Ah, summertime. I love summer. Because summer typically means vacation time. Unfortunately, many of us this year may not be able to afford a vacation because of layoffs and furloughs at work. And, many of us may feel as though we’ve been forced into a staycation—staying at home under shelter-in-place rules during the pandemic, for many weeks already.
We’ve also seen in the news these past weeks many people heading to a beach as stay-at-home recommendations have been eased. We’ve seen crowds of people along the Florida Gulf, the Atlantic coast, Huntington Beach, California, even some far-flung exotic beaches.
When I was a kid, every summer my family would take a month-long vacation, usually in August, to Sunken Meadow Beach near Claremont, Virginia, right on the glorious James River, across from the popular tourist destinations of Jamestown and Williamsburg, Virginia.
When I was growing up, my father was the very busy senior pastor of Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church in Huntington, West Virginia, but every summer we’d go spend time where he grew up, near Hopewell and Richmond, Virginia, visit our aunts and uncles and cousins on his side of the family, and hang out at Sunken Meadow.
Dad needed the respite from caring for his flock the rest of the year, and he would spend most days getting up at O-dark-thirty and heading for the meadow across the road, which had been flooded decades earlier—that’s the “sunken meadow” in the name of the beach adjacent to it. This pond was stocked with all kinds of delicious fish just ready to be caught—hopefully. Dad would while away the day in a little wooden row boat, fishing, meditating, and resting, while we four kids were busy swimming in the river or exploring the beaches, or playing Skeeball in the little beach store, or reading comic books, or walking up the shore looking for sharks’ teeth and other beautiful shells (my mother had a real eye to find those sharks’ teeth!). More often than not, dad would bring home our dinner of bass or trout he’d caught.
Oh, it was just idyllic. I loved those summer vacations. Sadly, Sunken Meadow Beach doesn’t really exist anymore, having been decimated by a hurricane some years ago. But it certainly lives in my memory and my heart.
But now, as we face this summer’s vacation season—as we face reality—we realize it can be difficult to take a good, long, substantial vacation these days—we’re so busy with our job, whether at the workplace or remotely, with family and community activities, or caring for loved ones, or we simply lack the financial wherewithal to spend on a vacation.
And yet, that’s all the more reason why we need to take a break from time to time, to rest and relax and recharge our physical and spiritual batteries. Especially in these times of stress and worry over coronavirus, jobs, family members, finding needed supplies, and everything else.
Friends, we need to take a break from time to time. Maybe just for a day, or an hour, or even a few minutes.
Did you notice in the gospel reading today that Jesus took a mini-vacation to the beach? “That same day,” our text begins, “Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.”
As I tried to prepare this sermon for today on the parable of the sower, which Jesus tells here in Matthew 13, I got stuck on that verse. I just love it. I don’t think I ever really noticed it before. “That same day, Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.”
Oh, that’s nice. Can’t you see him? He kicks his sandals off, spreads out a beach towel, sits down and gazes at the calming sea. He watches birds swoop down for wiggly morsels of sea life to snatch and gulp. He chuckles at a banded newt or fire salamander darting on the rocks. He listens as hoopoe bird sings out its name, hoop hoop hoop! He admires the clouds billowing across the sky, and maybe a dark cloud is emptying a sheet of rain over in one corner of the sea.
Jesus just sits there beside the sea, breathing, gazing, praying, congratulating God the Father for this peaceful, beautiful, creative handiwork.
As he sits and gazes upon the world around him, I wonder if the words of the prophet Isaiah, in our Old Testament text for today, (55:10-12) come to his mind:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills [and perhaps the sea!] before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Or perhaps the psalmist’s praise echoes on Jesus’s lips, from today’s Psalm 65 (vv. 5, 7-8)...
By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.... You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples. Those who live at earth's farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
Matthew tells us, “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.” And there he rests, meditates, prays. Alone with his heavenly Father.
But what had happened “that same day”? What’s Matthew referring to? Well, look at the preceding chapter, Matthew 12, and wow—it’s been an exhausting day for Jesus. Apparently, it’s a Sabbath day—a time to rest and focus on God. But Jesus has been busy.
Matthew 12 begins, “At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath.” Jesus and his disciples get in trouble with Pharisees for breaking the Sabbath law against doing any work whatsoever. They are hungry, so they simply plucked heads of grain and popped them in their mouths as they walked through the fields. A healthy wholegrain snack! But the Pharisees said that was work. Jesus makes his defense by claiming to be Lord of the Sabbath.
Then Jesus heads to a synagogue, where he heals a man with a withered hand, on the Sabbath, getting into trouble all over again. And Matthew says the religious elite conspire to destroy him, and when Jesus becomes aware of that, he leaves, but crowds follow him, so he cures their sick.
Then a demoniac is brought to him for healing, and Jesus teaches the crowds about what’s happening, and attacks the religious leaders again.
This healing, teaching, debating with Pharisees goes on and on in Matthew 12. As part of Matthew’s report of this day, Jesus’s mother and brothers even come to see him, and he seems to ignore them, “for whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
So, it has been a very busy day for Jesus! At least in this account. It’s exhausting just to read! I don’t know how Jesus did it. Well, maybe I do: “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.”
I’m sure he didn’t just sit there beside the sea. As we read through the gospels, it’s very clear that Jesus made it a practice to get away alone to rest...and pray—whether up on a mountainside, or in a garden, or here beside the sea. Luke 5:16 tells us that Jesus often withdrew to solitary places to pray. The gospel writers don’t describe in any detail what Jesus did during these respites, these mini-vacations, probably because they weren’t there!
But we know they were important to Jesus—these brief respites provided a way for him to recharge his physical and spiritual batteries in the presence of his loving heavenly Father.
So, after busy times of ministry, Jesus would go off by himself. It reminds me of those Sunken Meadow summers when my dad would go off to the fishing pond to fish, and pray, alone. He was a smart man!
“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.” Well, I’d like to say, “Go thou and do likewise,” and be done with it. Unfortunately for Jesus, the text doesn’t stop there. It goes on and on.
Here he is, sitting beside the beach, and “Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.” Jesus can’t help but attract a crowd—people who are needy, oppressed, grasping on to what little hope they can muster with this Jesus—maybe he’s the one. Finally. Maybe. The crowd gets so large that Jesus climbs into a boat and sits out there—a great example of social distancing! And then he offers them some more of what they want and need—a story, a parable. “Listen! A sower went out to sow....”
Now, we know this story. For Pastor Keith Anderson, who preached on this text for Day1 back in 2014, this parable is more about the character of the sower than about where seeds land. God is the sower. Keith titled his sermon, “God the Crazy Farmer.”
This parable echoes our reading from Isaiah 55 I referenced earlier, which pictures God as a sower of the Word, God’s message of love and forgiveness. Just as snow and rain water the earth and bring forth life, so God’s Word rains down and fulfills its purpose of kindling faith, hope, and love in those who hear it.
Presbyterian pastor Tom Eggebeen explained that the sower throws the seed of God’s Word of love and hope on all kinds of soil and ground—a lot of seed never germinates, and that’s just the way of life. But stones and rocks and weeds and birds and hot sun, and all that good seed wasted on them? Shouldn’t God be a bit more careful with all that good seed? No, Jesus seems to be saying, God is generous, lavish, even wasteful with the seed of love. And so should we be.
Don’t worry about the losses, don’t waste time counting seeds, just grab that seed of love, fling it, throw it with a mighty arm. Cast it freely, far and wide. Because the seed of God’s love is abundant, it never runs out, there’s always more than enough.
It helps for us to be good, prepared soil to receive it, but the seed of God’s love is there for the taking. And oh, we need that love of God more than ever in this world, don’t we?
I find it amazing that Jesus can be so profound after such a busy, hectic day. He’s been moving around, busily ministering to others all day long—except...except for taking that moment to walk out of the house and sit beside the sea in the presence of God.
Friends, we all live busy lives, heavy with responsibilities, with needs that never fully get met, with people who need our support and involvement, now more than ever. This pandemic we’ve been through for so long this year only makes that all the more clear.
Our schedules can seem to be never ending, with to-dos piling up continually. Sometimes, I hope, our busyness can even be productive and helpful and healing.
So, like Jesus, we must take time to rest and recharge and pray.
Take time to go out of the house and sit beside the sea or the pond or on the porch or in a park or an empty sanctuary or some other peaceful, solitary place. And open yourself to receive the seed of God’s love that is continually being flung around us. Open yourself so that it can take root within you. Taking time to rest and open ourselves to God, as Jesus did, is one way to prepare the soil of our souls to receive God’s seed of love so that it will grow and flourish.
So I invite you to follow Jesus’s example—and get away for a recharging, prayerful rest, for a week, a day, an hour, even a few moments.
When we do, may God cast holy seeds of love and joy and peace, of strength and guidance and meaning, as wildly and lavishly and generously as the sower cast his seeds. Who knows what beautiful and nourishing crops might grow in our lives, in our churches, and in our communities as a result.
Let us pray.
God of lavish love, we find ourselves desperate not only to experience your love and peace, but to find a quiet place alone to let ourselves receive it. Plant within our hungry souls the seeds of your loves, and give them the spiritual light and nourishment they need to blossom and flourish, so that we can spread your love just as lavishly and wastefully in this world as you do. Through Jesus Christ we pray, amen.
Tom Eggebeen, “The Sower, The Seed, The Soil,” preached July 13, 2014 at Pacific Palisades Presbyterian Church.
Keith Anderson, “God the Crazy Farmer,” Day1 sermon, July 13, 2014.