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Sunday, July 12, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
If you grew up going to a church, how much do you remember from your childhood Sunday School classes? Our children who are worshiping with us today can probably tell us a whole lot about what they are learning from Pastor Matt and Brianna.
(In case you did not know, Fourth Church continues to have virtual Sunday School for ages three to eleven that takes place from 10:00 to 10:45 every Sunday morning. Please reach out to me or to Reverend Matt Helms if you would like more information.)
But for those of us who are not currently participating in a weekly children’s Sunday School class, our memories about those experiences might be a bit fuzzier, to say the least. One thing I remember clearly, though, is something I have mentioned to you before: the flannel board, that wonderful, very low-tech creation on which the teacher would stick the little flat, felt characters and scenery from the Bible stories.
I searched online to see if flannel boards were still around, and believe or not, there is a whole Pinterest site dedicated to them if you want to see what I am talking about. I can tell you that nothing has really changed with the flannel board over the last forty years or so. Yet it still has such a vivid place in my memory, because whenever our teacher would use one, I got to see the action of the Bible story as I heard the action.
I bring all of this to your attention, because one of my most vivid flannel board memories was the telling of the parable in Matthew 13:1–9. If I remember correctly, I was in either second or third grade.
Here is how it went. Our teacher began, “A Sower went out to sow.” (Side note: The flannel board was empty at that point.) And before she could even continue with the story, our teacher had to explain to a bunch of city and suburban kids just what a Sower was and what he or she would do. We were clueless. But from my young perspective, it was not until after that brief introduction that the story got exciting, because then the teacher began to place things up on the flannel board.
“As the Sower sowed, some seeds fell on the path . . .” Our teacher placed pictures of brown seeds on to a piece of flannel that looked like a road but was supposed to be the path. “And the birds came and ate them up.” Suddenly felt birds appeared everywhere. And as the birds went up, the teacher would peel the seeds off the path, one by one. Soon the seeds were no more, but the teacher left one bird sitting on the path to help us remember what happened to those particular seeds.
She did the same thing when it came to the rocky ground. She put up round gray circles symbolizing our rocks. Little brown seeds were placed on top and in between. “These seeds sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.” She placed a flower right above the rocks. It looked like the tufts of green grass that I sometimes spot growing up through the cracks of a Chicago sidewalk. “But when the sun rose,” our teacher continued, placing a big yellow circle in the corner of the flannel board, “the plants were scorched.” The flower disappeared from view; all the seeds are dramatically dropped to the floor again, and only the gray rocks and the piercingly bright sun remained.
“Other seeds fell among thorns,” she read. Now, we did not have any pictures of thorns, but we did have representations of weeds. So she placed the seeds and the weeds side by side. “And the thorns grew up and choked them.” Again, the seeds are tossed to the floor with only the weeds remaining. So now, on our flannel board, we have weeds, gray circle stones with a July sun, and a path with a bird.
“Other seeds fell on good soil.” Here came the little brown seeds, one last time. “And they brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” While our teacher made that declaration, she put up lovely green grass, flowers, and even a tree, creating this beautiful, bountiful picture of growth and health and harvest. Furthermore, the seeds got to stay in that fourth scene, something that those of us in our Sunday School circle noticed and assumed was very important. But then, all of the sudden, that was the end of the story. “Let everyone with ears, listen,” she concluded, a statement that did not make a lot of sense to us, since we were primarily looking, not listening.
Now with that picture in your mind, do you see where we kept our focus in that parable? We were singularly focused on the four types of ground. More importantly, we were singularly focused on which kind of ground we were, even at that moment of our young lives. Were we the kind of soil that could sustain the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, or not? With that question ringing in our young minds, our class went through the soils one by one.
Were we like the path where the seeds fell and stayed, barren and open, vulnerable to predators like birds and the evil one? If not, were we like the rocky ground? The ground that sustained the living word for a short while but, when things got tough, was unable to sustain the seed’s life any longer. Was that who we were? If we were not like either of those, were we like the soil that was chock full of weeds and thorns, the kind of ground that would choke the living daylights out of God’s good news? I can tell you this—although none of those types of ground sounded good to my seven-year-old ears, I sure didn’t want to be the thorny, weedy fields of death. That was terrifying!
What I have failed to mention up to this point, though, is that when we would decide that we did not want to be a particular kind of ground, the teacher would pull it off of the flannel board, once again dropping it dramatically to the floor. So now, felt pieces strewn all about, we came to the big moment. The big lesson. The moral of the story. Do you, she asked us, want to be the good soil? And with that question, she moved each piece of the beautiful, bountiful, good soil felt masterpiece to the middle of the board. Or course we wanted to be the good soil, we eagerly responded. We wanted to be the kind of soil that welcomes the seed of the gospel, that nourishes it, tends it, cares for it, and sustains it as it grows. No birds! No rocks! No thorns! “Make us good soil!” we declared.
It is amazing, really, that I remember that experience so vividly. After all, we had many flannel board Bible story adventures in Sunday School. Yet this is the one I recall most clearly. As I have reflected on the “why” of that, I think it was due to the focus our teacher took with the parable. As she told the story, it became clear to us that our central concern, our only concern, was to be laser focused on the kind of ground we were and the kind of ground we wanted to be and to figure out how to move from the first one to the second one, all on our own.
Even at seven or eight years old, though I knew I desperately wanted to be good soil, I also had this sneaking suspicion that I just couldn’t, not in the way I thought Jesus wanted me to be. Furthermore, I had this sneaking suspicion that I would never be able to cultivate the kind of purity and goodness that I assumed I had to have if I wanted to be worthy as a disciple, a child of God. And now, forty years later, I have also come to realize that I’m not the only one who continued to carry these kinds of concerns about the state of the soul’s soil way beyond childhood. I’ve heard some of you make similar claims.
So let me ask you: How many of you spend at least a little bit of time worried about your own goodness, your own faithfulness, your own rockiness or thorniness? And when I say worry, I don’t mean an appropriate examination of the ways in which we are all complicit in brokenness or sinfulness. We confess our sin together every week for a reason: that honesty creates space for us to realize God forgives us and frees us to live differently, to live more fully into neighborliness and faithfulness. That spiritual discipline of confession is not what I am talking about when I ask you if you ever grow concerned about the state of your soul’s soil.
Rather, I am talking about those sneaky suspicions that whisper to you in the middle of the night that, no matter what you try, your soil will always be too damaged. A just-below-the-surface fear that you will never be good enough, faithful enough, worthy enough, to merit God’s love and God’s embrace. A low-level, constant anxiety that, when all is said and done, your soil might not be good enough for God to accept and receive back into the garden of God’s self. Have you ever heard this parable and started to wonder if that hint at condemnation is its point?
For a long time I did. I assumed this parable was primarily about the four kinds of ground and which one I needed to be if I wanted to be faithful. And that interpretation left me rather stuck, feeling pretty powerless. But friends, I am no longer convinced that Jesus told this parable in order teach us how to properly examine, cultivate, and tend the soil of our souls. Think about it: What is this parable called? Is it called the Parable of the Four Kinds of Soil? Is it even called the Parable of the Seed? No and no. On Jesus’ own lips in verse 18 it is called the Parable of the Sower. The Sower, not the sown.
It is astounding, isn’t it? There we were, sitting around that elaborate flannel board retelling of the story, and the one character literally left out of the whole picture, the Sower, turns out to be the one on whom we are invited to focus, for let’s remember why Jesus tells parables in the first place. Jesus tells parables to show us God and what God’s reign looks like. A parable is not like a fable, a story told to teach us a morality lesson at the end. Parables are actually never centered on us. Rather, parables are always centered only on God. Jesus told his followers parables out of the hope that the stories could surprise us, astound us, shock us even, into seeing more clearly God and God’s work in our lives and in this world.
So when we finally turn our eyes away from the ground, finally turn our focus away from ourselves, and look back to the Sower, what do we see? We see a Sower who is frankly acting like a very wasteful farmer but a Sower who is behaving like a very extravagant and generous God. Furthermore, we see a Sower who throws seeds everywhere she possibly can, regardless of the kind of ground it is. A path, some rocks, a few thorns—the Sower doesn’t care. This Sower just sows and sows and sows, throwing the seeds of life, of grace, of love, of kingdom joy, of compassion and mercy, of the call to do justice and to love kindness, just throwing all those seeds with great gusto, with absolute extravagance, with total generosity.
Whereas we might spend a whole lot of time cultivating the ground first, making sure it is just right, as pure and perfect as possible, the absolute wisest place for our investment of time and energy, and then, once that diligent cultivation is done, we carefully, oh so carefully, dole out the seeds, checking that we are not being wasteful, tallying the exact amount we are using so that we can track our results and our productivity, engaging only in ministries or in community partnerships that are bound to be successful in terms of numbers, that will yield obvious results and growth—whereas that is how we might go about planting the kingdom of God and tending to its goodness, the Sower just throws the seeds around with abandon. A few rocks, some thorns, a path: the Sower does not get all uptight about it. It’s all good.
For the Sower knows that when all is said and done the harvest is going to be plentiful. And the Sower knows that when all is said and done the harvest will be unexpectedly, inexplicably large, no matter what. Jesus ends the parable by describing a harvest that far surpassed any normal agricultural expectation for that age. Thirtyfold, sixtyfold, one hundredfold—such a harvest would be almost unimaginable in those fields. Yet according to Jesus, in the Sower’s world unexpected beautiful, bountiful harvests of goodness and grace grow all the time for those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
Those kinds of harvests grow all the time for those who do not spend all of their energy and focus trying to make sure the soil of their souls, or the soil of their church, or the soil of their neighbor’s soul, is good enough, pure enough, worthy enough for the Sower’s seeds. “Child, relax,” the Sower seems to say with her actions. “I am at work. Right now. I know that 2020 is one chaotic year, but I have not stopped sowing my revolution of love and repair,” the Sower promises. “So come,” the Sower invites. “Come and help me scatter the seeds of my love, the seeds of my desire for justice, the seeds of my grace and compassion, the seeds of this gospel news that proclaims God’s goodness will always have the last word on your life, no matter what. Come and help me scatter that news with lavish abandon.”
And it’s no wonder my teacher didn’t talk about that. For that is an invitation that a flannel board, even in all of its marvel, simply cannot contain. And, thanks be to God, neither can we! So rather than doing what I did in that Sunday School class forty years ago, choosing to focus on our own soil, instead don’t you feel called to learn the ways of the Sower? Even in these days of tension and exhaustion, of polarization and conflict, of disease and having to learn how to have a conversation with a mask on, standing 6 feet apart—even in these days, don’t you desire to stop being so focused on whether or not you are good enough or faithful enough to be a worker in God’s field in order to instead try scattering the seeds of God’s good news with lavish abandon, imitating the generous freedom of the Sower?
Do you think that we could just throw it all out there—all over—with each phone call we make; each email we send; every Zoom gathering we attend; all the mask-wearing activities we do? Don’t you think that even now we are being called to participate in God’s generous scattering of goodness and compassion and mercy, so we might see what grows as a result? I do. If anything, we need to scatter these seeds of goodness and compassion and mercy even more wildly, fully, lavishly, generously. Our creation is longing for the birth of new life, of new neighborliness, of new beginning. And we can help God plant it where we are.
May it be so with you and with me and with Christ’s church. For as we have continuously said for the last four months, the building of the church might be closed, but the scattering of the seeds of the gospel, the work of the church, still continues. And it longs to continue through you just as you are—rocky, thorny, dried up, all of it. Let anyone with ears, listen! Amen.