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Matthew reports that Jesus went to the lakeshore to teach,
and the crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a fishing boat,
where he sat down to sow the seeds of the kingdom of God.
The location of this teaching was most likely the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee,
not far from the Mount of Beatitudes, just west of Capernaum.
Like the interconnected, agricultural villages of Los Robles, Nicaragua,
where a number of us spent the last week,
there were many villages within walking distance of that beach.
Hundreds of agricultural families lived nearby and were accustomed to walking wherever they went.
Thousands of persons could appear in one place with little notice,
through simple word of mouth spread through the communities.
They would have heard that the rabbi from Nazareth would be teaching again in the afternoon
over at the seashore, where the fishermen pull their boats up to the beach,
and so they would have left what they were doing and gathered from near and far,
to hear what this astounding teacher had to say.
The particular place where they gathered is a natural amphitheater.
On the southern side of the Mount of Beatitudes, there is a broad, green slope,
wider and deeper and a bit steeper than the amphitheater at Chastain Park.
A light breeze typically blows still today across the lake towards the northwest,
so that the voice of a person sitting in a boat at the beach could quite literally be heard
by thousands of people on the beach and on the sloping hillside beyond.
One tour guide in Israel remarked that visiting Galilee is like experiencing a fifth gospel.
These gospel stories come alive when we experience the physical geography of the land.
There is another important aspect of this natural amphitheater –
this was then and is today an agricultural area.
The amphitheater today is planted with bananas and other fruit trees.
Flowers bloom brightly nearby in the spring.
Local villagers still enjoy a bountiful harvest from nearby fields in the proper season.
We can imagine that while Jesus was speaking to the crowds,
there were agricultural workers visible that day, in the distance, even sowing seeds perhaps.
They would have been walking among the fields with some sort of fabric basket slung over their shoulder,
hands reaching in and flinging seeds into the rich Galilean soil.
Our text for today has often been called the parable of the sower,
but others have called it the parable of the soils.
Hear the Word of God from Matthew 13:1-9.
Some might say that the sower in the parable is not prudent or careful.
He is wasteful even. He tosses seeds every which way, wasting breath on that person,
wasting time on that situation, wasting precious resources in a scarce landscape.
But the sower nevertheless generously sows the seeds, not overly careful,
but with an abundance mentality, he sows where he will.
He knows that there will be enough left for others.
He knows that the less-rich soil needs more seeds, overseeding even,
while the rich soil needs only just enough.
As Jesus said elsewhere, I have come not to those who are well, but to those in need of a physician.
Typically, in most agricultural situations, there is plenty of seed available.
Only the best portion of the seeds is selected to provide the next year’s crop.
There is plenty of God’s Word, the seed, to go around.
There is no need to skimp when it comes to spreading the gospel through our words or deeds.
We cannot love our God or our neighbor too much;
we cannot communicate too often the love and grace and mercy of God.
In our parable for today, Jesus is not necessarily prescribing how the future church should operate.
Rather, he seems to be describing the human scene before him.
Thousands had gathered on the hillside to listen to his words.
Not all of them would respond, at least not in that season.
Only some would respond. Only some would receive his words, grow in faith,
and bear the fruit of discipleship. Others would not be open to his message.
Still others would receive it gladly but then fade away.
Jesus is very realistic about the human condition.
He is honest about the response of people to an invitation to participate in his kingdom.
He describes various groups as rocky, or thorny, or tread-upon soils,
acknowledging that, at least in that season, many would not become his followers.
Nevertheless, Jesus proclaims that good soil is present.
Good soil represents those who hear the word and understand it. They take it to heart.
With a good mix of sun, rain, and soil, amazing fruit can be born in God’s kingdom,
some thirty-fold, some sixty, and some even a hundredfold!
Our mission team has been walking among coffee plants all week.
Their limbs are covered this month with dark green leaves and bright green beans,
or what they call “cherries”. The cherries will turn red and be ready to be picked in the fall.
But for now, the hope and promise is evident; the potential for an abundant harvest is obvious.
Jesus must have been thrilled to see so many on the hillside that day who were listening,
who indeed embodied rich soil, whose season had come,
who were prepared to blossom where they had been planted.
Even so, he acknowledged that the season for others had not come.
He let his disciples know that they would never bat 100%.
He encouraged all church workers who would follow that though the work is hard
and that many would fall away, still the seeds they sowed would take root and bear fruit among some.
There were some he described as being similar to the well-worn path, to hard ground.
These are those who do not want to learn, who think they already know it all.
Some may be overly intellectual, not willing to learn from a carpenter from Nazareth.
Others may be afraid – afraid to get close to this holy, righteous Jesus,
afraid that God will disrupt their well-laid plans and organized lives.
Those described as the well-worn path can be hard-hearted.
They refuse to let God or others in. They are hard, tough, “cool”, “fly”.
The words may change from generation to generation, but we know what Jesus meant.
It may be true that many of these hard-hearted ones have been hurt before.
Some may have been abused or mistreated.
Some may have been hurt by the church, de-churched as we say,
offended or hurt by members of churches.
Whatever their station in life, they are not open to receiving the gospel,
not ready to allow the words of Jesus to take root.
There were others present whom Jesus described as rocky soil.
They would accept quickly the words of Jesus, and even take them to heart,
but they would not follow through. They had no depth.
They would not last when difficult times arose.
They have soft hearts and open minds, but they lack discipline. They give up too easily.
They are easily led astray. As Paul wrote, these are those who are like children
and become “tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine”.
Others present that day in Galilee Jesus described as thorny soil,
soil that contained too many thorny bushes for the good seed to bear fruit.
These are those who are distracted and concerned about many worldly things.
They may be soft-hearted and open-minded, but there is not room in their lives for the gospel.
The seeds of the kingdom take root in them and begin to grow,
but their hands are too full of things. Their calendars are too full of activities.
Their lives are too full to worship regularly, too full to enjoy daily devotion and prayers.
They often desire to be faithful. They have great potential to bear much fruit for the kingdom of God,
but their life of faith and service is being choked by other demands.
Sometimes too late, they realize the need for a more healthy life balance.
This thorny soil seems particularly relevant to life in metro Atlanta today.
After spending a week among the villagers of Los Robles,
I am reminded that the pace of life in Atlanta is fast.
Opportunities for work and recreation are vast. There is always something going on.
Like New York, the city that never sleeps, Atlanta is the city that never rests.
With a mild winter that rarely slows us down to the incredible invention of air conditioning!
that keeps us running at pace even through August, this southern city no longer keeps Sabbath,
no longer practices a healthy rhythm of worship and work and re-creation.
Thorny weeds that choke the life of faith can often be beautiful and worthwhile things.
Weeds are not necessarily bad; they are just growing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My mom maintains a beautiful English garden in her back yard and she has always said that:
“a weed is anything that is growing in the wrong place”.
A beautiful rose bush, growing in the midst of tomato plants,
becomes a weed to be pulled and tossed away.
Six or seven years ago, during a spring soccer season,
Melanie and I spent most Saturdays and many Sunday afternoons going in opposite directions.
We would load up our cars early in the day to take our sons to soccer games all over Atlanta,
and sometimes all over the southeast.
We were running ourselves ragged, trying to divide and conquer,
trying to get everyone to practices on time, and trying to see as many of our boys games as possible.
That particular season we had four boys playing on five different teams,
and our time together as family was being choked. Our family life felt scattered and threatened.
We had gone from having family dinners together most nights when they were younger
to occasionally passing one another in the kitchen or the driveway.
We were not living the kind of home life that we intended.
As many have said, “the good is ever the enemy of the best”.
What is often a good and healthy activity for a person or a family, or even a business,
can often become the enemy of what is the best.
So, for the next fall season, we became more strategic.
We sat down with the schedules and the calendars and determined when we would utilize carpools.
We decided proactively when we would go to games together and when we would go separately.
We planned when we would have family dinners and special events all together.
That fall, life certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was better.
We had to miss a few games, but Melanie and I spent time together in the car and on the sidelines.
We ate more meals together with our sons as a family.
When our boys had a rare Sunday morning game or tournament,
we sent the one with the game in a carpool with others and the rest of us went to church.
Any Atlanta family involved in extracurricular activities these days understands the thorny soil.
With all the best intentions, we are overscheduling our kids and losing perspective on life.
Too often, families are giving up time together and missing out on worship and other practices
that nurture a healthy faith and healthy future.
Many hear the good news of the gospel and take it to heart,
but the concerns of this life, whether from too many hours at work,
or too many activities on the calendar, or too much focus on things or possessions,
are choking the potential to bear the fruit that God intends.
The last group that Jesus mentioned was those representing good soil.
These are the ones who welcome Jesus’ words and take them to heart.
Their hearts are soft and open. Their minds are not too distracted to be able to focus and be disciplined.
Their hands may be active, but they are not too full.
Their calendars and daily schedules have room enough for God.
They take the time daily to listen to God, and to listen carefully to their children or grandchildren.
They intentionally share daily time with their spouse, perhaps over morning coffee or evening dinner.
Televisions and cell phones and iPads are set aside in favor of eye contact
and genuine recognition of those around them.
Somehow, getting to worship on Sunday morning is just not that big a deal.
Their Saturday schedules are not so full that they are exhausted on Sundays.
Good soil that bears much fruit is the ideal, an ideal often difficult to attain in the real world.
And Jesus even notes that while some will bear fruit one hundredfold,
there is joy and celebration over those who bear just thirtyfold.
One thing all agricultural people know…the sower will sow seeds again next year.
No matter how poor the crop this year, no matter the predicted weather, hope springs eternal.
Seeds will be sown again.
At Finca el Peten, the coffee farm where we stayed in Nicaragua,
the workers have already planted some 100,000 seeds in small plastic bags.
They call it their nursery, full of seedlings with great hope and promise
for the next planting year to come.
They realize the importance of caring for the soil when the plants are young.
The type of soil in which we are planted, from our first days to our last,
makes all the difference in the kind and amount of fruit we will bear for God’s kingdom.
The words of Jesus offered from that boat at the beach so long ago
are realistic and contemporary.
They contain an element of judgment, and yet they are still very hopeful.
They are hopeful not only because there is always good soil ready to receive the seed
and produce the fruit of righteousness in abundance,
but they are also hopeful because we know that the next planting season is coming once again.
It will be here before you know it.
God is not finished with any of us yet.
Despite what challenges you or your family may have faced in past seasons,
perhaps next year’s crop will be surprisingly bountiful.
By God’s grace, may it be so.
To God be the glory in all our lives. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
June 25, 2017
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Jamie Butcher was born and raised in the Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. She grew up at Central Presbyterian Church in Bristol, Virginia, and tried to spend every minute of every summer at Holston Presbytery Camp in Banner Elk, North Carolina.
Join us for worship on Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.
Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God's Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
205 Sycamore Street, Decatur, GA 30030