Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after
“Once there was a man who went out to sow grain. As he scattered the seed in the field, some of it fell along the path …., some of it fell on rocky ground …, some of the seed fell among thorn bushes, but some seeds fell in good soil.”
Who’s heard of the Pareto Principle? I’m sure you have but maybe not by that name. In the early 1900s Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, observed that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the people and 80% of a country’s wealth was held by 20% of the people. Pareto even applied this to his garden where he found that 80% of his peas came from 20% of his peapods. This has become known as the 80/20 principle – a rule of thumb guide to the imbalance that occurs in many avenues of life. 80 and 20 as numbers aren’t meant to be strictly applied but the important thing is that in our lives there are certain activities that we do (about 20 percent) that account for the majority (about 80 percent) of our happiness and success.
This principle has been applied to congregational life as well. About 80% of the volunteer time in a congregation comes from 20% of the people. About 20% of the congregation provide 80% of budget and so we could go on.
In today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus telling the parable of the sower. Is Jesus giving us another example of Pareto’s 80/20 principle? 75% of the seed failed to bear any fruit and was wasted while only 25% brought an extremely good harvest.
Usually Jesus’ parables are set in a context that give the reader a clue as to what the parable might be about, but not this time. Out of the blue he starts, “Once there was a man who went out to sow grain” and finishes, "Listen, then, if you have ears!" There is no explanation, no hint to what it’s about and the deeper meaning that a parable is meant to reveal about the Kingdom of God or about God’s grace.
Along with the disciples we ask, “What is Jesus trying to say in this parable?” We’ve heard this story so many times and we have Jesus’ own explanation of the parable but even then Jesus doesn’t conclude saying something like, “Be like the good soil”, or “Be among the 25% who hear the word and understand it” or “Hear God’s word and make sure you live it out too, so that you will among the 20% who provide 80% of the fruit in the church.” He doesn’t say, “Avoid being like the rocky soil, or the thorny soil where the Word of God is so easily choked out and made useless to the hearer”. None of this is in the text.
I’m sure you’ve attended many Bible studies and heard many sermons on the different soils and the way the Word of God is received and the dangers that we can easily fall into that make us less likely to be the good soil that receives the Word and so become bearers of the good fruit in our lives that God so much wants to see. I have preached about being good listeners and you can get into some interesting discussion on the application of this parable.
God throws out the seed of his Word, and we know that his Word is made flesh in his Son. God scatters Jesus’ love to all. No-one is left out. There is something catholic, meaning all-embracing, universal, about this parable. The seed is cast over all types of soil. All of humanity is included. All are given the opportunity to respond to the Father’s love – a point that would have stuck in the craw of the Jewish leaders.
God’s Son was sent into the world for
everyone and his promises of new life, and peace, and hope are for everyone.
It’s God’s plan that everyone have happy and fulfilled lives built on the new life that Jesus has won for one and all.
It’s God’s plan that all who are lost would be found and restored to a loving relationship with their heavenly Father. The seed is catholic – it is scattered for everyone.
However, in the end, what Jesus simply describes in the parable is reality. When God casts out his love by and large it’s unproductive. About 75% of the time it meets hostility, unresponsiveness, discouragement, laziness, and a lack of trust and 25% of the times it really achieves something. That’s just as true in our own personal lives as the church as a whole.
So what is the point of telling a story that is mostly about failure? Some might even find this parable of Jesus very discouraging and quite rightly so especially for those who are expecting mass conversions and every politician to be a Christian and stadiums of people to “give their life to Christ” after hearing one sermon. As the disciples went about preaching and baptising in the early church not only did they meet strong support but also some very powerful opposition, in fact, the opposition to the Word they were speaking was so strong, they endangered their lives. It was the same for Jesus. A large group of his followers dropped away as he preached and taught them about the Kingdom of God.
There are three things (there are more but 3 will do today) that this parable tells us about sowing the seeds of God’s love.
Jesus is giving us a reality check when it comes to sharing God’s love in a hostile world. Today’s world is no different to the world the disciples lived in when it comes to receiving the Good News about Jesus Christ. If we are expecting success every time we speak about God’s love or run a program or activity or study session with the aim of sharing God’s love, don’t be disappointed if it isn’t successful in a way that can be measured. We may even think that we have run a very effective event only to find that we can see very little fruit for all our effort.
Maybe Jesus is giving us an example of the 80/20 principle to remind us that the opposition to God’s love in the world is strong and there is plenty of hard, rocky and weedy ground; more than we realise. Maybe Jesus is reminding us not to be discouraged if we don’t achieve success or even get off the ground in everything we attempt to do in sharing God’s love.
That to me is encouraging because it brings me out of the pie in the sky kind of thinking that we Christians get into sometimes to the reality of what it’s really like to be the church in the world today.
In another congregation some of the members went to a workshop held in a larger congregation where a presentation was made about how successful the various programs were at that church. I asked those who attended what they had learnt and without hesitation they said it was all so depressing. They were so disheartened and discouraged and felt that their own congregation was so insignificant because it wasn’t able to do what other congregations were doing. As leaders they believed they had failed and were quick to blame themselves. They said something like, “If we have God in our congregation why don’t we have the numbers others get at worship, or the up-beat music group, or the much needed support group up and running, or the youth group that draws in kids from far and wide?”
Jesus reminds us in this parable that sharing God’s love is never going to be easy with quick results. In fact, at times it will be downright frustrating as it must have been for the farmer as he looked for a harvest on the weedy and rocky ground. At times it might seem that things are going backwards more than forwards just like the farmer as he looked for the germinating seeds and saw only one small patch. It’s like that for congregations at times too and it seems that all their seed is falling on hard and rocky places and there is little fruit.
The second thing that I want to highlight is that in the parable there is a harvest. We are told, “Some seeds fell in good soil, and the plants bore grain: some had one hundred grains, others sixty, and others thirty”. There are successes and we praise God for those times when we see people respond to God’s love for them. Some of those who respond will only do so at some time in the future at a time and place that will be unknown to us. But the seed has been planted and the Holy Spirit will nurture that seed and at some time, there will be a harvest as that person responds to the love of God in Jesus Christ.
People in our congregation and beyond respond to the seed of God’s love in many and various ways as that love touches their lives and makes changes to their attitudes and relationships with other people and most importantly in their relationship with their heavenly Father. The seeds that the founders of this congregation planted 140 years ago is now bearing a harvest in ways they would have never imagined.
In the end, in spite of our failings and in spite of the hostility and apathy of the world around us toward Christ, there will be a harvest and a mighty harvest it will be.
This leads me to the third point I want to
make. God keeps on liberally
supplying the seed. There may be a
limit to our energy;
there may be a limit to our patience as we wait for results;
there may be a limit to our love as we are tested to how far we can go;
to our commitment to keep on going,
but there’s one thing for sure,
there is no limit on what God can do through the outpouring of his love through us.
In spite of the apparent poor success rate
of sowing the seed and getting it to reach the point of harvest, God will keep
on sowing and we are privileged as individuals and as his church, to be part of
that. God keeps on scattering the seed of his love in Christ and he encourages
us not to give up but to keep on teaching Sunday School or Scripture lessons to
children in the classroom.
Go on serving those who are sick and elderly and encourage them with God's Word of love and hope.
Keep on teaching your kids and grandkids.
Be a part of the children’s ministry and participate in Bible study.
Encourage others with the promises of God, and above all, keep the vision that God will do his work in his field in his own time.
There will be a harvest. It is not for us to determine who will successfully grow and who won’t. We are simply called to assist the farmer in casting the seed.
God, the farmer, will continue to keep on scattering the seed of his love over everyone. We are privileged to help create this everlasting garden. God give us ears to hear his Word.
© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
13th July 2014