“Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matt. 13:8-9)
About eight years ago, my son opened his first pizza store in Kingston Ontario. He bought into the Little Caesar’s franchise - you might have heard of them… Little Caesar’s started out in Michigan in 1959 and their head office has been in downtown Detroit all these years. Their present CEO, David Scravino, has supported the city through thick and thin; in fact, they’re expanding their head office and hiring more employees as I speak. He is very philanthropic, does all sorts of good things for people and organizations within the city without seeking publicity.
One of the most important factors in opening a pizza store is finding a good location. David took ages searching for the right spot to rent. I happened to be in town when he was searching and he showed me one of the places he was considering. It was a good-sized space but it was on the back side of the strip mall… I’m no expert, but my impression was that it was too discreet for a pizza store. Thankfully, so did he. During the search, a prominent location came available in a new strip mall that was anchored by a Home Depot store. The space faced out onto a busy road and was right at the entrance to the mall, so there was plenty of foot traffic and car traffic right by the store. They rented it right away, opened the store to record breaking business and for several years it was the top selling store in Canada. Clearly, it pays to do your homework before setting up a pizza store.
And anyone in business will tell you that you need to do your homework before you jump in. Conduct market research, know your target consumer group and identify the potential of your product before you ever invest a dime! That’s the way the Shark Tank team operates. When entrepreneurs stand before those rich investors, they want to be sold on the product, yes, but they also want to know about their marketing strategy, their staffing model, their investment to returns ratio. These investors want to bet on a sure thing… to minimize their risk and thus multiply their returns, so they’re interested in your strategic approach. That’s just the way it works in business.
But not so in the kingdom, at least not according to Jesus! Just listen to the parable he tells: “A sower goes out to sow.” And where does he sow? On good soil? On plowed land? No, this sower throws seed around with abandon – scatters it everywhere. Some of it falls on the hard pathway, some falls among the rocks, some within the thistle patch, and some of it, just some, makes it onto good soil.
Strange farming practice, don’t you think? Farmers don’t plant seed this way… they are more calculating and careful than that. But this farmer is interested in following standard farming practices, his methods defy standard business principles, and take him beyond the good soil. This farmer sows seeds the way that God lavishes love upon all the world. For God makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. God’s grace and love bless all of humanity. So, this farmer’s seed is sown liberally. He ignores the risks and scatters it across a broad plain... because, praise God, that is God’s way with all of us.
But it should come as no surprise that the farmer suffers loses with such liberal farming practices… much of the seed never bears fruit at all. The seed that falls on the pathway is devoured by birds. The seed among the rocks grows, but it withers and dies in the hot sun because the soil is just too thin. The seed sown in thistles gets choked out when the weeds grow up and take over. Ah, but some seed makes it onto the good soil, and amazingly, this seed takes root and grows and not only grows but flourishes, and not only flourishes but abounds yielding grain beyond our wildest imagination! Some fields yield 100-fold, some sixty-fold and some 30. (To add some perspective to those numbers, a seven-fold yield was considered an average crop back in Jesus’ day. A ten-fold yield was the definition of abundance. A thirty-fold yield would feed the entire village for a year, while a hundred-fold was enough for the farmer to retire to a villa by the Sea of Galilee. It was unimaginable!)
Now why does Jesus tell this parable and why is Matthew so quick to pick up on it? This is the very first parable of Jesus that Matthew includes in his gospel. And Mark and Luke include this one also. It’s not hard to guess what the early church is struggling with is it? Clearly, spreading the gospel is not easy work… people’s efforts to share the good news, to evangelize, are not always fruitful. Sometimes the word falls on hard soil and never even have a chance to take root. Sometimes it falls on thin, rocky soil - the seed germinates and starts to grow but then withers when things get hot. Sometimes the word falls among the thistles and gets choked out by other priorities before they have a chance to grow to maturity. So, the early church experienced its share of failure too… their growth curve was not always up. And the second half of this parable - the part which interprets the parable, gives us further indication of the problems. Sometimes converts to the faith would just suddenly and without reason grow cold and fall away. Others would blossom and flourish but when they realized that faith cost them something, or persecution arose, or their anxious concerns for life weighed them down, their enthusiasm for the faith waned.
And we can relate to all this, can’t we? Because these days are not like the glory days of old. Oh, back in the 50’s and 60’s – all you had to do was built it and they would come! When they built the Hidenwood chapel they thought it would contain all the people who would come for a few years anyway, but they only worshipped there one Sunday because so many people showed up there wasn’t enough room. So, they had to go back to the school for a few years till they built the Fellowship Hall and they had church there. But life was simpler then, wasn’t it? There were Blue Laws and this area was just in its infancy of its development - so church was about the only game in town on Sundays! Might as well go to church!
It’s different now. There is a whole host of things people can do on Sunday mornings instead of church. In fact, there are a whole host of things to do all week! Most families are running in all directions every day of the week... there is no day of rest! So, commitment is hard to get and even harder to keep because they have phones and if something better comes up…
So, it’s hard being church now, much like it was back then. Our efforts to reach out into the community are not always successful and it can be disheartening. We might even want to give up! And that’s exactly why Jesus told this parable. He confirms our experience: yes, spreading the gospel is hard work... most seeds fall on unproductive soil, but don’t give up! Don’t get discouraged! Look what happens: some seed falls on good soil and those seeds yield a bumper crop beyond imagining. Jesus is telling us to be diligent, sow your seed broadly and play the percentages... and we will be rewarded richly. The gift of harvest awaits those who do not give up.
I have a brother-in-law who applied this parable when looking for a girlfriend back in his teenage years. He claimed his tactic to get a girlfriend was ask a lot of girls out. “If you ask 100 girls to go out,” he said, “at least one is probably going to say yes.” So, diligence is key... take the rejections because odds are in your favor one of them will say yes. Diligence is a key part of today’s lesson, but it’s not the whole thing. Jesus is also saying – sow widely... spread the gospel far and wide and don’t get bogged down in your failures... keep sowing because when you strike good soil the harvest is incredible.
About a month ago, I sat in on a webinar by Lorenzo Lebrija, a newly ordained Catholic priest who works for the bishop’s office in Los Angeles. The bishop had planned to close the church in San Bernardino because there were only 15 people left in the church. But the tiny group was doing such a great job of serving the needy that he decided to give them a second chance to grow. He sent Lorenzo out to San Bernardino in hopes of finding a way to grow the church. The bishop sent Lorenzo because he was so new to ministry he didn’t have any pre-conceived notions of what would work and what wouldn’t, so he’d tackle growth with fresh eyes. He told him to try everything. So, Lorenzo sat down with the church and devised a new mission statement: “Our mission to help you realize how much God loves you.” Then he used Facebook to get the church’s message out to the community. He placed an ad that simply said, “God loves you, no exceptions.” Then he started a Facebook Live bible study on Wednesdays (which he did from Los Angeles because he only spends two days per week in San Bernardino.) The church is turning around and growing again. Lorenzo’s webinar message was, “Try Everything” – not everything will be successful, and when something doesn’t work, just go on and try something else. His message resonates with today’s passage.
Today, Hidenwood celebrates the commitment of ten new members to the church, representing seven new families. We are thankful to God for such a bountiful harvest of committed members and we look forward to getting to know you, and sharing in this journey of faith with you. All of you have different stories of how you got here and what prompted you to join. Your many stories remind us that the seeds of grace must sowed liberally and broadly.
So, as you go from here today, throw the seeds of grace broadly into the community. Play the percentages because you never know when it will fall on good soil. And when it does, it will result in a bountiful harvest. This group of new members is just a foretaste of what God has in store for us if we are faithful.