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Extravagant Investments, Extraordinary Returns

A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.

July 13, 2014.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

This morning’s Gospel lesson is called the Parable of the Sower.  Since I’m basically a city boy, born in Hong Kong, grew up in Shreveport, lived in Houston and Dallas/Forth Worth area, I don’t know much about farming.  Even my years in Farmville didn’t do me any good! From everything that I’ve read and seen, if a person is going to make a living out of farming, then the farmer will need to prepare the field carefully, ridding it of big rocks, tilling the soil to break up lumps of dirt, and then carefully plant and fertilize the seed into the well-prepared soil.  As I travel around, I’m often struck by the beauty of farmlands that have rows and rows of crops lining the field.  You can tell that not much was left to chance in the planting of those seeds.

Now suppose you hear about a farmer who, one day, decided to plant a field.  He loads up his broadcast seed spreader, hooks it up to the back of his John Deere, fires it up, and starts spreading seed while still rumbling down the asphalt driveway, indiscriminately scattering seed onto the road and gravel pits, into the side ditches, and upon the briar and weed infested patches before he even gets to his fields.  There are three words that might describe this sower: “dumb,” “crazy” and “ex-farmer.”  Everyone knows that seed is a precious commodity, and you don’t just indiscriminately scatter it around if you want to maximize the return on your investment and maximize the size of the harvest.

But that’s exactly what this sower in Jesus’ parable does: he indiscriminately “sows” the seed onto all sorts of unsuitable places.  I imagine that upon hearing this parable, the farmers in Jesus’ audience would think to themselves: “Isn’t this the son of Joseph the carpenter?  Well, he better not quit his day job to become a farmer!”  As a matter of fact, Jesus was not trying to give farming advice.  Jesus told this parable of this extravagant sower to give us a picture of who God is and what God’s kingdom is like.  For God’s ways are not our ways.  While we tend to safeguard those things that are precious to us and only share them only with those we think truly deserve it, God is an extravagant prodigal who scatters the most precious possession, the seed of the good news of  God’s Kingdom—Jesus Christ himself—to everyone, regardless of how receptive they might be.  As one commentator puts it: “God the gospel farmer has no compunction about tossing seed anywhere and everywhere whether or not it will have much of a shot at succeeding.  Why?  Because unlike real farmers who love and lavish attention on only the good field, God as farmer loves every field, every plot of land, every heart.”[1] 

Despite God’s extravagant investment into every heart, God is not naïve.  In this parable, Jesus makes clear that while the seed of God’s word is sown onto every kind of soil and every kind of heart, only a small percentage of hearts will actually hear and understand the good news of God’s kingdom, much less receive that word and bear fruit.  In Jesus’ interpretation of this parable, he explains that three quarters of the seeds sown will not grow long enough to produce fruit.  While twenty-five percent might be a pretty good batting average in baseball, those aren’t good odds when it comes to most other things in life.  But Jesus seems to be saying that that’s just the way life is.

Jesus then talks about the good soil.  Now, before we go and pat ourselves on the back for being the good soil, may I suggest that Jesus addressed this parable to his followers and Matthew recorded this parable for the Church.   If I’m right, then we in this sanctuary can’t simply identify ourselves as the good soil and unbelievers outside the church as the “bad” soils.  If I’m right, then it might be possible to understand that even within the Church, there is good soil and bad soil  Now don’t worry, I’m not going to name names, identifying which ones of you are the good 25%, and which ones of you are not bearing fruit.  I’m not even going to hazard a guess as to which of the four sections of our choir – sopranos, altos, tenors, or basses – are the ones living fruitful lives.  Being a tenor myself, I do have my suspicions!  Instead of pointing fingers at any person or any congregation, I might suggest that within each of our hearts, within each of our lives, each of us have soil that is receptive to God’s word and each of us have soil that is unreceptive to God’s word.  For those of us who attend church, and that includes me, we are exposed to the seed of God’s word week in and week out, and yet, there are areas of our lives that are hardened and unreceptive to what we hear.  We have soil that is shallow and rocky, and the seed of God’s word can’t take root in our lives so our faith ends up being withered by the challenges of life.  Finally, we have soil filled with the thorns of worry and busyness that can choke out any chance for our faith to bear fruit.  If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll see that that too is the way life is. 

It’s really not that surprising that the seed didn’t grow in the bad soils.  The surprising thing is that the farmer chooses to scatter seed in those soils anyway.  The good news this morning then is that God continues to be the extravagant sower who continues to scatter the seed of God Word to every one regardless of the receptive soils in different individuals and in each of our divided hearts.  The good news is that God loves everyone, even those whom we think are not good prospects for the Gospel, and God will not give up scattering the seeds of the Gospel their way.  The good news is that God loves our whole being, and that’s why God will not give up scattering the precious seed of His Word in the inhospitable places of our hearts in the hopes that the Word will take root in all areas of our lives.  The great news is that when and wherever the seed takes root and grows and bears fruit, it will yield an extraordinary return a hundred, sixty or thirty times more than what was sown. 

We see this truth time and again in the history of the church.  Think of Saul, a persecutor of the early Church.  Why would God choose to indiscriminately invest in this murderer when it would have made more sense to pour resources to strengthen the struggling early Church?  By God’s grace, when the seed of the Gospel took root in Paul’s life, Saul became Paul, the Church’s greatest missionary.  Likewise, why would God choose to extravagantly invest in a slave trader named John Newton, when it would have made more sense to focus more resources on the abolition movement?  By God’s grace, when the seed of the Gospel took root in John Newton’s life, he turned his back on the slave trade, became a pastor, and wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.”  It is so hard to know in advance which life is the good soil or which life is not.  That’s why the sower spreads the seed on all kinds of soil.

If Jesus were here today, he might tell this parable in a different way.  He might say, “The kingdom of God is like a scientist who tried to discover a substance that can heat and light up for an extended period of time without burning up.  For two years, he experimented with different elements and after thousands of failed attempts, Thomas Edison finally invented the first commercially practical incandescent light bulb.  Legend has it that Edison once said, “I didn’t fail, I found 2,000 ways how not to make a light bulb; I only need to find one way to make it work.”  Or Jesus might say, “The kingdom of God is like the baseball player who struck out 1,300 times in his career.  But that player, named Babe Ruth, also hit 714 home runs.  Babe Ruth also said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”

We serve a generous God, who extravagantly invested in all human beings by sending God’s Son Jesus to earth.  Some received him and grew.  Many rejected him and even crucified him.  But out of that death and failure, God raised him up so that humanity is offered the extraordinary returns of eternal life.  We who are worshippers of this God and this Jesus are now invited to join in the extravagant sowing of the seed of God’s Word.  In so doing, we are not defined by a fear of failure, but by a faith that God will provide extraordinary returns in growing God’s Kingdom.

Julie Ball, a member of Second Baptist in Memphis, TN, a CBF church, tells a story of the time her family was watching the TV show called “Once Upon a Time.”  That show tells familiar fairy tales, but with twists and complexities.  One night, the show presented a new family of characters: the giants, the ones who live at the top of the beanstalk. The giant brothers were gathered around their enormous dinner table, discussing their magic bean garden (yes, the sort of beans that grow magic beanstalks). The youngest and smallest of the giants asked: “But why do we keep growing [the beans], if nobody ever uses them?” The oldest and wisest brother replied: “It is the labor that makes us who we are, not the fruit that it yields.”

“It is the labor that makes us who we are, not the fruit that it yields.”  That sentiment is similar to the definition of “missional” that we heard on a Wednesday night last year from Bo Prosser, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Coordinator of Missional Congregations.  At first, Bo gave us the basic definition of missional: “participating in the ongoing mission of God.” Then Bo shared his own definition of missional: “empowering people to share their passion on purpose to be the presence of Christ in the world.”  So far so good, but Bo Prosser couldn’t leave well enough alone.  He tacked one more phrase onto his definition: “whether anyone joins our church or not.”  The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is committed to empower people to share their passion on purpose to be the presence of Christ in the world . . . whether anyone joins our church or not. 

This morning’s Gospel lesson is called the Parable of the Sower, not the Parable of the Bumper Crop.  The job God calls us to do is a labor of love, to sow the seed, and that labor is what makes us who we are.  As Julie Ball says, “Sowing God’s love will yield results, but those results are not up to us and do not define us. The results are up to those whom we love and the Holy Spirit.  When we do things for God, when we act out of love – either individually or as a church – are we motivated by God’s call or by the results we hope to achieve?” [2]

We are recipients of God’s extravagant investment of grace and love.  God will bring about extraordinary returns in the lives of unlikely people.  Will we hear God’s invitation and join in what God is doing by sowing the seed of God’s word . . . regardless of whether anyone joins our church or not?  Whoever has ears, let them hear.

 Amen.

[1] Scott Hoezee, reflections on the lectionary text for July 13, 2008, found on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php.

[2] Julie Ball, http://cbfdawnings.org/what-once-upon-a-time-a-five-year-old-and-bo-prosser-taught-me-about-living-missionally/