Today we begin our new 10-part sermon series on Jesus’ parables in Matthew, “Do You Want To Know a Secret?” In Matthew 13:10-12, Jesus says that the parables reveal the secrets of God’s kingdom. Will we have “ears to hear” them?
This first parable, the Parable of the Farmer in Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23, comforts and encourages us to be faithful in using our gifts for ministry. Among other things, the parable teaches us that we should expect failure from time to time if we’re faithfully answering Jesus’ call.
Also, since being a Christian isn’t a one-time decision but rather a decision we make every day, the parable challenges us to consider the kind of “soil” that we are. Are we receptive to the seed of God’s word and love that Jesus is sowing in our hearts right now? What kind of soil will we be? The answer is up to us.
Sermon Text: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
The following is my original manuscript.
I took Latin in high school, but I was a terrible student. In fact, the only Latin I remember to this day is the sentence “Britannia est parva insula.” Britain is a small island. I never even understood that sentence, because clearly—as far as islands go—Britain is a rather large island, right? But my seventh grade English teacher convinced me that knowing Latin would help me with my English vocabulary, which would help me on the SAT, which would help me get into a good college, which would help me get into law school, where I could know the meaning of things like habeas corpus and nolo contendere. Or I could get into medical school—where knowing Latin would apparently help me figure out names of human anatomy. So I could say things like, “This is a pain in my gluteus maximus.” That’s what she told us! As it is, all it’s helped me to know is that Britain is a small island—and even that isn’t true!
But my Latin teacher was a fascinating and intimidating man named Coach Hogan—he coached the golf team, so he wasn’t like a real coach! But he was a brilliant man. He was the first person I ever knew from Boston, and he spoke with a very strong Boston accent. I don’t know if he went to Harvard, but rumors abounded that he got a perfect score on the SAT. Perhaps because of his brilliance, he didn’t seem especially pleased with his station in life. He seemed to approach teaching high school as if it were a life sentence—like he was being punished.
Frankly, Coach Hogan scared me a little. He was known to throw chalkboard erasers across the room, and with pinpoint accuracy, bean the heads of students who fell asleep in class. Which I’m going to start doing for those of you who fall asleep during my sermons. He would sometimes be speaking in this very calm voice when SUDDENLY HE WOULD BE YELLING AT A STUDENT WHO WASN’T PAYING ATTENTION. The scariest thing about Coach Hogan is that he gave the impression that—even though there were rules against these sorts of things—he might snap at any moment and murder a student. And if you teach high school, could you blame him?
One day, he was fed up that so many of us lazy and ungrateful students didn’t do our homework. But he didn’t lose his temper. It was worse than that. Instead, in an eerily calm voice, he asked the small minority of students who completed last night’s homework assignment to please move their desks out into the hall. And he followed them out in the hall and closed the door. He taught them that day’s lesson out in the hall, while most of the rest of us were left behind.
Here’s the thing: For a few of my classmates, who bought into what Coach Hogan was selling—who were disciplined, open-minded, eager and willing to learn from him—he was their favorite teacher—by far! One of my best friends from elementary school, Matt, who’s now an ER doctor in Charleston, credits Coach Hogan with turning his life around and getting his head screwed on straight. If I could go back in time, I’m pretty sure I would love him, too. I was a little too young.
By using parables, it’s as if Jesus were doing something similar to Coach Hogan: separating the good students from the bad—revealing what Jesus calls the “secrets of the kingdom,” not to most people, but to those disciples who were ready, willing, and able to receive them—who were buying into Jesus’ message, who were ready to submit to Jesus, ready to bring to Jesus some measure of trust and faith. That’s most of us in here, right? But even if we’re ready to be a good student, parables still aren’t supposed to be easy to understand. They’re supposed to provoke us to think and ask questions. They’re supposed to be open-ended. They’re supposed to challenge us. They’re supposed to step on our toes and make us feel uncomfortable. Like Coach Hogan throwing the chalkboard eraser at our head, parables can sometimes hit us like that. Jesus’ parables judge us and motivate us to change and repent where necessary.
Are we up to the challenge? Are we ready to be good students? Are we ready to hear and receive the secrets of God’s kingdom? That’s what this sermon series is for.
To help us figure out what this parable means, let’s talk for a moment about what has just been happening in Matthew’s gospel. Earlier, in chapter 10, Jesus commissions the twelve disciples to go all over the region and extend Jesus’ ministry, announcing the coming of God’s kingdom and to heal the sick. And what happens? The disciples experience some success, but they also experience a lot of failure. Many people simply won’t accept the good news that Jesus was ushering in God’s kingdom. Even John the Baptist, whose ministry is to prepare the people for the coming of Christ, experiences doubts: Through his messengers, he asks Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” If John himself struggles to believe in Jesus, then this ministry is obviously going to be difficult!
In Matthew 12, Jesus encounters the first serious opposition from the religious authorities for doing good things like healing people on the Sabbath. They demand that Jesus give them a sign that he is who he claims to be—as if giving eyesight to the blind, making the lame walk, restoring sanity to the mentally ill, and curing people of skin diseases weren’t enough of a sign! And to add insult to injury, just before today’s scripture, Jesus’ own mother and brothers worry that Jesus has gone crazy, and they’ve come to take custody of him.
With all this in the background, don’t you think that Jesus’ disciples might need a word of encouragement? If, like Jesus’ disciples in today’s scripture, you answer the call to do the work of God’s kingdom, be prepared for failure. It comes with the territory. After all, when the farmer goes out to sow his seed, look at all the seed that gets wasted by being thrown on the hard path or the rocky ground or in the thorn-covered ground!
One of my best friends in ministry, Teresa, is a church-planter in our North Georgia Conference. She’s much braver than I am! When I came on staff as an associate pastor of this large, relatively healthy, and successful church here at Alpharetta First, Teresa was basically parachuted, by herself, into the middle of an affluent and relatively unchurched part of metro Atlanta. She was told: Start a church here. And we’re not going to tell you how to do it. We’ll cover your salary for a little while, and we’ll give you a little bit of seed money, but mostly you’re on your own.
So she thought, What do people in my community like to do on Sunday morning? They like to have brunch, and they like to go to coffee shops. So she opened a church in a store front, with a coffee bar and a barista. And she has a chef who rents the kitchen space during the week and then caters brunch on Sunday mornings. My family and I had the pleasure of worshiping there in August. The band won me over by playing jazz arrangements of Rolling Stones tunes during church. Very non-traditional. And I’m not going to tell you where it is, because I don’t want to lose you to Teresa’s church! Oh it’s very far away—way too far to drive from here!
I know firsthand that Teresa is doing good ministry. Her church is filled with former church drop-outs—people who’ve been wounded by church—and many people who’ve never been to church who are looking for deeper meaning in their life. When we visited, the church had a warm and welcoming spirit, and many people were there. And like the parable, I’ve seen firsthand that some of this seed that Teresa is sowing is taking root in fertile ground—some fertile ground that before she got there, no one had bothered to till, plant, and harvest. Too risky!
And guess what? In spite of this success, Teresa’s church is operating hand to mouth. The church is surviving month to month. She never knows where the money will come from to pay the bills. So far, so good—but there’s no guarantee that her church will make it. She knew that going into it, and she took the risk anyway.
Teresa’s example challenges and inspires me. When I think of my own ministry—and the ministry of so many of my Methodist clergy peers—it seems positively Nerfy by comparison to hers. You know what I mean by Nerfy? It’s relatively safe. It’s comfortable. The stakes aren’t very high, so the risk of failure isn’t all that great. One of the worst things the United Methodist Church ever did was implement something called “guaranteed appointments.” This means that we clergy earn the equivalent of tenure, and if we flame-out at one church, we’ll just be passed along to another. We can still be fired, but just not for the main reason that clergy ought to be fired: for being complacent, overly comfortable, and ineffective ministers.
I’m happy to report that it’s very likely at General Conference next year that our denomination will be getting rid of guaranteed appointments. Not a moment too soon!
Listen, I believe that this parable speaks against guaranteed appointments because if you’re being faithful to Jesus and doing the work of the kingdom there are no guarantees! This parable speaks against Nerfy ministry. This parable speaks against soft, comfortable, safe, risk-free ministry. If you’re doing ministry correctly, you ought to be scattering seed on the hard road and on rocky ground and in the thorns. And that means you’re going to face rejection, failure, and resistance along the way. It’s part of the deal.
Will you do me a favor? Will you make sure that I don’t get Nerfy as pastor of Vinebranch. Hold me accountable. What do I need to do to be a better farmer, to scatter the seed more effectively?
But you know what I’m going to say next, right? You are a minister to! That’s what you signed up for at your baptism and confirmation, and when you joined this church. It’s a part of what it means to serve Jesus and support this church through your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. No more Nerfy ministry for all of us!
And since this is missions emphasis month, you’ve got a new opportunity to renew the commitment you made to God to use your gifts for ministry; to get out of your comfort zone; to stop playing it safe with your Christian faith. This might mean going downtown next Saturday to minister with homeless. Even if homeless people make you feel deeply uncomfortable when you pass them in the street or when they ask you for a handout. It might mean teaching children in Sunday school. It might mean volunteering for Vacation Bible School. It might mean going on a mission trip to Honduras, Paraguay, or Romania. It might mean inviting a friend or neighbor to church.
Years ago, I was sitting in church and the pastor was preaching a sermon against pessimism. In response to his message, he handed out rubber bands and invited us to put it on our rest. For the next week, as we experienced negative or pessimistic thoughts, we were supposed to snap the rubber band against our wrist. Let me tell you, at the end of that week my wrist was red and welted!
The point is that this parable teaches us that we have good reason to be optimistic in Christ—not based on what we do, but based on what God is doing. We can’t always discern the ways that God is at work in the world. We can’t always see the results of the good work we’re doing for God’s kingdom. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: God’s timing is not our timing. But we can trust that God is working through us and God will produce a harvest.
One more thought… When we read the parables of Jesus we should avoid the temptation to simply identify with the hero of the parable, or to identify with the positive aspects of the parable. “Of course I’m like the farmer in the parable, scattering seeds of God’s word and God’s love!” Or say to ourselves, “I’m a Christian. I’ve accepted Christ as Savior and Lord and have been baptized and made a profession of faith, so of course I’m like the good soil in the parable!”
The parable should also challenge us to think about the ways in which we’re not receptive to God’s word—the ways in which we resist the nurturing the seed of God’s word in our hearts. Being a Christian isn’t a one-time decision we make at confirmation, for example, or when we make a profession of faith and get baptized. It is a daily, hourly, moment-by-moment choice. What kind of soil will we be? The answer is up to us!