Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

A fisherman's guide to farming

Message preached February , 2011
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

(listen to this on an .mp3 audiofile)

Order of Worship

Does it seem a bit odd to you for Jesus to tell a farming story from a boat? Both Matthew and Mark, in their gospels, recall our Lord speaking to a large crowd beside the sea - so large, in fact, that it became necessary for him to step into a fishing boat in order for everyone to hear.

I once knew this older minister who held a “Galilean” service in a local pond. He arrived wearing his 3-piece suit, and carrying his Bible, to find that the “boat” one of his members brought for the service was an inflatable dinghy. He would have been fine, had he done like Jesus and spoken from a sitting position. However, the Spirit moved and he just had to stand,... and promptly toppled over into the water. As he later related the episode with a hearty laugh, he just stood up in that shallow, muddy farm pond, with his soggy Bible and dripping suit, and went right on talking.

It also does seem funny that the first story Jesus told from that boat was about a farmer, not a fisherman. In fact, all the parables he spoke that day were dry land material: about a field of wheat intermixed with weeds, about a mustard seed sowed in a field, and about yeast that leavens flour. You’d think he would’ve made use of that beautiful setting to compare God’s kingdom to a net that is cast upon the sea, or to the water that sustains the earth, or to a boat that upholds the faithful (unless, of course, they stand up).

Jesus didn’t do that, though. Instead, as was often the case, his parables pulled his listeners away from their present setting. Look beyond what you see, Jesus continually encouraged. Listen beyond what you hear.

“Let anyone with ears, listen.” With those words, Jesus concluded his first telling of the parable of the sower. “Listen.” Now, for some of us, this tale speaks to either our farming or gardening instincts. In this suburban setting, however, such an illustration may feel pretty foreign. Like hearing about the farm when you’re standing beside the sea. May we, like that original audience, be pulled beyond our present circumstances, toward God’s kingdom.

A sower went out into his field and scattered his seed. One agrarian detail it may be helpful to know is that, in Jesus’ day, it was not common practice to prepare the ground first prior to planting. They didn’t plow the field beforehand. They did so after the fact. This sower, then, tossed the seeds as far and as much as he could. Later he, perhaps, would plow up the field to get the seeds embedded in the earth. This farmer, though, was depending on the natural course of things - in the wild there are no plows. Seed that survive do so depending upon where they land.

Now Jesus doesn’t actually tell us who the “sower” is. This is a parable, after all, not an allegory. It’s a story that opens our ears and eyes to the kingdom, not one that fills in all the details. The implication, though, is that it’s God who is behind all this seed tossing. Do I stretch the point by saying that God is extravagant, perhaps even recklessly so, in scattering the good news in our world? That seems to be implied by this parable. The seed is tossed everywhere, not just in the most economical places - where one would expect it to grow. It’s cast far and wide.

Some falls along the path, where the birds quickly come and eat it up. Other seed lands on rocky ground, where it initially flourishes but soon whithers because its roots aren’t deep enough. Some settles amid the thorns, where it sprouts, but soon is choked out. Then, there is the good soil. Seed that alights here grows and brings forth an abundant harvest.

That’s the parable as we have received it. Of course, as with all the stories Jesus told, we want more details. We’d like to have a complete “Guide to Farming.” Don’t you ever wish, for instance, that Jesus had said a bit more about what happened in the family of the prodigal son? Did the older ever come around to welcoming, or at least accepting, his younger sibling, or his father’s seeming injustice. Or likewise, did the man survive who was helped by the good Samaritan? Jesus paints only a brief portrait with his stories. He does not give us a ‘step-by-step’ manual. It’s up to us, instead, to ‘step into’ his parables, to flesh them out in our own lives. That is how we look and listen. By taking us out of our present setting for a moment, Jesus encourages us to open our eyes and ears to the world in which we presently find ourselves, and to seek God’s kingdom which is sprouting up all around us - if only we would see and hear.

Of course, we can be pretty blind and deaf. By the seashore, the disciples asked Jesus for more details. “Why do you speak to the crowds in parables?” they inquired in a verse we didn’t read this morning (Matthew 13:10). Why don’t you just say it like it is.? I half wonder if the disciples weren’t asking about themselves, but used the crowds as a foil. The real question was, why do you speak to us (not just them) in parables? The real answer might be that life itself is a parable. If we aren’t willing to wrestle with a made-up (but no-less true) story to discover who God is and what God is doing, then how are we going to operate in the world, where it’s much tougher to discern the kingdom of God.

           This morning we dedicated to the Lord a child and his family. His story has only just begun. What is God doing in his first year of life? What will happen as the little one grows, where will we see the Lord at work in his life as it unfolds? What role will we play in this field, whether as his family or his faith community? Those aren’t easy questions to answer. Living them out is hard, but rewarding.

Jesus responded to his disciple’s question, “why do you speak in parables,” with a partial allegory. Now, an allegory tends to fill in the details, whereas a parable is more a spark for the imagination, leaving questions unanswered in order to challenge or nurture the persons who hear it to listen and look much deeper for God in their daily life. Parables invite us to jump into a story and become a part of it. In so doing, we may fall out of the boat, like my preacher friend, and get soaked. We can’t stand high and dry when we enter one of Jesus’ parables.

Oh, I suppose we can, but then we have not really entered it. That’s the point of the first part of this parable, as Jesus partially explains, the footpath along which the seed has fallen. The seed can be scattered in places where people don’t take it seriously, where they aren’t willing to immerse themselves in the things of God, to seek first the kingdom. We don’t dabble. That’s one of the hardest things for our present consumer-oriented society to comprehend. We’re used to picking and choosing. As a result, we don’t grow deeply into anything. We live on the surface. The problem is, there’s plenty to choose from, including some pretty evil stuff. How do we discern the difference between good and bad, if we don’t fully taste the good. And stick with it.

That’s the point of the second part, the rocky ground. We can allow the seed to grow in the soil of our lives, we can get past the surface with God, but when we don’t stick with it, especially through the tough times, our roots don’t grow deep, and we whither in the summer’s heat.

The third part of the parable of the sower, as Jesus himself partially allegorizes it, involves the things that can choke the life out of our seeking of God’s kingdom. Actually, for a 2,000 year old story, this part sounds strangely familiar in our day. Walk through any bookstore and you’ll find a multitude of self-help books on stress reduction. We live in stressful times, when we’re all seeking relief in some way, shape or fashion. So much so that we’re retreating into our homes, getting less involved in the communities around us. The only problem is that our homes may not be the safe havens we thought they were. Stress, stress, and more stress. Jesus called it “anxiety” or “cares of the world.” Coupled with the “seduction,” the “lure of wealth,” and we’ve got a one-two punch that knocks the life out of our spiritual journey with Christ. After all, we can easily come to believe that relief is something money can buy. Right? Might it be better to call a weed a weed?

Then there’s the good soil, in which the seed flourishes and produces abundantly. Have you noticed where Jesus locates us in this parable? In many of his other stories we can place ourselves in the shoes of one of several human characters. Here, the only character of that type is the sower, and we’re not given any detail to step into those shoes. What’s left are seeds and soils. As Jesus fills it out a bit more, we aren’t the seeds, folks. We’re the soil. The question that only we can fill out with our lives is this: what sort of soil are we? Are we listening? Are we seeking to understand deeply, getting wet (or better, getting “dirty” in the best sense of the word) in the process? Are sticking with it, not backing off when the storms of life hit, not getting distracted by stress and materialism? What type of soil are we? That’s the question this parable leaves us with. Which soil are you?

            We know, don’t we, what soil we would like to be. Our desire is to be that fertile ground that brings forth abundance. Now, I find it interesting that in this “fisherman’s guide to farming,” Jesus – speaking from his boat to everyone on the shore – didn’t explain what he meant by the different levels of bearing fruit. You know, “in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” Unless I’ve stood up in this dinghy and toppled over into the pond and am totally wet about this, I believe that left this detail a bit vague because the extent of the yield, the growth that happens, ultimately isn’t due to us, how good a soil we are. It is rather God who gives the increase. A farmer will tell you that there is a lot more to agriculture than all the soil and weather and seed analysis available. Some years are just plain better than others. A fisherman will simply say that sometimes the fish just don’t bite. The point is, some of us yield more than others, and – you know - that’s okay! Some persons may seem more gifted than I do. Does that make them more fertile? … No.  The same is true for us all. That’s the wonder and glory of the gospel. It’s God who gives the increase.

You and I, individually and together, we are the soil upon which the seed, the “word of God’s kingdom” is sown. Which sort of soil are you?  Which sort of soil are we as a church? Those are the farming questions of a fisherman named Pete, preaching from this particular boat.   

(para traducir a espańol, presione la bandera de Espańa)


©2011 Peter L. Haynes   (adapted from a sermon preached on July 14, 1996)
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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