"Life’s Seasons Affect Our Crop"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – July 10, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 119:105-112; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


    This morning we are considering one of the memorable parables of Jesus and how we can apply its message to our lives.  This particular story incorporated a common practice with which his listeners were well acquainted – the sowing of seeds in hopes of having a harvest.   

    At face value the story appears to suggest that it may be a matter of luck as to where the seeds fall that becomes the determining factor in whether or not the seeds sprout and mature enough to bear fruit.  Seeds have no chance to grow if they land on a path of hardened dirt on rocky soil that is shallow or fall on soil where thorn bushes are thriving.

    We know that Jesus used parables as a teaching device.  The seeds represent his words of truth that would enable his listeners to radiate remarkable qualities through their attitudes and spirits. This was Jesus’ stated purpose of his ministry; this was his calling.  He came to teach his listeners how to use their creativity during every phase of life.  (John 18:37). 

    This morning, I want us to consider that people in every generation have experienced each type of soil found in Jesus’ parable.  Jesus was not casting people in certain roles as it may first appear; he was describing what living in this world can do to us. The seasons of our life govern the quality of the soil in our gardens.  The fate of any spoken word, any wisdom, any lesson or guidance depends on the season the listener is experiencing.

    A number of us can remember seasons when our minds were closed to hearing anything.  Many teenagers going through their rebellious years know the responses that come from a closed mind.  They complain, “Mom and Dad just don’t get it. They don’t begin to understand where I am and even know who I am.  I can hardly wait until I get out of this house!” 

    I saved a wonderful quote years ago that addresses this issue. “Hey kids, are you tired of being hassled by your stupid parents?  Act now!  Move out!  Get a job!  Pay your own bills while you still know everything.”  Teens often experience this season that makes the quality of their soil impossible for any thoughtful seed to germinate.  At least this is the fear of many parents.

    During an earlier time in my ministry, I discovered that a group of boys was breaking into houses and stealing property.  I learned of this information from an informant.  Since I knew their families well, it was not too difficult to get this group together.

    That opportunity happened one afternoon. We were talking and walking near a railroad track.  As I was confronting them about their deeds and how I was going to discuss the matter with their parents, a very slow moving freight train came rolling down the tracks.  The boys jumped on the train and started walking on the tops of the box cars.  To my chagrin, I joined them. 

    The frightening thing was that there was no debate in my mind because I could not lose this opportunity with the boys. Besides, I was surrendering to a temptation of something that I always wanted to do.  I had no idea that by jumping on a moving train, all of us were committing a felony.  None of us, however, were caught.    

    My jumping on that train caused a bond to form between us that opened up my communication with the six boys.  Their minds had been completely closed to my thoughts of how they were sabotaging their futures.  However, I got their attention when I threatened to tell their parents. These boys all came from what we tend to call “good families.”  My threat gave me leverage to pry open those closed minds.

    They begged me not to tell their parents because of the embarrassment and problems that would cause.  I agreed to remain silent if they would do everything I asked them to do.  They took me to their stash of goods and the quantity of stolen merchandise was unbelievable.  The one boy had neatly cataloged the items by the home address from which they came.  That made my first request much easier.  We agreed to meet at 2:00 a.m., pack the stolen articles in boxes and set them on the back patios of each home with an unsigned note of apology. 

    Once that was done, we traveled to our county’s courthouse where I took them in front of a judge with whom I had made arrangements.  The judge, who was known for his tough love, spoke to the boys.  They listened to every word.  The judge had the jailer take them to the lock-up to show them where they would have been kept had they been arrested.  The inmates put on quite a show for the boys.  The consequences of what the boys had done became very real.  

    My point of this story is that overnight the quality of their soil changed.  They stopped being cool, they stopped stealing and they began taking responsibility for their choices by focusing on a future without a police record. 

    Many years later, I met three of them at a funeral service of a mutual friend.   One of them had become the chief financial officer of the company that decorates Washington, D.C. at Christmas time.  He had been the boy that had neatly categorized the stolen items by the home addresses.  A second young man had become an attorney and the third was the foreman of the Press Operators for the United States Government Printing Office.  Each had a family and even though they had grown up, they asked me not to reveal this episode in their past to their wives. 

    One of the many lessons from this event is that we arrive in our world as innocent and trusting infants. Our soil begins to change the moment we begin to make choices that help us feel like we fit into and belong to certain social groups. Our identity begins to take form.  “Do I want an education or do I want to hang out and be cool?  Do I want to get involved in some vocation or start a family as a young teenager?”  Life does not have to be complicated but there are times when our soil is hard, rocky or choked with countless distractions. Shut minds open only when people are ready to listen.

    The quality of our soil is constantly changing.  It is easier to hear the truth when we become eager to learn new ways of responding.  We learn to recognize the circumstances that used to drive us to tears and anger.  We learn to recognize the temptations that once enticed us to venture into activities that compromised our values.  Developing fertile soil can happen at any point along our journey.

    Recently, I received an email from a friend.  He wrote:

Conversations With God, Vol. 1, and it slowed my thought process down.  I haven’t gotten half way through it because I keep going back and re-reading sections and spending a lot of time between paragraphs and pages just thinking.  The author certainly has a unique perspective. I turned 80 today and am sad to realize how many years I spent in blissful ignorance.  On the other hand, I am thankful to have had a chance to really consider what life is all about.  My wife and I celebrate 61 years of marriage tomorrow and that’s been a good run, too.

    Sooner or later we come to the point where we begin to review the quality of our lives.  While we cannot change events in our past, we can improve the quality of our soil at any time during our lives. 

    The greatest example of this is found in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son.  This young man experienced the joy of receiving wealth and the fun of spending it on anything that he wanted. He then experienced the downside of life when his wealth was gone.  His friends abandoned him. He experienced the poverty of eating food that was being fed to pigs.  His soil changed the moment he remembered he would be better off as a hired-hand for his father.  It took all those experiences to prepare him to want soil that would give him a crop. 

    Our increasing attraction to the things of this world happens in such small increments that we become unaware that we are venturing into questionable areas of life.  During these small baby-steps very little disturbs us. We become comfortable by allowing expedience to replace our completing tasks with a sense of pride.  We allow thoughts like, “everyone is doing it” to replace our impeccable honesty.  We engage in verbal deception and call our words “white lies.” How can we prevent this process from consuming us?

    If there were ever an iron-clad case for why attending church is so critical to the health of our spirits, it is demonstrated by the slow erosion of the values that once occupied center stage in most of our lives.  Today, societies are accelerating away from the values that provided the foundations upon which they were built.

    Resisting the allure of the material world begins with centering ourselves each morning by asking ourselves, “What seeds do I want to sow today?” We literally prepare the quality of our soil each morning.  Keeping ourselves anchored in the Kingdom of God is the greatest challenge any of us can face.  Few of us can manage this task alone.  It takes a community that believes in us.  It takes a church family that cares about us.  

    Everyone should read the story on page 6 of yesterday’s Gazette.  “Growing up on the Harry Potter Set,” written by David Germain from the Associated Press, chronicles what took place to protect Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint from falling victim to all the temptations that come with wealth and fame.  That sudden sense of power has nearly destroyed the lives of so many young actors. The article was providing background for the last installment of the Harry Potter series that premieres this week in London’s Leicester Square. 

    Germain writes, “The three actors have grown up smart, humble, polite and professional, eager to balance their modest private lives with productive acting careers rather than leap into the party-until-dawn celebrity lifestyle.”  He further adds, “When the youngsters were first cast when they were preteens, they had good parenting, were shepherded by thoughtful guardians that resembled the rigors and care of the finest boarding schools and they enjoyed a sheltered workplace outside of London, far from Hollywood’s maddening crowds.”  The quality of their soil was kept fertile by a community of people who sowed seeds of wisdom, guidance and support.

    Think of what happened to them.  During the very vulnerable and impressionable teen years, these three were kept in a bubble surrounded by coaches and mentors that taught life-skills as well as their academic subjects.  The children were filled with enthusiasm that kept their sense of wonder and curiosity alive. They were cloistered from the world and their work kept them focused on what was essential for the continued success of their lives.

    These three were on top of the world of millions of adoring teenagers and the three actors were taught that a day would come when the cheering would stop.  They were taught not to anchor their identities in the external world that was constantly changing.

    This should give all of us hope when we go forth each morning to sow our seeds.  Even though the seasons of the lives of others may not be where we would like them to be, we should never give up hope.  We must continue to sow our thoughts, share our wisdom and point to higher ground every moment.  The soil in others will change when they find themselves in a season that enables them to hear and understand what life is about.

    Jesus said, “The seeds sown in the good soil stand for those who hear the message and understand it:  they will bear fruit, as much as one hundred, others sixty and others thirty.”  It may have taken Jesus’ seeds 2,000 years to germinate in our generation, but we would have no crop today had he kept his message to himself.  Never give up hope. Every day sow your seeds with abandon.  Never surrender your passion for helping others to change the quality of their soil.