I preached this sermon today at North United Methodist Church, the place I’ve called my church and my job for the past nine years. This sermon is a reflection on the Parable of the Sower as well as my time in ministry with the youth, parents, volunteers and congregation of North UMC.
While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded crop, a hundred time more than was sown.”
When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
Please pray with me:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
It was almost nine years ago to the day that I accepted the offer to be your Minister of Youth here at North Church. However, arriving at the point of accepting that offer took some time. You see, our associate pastor then, Lisa, really wanted me to make a commitment of three years to this job and I was unwilling to do so.
Let me back up a little bit. Right out of college I was the Associate Director of Youth Ministries at St. Luke’s UMC. My main focus was with the high school group. After five years in that role I needed a break, so I traveled, tried living in Texas and eventually found my way back to Indianapolis. I did some odd jobs for a while and found myself unsatisfied. I picked up a copy of What Color is Your Parachute? – a career discernment book – and found that youth ministry really was my calling. I was hesitant, but ready to try it again.
So, when Lisa wanted a three-year commitment from me, you can see why I wasn’t sure I could do that. It’s my understanding that our senior pastor at the time, Kevin, told Lisa to make the offer without any prescribed commitment. He may have been onto something…here I am nine years later!
I didn’t have to think very hard about what scripture passage I wanted to reflect on today. I’ve always loved the Parable of the Sower. Like many of Jesus’ stories, this is one we can ponder and consider from many different angles. In Luke, this story comes at an interesting time in the Gospel narrative. Just before this, in chapter 7 the centurion, a Roman solider, recognizes Jesus’ authority. Several verses later a woman labeled sinful (we can ALL find ourselves in that story!) anoints Jesus with oil and disrupts the disciples’ thoughts on extravagant giving. Then after the Parable of the Sower, Jesus calms the storm and heals a demon-possessed man. There is a lot going on in these few chapters!
What we can discover by reading what happens before and after this text is that Jesus is indiscriminate in his love and grace. Whether a Roman citizen, a woman with a difficult past, scared disciples or someone struggling with mental health, Jesus is available and open to all people. He doesn’t ask them who they worship or where they spend their money or who their friends are. In these stories Jesus is generous in the grace and love he offers.
With this understanding, we can look more closely at the Parable of the Sower. Jesus mentions rocks, busy paths, thorns and good soil. I think it’s easy to just apply that to our lives at face value – easy, but probably not what Jesus intended. There have been times in my life when I’ve thought: “I need to stay out of the weeds and rocks and stay off the busy path. If I find myself in those places God’s message won’t reach me. If the seeds in my life get trampled on I won’t yield a crop.” In this way of thinking, my life was solely focused on creating good soil: “I need to be good. I need to do good. If I don’t, I won’t receive God’s grace. I won’t yield anything worthy in my life.”
As you can imagine, this isn’t a healthy place to live. This is transactional grace, which really isn’t grace at all. If God requires something of me in order to love me, that’s not grace. If God only calls me “Beloved” after I’ve made a difference in the world, that’s not grace. Grace is unconditional. Grace is present in the weeds or on the busy path or in the rocks. Maybe Jesus wasn’t giving a lesson on where to live, but on how to receive…
The Sower was throwing seeds everywhere. He was indiscriminate, reckless, and extravagant. There is a chance the seeds on the path will be trampled or eaten by a bird. There is a chance the seeds in the rocky area will wither and die. There is a chance seeds among the thorns will grow and then be choked out. There is a chance that any of that could happen.
However, at the same time, there is also a chance that those seeds will find a way to live and thrive even in the most difficult of situations. We’ve all seen flowers growing out of cracks in the sidewalk. If you need further examples, come see all the weeds growing in our driveway! Seeds are strong. Seeds are brave. Sure, seeds do their best in good, fertile soil, but under even the best circumstances, seeds don’t always survive. And, at times, it’s in the least likely circumstances when seeds thrive.
This parable helps me reflect on my time here at North. I see myself in the business of planting seeds. And, I hope, like Jesus, I have been indiscriminate in sharing my love and grace.
Like the sower in this parable, there were many times during my ministry here that I felt like I was just throwing seeds hoping they’d land somewhere, anywhere and take hold! There were moments where I just grabbed a handful of seeds and threw them – praying that anything would take root! You might picture this on a middle school overnight or Sunday school class, or maybe in a Ministries Council or staff meeting. Grab and throw, grab and throw!
However, I think most of the planting I did around here was more intentional, more thoughtful, and more authentic. These seeds required a lot of time and care, constant tending and paying attention to. I’m reminded of an immature, goofy, intelligent 6th grade boy who grew up to be a young man unsure of his path. I remember the late night texts I received from him during his first year in college. I remember his fear and uncertainty. In those moments I recognized the crop yielding in his life because people tended to him – not just me, but all the volunteers who taught his Sunday school classes, led his ASP crews, convened his retreat small groups. Together we created a safe place for him to grow and learn and turn back to in times of need.
I’m reminded of a strong-willed, creative, unrelenting little girl who I noticed at all-church events. I remember feeling a little anxious just before she started in youth ministry – although this wasn’t unique to her. I think every incoming sixth grade class brought me a bit of anxiety! Almost immediately, however, I saw her desire to learn and be part of a community. She had drive and purpose but struggled to find her place. With the seeds planted through middle school trips and Lenten retreats, with the adults in her life encouraging her to create and explore, with this church cheering her on, she is growing more and more comfortable with who she is. Together we created the fertile soil she needed to accept her role as a Beloved child of God.
I’m reminded of our youth with special needs. I’ll be the first to admit I was not trained for this area of ministry. There were often times I felt I was in over my head but I kept planting seeds the best way I knew how – by offering love and acceptance and by showing others how to do the same. I wasn’t perfect but I did the best I could. I had to learn new ways of planting seeds – new ways of reaching people with different abilities and understandings. No matter what the struggle, I pray each person felt welcome and felt loved. I saw seeds sprouting in ways I didn’t know were possible. At times I felt like I was in the weeds and thorns, but even in those rough patches, God’s grace abounds.
I’m reminded how some groups were so connected and how others never took off. I’m reminded how some young people couldn’t wait to get to youth group and how others were forced to come and eventually their parents let them stay home on Sunday nights. Even in these situations, seeds were planted. Surely each group and individual knows how much they are loved? Right? That’s a fear in leaving – maybe my work isn’t complete yet… And then I’m reminded this isn’t all about me. Jesus didn’t put much emphasis on the Sower did he? The focus is on the seeds. That’s what’s important here – what can we do to keep the seeds safe and flourishing? How can we, the Church, keep the seeds alive?
I’ve never been big on memorizing Bible verses – which book, what chapter, which verses. I think if you engage with the Bible enough the words get engrained in you, but is knowing the exact chapter and verse the point? For me it’s not. I would rather you know the concepts and the ideas and live those out. So, that’s how I’ve done youth ministry. Early on I taught them a song I learned at camp many years ago – The Fruit of the Spirit. It’s a goofy song – they call out a fruit name, we insert it into the song. Then we get to the real point – the Biblical fruits of the spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If you were to quiz any of the youth about where to find those words in the Bible, most would fail. And, if that were my job as their youth minister, then I would fail too. However, if you ask them what the fruits of the spirit are? – they know because retreat after retreat, year after year we have sung this song together. Without them realizing it, maybe, they were learning and seeds were planted in their hearts and minds.
These are the seeds I worked hard to plant over the last nine years. Seeds of love and joy, seeds of peace and patience, seeds of kindness and goodness, seeds of faithfulness and gentleness, seeds of self-control. In almost every memory I have – whether exciting or challenging or exhausting or fun – these seeds were planted. When I talked about raising a hand to speak instead of talking over everyone? Seeds of self-control. When I asked a volunteer to teach Sunday school yet again? Seeds of faithfulness. When I danced to folk music on ASP? Seeds of joy. Yes, I think learning the stories of the Bible is an important part of ministry. Yes, I think learning church history is important. But in the end, what’s most important to me is that love and joy, peace and patience, kindness and goodness, faithfulness and gentleness and self-control are the actions and attitudes these youth and young adults turn to for every situation in their lives.
Beneath the soil, around these freshly planted seeds, there are roots. There are roots of trees and grass and flowers. Roots fill the ground all around us. Unless we’re pulling out a weed or transplanting a flower, we don’t often pay attention to the roots. But, they’re there. Trees use their root systems to pass along information to one another. From above the trees don’t look connected, but below they are all in contact. They share a hidden connection that helps them grow taller, stay healthy and support one another.
We have a root system that connects us – roots that help us grow taller, stay healthy and support one another. The Holy Spirit binds us together, keeps us connected, even when it may appear we are apart. We are surrounded by roots of those who left an impact on our lives – loved ones who have died, people who have moved away, even friendships that ended. Once the seeds are planted, once the roots take hold, the connection will never be severed. Just like the Trinity – we are bound together, never to be torn apart. So, as new seeds start to be planted over the coming months and years, remember and be thankful for the seeds already present in your life. Remember and be thankful for the One who extravagantly, recklessly, and indiscriminately chose you and called you Beloved.