Tag Archives: Parable

Parables in Mark – January 17, 2016 (NL Week 19)

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +


After three weeks of reading Mark’s breathless account of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, today’s text brings the action to a halt. On the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus spends a full day speaking to the growing crowd that has begun to follow him, using what is undoubtedly his signature teaching tool: the parable. Parables sometimes defy description, but generally speaking they are short stories or sayings that draw on familiar images or common patterns of thinking and behavior and use them to convey deeper truths about life, the world, or the divine. The parables of Jesus are no exception: his stories make reference to everyday tasks like sowing seed and lighting lamps, but they speak about far more profound realities – the kingdom or reign of God, the spread of God’s word, and the nature of truth and revelation.

It’s important to note that Jesus isn’t the only person in history to teach in parables. He is, however, perhaps the most well-known, and his parables are among the most well-known in human history. As a result, those of us who have heard these parables many times are prone to thinking that we have them figured out. That thinking has become even more acute in recent times, as modern people have come to have what my wife would refer to as “an intense need to know.” What are these parables all about? What do the figures in these stories and sayings represent? How are we to understand what Jesus is trying to say to his disciples and to us through the use of parables?

One possible way of answering those questions is to read what Jesus himself says about them, since in addition to the parables themselves, Mark also records Jesus’ teaching about the purpose of these stories:

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven…’ Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. 25For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Mark 4:11-12, 24-25)

That’s not much better, is it? If you’re looking for clear and unambiguous information about these parables, Jesus isn’t offering it. Like the practice of secrecy regarding his ministry that we talked about two weeks ago, Jesus’ use of parables seems to consistently defy our expectations and run contrary to our ways of thinking and doing. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the first parable that appears here in chapter four: the so-called “parable of the sower.” In this parable, Jesus tells the story of a farmer going out to sow seed in his field. Most often when we read about the sower, we operate under the assumption that God is the farmer, that the seed is the word of God, and that the various types of soil represent different people who have differing responses to receiving that seed (or hearing that word). But here, as in very few other places, Jesus presents us with an explanation for his parable, and – at least to me – it doesn’t make figuring out what God is up to any easier. Suddenly, in Jesus’ explanation, people are seeds, our life-circumstances are different types of soil that change our ability to be responsive to the word of God – which, in this explanation at least, isn’t represented by anything concrete – and there’s no key to finding out who or what the farmer is at all.

Then, as if the internal inconsistency of this parable isn’t enough, Jesus tells another agricultural parable that completely flips the script. In this one, a man sows some seed in his field, lets that seed grow (seemingly without supervision), and then reaps the harvest. There’s nothing about different types of soil, different yields, or different seeds. There are no barriers to growth. The seed is planted and it yields a harvest. And so it goes. The kingdom of heaven is compared to a person going out to sow; or to what happens when a different man plants seed in his field; or to a particular kind of seed; or (if we were to look at other gospels) to a woman kneading yeast into dough, a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, or another woman looking for a lost coin, or a man with two sons.

There are no easy answers here. Perhaps that’s the point: that parables are designed to keep us from thinking that we have a corner on the truth. In a way, then, they accord exactly with our lives, which are inherently messy and don’t often lend themselves to the kind of simple cause-and-effect explanations that we seem to crave. They teach us that God’s work can be made known in the invisible and the hidden, as well as in the bright and beautiful signs that reveal the kingdom’s presence among us. They teach us that God’s word inevitably brings a harvest of righteousness and knowledge to the world, even as they teach that we have a role to play in either resisting or welcoming that word into our lives. They teach us that God sometimes uses ambiguity to reveal the truth, that people and things are complicated and compromised and yet capable of being used as instruments of God’s will and signs of God’s kingdom. But even more, the broader setting of Mark’s Gospel reveals that even those who have been given the secret of the kingdom can still find understanding elusive.*

I admit that it sounds like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth. But I think it’s important that in a world in which easy answers and simple solutions are demanded and offered left and right, we recognize that the world is complex, and that God by nature must be infinitely more complex. That doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about the world or about God. It just means that we have to recognize both our limitations and God’s unlimited possibility. It means that when parables in particular (and the Scriptures more broadly) become comfortable for us, there’s a good chance that we’re not reckoning sufficiently with mystery. In fact, I’m convinced that some of the most faithful and faith-filled responses to life’s most difficult questions begin with the phrase, “I don’t know…”

We can’t stop there, of course. Jesus tells us as much in the middle of this reading – not in the most transparent way, of course, but he says it nonetheless: Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given to you. (Mark 4:24) Jesus indeed calls us to seek deeply and pursue knowledge and understanding and truth, and promises that they will be given to us, but he also makes it clear that those things will come to us in God’s time and in accordance with God’s agenda, not our own.

Brothers and sisters, today’s reading may strike you as unsatisfying, but it also communicates an important lesson for us as people of faith (and, to be honest, simply as people). The statement “God works in mysterious ways” is more than a throw-away phrase to be used when something we don’t expect happens to us or someone we know. It is a profound truth about our world which brings both consternation and comfort to us as we try each day to follow Jesus and to serve God and our neighbors. To us has been given the secret of the kingdom: may God grant us the patience to dwell with ambiguity and uncertainty, the strength to persist in pursuing the truth, and the grace to recognize that truth when it comes to us. Amen.

* I am indebted in this analysis of parables to many commentators, but particularly to Amy-Jill Levine and her book Short Stories by Jesus.

Parable of the Bridesmaids (Fourth Sunday in Lent) – Sunday, March 15, 2015 (NL Week 28)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text – Psalm 45:6-7
Preaching Text – Matthew 25:1-13

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

If you’re anything like me, brothers and sisters, then today’s reading is the kind of parable that cuts straight to your heart. The final words from the bridegroom are harsh and unforgiving. The refusal of the wise bridesmaids to share their oil with the others strikes me as being totally out of character for people who are supposed to live their lives with the values of Heaven’s Reign – especially when we consider Jesus’ insistence that we are called to place the interests of others above our own. To be honest, I don’t like this parable, at least not the way that it has so often been interpreted by the church. In the “standard” reading of this parable of Jesus, the characters and objects in the parable are very easily identified: Jesus is the bridegroom, the bridesmaids are disciples of Jesus, the light from the lamps or torches represents the good works of the disciple, and the wedding feast is the heavenly banquet that will be enjoyed by those who inherit Heaven’s Reign. With this framework in mind, the parable’s supposed point is easy to see: The wise bridesmaids were prepared for the bridegroom’s arrival because of their good works, while the foolish bridesmaids found themselves on the outside looking in because they didn’t have those works, which meant that they weren’t ready for the feast or welcome to join in it.

Now, on the one hand, this interpretation makes some sense. After all, Matthew seems more concerned with the ethical demands of discipleship than any of the other gospels. And those chilling words at the end in response to the foolish bridesmaids cries do echo another passage earlier in the gospel: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter Heaven’s Reign, but only the one who does the will of my Father. … but I will declare to [many of] them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me…’” (Matthew 7:21,23, NRSV) But even if we agree that good works are important – which I think we all should – it still seems to me that there’s something wrong with that traditional interpretation. I’ll admit, it could be my Lutheran bias, and the centrality of our understanding that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but I just can’t go along with the idea that the reason the bridesmaids ended up on the wrong side of that door was that they weren’t good enough.

So what’s the issue? I’d like to suggest that the traditional interpretation has exactly the wrong focus. It reinforces the idea that the relationship we have with God is, in the end, dependent on the quality or quantity of our works, an idea that many other passages of Scripture seem to reject. What, then, are we to glean from this astonishing and challenging parable? Let’s take a look back at the parable again and see if we can find an alternative to this pervasive reading of the story.

Ten bridesmaids go out to meet the bridegroom. Their role in welcoming the bridegroom isn’t specified. Nothing is said about their being needed to light the way back to the banquet hall. All we know is that they are called to be present to meet the bridegroom when he returns to the village for the wedding feast. Five of these bridesmaids bring extra oil with them and five of them don’t, and when the bridegroom’s return is delayed, all ten of them get sleepy and doze off. When the call goes up at midnight, signaling the imminent arrival of the bridegroom, all ten wake up with a start. The five wise bridesmaids ready their torches to be lit, while the five foolish ones panic and ask for some oil to use for their torches. The five “wise” bridesmaids refuse to lend them any, and the foolish ones respond by leaving to buy some oil. It’s while they’re gone to get their torches ready that the bridegroom shows up, and when they return to the feast they find that the door has been closed to them and they hear those chilling words: “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.” Here’s my question: was the problem really with their lack of oil? Or was the problem that they had failed to do the one thing that they had been tasked with doing, that they were not present to welcome the bridegroom upon his return? If we read the parable this way, then the issue was not that they weren’t “good enough” to receive the bridegroom rightly, but that they didn’t trust the bridegroom enough to stick around and admit that they hadn’t been as well prepared as their fellow bridesmaids. Rather than focusing on what was really important – the joy of the wedding and the arrival of the bridegroom – they turned that focus squarely on themselves and their lack of preparation, and so missed out on the bridegroom’s entrance and the party that followed. If this is a fair reading, then the bridegroom’s rebuke becomes less an indictment of their character and more an indictment of their lack of trust and their misunderstanding of the bridegroom’s gracious character.

This interpretation leaves some questions, of course. What about those other bridesmaids? Why didn’t they share with the foolish bridesmaids after all? And what are we to make of the final command to “Keep awake” when in the parable all ten of the bridesmaids fail to stay awake until the bridegroom’s coming? Parables are meant to stir conversation, and this one is no exception. I’ll admit that there are problems with this interpretation – just as there are with any other. One point is clear – whichever way you read this story, it’s better to be one of the wise bridesmaids and end up inside the wedding feast than to be stuck on the outside looking in. Whether we’re talking about faith or about works, Jesus is teaching his disciples (and us) that the uncertainty of his arrival is a cause for greater vigilance, not for relaxation.

What does that mean for us this Lent? I’d like to suggest that the interpretation I’ve proposed has the benefit of correcting an all-too common problem with Lent: that our spiritual practices and disciplines become an end in themselves. During this season, we are called to renew our relationship with Christ, and part of that renewal is gaining a greater appreciation for the character of the one who has claimed us in baptism and called us to discipleship. If this season is in some way about storing up oil for our lamps, then we need to be careful that we’re doing it for the right reason. We are called to have that oil ready, not for our own sakes, but so that we might always be ready to receive Christ. Perhaps more importantly, perhaps we are called to live in such a way that when our oil runs low we will not be turned away because we trust in the grace and love of the one whose coming is the ground of our hope. This week, brothers and sisters, let us fix our eyes on the bridegroom whose name is Jesus, and let us trust in his grace and love, so that we might share in the joy of his coming today and in the age to come. Thanks be to God! Amen.


Laborers in the Vineyard (Second Sunday in Lent) – March 1, 2015 (NL Week 26)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text – Psalm 16:5-8
Preaching Text – Matthew 20:1-16

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Last week we observed the first Sunday in Lent by examining one of the parables of Jesus and pondering how our lives are shaped by the values of the Kingdom of Heaven. In reading that parable from Matthew 18, we learned that the Kingdom of Heaven is built on God’s radical forgiveness, and that as disciples of Jesus we are called to acknowledge the depth of forgiveness that God offers to us and to extend that same forgiveness to others. As our Lenten series continues today, we look at the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Before we find out what this parable has to teach us about Heaven’s Reign, we need to talk a little bit about first-century economics.

The scenario laid out at the start of this parable would not have been unusual in Jesus’ day. Day laborers would gather before dawn in the local marketplace in the hopes of being hired to work in the surrounding fields. For their part, most wealthy landowners preferred the flexibility (and relatively low cost) of temporary labor, and so they were eager to snatch up those workers early in the morning and get their money’s worth. It’s a little strange for the landowner himself to go out and hire the workers personally, but other than that this story would have been all-too familiar to the people who heard first heard Jesus tell it. Then, things start getting weird; the landowner, presumably having hired everyone he needed at dawn, goes back to the marketplace four more times – around 9:00am, 12:00 noon, 3:00pm, and 5:00pm – each time hiring another contingent of workers for his vineyard. Around 6:00pm, the landowner tells his manager to call the workers together and give them their wages. The first set of workers had agreed to work for the day for one denarius, by no means an extravagant sum; in fact, the denarius was just enough to ensure that a worker and his family could get by. You can imagine the outrage, then, when the landowner starts handing out the same wages to the laborers hired at 5:00 in the afternoon as he gave to the ones hired at 6:00 in the morning! Who wouldn’t be frustrated at the thought of working all day long in the sun and heat and then getting the same amount as someone who showed up an hour before closing time? What’s going on here?

What’s going on is that Jesus is describing God’s economy and not the world’s. As human beings, we have this intrinsic sense that people should be rewarded in accordance with what they’ve done. Logic dictates that people who work harder should be paid more, and this logic of fairness largely governs the way that we look at the world, to the point that we read it into this parable. Why were those workers standing around at five o’clock, anyway? Was it because they were lazy or because they showed up late, as is often assumed? The parable reveals the answer: they hadn’t been hired. It’s likely, in fact, that they’d been passed over by the landowner in our story all those times for some reason or another. No matter the reason, though, it’s not fair to pay all these guys the same amount, is it? Well, no. But that was never the agreement. The first workers agreed that they’d work for that denarius. Then the workers hired at nine went into the vineyard when the landowner offered to pay them what is “just” or “right”. Though it’s not explicitly stated, it’s not difficult to imagine that the invitation was the same to the workers hired at noon, three, and five. What was just in this scenario, then? In the eyes of this landowner, justice was not paying these workers in proportion to the amount that they worked, but paying them enough to make it through the day!

In responding to the outrage of the first workers, the landowner expresses the difference between our understanding of fairness and the goodness of the kingdom of heaven: ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. (Matthew 20:13-14, NRSV) For Jesus, to give the same amount to the last workers as to the first is to do what is just and good, and to reflect the values of God’s righteous reign.

Last week we learned that a community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community.* This week, Jesus’ parable teaches us that God’s generosity goes beyond business as usual, and God’s generosity is our business.. How might this work itself out in practice during this Lenten season? Perhaps you find yourself struggling with uncharitable thoughts toward others; you might consider taking time this week to cultivate generosity of spirit by intentionally thinking and speaking well of people you dismiss or demean for one reason or another. Maybe you have a tendency to regard some group of people as undeserving of generosity; you might consider how this parable invites you to empathize with those in need and, maybe, to extend generosity where you might not have otherwise. Maybe your circumstances have left you feeling that you are undeserving of generosity yourself; you might consider reflecting on the boundary-breaking love of God and allowing yourself to receive the generous mercy and grace that God offers to you in Christ Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and with it God’s forgiveness and generosity have come. As we enter the second week of Lent, let us pray that God would grant us the strength to leave behind the ways of this world and to embody that forgiveness and generosity, both as individuals and as a community formed by the values of the Kingdom. Thanks be to God. Amen.

*R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI: 2007), 702.

Forgiveness (First Sunday in Lent) – Sunday, February 22, 2015 (NL Week 25)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Psalm 32:1-2
Preaching Text: Matthew 18:15-35

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Since the end of December, we have been reading our way through the account of Jesus’ life told by Matthew. During that time, we’ve encountered sections of narrative, where Matthew recounts the actions and words of Jesus, as well as explicit sections of teaching, where Jesus instructs his disciples or wider audiences about Heaven’s Reign and the way that we are called to live as inhabitants of that Reign. What we have not read in any detail are the parables, stories told by Jesus himself that illustrate deep truths about life in Heaven’s Reign. During Lent, we will be reading a series of those parables and pondering what they have to teach us about being disciples of Jesus.

The first of these parables is a story about radical forgiveness and it comes on the heels of a practical discourse about sin and forgiveness within the community of Christ and between individuals. For Jesus, the naming of sin and the work of correction and reconciliation are part of the love of God and neighbor that are vital to maintaining authentic relationships. That’s why he offers the disciples a procedure for confronting members of the community with their sin and encouraging them to repent of that sin. Those who take that confrontation seriously and repent are to be reconciled to the community, while those who persistently refuse to amend their ways are considered to have removed themselves from the community. Even thinking about this kind of conversation makes us uncomfortable because we fear the charge that we are being judgmental and unloving, and yet Jesus is utterly serious about the task of offering correction and forgiveness for the sake of the other (and the wider community). Far from calling us to legalism or harsh judgment, Jesus teaches us that we must take on this ministry from a position of humility and a recognition of our own need for mercy and grace.

That’s where the parable comes in, and where Jesus’ intended teaching about Heaven’s Reign is so important. Peter asks Jesus about the necessity of forgiving others for personal offenses – Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? (Matthew 18:21) Though there was no consensus, some rabbis taught that the faithful were obligated to forgive such offenses three times, but no more. Peter goes beyond that teaching, but sets his own limit; surely, people can’t be expected to be endlessly forgiving! Jesus responds: Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times (or, for those of you who are more familiar with the old RSV and the King James version, seventy-times-seven). Whichever translation you adopt, the point is the same; Jesus expects that his followers will always be ready to extend forgiveness to those who ask for it. To illustrate the point, he tells a parable about two indebted slaves. The first owes an unbelievable debt to his master: ten thousand talents. The word “talent” in this instance is a unit of measure, with one talent equaling around 66 pounds of silver. Using another unit of money as a point of comparison, one talent was the equivalent of 6,000 denarii, or six thousand days’ income for a day laborer – just short of 20 years of work. This slave, then, owes his master 10,000 talents, or 60,000,000 denarii, the equivalent of around 191,000 years of work for the average day laborer. The king calls in his slave to settle his account, and the slave throws himself down and begs for time to pay off the debt. Moved with compassion for his slave, the king cancels the entire debt, saving the man’s family from being separated and liberating him from a burden that would have taken thousands of lifetimes to throw off by his own efforts. On the way home from receiving this incomprehensible gift, the slave grabs one of his fellow slaves and demands repayment of another debt, this one the equivalent of just over three months’ wages. When the other slave begs for time to pay off the debt, the first slave refuses to grant it and throws the offending slave into prison until he is able to pay the debt back in full. Other slaves, who had witnessed both the unfathomable mercy of the king and the unbridled cruelty of the slave who had received that mercy, reported what they had seen to the king. In response, the king drags the first slave back before him, rebukes him for his lack of compassion for his fellow slave, and then hands the offender over to be tortured until his massive debt to the king was repaid. The conclusion couldn’t be clearer: So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart. (Matthew 18:35)

The end of that parable is arresting, and that’s by design. As one commentator has written about this passage, “…it is because of God’s generosity to his undeserving people that they in their turn cannot claim the right to withhold forgiveness from their fellow disciples. A community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community.”* We who have received the unmerited grace of God in Jesus Christ have been forgiven a debt that we could never repay on our own, and as a result we are called to be a community marked by mercy for one another. This teaching is hard, in part because it has been twisted over the years to give us the impression that we have to let everything go, that we should allow others to abuse us or take advantage of such mercy so that they can continue harming us or our community. The parable makes clear, however, that this mercy is to be extended particularly to those who recognize their fault and ask for forgiveness. Those who are unrepentant are to be treated “as Gentiles or tax collectors”, but those who seek to amend their lives and be restored to relationship cannot be turned away because of personal animosity or a desire to claim our rights without regard for the other. A community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community.

We learned last Wednesday, brothers and sisters, that we are dust, but that in Christ we have been claimed as beloved children and offered grace beyond our wildest imagining. As we continue through this first week of Lent, I invite you to consider these teachings on sin and forgiveness. Is there some sin in your life that needs to be named and confessed? Do you need to hear a word of grace so that you can move forward? If so, I would like to extend an invitation to you. Martin Luther believed strongly in the importance of individual confession and absolution, and it is by no means un-Lutheran to engage in that practice. I offer this invitation not because you need your pastor to forgive your sins – indeed, I couldn’t do that even if you wanted me to – but because pastors have been called through the church to proclaim God’s forgiveness, and because the act of confessing and receiving absolution individually is a powerful thing. If you would like to ask about individual confession or set up an appointment, I am available by phone on the pastor’s line or my cell for a confidential conversation.

What about your relationships with other people? Has some long-felt pain kept you from extending forgiveness to a brother or sister in Christ who has repented of an offense against you? Is it time to let go of that pain and extend mercy for the sake of your relationship? These are not easy questions, but they are questions that we cannot avoid as God’s people in Christ Jesus. Let us pray that God would give us the courage to examine ourselves and our relationships during this Lenten season, so that we might turn our lives to God, receive God’s word of pardon and peace, and be messengers of that peace to others in Christ’s name. A community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community. May it be so among us. Amen.

*R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI: 2007), 702.

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost (Lectionary 15) – Sunday, July 15, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Isaiah 55:10-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Last Wednesday morning at the regular men’s coffee group that meets over in the Upper Room, the guys and I were talking about farming and weather and the unpredictability of the whole enterprise of being involved in agriculture. I probably don’t need to remind you that these kind of conversations are still relatively new to me; growing up in a city of over one million people miles from the nearest agricultural land doesn’t lend itself to a high level of awareness of the issues affecting communities like Falls City. You might be able to imagine my surprise, then, when they started talking about people who farm land that is located on a flood plain. It was just three years ago, in my first summer here in Southeast Nebraska, that our area dealt with extensive flooding that devastated communities and cut us off from our neighbors to the east for months. As the conversation went on this week, I found it difficult to understand the logic of planting crops in an area that has such a high probability of flooding. Why waste seed like that, knowing that there’s a good chance that you might suffer a devastating loss if the wrong conditions present themselves.

Leaving aside things like crop insurance (and the fact that farming pretty much anywhere is an exercise in managing risk), I was struck by how similar questions popped up when I considered this morning’s gospel reading. Let’s take a look at the picture Jesus paints of the sower in the parable he tells those crowds gathered on the lakeshore. This guy walks out into his fields with a sack of seed slung over his shoulder, reaches into the sack, and flings the seed far and wide as he walks along. He apparently doesn’t care where the seed actually ends up, so it lands on all these different types of soil: hard-packed earth beaten down by countless footsteps; ground dotted with rocks and stones; soil overgrown with thick thorns and weeds; and good rich soil capable of bringing forth an abundant harvest. He might as well be throwing the seed into the flood plain with dark clouds gathered on the horizon; much of it, after all, seems destined to turn into a whole lot of nothing. Why? What’s the point in being so careless with the seed, which isn’t free, and won’t do anything if it lands on unfertile ground?

Well, as the guys explained to me last week, the point is precisely this: Sure, there will be some years that don’t amount to anything. Sometimes those storm clouds will drop a bunch of rain and the river will climb over its banks and the crops will be flooded out. But sometimes they won’t, and in those years the effort expended in sowing that seed will be more than worth it. The same thing goes for the parable Jesus tells. Sure, that message about the kingdom will sometimes fall on deaf ears. Sometimes, it will come to people when they can’t understand it, when circumstances conspire to distract them from hearing words of grace and life, when the cares of this world prevent that word from taking root and flourishing. Sometimes that word comes to people who have been yearning to hear it, who are ready to receive it, and it bears a thirty or sixty or hundred-fold harvest of renewal and strength and encouragement and abundant life. No matter what, though, the sower keeps going out to the fields, day after day, and casting the seed abroad without regard, knowing that, in the words of Isaiah, it will not return empty.

That is a word of grace for all of us, because despite the temptation to read ourselves into this parable as the good soil that bears an abundant harvest, we know the truth about ourselves. More often than we’d like to admit, that word encounters us and goes right over our heads. Sometimes, try as we might, we are unprepared to hear the message of the kingdom, and so we miss the word that God is trying to sow in our hearts. At other times, we hear a message from the Lord and get fired up to make changes in our lives, and then we realize how difficult making that change is and lose our enthusiasm. At still other times, we hear something that sounds really good but we’re too weighed down by everything else that’s going on to truly receive that word, and it gets choked off by all the different forces that vie for our time and attention. Then, miracle of miracles, we hear that word that takes root deep within and begins to blossom and grow until we can barely contain it, and we experience the overwhelming power of this message that finds us where we are and opens up new possibilities for the future and new dimensions in our relationship with that extravagant sower.

I don’t know what kind of soil you are today. Whether you’re feeling beaten down, rocky, thorny, or pretty good, hear this word from our teacher and Lord: Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself, the message of God’s reign is for you. The time has been fulfilled, and the reign of God is at hand. Grace and love and abundant life are yours this day, not because of anything that you have done, but because God in Christ offers it to you and to all people without reserve. Even more, that offer is always on the table, always available even to those who don’t know that they need it.

Wait, what? Even to people who don’t know that they need it? How does that make any sense. Look no further than the font in front of you. Kase and Cabe will approach that font in just a few minutes with their parents and sponsors. They, like all who come for the Holy Baptism, have different levels of understanding about what they are receiving and why. They, like many who have come before them, will rely on others to help them comprehend the promises that are shared and the commitments that will be made this day. Yet, despite the fact that they may not be able to explain their need for grace, God offers it to them in this holy sacrament, in these waters that bear the Word of new life and forgiveness. So it is with each of us. Whether we are prepared to receive it or indifferent to it, the message is still spoken, and it still has the power to transform our lives for the better.

So, brothers and sisters, as we prepare to witness the Word planted in the hearts of these beloved children of God, let us bless God for the message that is so recklessly sown for the sake of the whole world, and let us pray these words from the beautiful hymn by Handt Hanson:

Lord, let my heart be good soil,
open to the seed of your word.
Lord, let my heart be good soil,
where love can grow and peace is understood.
When my heart is hard, break the stone away.
When my heart is cold, warm it with the day.
When my heart is lost, lead me on your way.
Lord, let my heart be good soil.

May it be so among us today and always, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.