Month: July 2011

Sermon: How To Feed A Big Crowd on A Small Budget

What does the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 tell us about the kingdom of God?  Just about everything, that’s what.  Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow.  I hope your Sunday is a glorious one!

How To Feed A Big Crowd On A Small Budget

Matthew 14:13-21 NIV’84

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

From Parables To Real Life

During the past several weeks we have been looking at some of the parables that Jesus used to talk about the kingdom of heaven.  We have thought about the parable of the sower and the soils; the parable of the wheat and the weeds; the parables of the treasure hidden in a field, and the pearl of great price, and the parable of leaven permeating the whole lump of dough.

As he began each of these parables, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” and then he added the sower, the field, the treasure, the pearl, and the leaven as examples of what the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God is like.

But today, Jesus moves from parables that describe the kingdom in its various facets, to a demonstration of the kingdom in the miracles that he performs – specifically the miracle of feeding the 5,000.

“How do you know this is a story about the kingdom of heaven?” you might ask.  And I would answer, “Because that is what Jesus came proclaiming.”  Remember the first pronouncement that Jesus makes in Mark’s Gospel?

15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”  — Mark 1:15 NIV’84

The very first words of Jesus, from the oldest and first Gospel record, depict Jesus as announcing the kingdom of God, which Matthew calls the kingdom of heaven, but means the same thing.

As a quick bit of information, Matthew’s Gospel is written primarily for a first century Jewish audience.  Jews took their use of the name of God very seriously; so seriously, in fact, that they did not use the name of God, but substituted another appellation for God’s name.  What Mark calls the kingdom of God, Matthew changes to kingdom of heaven so as not to offend his Jewish readers, and those who listened to his account.  But the terms are interchangeable.

As we move from Matthew 13, where we read 5 parables, to Matthew 14, we encounter Jesus applying the power and presence of the kingdom in real life.  Let’s take a look.

The Kingdom of God Is Not In The Temple

The first thing we must realize is that to first century mainstream Judaism, the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, existed in their midst in the Temple.  We talked about this a little last week.  But, that’s important because the Temple becomes one of the main points of contention between Jesus, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the chief priest, the scribes, and the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling religious council.

Herod the Great, not a Jew himself but a Idumean, had sought to win the favor of the population of Judea, and surrounding areas including Galilee, by rebuilding Solomon’s Temple.

You might remember that the Temple was destroyed in 586 BC by the invading Babylonians, and the Jews living in Jerusalem and surrounding areas were taken off to Babylon in what we call the Babylonian captivity.

As the nation begins returning home about 50 or so years later, attempts were made to rebuild the Temple, and restore the Temple to its former place as the worship center for all of Judaism.

When Herod the Great comes to power as the puppet king of the Roman Empire in 37 BC, he embarks on a 20+-year rebuilding project to give the Jews back their Temple.  The Temple is finished shortly before Herod’s death in 4 BC.

The Temple was apparently magnificent.  Gleaming white marble, gold adornments, including a solid gold grape vine over the entrance, dazzled residents of Jerusalem and visitors to the city alike.  The Temple was the focal point of the city of Jerusalem, situated on the highest hill, and visible from miles around.

But, it is what happened in the Temple that made the Jews believe that the kingdom of God was in the Temple itself.

We can only imagine the kind of devotion accorded the Temple, because we have no equivalent structure in our society.  While we value the United States Capitol, the White House, Jefferson’s Monticello, and other historic and symbolic structures, we do not believe that God lives in any of them.

But the Jews believed that God had God’s own residence literally, not just spiritually, in the Temple.  Specifically, in the Holy of Holies.

And, so when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, he entered the presence of God.  The Holy of Holies was where man met God, just as Moses had met God on Mount Sinai, and Elijah had met God in the still small voice, and Isaiah had met God in the Temple, so the High Priest met God once a year in the most holy spot in all of the world for Jews – the Holy of Holies in the Temple.

And, when God accepted the blood of the sacrifice sprinkled on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies, the High Priest became the embodied presence of God, just as Moses had reflected the glory of God when he came down off the mountain.

But Jesus challenged all of that.  Jesus challenged the corruption of the Temple operation by driving the money changers out of the Temple.  Jesus challenged the permanency of the Temple by declaring that not one stone would be left on another.

But mostly, Jesus challenged the idea that the kingdom of God was contained in the Temple when he said, “The kingdom of God is near.”  Or, “The kingdom of God is within you.”   Jesus was freeing the kingdom of God from the control of the Temple crowd, and making it available to the people of God again.

For the whole point of the Temple, and the Tabernacle that had preceded it in the desert, was that God was camping – literally, “tabernacling” – in the midst of God’s people.  Granted there was a separation, but the presence of God was intended to be thought of as in the midst of his people.

That’s why when John sees the vision of the new heaven and the new earth, he writes –

3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” – Revelation 21:3-4 NIV’84

“The dwelling of God is with men…God himself with be with them and be their God.”

That was the point Jesus was making, and that is the point of the kingdom of God.  That God is present in the world He created, and not confined to a building made by man, magnificent though it may have been.

The Kingdom of God Means Shalom

But, Jesus wasn’t just arguing where the kingdom of God wasn’t.  His point was that the kingdom of God was with the people of God, not the religious leaders who had hijacked the Temple and kingdom talk for their own profit and position.

But, how do you tell people that the kingdom of God is with them?  By using very simple stories to tell them what the kingdom of God is like.  So, Jesus chooses common images – a sower, seed, farm fields, weeds, treasure, a pearl, and leaven.  All of these things point to the real life presence of the kingdom.

While the Pharisees, Sadducees, and chief priest pointed to the Temple with its gleaming marble and solid gold adornment, Jesus pointed to the dirt, the field, the common farmer, the plants, yeast, and things of great value like a hidden treasure or a flawless pearl.  These things common people understood.

But, was the kingdom just an idea?  Was it a future promise, or a present reality?  And, what was the foundation or basis for the kingdom?

Okay, let’s take the last question first.  The basis or foundation upon which the kingdom of God rested was the shalom of God.  We’ve talked about that before.  The idea of shalom, or peace, meant that everyone had enough, that things were as they should be, that the nation and its people were healthy, strong, and vital. And, when the Old Testament particularly talks about the “salvation of the Lord,” or God’s saving His people, it meant not taking them to heaven when they died, but restoring the balance of things, restoring the shalom of God, so that everything was as it should be.

Sickness and Death Have No Place in the Kingdom

Okay, if things are as they should be, why is there sickness and why do people die of illness, disease, and accident?  That’s a good question, and so Jesus demonstrates that in the presence and power of the kingdom of heaven, there is no sickness.

How does he do that?  Let’s look back at our scripture for today –

“14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.”

So, the first thing Jesus does is to heal “their sick.”  And not just a few.  He heals lots of folks that day.  Why?  Because he wants to impress people, gather a crowd, and be famous?  No, because Jesus wants to demonstrate where the real kingdom of God is, and what it looks like when it is fully come.

John reveals that same idea, again in Revelation 21, when he says –

“4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  — Revelation 21:4 NIV’84

Note that John specifically hears the words, “…for the old order of things has passed away.”  In other words, the kingdom has come!

We don’t have an example of death being vanquished in this passage, but Jesus raises Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, and the only son of the widow of Nain.  And, at the crucifixion of Jesus, the tombs of the saints give up the dead and they walk about the city of Jerusalem because kingdom power is demonstrated even before the bodily resurrection of Jesus himself.

But, back to this passage.  Jesus heals people in this account and others because he is demonstrating the presence of the kingdom of God in all its “make-things-right” power.

The Kingdom of God Gathers Everyone At The Table

But, that’s not even the main point today.  The main point of this story is that kingdom power and presence is never more fully recognized than when people gather at the table to share a meal together.

The story says that at the end of a very long day, and out in the middle of nowhere, the disciples realize that it’s late and everyone is starting to get hungry.  Their solution is to disperse the crowd, break them up, send them away, fracture the bond that holds them all together as followers of Jesus at that moment.

But Jesus says to the disciples, “They do not need to go away.  You given them some food.”  In other words, their sustenance and salvation is not to be found somewhere else, its right here.

Unfortunately, that point is lost on the disciples.  So, Jesus has the crowd sit in an orderly fashion, and get ready to eat.

The disciples, in their mad scramble to find some food, any food, come up with 5 loaves of bread and two fish.  All small, and all a part of a little boy’s lunch.

A quick aside here:  There was a popular explanation floated about when I was a teenager that when the crowd saw that a little boy was willing to give up his entire lunch, they all felt guilty, and sheepishly pulled out their lunches, too.

Now that explanation is well-intentioned, and has a good motive.  The behavior of one little boy inspires others to do the same.  So, in a sense that explanation exhibits some good kingdom qualities – selflessness, giving, and concern for others.

But, as good as that explanation is, there is no way in the world that Matthew means for us to get that impression.  That explanation is a 20th century attempt to explain scientifically a theological story.  It’s like trying to explain love by saying it’s when your blood pressure rises.  While that may be true, it hardly does justice to the story.

No, Matthew as not presenting the first century readers, or the 21st century readers with a story that had a mundane explanation.

Matthew was telling a story about the kingdom of God, just like he did when he repeated the parables that Jesus told about the kingdom of God.

In this story of the feeding of the 5,000, the first lesson we learn is that there is always enough in the kingdom of God.  Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it abundantly.”  Abundant life doesn’t just apply to spiritual resources.  It also applies to God’s intention for His kingdom.  There is enough for everyone, including the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field.  No one gets left out, no one does without, no one has too much, and none is wasted.

We’ve seen that story before in the story of the manna that fell each day except the Sabbath for the nation of Israel while they were on their way to the land of promise.

The manna fell everyday.  Everyone gathered what they needed.  And, when they prepared it, it was enough, but not too much.  And, they couldn’t hoard it or keep it.

And, so Jesus taught us to pray, “Give is this day our daily bread.”  In the kingdom of God, God is the provider.

The first century church in Jerusalem got that, and they pooled all their financial and material resources, and everyone had enough.

But, the second thing we see here is that this miracle of abundance happens at the table.  Jesus literally invites 5,000 people over for dinner, and asks the disciples, “What’s on the menu tonight?”

In our 21st century world, we have lost the idea of table fellowship.   But it is still an art form in the eastern world of which Jesus was a member.  To invite someone to eat with you was an honor for the guest, and an obligation for the host.

So, when Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus house, he was giving Zacchaeus the opportunity to be host to the Son of God.  He was forgiving Zacchaeus, a disreputable tax collector, and publicly embracing him on a social level.

When we traveled in China, our hosts always went out of their way to take us to wonderful restaurants, with more food served than we could ever consume.  Dinners would last 2-3 hours, as we talked, laughed, and lingered over one delicious dish after another.

As their guest, I was always seated at the head of the table, at the right hand of the host for the evening.  And, in the course of the evening, the host would always do something to recognize the guest.  On one occasion, after we had already feasted on a number of exotic and delicious Chinese dishes, the next dish served featured small filet mignon steaks, a rarity in Chinese restaurants, and an obvious attempt to offer their American guest a familiar dish.

When Jesus invites 5,000 men, not including women and children to dinner, he is making several statements.  First, all are included.  No one is excluded because of his status, his wealth, his education, his social standing, his religious practice, or his piety.  All 5,000 there are invited to sit, to organize themselves, to prepare to eat.

Secondly, everyone is served and all have enough.  In the kingdom of God there is plenty.  Everyone is satisfied, Matthew says.  Full, we would call it.  Stuffed, we might add.  Can’t hold another bite.

Finally, so that none is wasted, they collect what was not eaten.  Now, these weren’t the table scraps.  My grandmother used to collect the table scraps to feed the barn cats at their farm in Piedmont, South Carolina.

But, no, these weren’t the table scraps – portions of uneaten bread, scraps of fish, bits of bone.  These baskets held the genuinely unspoiled left-overs – food that could be eaten the next day.

And most importantly, they gather twelve baskets full – one for each of the twelve disciples to take home, and eat from the next day.  Of course, I made that last part up, but what did they do with them if they didn’t take them home and eat them the next day?  What was the point of collecting perfectly good food, if not to save it for another meal?

All of this is pointing to the wedding feast of the Lamb, to the great supper where guests are invited from the highways and hedges, where there is enough and more for all who will answer the King’s invitation.

What We Learn From This Story

What do we learn from this very familiar story?  We learn it has a point.  We learn it’s a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven.  We learn that Jesus is teaching us that if we’re going to be part of the kingdom, then we need to learn how to set the table for others.  Its not just about us, all of this food and hospitality.  It’s about God, and God’s love for all people, everywhere, regardless of who they are, or where they come from, or what their diseases or stigmas are.

Jesus reminds us that this kingdom of God changes things.  That it makes things right, that it puts things as they should be.  That it demands faith, selflessness, sharing, care, concern, empathy, compassion, love, mission, and action.  That it means living differently, thinking faithfully, acting consciously, demonstrating love.

The question we have to ask ourselves today is – Are we like the disciples who said “send them away”  or are we like Jesus who said, “Have them find a seat at the table.”

Because only one answer reflects the kingdom of God.  The other reflects the old order of things, the way everyone else does it, the “let’s look out for ourselves” approach.

The downside is that the crowd is a lot of trouble.  Some of them are grumpy from hunger.  Some are picky eaters.  Some want their share and more.  Others forget to be grateful, and still others complain about the length of time it takes to be served.

But they’re all invited to the table, all 5,000 of them, along with the missus and the kids.  “Come on over and join us for dinner.”  That’s the kingdom way.  But is it ours?


When Should A Church Close?

The Tennessean, the daily newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee, featured an article today on small churches and when they should close.  In the article, Short on Cash, People, Small Churches Consider Closing, reporter Bob Smietana profiles three Nashville area churches that had to face their own mortality.  Bob was kind enough to quote me in the article, and I appreciate the approach he took in writing the piece.

The article also quoted Dr. Israel Galindo, author of The Hidden Lives of Congregations, which I think is the best book any pastor can read, especially pastors of small, established churches.  Galindo helps pastors and church leaders identify what “style” their church reflects, and where their church might be in the life cycle of churches profile.  I’ve written about this book before, but it’s worth mentioning again.

The article also points out that churches have taken as much as a 40% hit financially in the economic downturn that started in 2008.  When he interviewed me for the article, Bob asked me what factors indicate that a small church might need to close.  The three factors I identified were people, money, and mission.  The loss of any one of those is like kicking one leg of a three-legged stool out from under it — without a significant balancing act, a two-legged stool isn’t going to stand very long.

So, when is it time for a church, usually a small church, to close?   When the combination of people, money, and mission no longer works.  Churches don’t exist just to exist; churches exist for the purpose of mission. When the mission is no longer viable because there are not enough people or financial resources to support it, then a small church ought to seriously consider how it might re-invent itself, or even plan its own funeral.

What do you think?  Are there other factors that suggest when a church might close its doors?  Or are people, money, and mission the big three?

Sermon: The Parable of the Sower and The Soils

Jesus began to teach in parables because so many who heard him didn’t get it.  The Parable of the Sower and Soils tells why many don’t get it, but some do.  The important difference between those who do and those who don’t isn’t the soil, or the seed.  The difference is in the harvest.  Read this parable again.  You may see something new, just like Jesus’ followers did.  

The Parable of the Sower and the Soils

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 NIV

1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”

18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. 22 The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. 23 But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

A Major Turning Point For Jesus’ Ministry

I have mentioned before that for the next several weeks we’ll be looking at the Gospel of Matthew, and the teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God.  Matthew likes to refer to the Kingdom of God as the Kingdom of Heaven, but those terms are interchangeable.  But whichever term we use, we are encountering a dramatic turning point in the ministry of Jesus in Matthew 13.

Because the lectionary is not taking the Matthew passages in the order in which they are found in the Gospel, you might be a little disoriented. But, let me set the context for you.  In Matthew the chapters cover these topics:

  • Chapters 1-2 cover the birth of Jesus stories.
  • Chapter 3, John the Baptist and Jesus baptism
  • Chapter 4, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and calling the first disciples
  • Chapters 5-7, The Sermon on the Mount
  • Chapter 8 and 9, healings (plus calling Matthew)
  • Chapter 10, sending out the 12
  • Chapter 11, praising John the Baptist, prayer to the Father
  • Chapter 12, Sabbath and various teachings
  • Chapter 13, beginning of parables with 5 different parables

So, Matthew has a very logical progression.  From Jesus’ birth, through his baptism and temptation, to the beginning of his ministry, the calling of the disciples, the landmark teaching of what life in the Kingdom of God is like in the Sermon on the Mount, and then the demonstration of Kingdom power in healing and casting out demons, Matthew presents Jesus’ ministry as different than anything the Jews had seen.

Until we get to Chapter 13, Jesus has also been very careful not to proclaim his messianic mission, or to allow others to do so.  When he heals, he sends people back home and urges them not to tell about him.  But in Chapter 13, Jesus’ ministry reaches a turning point.  He starts to speak to the crowds in parables.

The Parable of the Sower, which many also call the Parable of the Soils, is the first and most dramatic example of Jesus’ use of parables.  So, let’s take a look at what he says.

The Setting of The Parable

Jesus is not having a good day on the day he tells this parable.  This is possibly the Sabbath, or the day after the Sabbath.  In Chapter 12, Jesus and his disciples have had not one, but four run-ins with the religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees.

First, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grainfield on the Sabbath, and the disciples get hungry.  So, they grab the heads of grain, pull the grain into their hands, and begin to eat.  Kind of like New Testament granola, or cereal on the run.  The Pharisees see this and accuse the disciples of breaking the Sabbath.  (Ever wonder how they saw what the disciples were doing in the grainfield?  Probably because they were spying on them, but that’s another story for another time.)  Jesus has a reply and says that “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”  That was not exactly what the Pharisees wanted to hear.

Next, Jesus goes to a synagogue on the same day.  There a man with a withered hand, no doubt from a stroke or some type of palsy, was there.  The Pharisees try the Sabbath-breaking bait again, asking Jesus if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath.  Of course, their implied answer is “no,” but Jesus gives his own answer by healing the man’s hand.

Then, Jesus left the synagogue, followed by a large crowd.  Someone in the crowd pushes forward a man who is blind and mute because he is possessed by a demon.  So, Jesus heals him, too.  As a matter of fact, Jesus heals everybody who is sick (12:15), but he warns those in the crowd not to make him known – not to give him away, in other words.

The Pharisees, who are spiritually blind, accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of the chief demon, Beelzebub.  Jesus answers by saying, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come to you.”  (12:28b)

Finally, after some more words, the Pharisees regroup and ask Jesus for a sign.  As it healing a man’s hand, and casting out a demon so that a blind mute man can both see and speak isn’t enough.  Jesus rebukes them.

But, if that isn’t enough, Jesus’ mother and brothers show up.  Some thing presumably to take him home, to take him away from all the trouble that he is stirring up.  And he says, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (12:50)

A Change In Strategy

Chapter 13 opens with these words:  “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the sea.”

Undoubtedly, he needed a break.  Jesus had been defending himself and his disciples, and his ministry, all day long if this was just one day.  Perhaps Matthew is less concerned about the precise time that has elapsed than with communicating that Jesus is being questioned, opposed, and plotted against by the religious leaders.  In any event, something changes in Jesus.

A large crowd gathers around him while he is seated on the seashore, so he gets into a boat, and with enough water to keep the crowd at bay, but still close enough to shore for them to hear him, Jesus begins to teach again.

But his time, he begins to tell a story.  Perhaps a farmer is sowing seed in his field and Jesus points to the hillside behind the crowd to make his point – “A sower went out to sow…”

Whatever his motivation for using that story in that setting, this marks the beginning of a new chapter in Jesus’ ministry.  For the reason Jesus shifts his teaching approach, we have to read the text we skipped, Matthew 13:10-17 NIV:

10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

11 He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’[a]

16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

So, here we have Jesus’ conscious decision to stop speaking so that the Pharisees can pick a fight with him.  He’s going to speak in parables that some have called “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning.”

It isn’t that God does not want the Pharisees and other doubters of Jesus to hear and understand.  It’s that the result of their hard hearts, closed ears, and blind eyes (remember the man Jesus healed?), is that they don’t get it because they don’t want to get it.

Back To The Parable

Okay, with that in mind, we’re back to the Parable of the Sower and the Soils.  We could also throw in the Seed as well – The Parable of the Sower, the Seed, and the Soils.  Because there are three elements here.  Let’s look at them more closely.

The story is right out of the Farmers’ Almanac.  Okay, maybe not literally, but it certainly would be understood by the rural folks who had come out to hear Jesus.  Farmers, herdsmen, and even small town craftsmen would understand this story.

A sower goes out to sow seed.  He’s planting seed in anticipation of a harvest.  Possibly, the sower is sowing grain, like the field the disciples just came through earlier that day.

Whatever the crop, the sower is broadcasting seed everywhere.  Some falls on the path, some on stony ground, some among thorny weeds.  But some falls on good soil, which provides an ideal growing environment.

The seed that falls on the path just lies there and the birds eat it.  The seed that falls on stony ground doesn’t have enough soil for deep roots, and so when the hot sun comes out, it shrivels and dies.  The seed that falls among the thorny weeds sprouts, but the young tender plants get choked out by the voracious weeds who suck up all the water, thrive in drought conditions, and grow like crazy.

Only the seed that lands on good soil sprouts and thrives, ultimately producing a harvest.  But even that harvest varies from seed to seed.

Okay, this is a pretty typical agricultural story.  Jesus leaves out other threats to plants, like wind, flood, fire, predators, and so on.  His point is simple – there are three main elements in the sower, the seed, and the soil.

Here’s The Meaning

Then, after explaining why he’s speaking in parables, Jesus explains the parable to the disciples.  Now, we think they were a little slow, because we know the answers.  But if we had been in their shoes, or sandals, we would have been as clueless.  What does this story have to do with anything that Jesus has been saying or doing up to this point?

The story isn’t about treating others as you want to be treated.  It’s not about relationships at all, which is primarily what Jesus has been talking about and demonstrating up to this point.

The story isn’t about anything the disciples understand.  What’s the point?

Jesus tells them.  The seed is the word of the Kingdom.  The NIV translates it as the message of the Kingdom, but the Greek word is “logos” or “word.”  The various kinds of soil are the various kinds of people who hear the word of the Kingdom, or the word of God.  The harvest is limited only to one kind of person, the person who hears, understands, and bears fruit.  The fruit, or the yield per person, does not have to be the same.  Some will yield a symbolic 30x, others 60x, and others 100x.  The yield is not so important, but the fact that that person, or soil, produces something is.

Quickly, let’s look at the three elements.  First, the sower is Jesus.  We don’t get that from this parable, but Jesus gives us this answer in the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13:36-43, when he says, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man…”  We have no reason not to believe that this is true for this first parable also.

Jesus was sowing the word of the Kingdom into every place he went.  The main characteristics we need to note about the sower is that he is generous and extravagant.  The sower is throwing seed everywhere.  He isn’t miserly with his seed, he isn’t hoarding seed, and there apparently is no seed shortage.  He is broadcasting seed with generous abandon.  Where the seed lands is not so much his concern.  His concern is that he get enough seed out there so that there will be a bountiful harvest.

Jesus continually teaches that the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of abundance.  In the Sermon on the Mount he encourages his hearers not to worry about tomorrow, what they will eat or what they will wear.  He says that God who takes care of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field will also take care of them.

His healing, and especially his healing of all who come to him, is another sign of the abundance of the Kingdom of God.  No one gets turned away, there is enough healing to go around.  The “shalom” of God never runs out.

The same is true for physical food.  There is enough.  There was enough to feed 5,000 men, plus women and children.  There is never a shortage of anything in the Kingdom of God.

Even in the future, when the Kingdom is fully come, the new Jerusalem is a perfect cube 1500 miles wide, 1500 miles long, and 1500 miles high.  It’s like a celestial highrise, only with really nice furnishings.  The point of those dimensions is that there’s room for everyone.  And, John the Revelator says that the multitude gathered is too great to number, and from every kindred, tongue, tribe, and nation.  Everybody is represented, no one is squeezed out because of lack of room, there are not quotas, no limits, no lack in the Kingdom.

By the way, the early church so believed this that they put all their money, goods, and property together and everyone had enough.

So, the sower is extravagant, and the seed is abundant.

The seed is the word of the Kingdom.  This is not the Bible, although the Bible would be included in the “word of the Kingdom.”  The word of the Kingdom is that which defines the Kingdom.  The word of the Kingdom is the call to follow Jesus, to live like Jesus, to act like Jesus, and behave in a different way from others.

That’s why some can hear it and it doesn’t take root.  They are not interested.  They don’t get it.  And, just in case they might someday wake up and embrace the word, the evil one snatches it away.  Because if you leave the word of the Kingdom there, it will have a result.

But, that’s also why some embrace it with joy, and then when persecution (or public opinion comes) they wilt like a flower in rocky soil.  The word of the Kingdom isn’t just surface dressing, its roots must go down into the soul, to change and transform.

Some hear the word, understand it, but are distracted by the cares of the world and ambition.  Some have other ideas about how life should be lived, and those ideas are incompatible with God’s idea of how we should live.

But, then there are those who hear, understand, and produce a harvest – fruit 30x, 60x, or 100x their own size or weight.  Which is the miraculous thing about seeds.  When given the chance, one tiny seed can produce 20 tomatoes, or lots of cucumbers, or a dozen bell peppers, or hundreds of beans.

What is the fruit?  It’s the reproduction of like kind.  That’s what seeds do.  They contain the potential of an abundance, but an abundance just like they were.  Okay, in this day of hybridized and genetically-engineered seed, you can’t say that anymore, but in Jesus’ day seeds produced more of their own kind.

The good soil incubates and germinates the word of God, which in turn produces more just like that seed.  Not more soil.  But a harvest of the Kingdom.  A bounty of Kingdom-bearers, who then are broadcast extravagantly into the world, again, and the cycle repeats itself endlessly.

We Are The Soil

Okay, here’s where the parable leaves off.  Jesus’ point was an observation – some get it, and some don’t.  Those who don’t get it, don’t for a variety of reasons.  But the seed goes everywhere.

The danger of pushing parables too far is that they break down.  Jesus was using his run-ins with the Pharisees to make a point.  And in the natural world, soil can’t move itself, or change itself.

But, the lesson for us is to be receptive soil.  Not for our own selfish ends, but for the harvest.  We are the incubators of the harvest.  We are not the sower, and we are not the seed.  We are not the harvest.  We are the soil.  But unlike the soil, we can change, we can hear, we can respond.  We can be that which nurtures and furthers the Good News, the word of the Kingdom, just as others before us have done.



Gather Your Online Congregation Now

Today I was talking to a friend, Jim Stovall, who teaches journalism at the University of Tennessee, and is a pioneer in developing and teaching web journalism.

In our conversation about how the internet is changing newspapers and journalism, Jim said, “I tell my students to start now, to become entrepreneur journalists, by using the internet to build an audience. Then, when they graduate, they’ll carry that audience with them wherever they work.”

Jim’s statement got me to thinking about churches and what seminary does to prepare you for ministry. While seminary does give students the opportunity to “try out” ministry through internships and “field work,” it usually ends there.

But, if Jim is right (and I know he is about journalism), why shouldn’t ministerial students begin to gather their congregations now, online?

Here’s what I believe an internet presence does for those preparing for vocational ministry:

  1. Provides valuable experience in writing, editing, and communicating. Pastors are primarily in the communication business. Okay, business may not be a good description, but what we do is communicate — well or poorly — the Gospel. We preach, teach, counsel, pray, encourage, and lead — all of those actions are types of communication. Maintaining a consistent, quality web presence is good training for anyone, but especially for communicators.
  2. Creates opportunities for handling both criticism and praise. Many of my conversations with pastors deal with pastors who have handled either criticism or praise inappropriately. Consistent bloggers learn to tone down the temptation to “flame” their critics, and also receive praise with humble restraint. Learning to handle both in real-life ministry situations is invaluable to successful ministry.
  3. Helps sharpen your message. Jim also said that people go to specific websites to find information they cannot find anywhere else. When you’re thinking about your online message, ask yourself, “What am I trying to convey to my audience, and how is that different from what’s out there now?” Obviously, my niche is small churches and small church leaders. Narrowing your focus to families, singles, parents, youth, music, and so on, and becoming an authority in your field will help sharpen your ministry, and focus your energy.
  4. Gathers your community. The big point is that now, before you graduate from seminary, take a church staff position, become a pastor, or plant a church, you can gather an online community. That community can help shape your ministry, and even lead to opportunities for ministry itself, such as a conference speaker, author, spiritual director, or consultant.

Of course, even those of us who are serving churches can enjoy the same benefits, and I have in the six years I have been writing Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.

Both ministry and journalism are changing, and the internet is disrupting our notions of what a newspaper is, and what constitutes a congregation. We have never before lived in an age where anyone can have access to everyone. Not even Billy Graham, who has preached to more people in more countries than anyone in history had the opportunity for communication that we do today. Whether newspapers and ministers will seize this opportunity remains to be seen.

What do you think? Have you begun or expanded your ministry on the internet? And, if so, what does that look like? What are the criteria for an effective web ministry, in your opinion? Fire away in the comments. Thanks.