sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 10/17/2010
[audio link not yet available]
[interactive reading: volunteers for boos (seed or word), yays (Jesus, he, or him), breath holders (between yays), and yes-ers (periods)...]
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”
Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
“ ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”
We're going to talk today about mixed results. About how most of the seeds the farmer sows don't produce any real growth, while a few of the seeds have overwhelming results. We're talking, of course, when we peel back the layers, about the mixed results of Jesus' message of the good news of the kingdom of God, even when the kingdom message is delivered by Jesus. About how lots of what God says lands on deaf ears, or gets lost in the noise, or gets shut out by competing voices, while some of what God says to some of us some of the time really hits home. Lands so deep in us, in fact, that it changes who we are from the inside out, changing what we think and feel and say and do so much that our words and actions carry with them the same life-changing power of God's words and actions. And we're talking about why this dynamic of mixed results is in fact part of the good news, not bad news at all.
Remember, Jesus' parables are designed to uproot certain stale assumptions we bring to what God and his kingdom is like, so that his fresh and true perspective can get under our skin and take root, subverting our defenses. This parable is doing that in spades.
The predominant kingdom at the time of Jesus was the Roman Empire. It came by conquest, by force, it came organized, systematized, suddenly and uniformly. Rome set their sights on a part of the known world, marched in with an army, took it over, and set up shop. They had a system of controlling every aspect of the land they took over. They established a government, an economic order, a social order, roads, plumbing, etc. And it all happened in a top down fashion. Mixed results were not tolerated. Rebellions? Crushed. Mismanagement? Managers replaced. Quotas were brutally enforced. Results, results, results.
Rome grew it's empire, in other words, the way we might build a building or a car or a subdivision. Piece by piece, check box, by check box, benchmark by benchmark. Mixed results are not to be tolerated, because the building might fall down, or the car might not run, or the subdivision might not break even.
We can imagine, then, what kind of pre-existing grid informed people's expectations when they heard Jesus announce the kingdom of God was coming. Surely God had set his sights on the world, would march in with an army, take it over, set up shop. Complete with a system - more benevolent of course - for controlling every aspect of the world he took over. A top down reassertion of righteous rule.
This grid of benchmarks and controls is the way of our broken world, isn't it? Even when we think about our own lives and how we're progressing.
What will your life look like when it's completed? What are your goals? How are you doing with respect to accomplishing them? What are you doing to fix your failures?
Are you at your ideal weight? Can you benchpress 200? Have you run a marathon? Ever bowled 300? What's your Xbox Live gamer score? How many followers do you have on twitter or friends on Facebook?
Did you graduate from High School? Get your bachelors degree? Your masters? Your PhD?
Are you employed? Have you gotten promoted? Achieved a certain title?
Have you made this much money? Bought a house? Have a retirement account?
[even our relationships get subjected to these benchmarks and controls: the questions we get from relatives: when are you getting married? shouldn't you be a better husband? when are you having kids? shouldn't you be a better parent?]
Growth in life for us becomes checking off our boxes. In each area of life, we have a particular benchmark that we think we'd be satisfied with. That if we succeeded, we could move on to the next thing, or maybe rest easy, kick back if we've met enough them. Then it's just about maintaining good control over what we've achieved and attained.
How many of us, when we think about our spiritual lives, use the same kinds of grids?
Have you repented of your sins and made a personal commitment to Christ?
Put a shout out to Jesus on your facebook page?
Overcome your anger problem?
Stopped looking at porn?
Do you know how to pray?
Read the bible?
Do you tithe?
Mastered your 3 minute and 10 minute testimony?
Led someone to Christ?
Have you led a small group?
Served the poor?
Gone on an international missions trip?
Cast out a demon?
Raised someone from the dead?
Started a church?
Growth in our spiritual lives can become for us reaching our benchmarks and then maintaining control.
Here's the problem with that approach to growth. We're carbon-based life forms, not buildings or cars or subdivisions. That might be how you build a building or a car or a subdivision, but it's not how God builds human beings. It's organic. Cooperative. There's no sheer force approach to making it happen. Largely invisible moment by moment. Happens in fits and starts. Doesn't require maintenance, but nurture. Requires faith, patience, perseverance, a willingness to tolerate imperfect results along the way.
[teachers, coaches, parents (would you just stop teaching, coaching, parenting because you weren't getting results?)...how much of doing it well requires making room for mixed results...?]
Empires make no room for mixed results, because Empires exist to concentrate wealth and power at the top.
God makes room for mixed results because God is Love. And Love exists to distribute and multiply it's life as far and wide as Love will be received and reciprocated. Love will go so far, in fact, as to empty itself of wealth and power so that the objects of its love might have life, and have it to the full.
On a biological level, the questions that matter aren't benchmarks and controls, but the life-giving capacities of our bodies' systems. On a spiritual level, the questions also aren't a matter of benchmarks and controls, but the life-giving capacities of our relationships with God, and one another, and the whole of creation.
So when the kingdom of God comes, it's not measured first by a set of external realities. Rome defeated. Messiah on throne in Jerusalem. Economic and social justice implemented. It's measured by the growth of life-giving capacities of our relationships with God, and one another, and the whole of creation.
And that kind of growth comes as a farmer sows seeds on the ground.
Jesus isn't looking for the quickest way to check off the boxes. Because Jesus could bring a sword instead of seeds (as we spoke about a few weeks ago) and check off the boxes in short order. But then the life-giving capacities of our relationships with God, and one another, and the whole of creation would, at best, remain untouched.
What God is doing instead is speaking creative words of love into the old creation so that new creation comes to life. Those words come in the form of a person (Jesus, the word of God), and his announcement, and demonstration, and embodiment of the good news of God's kingdom. And when they are trusted and obeyed (when they are received into the soil), they have the capacity to breathe new life into the old creation. A new creation that has a growing capacity for life-giving relationships between people and God, and people with one another, and people with the whole of creation.
[seed: God forgives you...ah, I can draw near without shame, ah, I can forgive the person who disrespected me, ah, I can stop punishing myself and get on with my purpose in life..., etc.]
This parable Jesus tells says that the seeds are going to get mixed results. This is just the way Love brings life: it's a growth process, a cooperative relationship between the seeds and the soil, and not much of the soil is fully cooperative, especially at first. In fact, most of the seeds won't bear much fruit. But some of the seeds will. And the ones that will, will be wildly, overwhelmingly fruitful.
So be patient, persevere, don't get discouraged and give up. The Sower is patient, he doesn't get discouraged. He just keeps scattering the seed, because he knows how seed works, and his agenda is life.
[Sales experience...not in it to feel good about myself, in it to make a living. had to trust what my trainer said about the ratios: 100 phone calls, 50 cold calls, 15 appointments, you'll make $40,000...the Kingdom ratios are even more stacked in the favor of life, 3 of 4 fail, but the seeds that take root multiply 30, 60, 100 times]
What is true of how the Kingdom of God comes among communities of people is also true of how the Kingdom of God comes in our lives personally. The seeds get mixed results, depending on the cooperativeness of the soil where and when it lands. Most of the seeds won't bear much fruit. But some of the seeds will. And the ones that will, will be wildly, overwhelmingly fruitful.
So be patient, persevere, don't get discouraged and give up. The sower is patient, he doesn't get discouraged. He just keeps scattering the seed, because he knows how seed works, and his agenda is life. If God is willing to make room for mixed results in our lives, shouldn't we be willing to do the same?
Now why doesn't the sower just put the seed in the good soil only? Two reasons, I think.
One, every seed, every word the sower sows is filled with love, is an expression of love, because the farmer is God and God is love. And God loves the people whose soil is like a hard-packed path, and God loves the people whose soil is shallow, and God loves the people with thorns in their soil, just as much as God loves those whose soil will be most receptive to his love. So God will continue to pour out his love on all of them, all the time.
And secondly, because no matter where the seeds are scattered, the seeds, over time, can't help but change the soil in a way that makes it more receptive for the next seed that lands. Bird poop fertilizes the soil. The dead plants, whether they died from scorching sun or choking weeds, fertilize the soil. And the crop that does grow up in the good soil will produce seeds of its own, seeds that are caught on the wind and take root in the previously uncooperative ground. It's true in communities of people, and it's true in our lives personally.
Don't stop scattering seeds. Anywhere. Anytime.
And don't get discouraged by a perceived lack of spiritual growth in your life. Continue to open yourself up to the words the Lord might speak to you. Some of them won't bear fruit. But they might cause the ground to become more fertile. And some of them will land on good soil. And grow up into a crop. A crop full of more seeds to be blown by the wind into the other parts of your life.
1. Thank a Farmer. Write a thank-you note to your parents, or a friend, or a mentor who made room for mixed results in your life. It just might encourage both of you.
2. Waste Some Seeds. Express love in a practical way towards someone in whom you don't expect it to take root. Because love is concerned with its long term impact on the soil, not with self gratification.
3. Go Growth Hunting. Find a place in your life where your relationship with God has become more life-giving, or where your relationship with others has become more life-giving, or where your relationship with creation has become more life-giving, and nurture it. See if it eventually doesn't just spill some life-giving seeds over into other areas of your life.