(Luke 8: 4-8, 11-18)
Picture this with me. It should be easy; it’s something I imagine most of us have encountered before. You’re driving on 277, getting ready to take that weird exit that’ll put you on Third Street and eventually Providence. You veer right and find yourself in the far left lane, that large parking deck right in front of you, just waiting for green.
Your mind is racing because your day is doing the same. There’s a grocery run to make, there are kids to pick up from soccer practice, there’s most assuredly some church ministry team or committee meeting in your immediate future. In your brain you’re plotting out the time frame to make the best use of every moment. Those precious seconds when the light is red and you can devote your full attention to something other than driving or what’s right in front of you.
And that’s when you see him, right in front of you. He’s standing in the median, that thin piece of raised concrete that separates you from the other lane of traffic you’ll soon traverse. He’s dressed in ragged clothes, his hair unkempt and bushing out underneath his baseball cap. His beard is thick and scraggly. He’s holding a sign that reads: American Vet. Haven’t eaten in days. Anything will help. God bless.
What do you do?
There are a number of ways this scenario can play out, no? You could open up your wallet, grab a few bills, roll down your window and hand them to him. If you had previously grabbed one of our Trinity blessing bags from the Missions corner down here, you could give him one of those, making sure he has something to eat and drink that day. Or you could do nothing at all – keep the window rolled up, try not to make eye contact, wait for the light to turn green and just get on with your busy day.
What do you do?
See, I have a theory. My theory is that this scenario, in some form or fashion, plays itself out over and over again in our lives. It’s just the scenery that changes. Maybe it doesn’t happen at a busy intersection; maybe we meet this guy walking down the street one day. Or maybe it’s not a guy at all, maybe it’s an opportunity that presents itself, or a challenge, or both. And maybe it doesn’t even involve our money; maybe all that’s required of us are our skills, our abilities, our time. Just our time.
However it happens, it boils down to this: there is someone who needs our help. There is something missing in their life, some void, and something we have can help to fill it. And the crossroads we encounter is really quite simple – do we answer the need or not? Do we step out of ourselves and venture into the realm of another?
More and more I am reminded that so much of life seems to happen at this very crossroads. There is a lot of brokenness in our world, there are a lot of people facing challenges and uphill battles, even within this very family of faith. And I think Jesus knew this would be the case. Which makes me wonder if that is why he told the parable we read about in our scripture today. Because all it really talks about, at face value, are a sower, some seeds, and soil. It seems simple enough: there are three kinds of soil, and not surprisingly the seed doesn’t fare well on the rocky path or among the thorns. It’s only in the “good soil” where the seed flourishes. This is the story Jesus tells.
But then Jesus does something very unusual: he explains himself. He dissects the parable for his listeners. And it is rare that Jesus does this. It’ not like him to explain the meaning of his parables – probably because Jesus knows that the full impact of a parable comes when it’s allowed to marinate in the mind of the listener for a while, where they eventually come to the meaning on their own. That kind of self “a-ha moment” is always more powerful.
But that’s not what he does here. Perhaps he doesn’t want to take a chance that the meaning might go unnoticed or unseen. The message here is too important to miss. Jesus begins by offering the interpretation you and I might expect: the seed is the Word of God and the soil represents how different kinds of people receive that word differently. This is the meaning we expect; the meaning we would probably come to on our own if Jesus didn’t say anything else.
But then Jesus takes us, I think, to a different place entirely; one we almost certainly would not have come to on our own, when he says this:
For to those who have, more will be given;
And from those who do not have,
even what they seem to have will be taken away.
Now – what in the world is that supposed to mean? For to those who have, more will be given. Is Jesus saying the rich will get richer? Is that what this is? And from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away. This is even more confusing – is this the poor getting poorer, is that what’s going on here? If so, Jesus has some explaining to do, because this hardly sounds like something he’d say to us.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense, if we act under the assumption that we’re the soil in this parable, recipients of God’s grace. Which we are, of course, recipients of God’s grace. But maybe in this story we’re supposed to see something else – perhaps that we’re not the soil after all, but the sower. Not just the ones receiving God’s grace, but the ones sharing it.
That changes things, doesn’t it? It puts us right back at that crossroads we were talking about before; asking the question, we’ve been giving this amazing gift, do we share it or not? Which inevitably brings us to what some believe to be the heart of – get ready for it – stewardship. Stewardship. I know, I know what you’re thinking – it’s June, Steve, we don’t talk about stewardship until October. Normally that would be the case. But you may have noticed that your two pastors are not all that normal. As Grace and I have started looking more and more at what we preach in a given year, one of the things we’re realizing is that stewardship should not be a message confined to a single month in the fall. In fact, our lives all year long should emulate some level of stewardship.
And here’s why: according to Merriam-Websters, the word “stewardship” is defined as the careful and responsible management of something that has been entrusted to one’s care. Let me say that again: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care. That very language implies that, in stewardship, we are not talking about things we own. We are not talking about things that belong to us.
The whole idea of stewardship, biblical stewardship in particular, is that the very thing we are charged to be good stewards of is something that belongs not to us, but to God. That certainly can be money, which is what we typically think of with stewardship. But it’s about so much more than just that. It’s about how we manage all that God gives us – our families, our homes, this church, this facility, our very lives – all with the understanding that none of it really belongs to us. It’s on loan. It’s entrusted to us for a time to care for.
And that means that at some point – and this is so important – at some point we have the wonderful opportunity to give it back to the One who actually owns it. Or to look at it another way, we get to share it with others, in the same way someone once shared it with us.
Which is why I find myself drawn more to a different translation of the somewhat confusing verse I read before. The Message puts it quite simply:
Generosity begets generosity. Stinginess impoverishes.
What we’re talking about here, when you get right down to it, is a calling to be not just recipients of God’s grace but sharers of that grace. Not just soil, but serious sowers. So important is this calling that Jesus explains himself in a way he never had before. He wants to make himself absolutely clear so there’s no misunderstanding. He wants to be sure that we know we need this more than anything, that the church needs this more than anything. To be serious sowers of God’s grace.
This really matters, y’all. This is so very important.
Case in point: Rick Barger is the former head pastor of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Littleton, Colorado and also the author of A New And Right Spirit: Creating An Authentic Church In A Consumer Culture. In that book, Rick tells the story of the new member classes his growing church held once a quarter. There was a committee that would carry out the bulk of the class, but on the first day Rick himself would come and introduce himself, welcome the prospective members, tell them how glad he was that they were considering membership.
But then he would go on to say that there was something very important they needed to know about the church if they were going to continue on this journey; something foundational to Abiding Hope’s identity and ethos. A simple belief that may not be entirely what they expected or wanted to hear. And then he would say, “I need you to know that the church is not here to meet your needs. The church is not here to meet your needs.”
And he would let that sit with them for a bit, amidst somewhat confused faces and an increasingly uncomfortable silence – did the pastor really just say that? The church is not here to meet my needs. Barger cast that out like seeds trying to figure out which soil it had landed on.
And then after a moment or two he would end the silence and say: “The church is not here to meet your needs – the church is here to meet God’s needs. God’s needs.”
In his book he expounded on this further:
The church is not ours, Barger claims. The church is God’s. The story is not our story. The story is God’s. We are simply stewards of God’s story. God’s story tells us what God is up to, and God is up to the work of transformation. That is why we are stewards of God’s church.
Kind of hearkens back to that Luke verse, doesn’t it? Generosity begets generosity; stinginess impoverishes. Maybe that’s want that verse means after all – it’s not just what we have, but the spirit in which we share it that makes the difference. Think about it – if we view something as essentially being ours, as belonging to us, it’s harder to give it up. But if our understanding is that it’s been entrusted to our care, somehow that makes it a little easier to let go of when it is time to. That’s the kind of serious sowing, of sharing of God’s gifts that you and I are called to be and do.
We have all kinds of people in our church. Some would jump right out of their car to help that guy in the median without thinking twice about it. Others are more hesitant, more guarded, more inclined to turn away, fiddle with the radio, pray earnestly for the light to change.
And yet the calling God places on all of us is crystal clear, so much so that Jesus explains himself: we are called to be serious sowers. With our dollars and cents, to be sure, supporting and furthering the ministry of this church. But with our time and our talents too. Serving Urban Ministry lunches and Room In The Inn dinners. Signing up for Day of Discipleship. Or just sharing the love of Christ. Being serious sowers. Because we are not here to meet our needs. We are here to meet God’s needs.
And you know what the real beauty of this is? When we focus on meeting God’s needs, we find that our own needs are met as well – and needs we weren’t even aware we had in the first place. That’s what happens in God’s stewardship. Generosity begets generosity.
I love what the great Albert Schweitzer said when asked to name the greatest person alive in the world at that moment. The good doctor, whom many would have considered deserving of that honor himself, simply replied: The greatest person alive in the world at this moment is some unknown individual in some obscure place who, at this hour, has gone in love to be with another person in need.
Indeed. The church, not here to meet our needs, but to meet the needs of God. Each of us, called to be serious sowers with all God has entrusted to our care.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Rick Barger, A New And Right Spirit: Creating An Authentic Church In A Consumer Culture (2005, Alban Institute), pg. 22.