(warning rough draft ahead)
Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23
I think it is every pastor’s dream to be a part of a massive church growth. To come into a church and see it explodes under their appointment. I know this is the case because of so many books on the subject. There are over 6,000 books on Amazon.com on Church Growth. In a couple of weeks I’ll be heading down to Dallas, TX to attend the School of Congregation Development which is a churchy way of saying, conference on church growth. There is a huge market for this kind of stuff because deep down in every pastor’s heart we want to find the right equation, right sermon series, right dress code or music that can take a congregation into the stratosphere.
Adam Hamilton had a meeting with his District Superintendent constantly while as an associate pastor. He bugged him to let him go and start a new congregation. Finally the DS and Bishop agreed and in 1990 he was appointed to start a new congregation in Leewood, KS. The Bishop hoped that in 10 years the congregation would have 500 worshipers on Sunday. Hamilton found a location to start to hold services. It was in a local funeral homes’ chapel. There the Church of the Resurrection was started. By offering traditional worship and thought provoking sermons the Church of the Resurrection grew and is now the largest United Methodist Congregation in the US. They have 17,000 members and 6 services during the weekend, 8 if you count the two that are online.
Mike Slaughter, the pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio took was appointed to the church in 1979. It had an average worship of 90 when he started there as the pastor. As he tells the story, he preached the congregation down to 5 people and then it started to grow. They were revolutionary in their small group ministries and internet based ministries. The congregation is active in missions and now over 4,500 people attend worship services during the week there.
Each of the United Methodist pastors has books out describing their journey. They talk about knowing the community and defining what the community needs. They describe promoting a vision or mission statement and how that can drive the congregation into its purpose. Their example has been emulated, attempted and copied all over this denomination. I confess that this is one of my dreams as a preacher. I wish I could be a part of something growing out of nothing or starting from something small and growing into something HUGE. I think pastors today have that ingrained in their system. We look up to our colleagues who have done this in our conference or our denomination and we hold them up as the standard to which we aspire too.
Joe Evans is a pastor in the Presbyterian USA denomination and wrote a wonderful sermon on Day1’s website. When he was growing up his church grew dramatically. Later on the senior pastor that led this congregation through this growth asked him to lunch. During their time together he finally asked him “’As far as having a successful ministry goes, your time at First Presbyterian can't really be beaten. What's your secret?’ He said, as he looked me dead in the eye with a gaze I had to look away from, ‘Joe, you have to know what is in your control and what isn't, and when it comes to being a minister, there isn't really that much that is in your control.’”
Since I am making confessions today I will confess that I love control. I love to look at what is head of me and guide it as best as I can. I have been doing some woodworking and building some Adirondack chairs. This was a great project because I got to use almost every power-tool I own. I used my router, table saw, jig saw, drills, sander and miter saw. This has been my largest project to date and I learned a lot as I did it. As I created the main leg brace I used a jig saw to carve out the pattern. There are parts that are strait and other parts that needed to be curved. As I used my jig saw there were times I pushed it and pulled it to stay on the line. Then after cutting I noticed the cut was slanted. I had pushed and pulled too much. When I did that the blade started to slant and instead of having a nice flat cut for the seat planks to sit on, I had a slanted cut to mess with. I have to learn to let the saw do the work. I can turn the saw on and off, guide it to make turns, and pull it back to start over when needed but beyond that I have to let the tool do what it is created to do. When I do that, my cuts are straighter and smoother and look a whole lot better.
We all have issues of control because we are in a society that thinks about the bottom line. How can we maximize our profits? How can we get the most out of what we have? Can we make budget this year? We hear about this when it comes to the environment and our waste. We need to make sure we don’t throw away things unnecessarily. We have to ask ourselves if we can recycle the materials we use and if we can reuse them in any way. This is even the case when it comes to the church. We ask our committees to be good stewards of what they have been given. We don’t want them to go over our budget and to keep within the framework of power we give them. We don’t want rogue committees out there abusing the resources of the church.
With this framework of thinking in the forefront of our minds the sower in this parable doesn’t seem to fit. Jesus offers up this picture of a farmer who is out there simply slinging seed. He doesn’t care where it goes he is just taking handfuls of valuable seeds and casting it out there to fall where it may. This is not he precision farming of today where plows and tractors make use of every inch of a field and rid it of anything that would get in the way of the seeds growing. I know there are backyard farmers out there too who have terrific gardens who know that this is not how you would plant a garden. You wouldn’t mix up your cucumber and tomato seeds in your hand and simply cast them out into your garden. Cucumbers need to be on a mound and tomato plants need supports around them. But for Jesus the sower is happy by just casting seeds out in every direction possible.
I wonder what the crowd thinks when they hear this parable. Jesus has a problem every preacher dreams of. He has a crowd there that is too big and he has to get in a boat to talk to them. Can you imagine if we had a crowd so big here that in order for me to lead the worship service I had to preach from the choir loft? How awesome would that be! The people that come and hear Jesus are agriculturalists. They know how to plant because if they didn’t know they would starve. If they planted their seeds like the sower they would starve, but Jesus isn’t giving them a parable to teach them about planting is he?
Only later on does Jesus explain what he means by this parable. We don’t get a lot of these explanations from Jesus about his parables. Most of the time Jesus simply lays the parable out and walks away. But here later on the disciples ask him what he meant and he actually tells them. The seed that is to be sown is the message of the kingdom. The seed is the Word of God. The seed is what we tell people about God, about God’s love, and about what God has done for you.
I wanted to take this time now to share with you some vacation. [slides]
The thing is we usually don’t have any probably talking about our kids or grandkids. I knew a lady who’s purse was an homage to her grandkids. You couldn’t get twenty feet near her without her roping you into a story about them or showing you the newest picture. We have pride and immense joy when it comes to the children in our lives.
If it is so easy to talk about kids why is it so hard to talk about what God has done in our lives? Why is it that we are not apt to say anything about the work God is doing in us or that God loves the person you are talking to? Why is it so hard to share? Why is it so easy to talk about kids but not the Savior you follow? Is it because people don’t want to hear about Jesus? Maybe but let’s face it, who really wants to know about your grandchildren or see the newest Sears Portrait shot? Yet that doesn’t stop us does it.
The truth is when we sow the seeds of God’s word; when we share with others what God is doing and has done, we have to relinquish control. I know I am guilty of making sure I am reaching as many people as possible when I preach. I try to hit on topics I know will connect with what people are dealing with. But it can run the gambit every week. Someone comes in on Sunday morning celebrating a birth while another one is mourning a loss. A person maybe distracted because they are going to the beach right after the service while others are distracted because their marriage is falling apart. As I prepared this sermon I realized I needed to let go more. I cannot control who will be here on Sunday and who won’t. I cannot control how the message I preach will be received.
When we tell people about the God we love we cannot control how it will be processed and digested. It may turn people off because they are in a rocky place in their lives. It may go in one ear and out the other because there is no dirt for it to grow. It may affect a person for a little while but then fad away. We do not have any control over it because it really isn’t our job. That isn’t our work. That is what God does.
God knows what is on the heart of the people we sow seeds around. God knows what their hearts needs and how it will be handled. We are not asked to do that. In the parable Jesus doesn’t say only to sow seed among the good seed. No, instead he says the sower threw it everywhere and some came back hundred fold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. We may never know how the words we say, the actions we live out, and the way we live out our faith can transform people. but our job is not to water or harvest. Our job, according to this parable, is to sow the seed.
Those ministers who were there for massive growth in their congregation know that it was God’s work, they simply sowed the seed. There truly is only so much we can do but we are asked to do something. So may you have the strength to speak up and tell people about the God you love and the God that loves you. May you realize the seed you sow may fall on all types of paths and soils. But what happens after the seed is scattered is not our job and it is not in our control. It is God’s work. All God asks us to do is to be sowers.
And all God’s Sowers said…Amen.