Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
June 25 2017
A sower went out to sow. This is a parable that speaks to discouragement. Whenever we begin something really important–whether it’s a marriage, or a new business venture or parenthood–we always start with a high level of idealism and hope. But life has a way of bashing our ideals and dashing our hopes.
That’s exactly what happens to Jesus. He begins his ministry by coming into his home town, preaching at his home church. He’s the local boy made good. In Luke 4 we hear that everybody has good things to say about him. They know his daddy and his momma. This is Joseph’s son, they all say.
And then he preaches–he preaches a sermon–a sermon that tells them that God isn’t just a God of the Jews, but a God who loves foreigners as well. That’s bordering on heresy. As he preaches, they get a little uncomfortable, then they begin to squirm in their seats, until finally, they think: “This isn’t preaching; this is meddling.” Their warm reception turns hostile as the magnitude of Jesus’ message sinks home.
And then, his listeners get up from the synagogue and drive–that’s the word “drive” him out of town, chasing him to the edge of the cliff, where they would have pushed him off, but Jesus manages to escape.
He leaves his home town, and goes forth into Galilee. He is at first a sensational success. Common people flock to his side, hanging on his every word. He touches the ears of the deaf and they hear. He lays his hands on lepers and the diseased flesh becomes clean. Enthusiasm for his ministry spreads like wildfire throughout the region.
This is how his ministry opens. But turn the calendar a few months later, and there is a change in mood. Like the people in his home town, people begin to realize that Jesus’ message is hard. You have to give up a lot to follow him. You have to take no thought for your own life, and live your life in service to others. You have to abandon your priorities and let Jesus set your agenda.
And so, one by one, those who follow him begin to fall away. As they do, Jesus begins to feel discouraged. In Luke 12 he says, “What stress I am under.” So Jesus tells this parable about discouragement, the discouragement he himself is facing. He is sowing the seed, the seed of the Gospel. But now he realizes that much of what he wants to accomplish will not materialize because of factors beyond his control. He sows the seed, but birds gobble up some of the seed; other seed falls on rocky ground, and cannot take root; Some fragile shoots do manage to take root, but the sun parches them. Some seed falls among thorns, and is choked to death.
So much seed sown. So much effort. Such scanty results. So much of what Jesus wants to accomplish, he realizes, will never come to pass.
So, on those days when we are asking ourselves, “What have I managed to accomplish?”–and it seems that we haven’t accomplished all that much, we should turn to this parable with all our honest discouragement, and see if there is anything in it to help us gain perspective on our lives.
I confess to you that I have my own black moods of discouragement about the ministry. I wonder what I have really accomplished. There seems to be as many failures as successes. And like the other helping professions, you can never really quantify what you’ve achieved.
I got a chuckle out of what a fellow Presbyterian minister said. He was working on his resume, and as he was writing about his ministry, he hit his “spell checker” key on his computer. His spell checker didn’t recognize the word “pastoring” and suggested the following alternatives: (A) PASTURING, (B) PESTERING, and (C) POSTURING.
Well, we take on many roles as pastors. How effective we are, we never really know. And that’s discouraging at times. We are the consummate sowers, and very little seed seems to take root. Maybe my discouragement, and the discouragement that is common for colleagues in the ministry, comes from our living in a bottom-line culture.
When I back away and try to gain a little perspective on the business of ministry, a couple of things come to mind. Yes, it is true that many people are unresponsive. But God has that problem with each of us.
And there are moments, not many, but there are moments when I’m given some insight into the harvest my own ministry has brought.
Those moments always occur at unexpected times and at unexpected places. One of those moments took place on the when I returned to Portland to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of Westminster Church. I gave it my best, and by the grace of God, Westminster turned around from being a dying church to a vibrant church with a powerful ministry and outreach to the community.
After the 100th anniversary service, I went to the door where I traditionally stood on Sunday morning to shake hands. A woman I only knew casually was the first person out. She said to me, “I just want you to know that while you here, you saved my sanity and my marriage. I was going through a very hard time personally, and my husband and I weren’t getting along. Our marriage was hanging by a thread. Every Sunday you said something in your sermon that helped me get through the week. I just want to say how much your ministry meant to me.”
Well, that was it. I had never talked with her about any of her problems. I had no idea what it was I said in those sermons several years ago. But there was something, some seed that germinated in my mind, and was typed on the word processor, and preached in that pulpit, that lodged in her heart.
I’ve concluded that in the ministry, discouragement comes along with the territory. All of us called to the ministry are just like everyone else, frail
But we have no right to let discouragement be our permanent mood. We do have our days of discouragement and nights of disillusionment. But we have no right to wallow in discouragement unless we make God out to be a liar. For the promise of God in this parable is that if we sow the seed, there will be a harvest. We may not know what the harvest is. We may not live to see all the plants that come up. But there will be a harvest. Some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold, some hundred-fold.
Discouragement is our theme for the morning. The discouragement we feel when we’ve given something our best and the results don’t show up. Discouragement is not only the vocational affliction of ministers. It belongs to anybody who wants to make her life count for something.
It’s interesting to note how many people we regard as highly productive did not feel they had accomplished much.
Robert Louis Stevenson, whose words have inspired generations, penned his own epitaph, which reads: “Here lies one who meant well, who tried a little, and failed much.”
And I have always been haunted by Jesus’ very last words, his very last words on this earth, according to the Gospel of Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
At that moment, I believe, Jesus felt like his life, his ministry, his mission, had been a failure. And in his death, he felt so discouraged and beaten down that he wondered if God had abandoned him.
Could we conclude this about discouragement? Could we conclude that there is a law of life operating here? One, we tend to misjudge and underestimate our influence. Two, because we can’t see the results of what we’ve done, we fall prey to discouragement. Three, and supremely important, the Lord of the harvest will bless and multiply our efforts thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold.
Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was murdered while presiding at Holy Communion at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in San Salvador. He was murdered by a member of a death squad; he was murdered because he was a partisan for the poor and the marginalized. He wrote these words a few weeks before his death:
It helps now and then,
to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only
beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime
only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise
that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always
lies beyond us.
No statement says all
that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses
no pastoral visit
No program accomplishes
the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds
that one day will grow.
We water seeds
knowing that they hold
We lay foundations that
will need further development.
We provide yeast
that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing that.
This enables us
to do something,
and do it very well.
It may be incomplete,
a step along the way,
an opportunity for the
Lord’s grace to enter
and do the rest.
We may never see
the end results, but that is
between the master builder
and the worker.
We are workers,
not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets
of a future not our own.
Romero is right. There is a liberation in failure, knowing that WE cannot do everything. There is unspeakable comfort in knowing that God will take our best efforts, multiply them, and create a future not our own.
There was a mother who had four children under the age of ten. She had given up a career as a promising lawyer because she felt nothing was more important than rearing her children.
It had been one of those days every mother knows about, when anything in the whole world seems more attractive than motherhood. Two of her children had been fighting all day. The third one had the chickenpox. And the fourth child woke up in the morning with “an attitude” that only got more belligerent with the passing hours.
During the day she thought about her college room mate, who had decided to forego having a family to concentrate on her career. She had just received a letter saying that her room mate had been named a senior partner in one of New York’s most prestigious law firms. There was her college room mate, knocking down a huge income, meeting with important clients in government and business, and here she was, a lowly housewife with four little sick and ungrateful urchins.
She had cried a little that day. Her oldest daughter saw the tears, and stopped her fighting long enough to ask, “what’s wrong, mommy?” Her mother replied, “Oh, nothing, dear.”
When the day finally wound down and with all four children tucked in, she went back into the den to see an encyclopedia open on the floor. A page had been torn from it. She went and got the scotch tape and stopped to repair the damage.
That little act seemed to symbolize her whole life, forever picking up after her children, and trying to make things right for them. As she pieced the torn page of the encyclopedia together, she noticed that it was a picture of a child’s face. When she finished taping it together, she happened to turn it over, and on the back was a one page map of the world.
It dawned on her that as she was putting together correctly the countenance of a little child, she was also affecting the shape of the whole world. And she was reminded once again of why she was a mother.
A sower went out to sow. That’s the main business of life, this business of sowing. It’s what you do in your job or in your home. It’s what I do every day.
This brings us back to where we started, with the ministry of Jesus. So many of the seeds he sowed didn’t make it. But a few did. A few did.
And whatever is the passion of your life today, take this message home with you. Whether your passion is parenting, or a business venture, or some problem you are working on, take this message home with you. Most of the seeds you sow won’t make it. But a few will. And those few will produce the kind of harvest that will more than justify your life on this earth.