move forward as a congregation in this barn that love built. So taking these agricultural roots seriously, how can we best understand this Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23 passage on July 16, 2017?
When I first read the Scripture for today, I started out thinking about the soil as different kinds of churches in the metaphor. Meaning that I started thinking about this as if you fall into (join/ attend) a rocky church, a thorny church, a “good soil” church, or a hard path church your outcome for faith formation and life will be different. Initially, that seemed to make some sense. The sort of church community we encounter to help nurture us as we journey together forms the soils of our hearts and our openness to the Divine. I have since decided that this interpretation in 2017 gives all of way too much credit to the power of the institution of the Church, for, as you all know with your busy and full lives, the church is not and cannot be the only soil you encounter. In Jesus’ day and even maybe 60 plus years ago when this building was built, you could self-isolate in that way (existing within the culture of a church institution)—BUT that is not how we live in
2017, is it? Our lives are constant transplanting, blending, fertilizing, realigning, crop rotation soils (plural). We no longer live in a world where the church is our soil identity or sole identity. We all now have many soils that compose our hearts and our identities. We are rooted in many communities.
Now for a fancy seminary word I have been saving for two and a half years: What is the Ecclesiological theology of this passage? Meaning, this makes me ask, if the church isn’t the soil itself anymore, what is the role of the church in this parable for today?
The answer is in the sacred, Sanctuary barn-like structure we sit within. The church is where we gather to raise each other-up and store our harvest of love for the days when the soil is hard out there is thorny out there, is good out there, or is rocky out there.
Church is where we store our tractors, our spades, our weed whackers, trimmers, seeds, hay, combines, international harvesters, our fertilizers (organic and sustainable only of course)… this is Plymouth after all, and our supplies to return to the world for the work of justice, of peace, of growing a more just and perfect world. This is our barn where we learn the way to make growth in all of the complex soils we live within. Amen?
Make no mistake, fellow gardeners in Christ, there is a drought raging, prairie fires burning, insects eating, there is a flood pouring, pesticides of hate proliferating, corporate farming faking out the masses, there is a lot of adverse factors (more than just thorns and hard paths these days) trying their damnedest to harm our fields of love and grace and peace we have been growing and nurturing these many seasons. This barn is where we come to get our supplies to keep the love, keep the faith, and keep the social justice growing from the grassroots of our souls!! This is our supply house in a season of drought or flood or fire. It is a safe place to store all of those seeds and tools, supplies, nutrients to go out and dig in the soils of life with God.
Today, we will not exclusively be or encounter, as Jesus implies, only a hard path soil, a rocky ground soil, a thorny soil, or good soil. As if we had a choice anyway. Even in the course of a single day, we all often find ourselves operating in all of these soils of our lives as Gardeners with God. Let me quickly examine the four categories of spiritual soil Jesus presents and see what they might mean today:
The Hard Path (superficiality): The hard path soils we encounter today are the many times of inauthenticity or just staying on the surface, skimming, losing the meaning of deeper living. Maybe at work or in family life if in the endless small talk that is now required of us, we encounter soils, and places, and people who are the hard path to our spiritual beings—Superficial, surface level, never going deeper. This is just skimming the surface of life consumed by Social Media or work. Surviving for survival sake. How many of us encounter people or places that are to us superficial or inauthentic?
When we meet a hard path, we can come to this barn to pick-up a spiritual sprinkler of patience, vulnerability, and authenticity that can turn the hard path and hard people to soft, fertile mud. We must water/ DRENTCH the hard paths with brutal, loving honesty.
The Rocky Ground (anger and fear): The Rocky Ground is where Jesus says there is not much soil. This is a place of anger and fear. It is a place where we are on edge trying to grow and root as fast as we can because we fear even a slight wind might blow us away. When we garden in places that are rocky ground we root in anger and fear. These are the places and spaces we operate in that come from politics, bad policy, or family systems and conflict that have never been resolved. How many of us know what it feels like to try and farm rocky ground? When we meet a rocky ground, we can run to the barn of Plymouth and pick us a study spade of compassion, truth, and love. We must dig in the rocks, FRIENDS, face the hard stuff, and find the soft soils of love underneath, but first we must face the rocks.
The Thorny Soil (pain and loss): Thorns grow-up a choke out the solid, joyful plants. When we go forth from this place, many of us encounter thistles, weeds, and thorny soil. I know because I am still trying to get a thorn out of my thumb from gardening yesterday. More importantly, this symbolizes pain and loss. This is the soils that we thought was fertile and growing and healthy… until a weed (cancer, divorce, a break-up, a job loss) surprises us and takes away a loved one, we lose a job, and we uncover pain and loss deep within. This is unexpectedly bad soil, but it is soil that this barn called Plymouth is well equipped to help with. When we encounter the thorny soils of life, which are inevitable, we run to the barn of Plymouth and grab our gardening gloves of grace. We all still need to work through our weeds, but at least with the gloves of community support, protection, and gloves of grace and care, we can work towards a whole garden once again. Amen? We must always remember that the gloves of community and grace are here to accompany us even through the thickest thorns and thistle.
The Good Soil (love and joy): And yes, oh yes, the barn of Plymouth is also here for the good soils of weddings and baptisms, communion, and fellowship, learning, pilgrimage, births, birthdays, anniversaries, proposals, job offers, promotions, pay raises, new homes, new leases on life, reunions, celebrations. We run to the barn (this church barn) to support us and celebrate the love and joy of life in the good soils too! This is the seed and the hay, and the tractors we keep in this barn with hope for the next season. We must always return to the barn in celebration.
So, regardless of which soils you find yourself in today or tomorrow, know always that the farm’s storehouse of hope, this barn of love, honesty, authenticity, dirty/gritty
realness, and welcome of formation and forgiveness of Plymouth Congregational Church
of Fort Collins is always here to outfit, refuel, store, and raise you up. This is your barn,
our barn, and your resource space to assess and prepare for the soils I know you face out there.
The Open and Affirming process for Plymouth to become an LGBTQ inclusive church was deeply hard even hurtful for the German-Russian farmers and their families who felt like the UCC left them, and in many ways it did. Many left us because of out gay ministers like me, but I still feel connected with them and the need to reconcile and grow through (NOT DESPITE) but through the nutrients their legacy. Naming this is important as part of the rocky soil, the thorny soil, the good soil that we have to live in. So, today, I
want to honor their barn raising, the hum of the tractors, the voices that built a barn of love, of community, of hope that we have today as a shelter, a storehouse, a resource in the complex soils we all garden within every day of our lives. Here we are always assured that we are gardening with God, with the divine energy that lives within each seed and within our core, and that we have a safe barn to call our spiritual home as we discern what that means in the weeds, the rocks, the hardness, and the rich, deep, thick, messy, earthy goodness of life. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
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