“A Dirt-y Sermon” Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

I am not a gardener; I don’t claim to have a green thumb.  When I was growing up, we always had a garden.  My responsibility was to pull weeds and grass, and to pick the tomatoes, green beans, and cut the okra.  But I came across an article that relates to farming, gardening and agricultural living.  It seemed appropriate for our gospel text today; some of you know that Braden is manager of Innisfail Farm, and Heidi works at AgSouth.  Dr. Allen R. Rumble, in an article entitled Growing Things writes “The Top Ten Things I Have Learned from Gardening.”  These also apply to parenting and family life.

10.  We really do “reap what we sow.” Good seeds bear good fruit.

9.  Without rains and storms there is no growth – no fruit is produced.

8. When weeding, be careful! We can’t always tell the difference between a nasty weed and a beautiful flower.

7. Deep roots are a good thing. Without them, we’ll wither and die.

6. Pruning and trimming, as painful as it seems, actually works to our advantage.

5. In gardening, as in life, cheating does not work. Short-cuts, slipshod efforts, and neglect always show up in the quality of our garden.

4. Like anything worthwhile, beautiful gardens require attention, hard work, and commitment.

3. We cannot rush the harvest. Bearing fruit takes time and patience. Premature fruit is almost always sour.

2. Gardening and growing is a lifetime experience. We can experience growth and beauty until the day we die.

1. Fertilizer happens! In fact, nothing much grows without it.

In the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was taught in the synagogues; in today’s passage, he was teaching outside.  Persecution of Jesus by church leaders, scribes, and Pharisees had led him into open-air arenas like this one, teaching from the boat.  Jesus also began teaching in parables.  Earlier he had been painting word pictures like the lilies of the field, salt and light, but now the teachings are expanded illustrations with central meanings.  I’ve always called this the “parable of the sower”; actually, it is the “parable of the soils.”  This is a dirt-y sermon, a sermon about dirt.

Parables were meant to be heard.  Those listening on the banks of the lake had to gain meaning on the spot.  Its impact had to be immediate.  If we take the parable as a warning to hearers, it means that there are different ways of accepting the word of God, and the fruit which it produces depends on the heart of the person who accepts it.

The sower is Jesus or anyone who faithfully proclaims Jesus’ message.  The seed is “the word of the Kingdom,” “the gospel or good news of the Kingdom.”  The sower and the seeds are constant in each scenario, but the soils are different.  If someone is not producing, it’s not the fault of the seed or the sower.

Our text is one of the few parables in which we actually have Jesus’ own interpretation of the parable.  In Palestine, the fields were in long, narrow strips; the ground between them was always a right of way, a common path.  It was beaten down by many who passed that way.  If seed fell there, and some was bound to fall there, there was no chance of its penetrating into the earth.  It was as if the seed had fallen on a road.

This soil represents the hearer with the closed mind.  There are people whose minds are locked shut to the gospel just as a seed could not penetrate a beaten path.  There are many things that can shut a person’s mind.  Prejudice can make a person blind to everything he/she does not wish to see.  An unteachable spirit can erect a barrier which cannot easily be broken down.  Closed minds are generally the result of one of two things . . . maybe both.  Pride and/or fear can close a person’s mind.  There are none so blind as those who deliberately will not see.  The soil of the beaten path will not produce fruit, because the seeds never enter the ground.

Jesus then described another kind of soil, the stony ground, which was not dirt filled with rocks.  In Palestine, a thin layer of soil on top of an underlying shelf of limestone was common.  The dirt might be only a few inches deep before the rock was reached.  On such ground, the seed would germinate rapidly, because the soil got warm quickly in the sunshine.  But with no depth, the plants would die in search of moisture or nourishment.

The rocky ground actually refers to shallow ground.  This is the person who fails to think things out or think them through.  Impulsive, but no follow through.  Here today, gone tomorrow.  Since the seed has no capable root system, there is no lasting significance . . . and no fruit.  Many were following Jesus for what he would give them: healings, feedings, miracles.  They followed him like a person would follow a circus; he entertained them.  The emphasis was what was in it for them.

Many today have this same mentality.  “O God, bless me.  Give me this and that.”  Jesus did not come to earth so that we could use him to get what we want.  Granted, God wants to give us good gifts.  But using Jesus is not why he came.  This kind of mentality shows a lack of commitment to God, because the emphasis is so self-centered.  Living the Christian life is so much more than asking, “What’s in it for me?”  This level of commitment is shallow focusing on what God can give a person.  The kind of commitment that God requires, the type of faith that God requests from us, is to believe and serve when we aren’t on the receiving end, when circumstances are bleak, when hope is fading and when times are tough.  That kind of commitment requires our faith to be grounded, to be deeply rooted in a relationship with God.  The second type of soil could not produce fruit, because it lacked roots; it was too shallow.

The third type of soil was deceptive; it was good dirt, but also had thorns and weeds.  When the sower was sowing, the ground would look clean enough.  No matter how many times a person turns the ground, there will always be the possibility of some weeds turning up.  Weeds often grow much faster than good seeds.  The good seeds and the weeds grew together, but the weeds were so strong that they throttled the life out of the seed.

This describes the hearer who has so many interests in life that often the most important things get crowded out.  Our lives have become so busy, so crowded, and dare I say, so cluttered.  It is not the things that are obviously bad which are dangerous.  It is the things which are good, but aren’t necessarily the best.  Too many good things leave us with not enough time for the best things.  Work is good and essential, but workaholics miss time for the best things.  Leisure is good and healthy, but too much playing causes people to miss time for the best things.  Civic duty is good and responsible, but too much involvement causes a person to miss time for the best things.

What are the best things?  In the parable, the seed represents the gospel, the Kingdom way, God’s way; these are the best things.  When work, playtime, clubs, civic concerns, or fill-in-the-blank fills a person’s life, it can overcome the best things like weeds choking out the good seed.  The threat is not that the person overtly chooses to withdraw from God or skips church deliberately.  The danger is not that the person intentionally becomes a spectator instead of a participant or leader at church, or consciously decides not to pray or read the Bible.  Yet these other good things, whatever they may be, slowly can choke out these best things, even when we give lip-service to the contrary.

We would never say, “I’m turning my back on God,” or “I’m going to put ________ ahead of God,” or “____________ is more important to me than God,” for that would be considered idolatry.  But we still allow that behavior at times.  Some weeds are pretty for a season, yet they can choke out the good seed.  Some of our activities are good, but they can become more important than the best if we allow it to happen.  Weeds, even in good soil, can choke the life out of good seeds.

Then Jesus offered a fourth type of soil.  The good dirt was deep, clean, and soft.  Here the seed gained an entry, finding nourishment.  The good ground brought forth an abundant harvest.

The person who is like good soil is different from the others.  Like the good soil, instead of being closed-minded, the person’s mind is open; he/she is always willing to learn, is teachable regarding new perspectives, is open to the prompting of the Spirit wherever the Spirit may lead.  Unlike having a shallow root system like the rocky soil, this kind of person understands; he/she has thought things out, realizes what it may mean and accepts it.  Unlike the thorny soil, the person who is being compared to the good soil is prepared to hear.  The person is neither too proud nor too busy to listen.  The person’s priorities are in order.

Finally, this person translates the hearing into action.  It is not enough for the person’s mind to be open.  It is not enough for the person to think things out.  It is not enough for the person to have priorities in order.  This person places the hearing into action; the seed bears fruit.  Our sower has planted a seed in us, and now is expecting a harvest.  Sowers don’t plant seeds for exercise or simply to have something to do.  Sowers plant seeds for one reason: to get results, to bear fruit.  The good soil produces good fruit; the harvest depends on many factors.  Sometimes the harvest is 30, 60 even 100 times the one seed.  The real hearer is the person who listens, who understands, who realizes, and then obeys.  This is the kind of disciple that God wants us to be.

The Kingdom which Jesus inaugurated was not established for us to sit back and allow others to do the work.  The Kingdom of God has come for all people, no matter who they are.  The Kingdom for which Jesus died is not one that selfishly asks, “What’s in it for me?”

What is required then to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God?  First, one has to have a relationship with God, one which grows acceptance and love for people, one which trusts through thick and thin, one which is the highest priority.  Secondly, as a citizen of this Kingdom, we are expected to take the time, find the time, or manage the time to bring forth good fruit.  The amount of our harvests may vary, but fruitfulness is expected.  If the sower’s seed has found fertile soil, a harvest will come.  If a person receives the gospel story, the good news of Jesus Christ, and it becomes such a part of that person that it is now rooted and grounded, then the fruit will come.  One’s lifestyle, one’s speech, one’s attitude, one’s schedule, and one’s actions will reflect the germination of that seed.

What kind of dirt are you?  Have you closed your mind to the story that God sent Jesus to all of us simply because of a great love?  Have you traded your level of commitment for what God could do for you, seeking to satisfy your own needs?  Have you allowed worries, wealth, activities, or anything else to limit your relationship with God?  Or have you received the grace offered by the sower, yielded to his wishes, and reflected his love to people who are hungry for spiritual nourishment?  My prayer is that you and I will be useful dirt, willing dirt, available dirt that will bear good fruit.  As Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears, listen.”