The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 7/11/99
Text: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

A true story - an incident from the 1930's when the Tennessee Valley Authority was building its many dams on the Tennessee River.(1) To do that, they had to relocate a number of people who were living in the area that would be flooded when the dams were finished.

One family in particular lived in an old, ramshackle cabin. The TVA built them a beautiful split-level ranch home on the hill overlooking the location of their former home. But when the Authority came to help the family move, they refused to go. The engineers tried to reason with them and, when that did not work, they called the project manager in. He failed, too.

Meanwhile, the river was building up behind the dam and the water was getting closer and closer to the old cabin. So the TVA brought in some bulldozers along with a group of lawyers waving legal papers, but they were met with a hail of buckshot from the cabin.

Finally, the TVA brought in a social worker. She asked the family to tell her the reason they did not want to move so she could explain it to the officials. The father of the clan pointed to the fireplace and said, "You see that fire in there? My grandpa built that fire 100 years ago when no one in these parts had matches. So he made the family promise to never let it go out. He tended it as long as he could and then my father took over and kept it going while he was alive. And, now that it's my responsibility, I am not about to let it go out."

That gave the social worker an idea. She asked the family if it would be all right if the TVA brought in a coal bin and transported the burning coals from the cabin to the new house up on the hill. That way, they would have the same fire in their new home. The family huddled together to discuss the suggestion and decided that would be acceptable. And so that family was moved out of the way before the river came and covered their old cabin. And all lived happily ever after (or, at least, that is the way the story SHOULD end, even if it does not - we will never know).

I share that incident along with a question: Have you ever felt that way? Like that father? Have you ever felt that it was absolutely and utterly up to you, against all opposition, to keep the fire going (no matter what "the fire" might be)?

If you have, you are certainly not alone. The situation being addressed in this morning's New Testament lesson is along that line. As you Bible scholars all know, Matthew's gospel was compiled and distributed probably some fifty years after Christ's earthly ministry (around 85 AD). The early church had expanded beyond Jerusalem through the missionary efforts of Paul and others but was still rather minuscule in terms of numbers and influence. There was opposition and even some persecution at the hands of political and religious establishments. It was a time when discouragement could have easily overcome that small band of believers. These were the folks for whom Matthew was writing, and this section of his gospel was organized just for them. In chapter eleven, Jesus confronts political opposition as Herod arrests and murders John the Baptist. In chapter twelve, he faces religious opposition as the Scribes and Pharisees challenge him and even suggest he is in league with the devil himself. Now we come to chapter thirteen and a series of parables, these "earthly stories with heavenly meanings." The order of arrangement is no accident - coming on the heels of these accounts of continuous opposition, the stories were meant to address that concern.

The first one is the most familiar, the Parable of the Sower (although considering the emphasis of the story, it should probably be called the Parable of the Soils). No doubt you have heard sermons about it. It uses imagery that is familiar (even if less to us in urban America than in agricultural Palestine). It offers an automatic four-point outline. And finally, for those who fear offering an incorrect interpretation, there is Jesus' own explanation of the meaning of the four types of soil (although most scholars agree that the explanation is not really from Jesus but some later editor who added it in - no matter). It WILL preach.

Start with the imagery. As Jesus sat in that boat, he may well have seen a farmer off in the distance going about his work, scattering seed by hand. The field(2) would have been one of many long narrow strips with the ground between serving as a right-of-way, a three-foot wide common path, beaten as hard as a pavement by the feet of countless passers-by. If seed fell there, and some was bound to, there was no more chance of its penetrating into the earth than if it had fallen on concrete.

Then there was stony ground. Not ground filled with stones but rather what was common in that part of the world, a thin skin of earth on top of an underlying shelf of limestone rock. The earth might be only a very few inches deep before the rock was reached. Seed could certainly germinate, because the ground would grow warm quickly with the heat of the sun. But there was no depth of earth and when a plant sent down its roots in search of nourishment and moisture, it would meet only the rock. It would swiftly starve, and shrivel and die.

Thorny ground? Deceptive. When the sower was sowing, the ground would look clean enough. It is easy to make a garden look clean by simply turning it over, but in the ground still lay the fibrous roots of the couch grass and the bishop weed and all the perennial pests, ready to spring to life again. Every gardener knows that the weeds grow with a speed and strength that few good seeds can equal. The result was that the good seed and the dormant weeds grew together, but the weeds were so strong that they throttled the life out of the seed.

Finally, the good ground. Deep and clean and soft. The seed could gain an entry, find nourishment, and grow unchecked. In the good ground it brought forth an abundant harvest.

Suddenly the preacher thunders, "And what type of soil are you?" (Isn't that the way it is supposed to go?) First, there are those whose minds are shut, those into whom the seed of an idea has no more chance of taking root than the seed that falls onto a path beaten hard by many feet. Is that you? Then there is the one whose mind is like the shallow ground, someone who follows the fads, responds to the emotion of the moment, who takes something up quickly and just as quickly drops it. Is that you? Or there is that busy, busy, busy individual who has so many irons in the fire, so many interests in life, that often the most important things, get crowded out. Is that you? Finally, the good ground, the fertile mind - like good soil, it is open, deep, uncluttered. A word from the Lord will take root there and bear an abundant harvest. Is that you?

Well, to be painfully honest, answering for myself, I am ALL of them. There are times when someone speaks to me that they may as well be talking to a wall. For whatever reason, I do not hear what they are saying. The seed is falling on the path. There are times when an idea comes to which I latch right on with enthusiasm but there is no follow-through. It dies away. Stony ground. My life is busy, as is yours. Everyone knows we have far less leisure time than we used to. Good ideas come, and they begin to take root, but with so many competing claims on me, they fade and eventually wither. Thorny ground. Finally, yes, there are times when something comes along that takes root - it grows and blossoms and produces abundantly. I wish that such were always the case, but... Does that sound like anyone you know?

Frankly, we could listen to a thousand sermons on these soil types and still be the same mixtures as we are - part and parcel of being human. That is one of the things that convinces me that Jesus had something else in mind when he told this story. Another is the placement of the parable in the gospel narrative: right after accounts of opposition, and the first in a series of vignettes that describe the sure and certain victory of the Kingdom of God. One more thing convinces me: Jesus was a good storyteller, and good storytellers know that you cannot make a multitude of points in a story and have any hope of your listeners remembering them. Jesus had a point to make here, not a whole list of them.

So, what is his point? For Matthew's audience of good church folk who, for various and sundry reasons, might be a bit discouraged, and who like the Tennessee father, might be figuring that keeping the fire going was their responsibility, it comes right at the end. The harvest. The AMAZING harvest. Thirty-fold. Sixty-fold. A hundred-fold. A harvest of four- to ten-fold was considered normal, with a harvest of fifteen times what was sown being exceptionally good.(3) Who was responsible for such a thing? The Sower? Of course not. It could be none other than God. Always has been. Always will be. Even when we figure it is all up to us.

Janet Mathistad is a Lutheran pastor in Minot, ND. She writes,

One aspect of this text that has interested me is that even in the good soil, there was such a difference of yields. I got an insight into one answer back in 1993, when I had just married my husband, who is a farmer. That was the summer that the Mississippi River flooded, and our area of North Dakota received 13 inches of rain in June (our total average annual moisture is only 17 inches). A phenomenon happened in Todd's durum fields that he referred to as "stooling out." Whereas normally, each seed sends up one stalk and produces one head of wheat, when the weather is cooler and wetter, the grain will send up a second and even a third stalk. The yield is therefore abundantly greater. This summer of 1999 is the first summer since then where the conditions have been right for stooling out. And lo and behold, that is what is taking place.

Pastor Janet continues.

I see it as an example of something that humans have no control over. If the wheat stools out, it is not because the farmer was especially clever or because the soil was so good, but because the weather conditions were right. It seems that in farming or in ministry, we can sow, but we cannot guarantee results. We can give it our best effort, but cannot completely control the outcome. Only God can do that. And God is convinced that in the end, when it comes to [that] harvest the results will be abundant.(4)

Hmm. The Parable of the Sower. In the original version, I suspect we would identify Jesus as the farmer, the seed as the gospel, and the field as the world. I would cast you and me, not as those types of soil with which we may have been identified in years past, but rather as tenant farmers. We too are involved in spreading the seed, whether it be by preaching, teaching, singing, inviting, or day-to-day LIVING.

I would love to tell you DO NOT BE DISCOURAGED, but I know that is easier said than done. I wish I would not get discouraged, but I do. Membership declines; finances tight; a neighborhood that has changed; but it is still up to me to keep that fire going, no matter what. You work hard, but where are the results? The message of the parable to all of us who, on behalf of Jesus, are sowers of seed is do not get discouraged over RESULTS. Those are out of your hand.

You may encounter those outside the church who could care less about this enterprise and will never be convinced that we are worth bothering with. The well-trodden path. Keep sowing the seed. There are those who respond quickly, join with us in our work and worship, but who just as quickly, and for no apparent reason, stop coming. Stony ground. Keep sowing the seed. There are those who are active for a time, but slowly participate less and less (and especially if something occurred that was in the least bit upsetting); church used to be a priority but now there are so many other things to do. Thorny ground. Keep sowing the seed. And then there are those who are the pillars of the church - here every time the doors are open, always willing to take on any task, always anxious to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Somebody sowed that seed. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. And keep sowing the seed. You never know. You just never know.

H. L. Gee tells this story.(5) In the church where he worshiped there was a lonely old man, old Thomas. He had outlived all his friends and hardly anyone knew him. When Thomas died, Gee had the feeling that there would be no one to go to the funeral so he decided to go, so that there might be someone to follow the old man to his last resting-place.

There was no one else, and it was a miserable wet day. The funeral reached the cemetery, and at the gate there was a soldier waiting. An officer, but on his raincoat there were no rank badges. He came to the grave side for the ceremony, then when it was over, he stepped forward and before the open grave swept his hand to a salute that might have been given to a king. Mr. Gee walked away with this soldier, and as they walked, the wind blew the soldier's raincoat open to reveal the shoulder badges of a brigadier general.

The general said to Gee: "You will perhaps be wondering what I am doing here. Years ago Thomas was my Sunday School teacher; I was a wild lad and a sore trial to him. He never knew what he did for me, but I owe everything I am or will be to old Thomas, and today I had to come to salute him at the end." Thomas did not know what he was doing.

No preacher or teacher ever does. Keep sowing the seed. We can leave the rest to God, including keeping the fire going. And that is GOOD news for all us tenant farmers.


1. Noted by Jim McCrae, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop Sermons," #1509, 7/7/99

2. Soil information from William Barclay, And Jesus Said: A Handbook on the Parables of Jesus, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970), pp. 18-19

3. The New Interpreter's Bible, CD-ROM (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997)

4. Janet Mathistad, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #3026, 7/7/99

5. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press

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