Wednesday March 30th, Chapel at Gettysburg Seminary
This sermon was delivered by Bishop Kurt Kusserow (SWPA) on the occasion of the Region 8 Bishops’ Visit to Gettysburg Seminary, on the Lenten text: Luke 8:4-15
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is my joy to bring you greetings from Southwestern Pennsylvania, where we love our Stillers, where the sky is overcast and gray most of the time, and where in our congregations, 20% of the people do 80% of the work. This is true. And Jesus is OK with that.
Well, maybe he’d prefer 25%, if the parable of the sower is any indication.
A sower went out to sow; and some fell on the path, and some fell on the rock, and some fell among thorns, and some fell into good soil. In Jesus’ description of the event, there is no word to distinguish how much of the seed fell into each place. We might expect that the great majority of the seed fell into the fertile field, as the sower no doubt intended, and that a only little flew too far and landed on the path, and a only few ended up on the rock or in the thorns, but that’s not what the text says. It’s a parable, after all, not a documentary on farming practices.
In the language of the parable, the portion of the seed that fell on the path yielded nothing, and the portion of the seed that fell on the rock yielded nothing, and the portion of the seed that fell among thorns yielded nothing, and the portion of the seed that remained (25%?) fell into good soil and yielded a hundredfold.
So maybe our pet phrase about how the church works should be revised. “You have heard that it was said that 20% of the people do 80% of the work, but I say to you that in 25% of the people, the seed yields 100% of the produce.”
Yes, I am being playful with the text. But notice this: the parable of the sower is a story of hope, not a story of despair. The seed yields a hundredfold in the good earth it touches!
Even the explanation of the parable, which some take to be a later, allegorical redaction of the text, turns out to be a later, allegorical redaction of hope, and not a later, allegorical redaction of despair.
In the explanation, Jesus identifies the seed as the Word of God, and then names each of the terrible images in the parable: the birds are the devil, the rock is the duress of persecution, the thorns are the cares and pleasures of the world. But even so, there is no sense in Jesus’ words that his brow is furrowed or that his hands are clenched in worry as he names these things. His voice is matter-of-fact.
But then, when he comes to those who hear the word and hold it fast in their hearts and produce the fruit of the kingdom with patient endurance, we hear that same reverent joy that can be heard in the voices of pastors who describe the saints of their congregations who number among the 20% (or 25%, if you prefer). In the congregations that you serve, look for those saints and rejoice in them. They bless the world with their patient endurance.
But honestly, this parable is not about them. It’s about Jesus, the Word of God, the seed that was sown, and it’s about the proclamation of the Word of God, “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!”
As a rule of thumb, we always do well in asking of the parables, “How does this parable tell the story of Jesus?” We do well in asking this because we seem to have an inexhaustible natural inclination to preach about ourselves, to wonder in this case about the various soils. Just who are those four groups of people?
But the parable is about the sower and the seed. If Jesus, the Word of God, is the seed, how does this parable proclaim his saving Gospel? Perhaps with the astounding message that this seed produces so abundantly that even the smallest measure of its fruitfulness is enough to bless the whole world.
We might also notice that the parable of the sower proclaims the story of Jesus, the seed of God, in vivid detail for all who have ears to hear:
Some walked by on the path to Jerusalem as Jesus hung on the cross, and derided him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” (But listen! Do we hear Jesus saying from the cross, “Look at them, just walking by. The devil plucked the saving Word right out of their ears, and here I am, powerless to do anything about it. Darn!” No, the story of Jesus does not proclaim this.)
Some, who had received Jesus with joy, when they heard him say that his flesh was food indeed and his blood was drink indeed turned aside and no longer followed him. (But listen! Do we see Jesus slump into an introspective evaluation of his approach and conclude, “Maybe I need to make my message more relevant, more contemporary.” No, the story of Jesus does not proclaim this.)
Some who were captivated by Jesus’ teaching eventually said, “Lord, I will follow you, but first let me bury my father.” (Do we hear Jesus respond, “Gosh, I’m sorry to hear that; you’re a valued part of this community, and our assembly would be diminished without your gifts. Let’s establish a task force to study the matter more fully and see if we can’t come to a traveling itinerary that addresses your needs in a positive manner.” No, the story of Jesus does not proclaim this.)
The parable of Jesus, the seed of God, proclaims that some seed fell into the ears and hearts of those who said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And into that soil this seed sank itself, giving up its very form, its very substance, its very life into their keeping: “Take and eat, my body given for you. Take and drink, my blood poured out for you.”
Our Lord Jesus Christ sealed that complete self-giving with his final word from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” then he died, and was buried. Planted, if you will, not only in the earth, but in the hearts of the few who had received the Word, who held it fast, in whom it began to bear fruit with patient endurance.
This group was very few. Peter and the others.
And the women who followed Jesus and provided for him, Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna (Luke 8:2-3).
And the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. But then also the 120 or so who gathered in the temple daily, and those 3,000 that were added to their number, and the believers in Thessalonica and Philippi and Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia, and Rome. And the churches of Alexandria and Constantinople, and Canterbury, and Wittenberg and Geneva. And the mission fields in India and in the colony of Pennsylvania, and on and on, down through the ages and across the whole world, all the way up to those sheep of all nations gathered before the throne of the Son of Man, who turn out in the end to be somewhat surprised to discover that the fruit of care for the neighbor that had been planted in their lives and had grown with patient endurance had been the seed of the Word of God all along!
This is what the seed of the Word of God does. It grows and produces fruit, so that even if this seed takes root in only 25% of the people it is sown among, even though this seed endures incredible suffering and blatant rejection and widespread neglect, the story is finally a story of hope and not of despair, because it is the story of Jesus. For where the Word of God takes root and grows, it produces a hundredfold!
Seeing as how this is a seminary, a seed house, and you are seminarians, seed people, let me finish with a practical application of the hope that I find in this parable and its explanation.
Whether you are called to sow the seed in a ministry of Word and Service, or in a ministry of Word and Sacrament, do so with hope, and not with fear; with determination, and not with despair. Speak the word into every ear that is within earshot. Sow the seed in every heart that yearns for life; plant the seed in every hand that stretches open at the communion rail, and wait with patient endurance for the fruit of the kingdom to grow.
Will some families bring their babies for baptism and then disappear? Yes. But do not despair! Will some lifelong members suddenly leave the congregation over the color of the carpet? Yes. But do not fear! Will budget constraints choke the faith of some of your council members? Yes. But do not lose heart! Instead rejoice in the lives of those who by their own strength and wisdom could not even have believed in Jesus, but the Holy Spirit has called them, gathered and enlightened them, sanctified them, and kept them in the true faith. Rejoice in these few, because in them and through them your eyes are blessed to see how the work of our Lord Jesus is accomplished, for the life of the whole world.
You may not see this early in your ministry or as a result of the Word you proclaim. On the other hand, you may immediately exult in the full harvest that the preaching of others has brought to fruition. In either case, preach faithfully, sow the seed widely, and trust that the One who gives his life to bring life out of death will produce a hundredfold.