Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
September 27, 2015
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23 (CEB)
That day Jesus went out of the house and sat down beside the lake. 2Such large crowds gathered around him that he climbed into a boat and sat down. The whole crowd was standing on the shore.
3He said many things to them in parables: “A farmer went out to scatter seed. 4As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. 5Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. 6But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. 7Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. 8Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. 9Everyone who has ears should pay attention.”
18“Consider then the parable of the farmer. 19Whenever people hear the word about the kingdom and don’t understand it, the evil one comes and carries off what was planted in their hearts. This is the seed that was sown on the path. 20As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. 21Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. 22As for the seed that was spread among thorny plants, this refers to those who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the false appeal of wealth choke the word, and it bears no fruit. 23As for what was planted on good soil, this refers to those who hear and understand, and bear fruit and produce—in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.”
What comes to mind when you hear the word thrive? It’s a really positive word, isn’t it? (That is, unless is has to do with weeds…). If someone or something is thriving, that means it is doing well, right? Full of life! To thrive is to grow vigorously. Plants can thrive, businesses can thrive, people can thrive; and when they are thriving, great things are happening. But not everything goes so perfectly all the time. The opposite of thriving is what we call, “failure to thrive.” And as positive as thriving is, failure to thrive is really scary.
When my niece was born almost three years ago, she, like the majority of new babies, was perfectly healthy. She was a touch on the small side, but so are her parents, so it was really not a concern. Everything was great the first two months of her life. Then things started changing. Her growth charts weren’t tracking the way they should. She went from being in the 20th percentile, to the 12th, to the 5th, and finally she “fell off” the charts entirely. She wasn’t growing the way she was supposed to. Her pediatrician had my sister supplementing with the heaviest formula she could find. Then, the pediatrician had her eating formula exclusively, but it wasn’t making a difference, the doctors had no idea what was going on. So right around the time she turned three months, my sister was told that her daughter was “failing to thrive.” It was devastating for my sister. I remember her asking, “How could the doctor say that? She’s not growing, but she’s happy, and she sleeps well! Everything else is fine! I don’t understand why she’s ‘failing to thrive’.” It was an incredibly scary time.
Well, it took many doctor’s visits and appointments with specialists, but the professionals were finally able to figure out that my niece had a rare disorder caused by the fact that her esophageal muscles were not fully developed when she was born. So, when she would try to eat, her esophagus would basically collapse and the food wasn’t even getting to her stomach. The doctors had to teach my sister and brother-in-law how to feed her on her side so that her esophagus wouldn’t collapse, and my niece had to begin a regimen of antacids. It was not easy, but it worked, and eventually she grew, her esophageal muscles firmed up, and today she’s a happy, healthy, THRIVING two-and-a-half year old. This was her playing in a man-made puddle just about a week ago (show picture).
Without a doubt, failure to thrive can be a very scary thing, and it’s especially scary when it happens to the people we know and love. I was thinking about that this week; about how human beings can fail to thrive, but also how systems can fail to thrive, even churches. That’s a scary thought, too. Ken often raises the question, “What do you think the church will look like in ten years?” It’s a question that every church leader ought to be asking right now because here in America, the writing is on the wall. The Christian Church in America is failing to thrive. We are not growing vigorously. And so there can be no question that it will look different in 10 years, but the question is how? What will it look like? Dead is certainly one possibility, the scariest one. But I chose to believe that we will simply look different; that we will find a way to thrive again. Yet I know that if we are going to thrive again, we are going to have to make some changes.
Change is what we have been considering in our worship together throughout this month. We’ve acknowledged the difficulty of change. We’ve considered the ways that we have changed in the course of our lives. And we’ve lifted up the need for change both in our own lives and in the life of the church. What I want to do today as we delve into this “Parable of the Sower,” as it is known, is to see and celebrate the possibilities of fruitful change.
I know that I am relatively young, and that I am still pretty new to this ministry thing. But in the last two to three years, I have come to believe whole-heartedly that the only way the church can thrive moving into the future is by embracing change. And we have to begin by getting rid of everything that doesn’t thrive. This is like weeding out the stones and the rocks in the soil before planting the seed. Seed that bears fruit takes work. The problem is, often what is happening in the church works for us, it helps us grow, and so we don’t think about the fact that it might actually be choking out others who are seeking to connect and grow with God. This is a really difficult step for us. It’s not easy to give up the things that we love and that are working for us. But the thing is, ultimately, it’s not about us. Our life as disciples is all about connecting people with the thriving life of God’s Kingdom!
Certainly, one part of that is what we might refer to as preparing the soil; getting all the rocks and weeds and thorns out of the way. But there’s another, even more important, step to building a thriving church. We see it right here in this parable as well. We have to be like this sower, who spreads the seed anywhere and everywhere. Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell us that the farmer carefully tilled and plowed the land before diligently placing each seed in the perfectly formed hole. No. This gardener is throwing seeds all over the place; on the path, where people are walking and the birds are feeding, on the rocky ground, where the soil was shallow, among the thorns where there was great competition for water and light, everywhere! It’s as if every place is potentially good, and the thing is, with God it is! Right? Is there any place where God’s seed cannot take root and sprout? As disciples, our job is not to decide what the “good soil” is before we start planting, our job is simply to scatter the seed everywhere and to trust that God can work good in any circumstance!
A fellow pastor tells of visiting a juvenile court and detention center. The place was terribly depressing with razor wire, electric fences, and padlocks everywhere. “When the doors clanged shut behind us,” he said, “I imagined how final they must always sounds when adolescents—children!—are escorted there.” The group he was with toured each floor of the facility, seeing holding cells where new inmates were processed, classrooms where an ongoing education was at least attempted, the courtrooms where cases were prosecuted. Then, near the end of the tour, the pastor and his group were led down a bleak hall full of cells where the young offenders lived. Each cell had a steel door with narrow slots about two-thirds of the way up, through which various pairs of eyes were watching the group walking down the hall. Some of these kids were accused of major crimes, others were repeat offenders, but one common element, the group was told, was that most of these young people had little or no nurture across their brief lives—no adult who cared about them, no family, no community, no church. “It was hard to notice those eyes staring through narrow slots without doing something,” the pastor said. “So I lingered at one door and whispered to one pair of eyes: ‘God loves you.’ The eyes did not appear to register much, and sometimes I wonder what, if anything, happened next. Did that news fall on the path and get eaten by birds? Did it fall among thorns to get choked out? I will never know,” he reflected.
I think it’s easy for the church to get stuck in a rut. We sow our seed, and it works really well for a while, and so we figure that’s it. Then, over time, sometimes so gradually we don’t even notice, we fail to thrive. But here’s the good news; we can thrive again! We serve a God of life, not death! But in order to thrive, we have to make some changes. We have to let go of the things that aren’t working, and we have to get out there and starting sowing new seed! And it’s not just that we plant the seed in exactly the right place; we have to scatter the seed in every way possible and in every place possible. Sure, sometimes our efforts will fail, our seed will fall among rocky or thorny ground and nothing will come of it, but that’s part of life, it’s okay. If we’re not experiencing failure on occasion, then we’re not risking enough, we’re not trusting enough. We don’t need to be afraid of failure because God promises that if we will just get the seed out there, then we will experience a yield of thirty, sixty, even one hundred fold. Can you imagine? Can you imagine that kind of life, that kind of growth? This is vigorous growth; this is what it means to thrive!
Henry David Thoreau once said, “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” God has done amazing things with the seeds we have sown in the past, has he not? And God can do wonderful and miraculous things with the seeds we sow now, but we have to be out in the fields, out in the world, scattering the seed everywhere, believing that God will work to redeem even the roughest of soiled souls.
My friends, we have been together on this journey for only a short time, but I believe God called me to this place so that we can work together to sow seed in the Brainerd Hills Community. I wish I had a crystal ball to predict the future. I wish I could tell you exactly what this “sowing seed” will look like. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. I don’t know how this will all unfold. All I know is that it means we will have to change some things, do ministry differently than we are doing it now. That’s why we’ve tackled the subject of change this month, it’s something we need to be prepared for, because right now, it’s one of the few things that I am certain will happen!
The other thing I am certain of? If we start to scatter the seed of God’s life, we will thrive. This is the promise of God’s miraculous yield! Praise be to God!