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Pie Charts

Written by Pastor Aaron Decker. Posted in Sermons

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (A) - Isaiah 55:10-13; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Usually, when Jesus tells a story, we are left on our own to figure out what he means. Today’s story, though, is a notable exception. Jesus gives his own sermon on his parable. And I was thinking, “How can I improve on Jesus?” It’s not really possible. He’s already given his sermon, so you don’t really need one from me. But then, I thought: Visual aids! So I made a pie chart.

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“Listen! A sower went out to sow,” Jesus says, and we’re not talking about advanced technological agricultural methods. One of my pastor colleagues this week said they now have a special tractor that plants seeds by stabbing a needle into the ground, and then shooting the seed down into the ground through the needle with a little puff of air, so that it gets to just the right depth of soil for maximum growing conditions. That is NOT the image Jesus has in mind. In his time, a farmer would have had a big bag of seeds slung over his shoulder, and would simply walk around the field and toss them, hoping at least a few of them took.

“A sower went out to sow, and as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.” We’ll make that red. Whenever someone doesn’t understand the Good News proclaimed to them, the evil one comes and snatches it up. Now, I think a lot of us have trouble understanding what God has to say. It’s not always this clear in the first place, and the process of figuring out how to apply it to our lives can make our head swim.

Other seeds fell on rocky ground where they couldn’t put down roots. They grew quickly, but were killed by the heat of the sun. This will be blue. It represents people for whom the Good News is heard, and who are captivated by it. It really is Good News! But there is no depth of faith behind it, and so anything that tests their faith makes it wither and die. I often think of doubts and trials as times when our faith can grow. We shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed of them, because they can help us to understand more clearly what it is that we really believe, they can focus our relationship with Jesus Christ, and help us become stronger, not weaker, in faith. But all this assumes we have some starting place with our faith; with nothing to stand on, we’re in trouble.

The third group of seeds fall among weeds, where thorns grow up and choke them. Thorny weeds will be green. The world’s priorities get in the way of a true depth of faith, and we end up loving our money, or our property, or our country, or our job, or even our church more than we love God. I know none of us in this room succumb to this problem ever, of course, but there are actually people out there who believe the messages of advertising, for example, more than the message of the Kingdom of God.

And then, of course, there’s the good soil, where faith takes root, and grows, and flourishes, and bears fruit. Yellow is what I’ve got left for this. And that’s our picture. A lovely pie chart. A little troubling, perhaps. Three quarters of humanity unable to grow and flourish, for one reason or another. Anyway, think about it for a moment, which category do you find yourself in?

Okay, I hope you feel yourself fitting in at least three—and hopefully four—of these categories. Because while it seems like Jesus is talking about different types of people, the reality is, at one time or another, we are each of these people. Or better, we are all of these people at the same time; there are different parts of us, and we are complex people who sometimes dwell more in one spot, and sometimes another. In fact, if we’re really honest about ourselves, the proportions of this pie chart are all wrong. The way most of us live, it’s probably more like this:

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So let me give you an extreme example of when it all goes wrong, when people find ourselves living deeply in these three areas, with a shallow faith, stolen away, and pulled by the priorities of this world. You may be familiar with the Westboro Baptist Church, a supposedly Christian congregation in Kansas whose members feel it is their mission to travel the country and basically protest the loss of the pre-modern world. They’ve been labeled as a hate group, and the label is deserved. When I was working at First Lutheran in Omaha, Nebraska, the Westboro people must have had a slow couple of weeks, because they decided to come up to Omaha and protest outside of Norris Middle School. What were they protesting? The fact that black, latino, and gay students were allowed to attend the same school as white students. It was, in short, racism and white supremacy masquerading as Christianity. Which, honestly, is extremely troubling to me. I mean, there is room for many different theologies within Christianity. But this was such a gross distortion of the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about, and of the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ, that it is impossible to understand how these people can call themselves Christians. This is truly a place where the seeds that were sown have not taken root.

I certainly hope that none of us gathered here today find ourselves that far off course. But we still have trouble bearing the good fruit to which Jesus calls us. God calls us to love our enemy, or at least to love our neighbor; but we have trouble really loving even ourselves. The Spirit sends us out to proclaim liberation to the world; but we bind ourselves up with fear and silence. Christ bids us to sacrifice our whole life for the sake of others, to lose our life in order to gain it, to take up our cross and follow; but we complain about the difficulty of sacrificing chocolate for Lent. This (point to chart) is the area we live in. What do we do about that?

This is one of those weird Sundays where I think the Good News for us is more clear in the Old Testament lesson than in the Gospel. We are talking about the root and growth of the Word of God, which is exactly the subject of Isaiah’s preaching today. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Isaiah’s prophecy is a promise that insists: When we encounter God’s Word—or better yet, when God’s Word encounters us—it WILL take root. It WILL grow. It WILL bear fruit. It WILL accomplish God’s purpose in us. It WILL succeed in doing God’s work.

See, this chart would be absolutely right, if the situation were up to us. We get caught in the same old self-destructive and world-destructive habits. We cannot provide fertile ground for the seed, no matter how hard we try. But the seed takes root anyway; it grows anyway; it flourishes anyway.

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This is what reality with God really looks like! Have you ever seen flowers, despite all odds, growing up in the middle of a sidewalk? Or a tree, strong and tall, growing from the side of a riverbank, where it should be impossible for anything to grow without falling off? That’s what the Kingdom of God, growing forth out of the Word, is like. Because God is strong enough to crush through the rocks that line the path, wise enough to dig into whatever soil can be found, loving enough to not just grow beyond the thorns, but to help the thorns grow big and strong too! The Word of God grows not because of the soil it finds, not because of who we are, and how well we provide for its growth. The Word of God grows simply because it is the Word of GOD; it is God’s, and it grows like an invasive species, far and fast and full.

So, the day that the Westboro “Baptist” “Church” came to Omaha just happened to be a Confirmation class night, and as our students trickled in, they began to tell the story. The protesters stayed across the street, not on school property, but the messages on their signs and in their mouths reached the students well. School officials tried to keep their students inside the building during the day, but, well, YOU try getting a few hundred teenagers to follow directions clearly. There was an area of school property that was fenced in, with some basketball courts and the like, that students would cross when changing classes, and so they could hear and see what was going on. “Wasn’t it horrible?” I asked, “What did you do?” And this one Latina girl in our class got this big smile on her face. She said, “Well, a bunch of us just went out and shouted back: ‘If God doesn’t love us, then why did He make us in His image and call us good?’ Just like it says in Genesis, right?”

Isaiah isn’t the only one who speaks Good News today. It’s kind of everywhere. Which I what we should have learned to expect by now. Jesus says it himself: God’s Word is not stingy. It is abundant. It’s not just one seed that is planted. It’s a whole orchard, a veritable forest of plantings. Jesus tells us that the Word bears fruit not just in itself, but a hundred and sixty and thirty-fold. In order to see what this REALLY looks like, we’re going to have to zoom out a bit:

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God’s kingdom springs up everywhere. We may feel like we aren’t good enough soil, but God makes our hearts good soil. The Word sneaks out all over the place, and it takes root everywhere it can. God’s promise is that it HAS taken root in you, and WILL again and again. And it will produce so much good fruit it can’t even be counted. Let anyone with ears listen.