Text: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
This morning, I want to talk about rabbits. Do you mind? My question for you this morning is, How do you feel about rabbits? Thumbs up or thumbs down?
I have to say that I have very mixed feelings about the critters. For one thing, they are everywhere. I’ll go on a walk with our dog Rudy, and he pays no attention whatsoever to rabbits. We have literally walked past a little bunny no more than 5 feet from the sidewalk, and Rudy doesn’t even glance in its direction. I don’t think it is because he is on a leash, and I don’t think it is because he has tried to catch rabbits before and failed. I think it is because they are everywhere, they are like sparrows or crabgrass or Ford Tauruses parked on the street – a rabbit is really nothing to get excited about.
On the other hand, they are cute little boogers. We have a whole family who have taken up residence under our shed. I put up this new shed a couple of years ago. It has a solid foundation, a nice little ramp, and skirting all around the bottom of the shed made with treated lumber. I even landscaped it with ornamental grass and day lilies and hostas. I had barely finished putting the thing up when the rabbits moved in on the ground floor, underneath the shed, and they improved on my design by digging out a back entrance under the skirting.
At almost any time of day or night, you might see rabbits in our backyard, hanging out around the shed, or under the bird feeder, or by the shrubs in front of the house. I’ve even helped rabbits get out of our garden who got in under or maybe over the fence, but then didn’t seem to be able to get out. They are really cute, especially the little baby bunnies.
But here’s the thing: cute as they are, they are completely insensitive about what they eat. It can be your favorite hosta or the tomato or bell pepper you just planted - they don’t really care. They have no conscience. They will munch on all of it.
It is hard enough trying to grow stuff without having to contend with rabbits. In our scripture today from Matthew, Jesus describes some of the difficulties in planting seed. He mentions several types of soil and the problems associated with each, but if he lived around here, I’m sure he would have added something about new crops that are overrun by rabbits.
Anyway, Jesus tells this story of seed scattered on various types of soil, and how some did not sprout, some took root but then died off, and some was choked out by weeds. He forgot to mention the rabbit problem. But then, other seed sprouted and grew and produced abundantly. Jesus tells this story, but his disciples don’t get it – they don’t see the point. The parables were meant to be chewed on, thought about, contemplated, but people wanted it explained to them – right now. So, the second part of our reading is an explanation of the parable, which makes it into more of an allegory – the various parts of the story represent different things. The explanation involves how people hear the word of God.
Hearers of the word might be compared to types of soil. Some are like a pathway. Their hearts have been hardened like that hard path, and they do not receive the word.
Others are like rocky ground. The seed sprouts and begins to take root, but because there is no depth of soil, it can’t withstand the hard times. Just as the hot sun or the driving rain may be too much for a young plant, troubles in life may be too much for a young Christian with no deep roots.
In other cases, it is like seed sown among thorns. The plant sprouts and grows but is soon choked out by weeds and thistles. We have all known people who seemed to have interest in things of the spirit, but life is just so busy that there is no time left for God, no time for church, no time for fellowship with other believers. And so the young plants are choked out by other concerns.
But then some folks are like good Iowa farmland, and the seed grows and the harvest is plentiful. They hear the Word of God and it grows in their hearts and they bear fruit for the kingdom.
The explanation given for Jesus’ parable is easy enough to understand, but I wonder—is this the whole point? Is the parable simply a description of what happens when various people hear the word of God?
It is certainly that, but I think it is more. Jesus’ parables are always meant to be pondered, to be contemplated. Perhaps Jesus was simply helping his followers get started on understanding it. And his response did address real questions.
Why didn’t everyone believe? Why didn’t everyone repent? Why didn’t everyone respond to the Good News? Why doesn’t everybody want to be a follower of Jesus? These were questions his disciples were asking.
When you hear about these different kinds of soil, perhaps particular people come to mind for you. But there is a problem when we start putting people in neat categories—when we start labeling people. It’s not long before we are saying, “Hard ground - forget about him.” Or, “Rocky soil - she won’t last.” Jesus never intended for us to use this parable to dismiss people.
When we label people, we can set up a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. A number of years ago, the army was impressed with a tool many chaplains used in pre-marital counseling. Someone decided to adapt it to help unit commanders predict who was prone to go AWOL (Absent Without Leave). So a special scale was developed and trainees were administered the test. When someone was “flagged” as being AWOL prone, the Company Commander and First Sergeant would sit down with the trainee. They would explain the trainee’s proneness, give a warning, and pledge to help the trainee become a good soldier. But guess what? The trainee would go AWOL. The Commander and Sergeant said the trainee would likely go AWOL, because the test said they would likely go AWOL, and so not surprisingly, the trainee went AWOL. Needless to say, this test was not used very long.
When we take Jesus’ words to heart about the different planting experiences, it appears there are four ways of classifying responses to the Gospel. But the point is not to put people in pigeonholes. There are, in fact, all kinds of ways that any of us can and do respond to God’s word as it continues to come to us.
In Jesus’ parable, we tend to focus on the soil – right? Four types of soil. And we might focus on the seed. But what if we thought for a minute about the actions of this farmer?
Farming is not easy. It wasn’t easy then and it isn’t easy now. Modern machinery and technology have made farming easier in some ways, but in other ways it is more complex than ever. Many of you know this a lot better than I do. Here at Iowa State, we have all kinds of research going on that is aimed at growing crops more quickly and easily and efficiently, and in ways that protect the environment. There is research aimed at developing crops that are more nutritious, more resistant to disease or insects or drought, more compatible with particular climates. Some of you are involved in that work.
Farming is complicated. In order to turn a profit, a farmer needs to keep up with the latest technology. With GPS technology, you can deliver just the right amount of fertilizer or herbicide or pesticide or the right chemicals based on the pH of the soil. You don’t want to waste these inputs where they are not needed. Different parts of the field are treated differently. This is all done in order to maximize yield while minimizing cost. Farming is an expensive proposition, and you don’t just start throwing seeds all over the place, willy-nilly. Seeds don’t just grow on trees (well, in some cases they do, but you have to pay for them anyway). You certainly don’t plant seed where it won’t grow – that would be a waste of time and effort, not to mention money.
But Jesus isn’t saying that. The point of the parable is not that we should only plant seeds where they are likely to grow. In fact, this sower scatters the seeds everywhere. I think a good title for this story would be “The Parable of the Reckless Gardener.” This farmer just throws the seeds all over the place.
We have had a lot of wildfires in the west in recent years. Often, following wildfires, they will quickly plant rye and barley to prevent erosion. Small planes will drop the seed on tens of thousands of acres of ground. They won’t be real discriminating about it. They won’t worry much about what the soil is like or what the ground conditions are – they will just drop the seed everywhere.
That’s the way the sower in Jesus’ parable operates. Seed is scattered all over the place. When Jesus talks about sowing seed, the seed to be sown is grace. The seed to be sown is God’s love. There is an endless supply, and it is free. This crazy sower scatters the seed everywhere, even when it appears there is little chance of good results.
When we were in Indiana, a little over a week ago, we had dinner with our friend Cheri and some of her family. Her son Paul and his wife Lauren were there – they had just announced that they were going to have a baby. We have known Paul for a long time. When he was a lot younger, like maybe 12 years old, he found a tiny little maple tree, just sprouted, growing in the yard. He asked his parents if he could plant it in the backyard. They told him that would be fine, and he planted it right by their deck on the back of the house. The deck is off the second floor, and Paul planted the little tree next to the bottom of the steps. It was a terrible place. The ground wasn’t good, there were rocks in this little border by the steps, and it would be right up against the deck. The Grizzards thought it was kind of fun and sort of cute that Paul planted this tiny little tree. The tree was even given a name, Tony, but nobody really gave it a chance.
But guess what? Tony grew up. And Tony kept on growing. Tony is now a huge tree in a great spot, providing wonderful shade for the deck, even though when he was planted, anybody would have told you that Tony was a weed tree in a terrible spot.
A frugal, cautious, responsible grower would never have planted Tony. But sometimes, wonderful growth happens in unlikely places. And in unlikely people. All because someone sowed the seed.
If we think back on our lives, there are all kinds of people who sow seeds that take root and grow. Teachers, friends, youth leaders, neighbors, counselors, pastors, mentors, colleagues. We may not even be aware of the influence some of these people have had. But we are who we are today because others cared enough to sow seeds.
Think for a minute: who was Michael Jordan’s grade school coach? Who was Billy Graham’s junior high Sunday School teacher? Who was Albert Einstein’s third grade math teacher? Who gave Eric Clapton guitar lessons? Who got Bill Gates interested in technology?
Who plants the seeds of future greatness? It could be anybody. It could be us.
The story has been told before, but it’s worth telling again: a number of years ago, the men’s breakfast group was at Perkins, like we are on the first and third Tuesday of every month. On that day, the group went to the front to pay after the meal, but they were told that someone had already paid the bill for the group. And there was a note signed by a former student of Ross Talbot. He had noticed Dr. Talbot and his friends at a table. He said that Dr. Talbot had had a big influence in his life, because he had taught him to love books, and he wanted to buy Ross and his friends breakfast as a way of saying thanks. He didn’t sign his name.
We may not always see the results, but the seeds we sow will bear fruit. For many years, Mary Taylor Previte was director of the Camden County Youth Center in New Jersey, one of the largest juvenile detention centers in America. If the kids there are going to turn their lives around, she says that they have to be able to identify something positive to strive toward. Mary asked one of her really tough juveniles one day, “Who's been a positive force in your life?” The boy first mumbled, “Nobody.” Then he changed his mind. “Well,” he said, “I guess, maybe, Mr. Mike.” She asked, “Who’s Mr. Mike?” He explained, “Oh, he’s the guy who runs the neighborhood market.” Mary found that little neighborhood market, along with its proprietor. She introduced herself and said, “Mike, I just wanted you to know that you have saved a life.”
She continued, “I was told that you would always say to my ‘boy,’ whom you knew was into drugs, ‘Hey, why’s a decent kid like you doin’ drugs? You ought to be in school!” You said it to him again and again, telling him he was a good kid and should aim for something higher. It was the one and only positive thing in his life that he can remember. And that is what is helping him to change his life.”
A simple act of human concern and kindness from an everyday, ordinary person made a real difference.
Most of us will not have someone from our past buy breakfast for us at Perkins one morning. For most of us, Mary Taylor Previte will not just show up one day; it is unlikely we will know which of the seeds we have sown resulted in harvest. But then again, how many of us have gone back and thanked those who sowed the seeds of our life?
Jesus calls us to be completely reckless in scattering seed. We are called to share the seeds of God’s Good News with everybody - even when there may not be high hopes for response. We are called to care for people regardless of how much potential they may seem to have. We are called to be faithful in scattering the seed and leave the results up to God. We just need to sow the seeds.
God is a recklessly gracious and generous seed-sower. May we be as well. Amen.