The Curious Case of the Descending Tricolon Crescendo

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Isaiah 55:10-13

Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky
and don’t return there without watering the earth,
making it conceive and yield plants
and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater,
so is my word that comes from my mouth;
it does not return to me empty.
Instead, it does what I want,
and accomplishes what I intend.


Yes, you will go out with celebration,

and you will be brought back in peace.
Even the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you;
all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
In place of the thorn the cypress will grow;
in place of the nettle the myrtle will grow.
This will attest to the Lord’s stature,
an enduring reminder that won’t be removed.

 

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

He said many things to them in parables: “A farmer went out to scatter seed. As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. Everyone who has ears should pay attention.” …

“Consider then the parable of the farmer. Whenever people hear the word about the kingdom and don’t understand it, the evil one comes and carries off what was planted in their hearts. This is the seed that was sown on the path. As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. As for the seed that was spread among thorny plants, this refers to those who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the false appeal of wealth choke the word, and it bears no fruit. As for what was planted on good soil, this refers to those who hear and understand, and bear fruit and produce—in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.”

***

I only had to participate in the school science fair once.

It was required of all sixth-graders, optional after that. I chose for my project what has to be one of the most common experiments out there, right alongside the standard baking soda volcano: I planted seeds in different kinds of soil to test how they grew.

One of my pots had regular soil in it. Into one I mixed the kind of things you put into compost—banana peels, mostly. The third I added trash to—bits of Styrofoam and candy wrappers. I was pretty sure that that the trash plants wouldn’t grow, and the regular soil ones would, and the compost ones would do the best.

Between Ms. Frizzle and Jesus’ parables, I thought I understood the basics of horticulture.

I failed to take into account, however, my utter lack of anything resembling a green thumb. None of my plants grew. To this day I don’t know why. But I dutifully made that giant trifold poster that all science fair participants have to make, and brought my sad little experiment to school. My grace was that the teacher graded on effort, not result.

It is comforting to know that the farmer in Jesus’ parable was almost as bad at growing plants as I was. When Jesus first told this story, I imagine some of the folks in the crowd laughed at this clown of a farmer; what was he thinking, throwing seed onto paths and rocks and into thorns? Did he really think that was going to work? Some might even have been angry. How dare he waste good seeds like that? Seeds cost money. And here this shmuck is, flinging them around willy-nilly. Apparently he has never heard of a targeted campaign, nor of maximum product efficiency.

But what is absolutely amazing to me is how completely free of judgment Jesus is in telling this parable. He never condemns the farmer for tossing seed into all sorts of places it obviously doesn’t stand a chance in; and he doesn’t condemn the seeds for not growing in those inhospitable places, and he doesn’t even blame the birds or the rocks or the thorns for doing what they do. There’s almost no value judgment in this parable; just a description of an ecosystem. The farmer scatters seeds everywhere, and lets what’ll happen, happen.

We as hearers of this parable tend to be more than happy to provide value judgments, though. We hear the word “grow” and we think we know what Jesus is getting at. Our faith should produce results. Measurable, visible results. Preferably ones we can compare to our neighbors to see how we stack up.

For those of you who noticed the sermon title today and didn’t immediately get up and walk out, I really appreciate it. I actually put it in as a joke. I was going to come up with something else before the bulletin went to print. But I just couldn’t. Because while what I’m about to say is really, really nerdy, it’s also pretty important.

You see, there’s this thing in rhetoric called the ascending tricolon crescendo. Ancient authors—who were really big on formalized rhetoric—loved it. An ascending tricolon crescendo is when you have a phrase that consists of three parts, where each is bigger than the last. Maybe the most famous is from Plutarch’s life of Julius Caesar—veni, vidi, vici. I came, I saw, I conquered. Hear how the action builds, gets bigger? That’s an ascending tricolon crescendo.

Let’s try another, this time from the gospel of Mark. It might sound familiar. “Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

It just gets bigger and bigger. And that feels right. After all, this parable is all about growth, so shouldn’t the big finish be bigger and bigger amounts of harvest?

If there was ever a place for an ascending tricolon crescendo, this is it.

Yet Matthew, in his telling of the parable, deliberately reverses the order. The seed yielded good fruit—a hundredfold! he says. Or sixty. Or thirty. You know, whatever.

Kindof a letdown.

Again, to be technical, this is called a descending tricolon crescendo. It’s a thing in rhetoric too. But it’s a really, really weird choice for Matthew to make here.

Which is why I think it’s so important.

I think for Matthew, this parable is all about growth, but it’s not all about numbers.

That’s a strange sentence to American ears. Growth is a statistic, as far as we tend to be concerned. Growth should be something we can plot on a graph, and if things are going well, the line should go up, up, up. We like growth we can measure, growth we can boast about.

But Matthew undercuts all that. The big finish he builds to ends up being a small finish. And by doing that, what I hear him saying is that the one who yields a hundred isn’t better than the one who yields sixty, and the one who yields sixty isn’t better than the one who yields thirty. The thirtyfold guy is just as worth celebrating as the hundredfold gal. All of them, bearing the fruit of God’s word, regardless of how the people around them are able to measure it, are worth praise.

It is so, so, so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that statistical growth is proof of our faithfulness, of our being good soil for God to work with. We in the mainline church are particularly prone to handwringing about the number of churches we have, and the number of people in them. And even if we can get over the idea that population size is the measure of our faith, we still reach for quantitative goals: number of meals served. Number of dollars given. Number of scriptures memorized. It’s like we want to be able to show up with our yield of a hundredfold and say look! I’m getting this right. I’m doing this faith thing the best.

But here’s the thing: the goal of our faith is to grow disciples, not churches.

Let me say that one more time, a little differently: Jesus’ goal for us to is grow disciples, not churches.

The two are not mutually exclusive. But they aren’t dependent on each other, either.

I’m reminded of a case study I read in seminary, about a megachurch up north. Starting out humbly, it grew like gangbusters, and soon the Sunday evening service was pulling in crowds of two and three thousand a week. The leaders were thrilled. They were really reaching people for Jesus, they thought. Changing lives, yielding way more than a hundredfold. This was everything faith was supposed to be.

Until they started looking, not at numbers, but at names. What the church leaders realized was that the vast majority of folks only showed up at the church for six to twelve months. Only a tiny portion of those thousands actually stuck around. They had the numbers, true. But they were cycling through their town’s population, and soon they were going to be out of folks curious to check out a new thing. People were coming to their church, but they weren’t staying. The church was growing, but its members weren’t.

And so the leaders of this church did a very brave thing. They shifted their focus away from what had seemed like their big draws: expensive, entertainment filled worship, game-filled youth programs, gourmet coffee kiosks. Instead they put their energy and their resources into creating small groups where people could really connect with each other, study scripture together, and serve their community. Way fewer people signed up for these than had come to worship. Their overall numbers dropped alarmingly. But the people who participated began to see their lives really change. And in their annual report to the congregation, the church leaders declared that that year had seen their most growth yet.

If your yield this week is a hundredfold, more power to you. If every act, thought, word, and breath is to the glory of God, then know that you are bringing joy to God and grace to God’s children.

If your yield this week is sixty, more power to you. If you can keep your focus on God’s will most of the time, and make a real effort to follow Christ, know that you are bringing joy to God and grace to God’s children.

If your yield this week is thirty, more power to you. If you find ways to share God’s love even in the midst of distraction and temptation, know that you are bringing joy to God and grace to God’s children.

If your yield this week is one—one little green shoot struggling to make it to the surface—more power to you. Know that God takes joy in whatever you have to offer, whether it is much or little.

And if this week is no good—if the birds get there first or the rocks get in the way or the thorns tear at you—then know God will be coming back around soon, with a never-ending supply of seeds in his pocket.

Because God isn’t interested in the numbers. God’s interested in you.

And no matter who you are, you’ve got growing left to do.

To God be the glory. Amen.

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