RCL Year A, Proper 10
One of the things I love about Jesus’ parables is how much there is to take from them. They’re not like Aesop’s fables or Just-So Stories – there’s no clear single meaning or point he’s trying to make. Jesus tells the story, people hear it and ponder, and he walks away. That’s how I think God communicates with us – that’s how I experience God communicating in my life, at least. The communication is clear, and yet not logical-rational clear. The point is there, but it lies beyond our ability to absolutely articulate it in words. So I distrust anyone who tries to boil God and God’s message down to sound bytes. I think the truth is always greater than our ability to explain it.
And yet this parable today is followed by just that: an explanation. A private explanation, directly from Jesus to the disciples. Like he turns to them and whispers, ‘What that beautiful story I just shared with the masses means is really this…’ And so the explanation absolutely shapes how we hear the story. This parable is about how people receive God’s word, and we know that because Jesus told us so. So when we hear this parable we’re supposed to think about what kind of soil we are. Are we good fertile soil, bearing fruit? Are we hard and rocky or thorny or shallow? Let’s all be working harder to make our soil better at receiving and living out God’s truth.
But the problem is that the explanation doesn’t entirely capture the whole story. The story begins with the sower sowing seed. It doesn’t just focus on the soil, but on the sowing and the seeds. Whatever Matthew’s intentions in including this explanation from Jesus, it seems pretty reductionist. Which is a reminder that these stories of Jesus were oral tradition, things Jesus said that got repeated and passed along until someone decided to write them down – and along the way, decided what order to write them down in, what explanations to add in, and other pieces of context that shape the way we understand them. Generally it’s pretty impossible to get back to what Jesus said, pure of everything else that got added to it along the way, despite what some biblical scholars try to do; and we believe that the Holy Spirit had a hand in all the human muddling that produced scripture, so that the result is still more or less inspired. But that doesn’t stop us from noting when there’s such a clear disjunction in the text, and wondering why.
So what if we back up before the explanation and focus our attention on the sower in this story, rather than the soil – the sower who goes out to sow. It’s an image that is easy to understand. We don’t even have to be gardeners to get this one. Maybe because of this very parable, the metaphor of planting seeds makes intuitive sense. Seeds take time to sprout and grow – not everything we do bears fruit right away. We know that in our lives, just like we know that in our gardens. Parenting, growing a business, developing a relationship, all take time. Immediate success is unlikely with things that really matter.
So too with being followers of Jesus. If we understand the seed to be the good news of the kingdom, the word, the message of God’s love and saving grace, then we’re supposed to be spreading it just as a sower does – as well as receiving it as the soil. We’re not the seed; we’re not the creator of the seed; but we, like the disciples who were listening to Jesus, are the ones meant to get the seed out there. And from this story at least, it seems we’re supposed to be spreading it pretty freely, letting the soil receive it as it will. We may or may not succeed. But whether it succeeds or not isn’t our business, strangely enough. Which is hard for us to take in.
Here’s the hard part about sowing seeds: you really can’t control what happens next. Birds might come and eat them; a drought might come and no water will feed the sprouts; the soil might be the wrong kind for the plants to grow. So when we get to spreading the seed of the good news, or to loving with God’s abundant kind of love, it might not go that well. People might not want to listen to what we say. People might be distracted by other things. Or people may just out-and-out react with hostility to us and everything we’re about. Love doesn’t guarantee that everyone will love you in return.
But that’s not why we sow seeds. We sow in hope, not because of an assurance of success. The writer Henri Nouwen writes, ‘Hope prevents us from clinging to what we have and frees us to move away from the safe place and enter unknown and fearful territory.’ Hope is risky. Sowing seeds is risky. All that effort and it might just be for naught. We might not know what will come of it.
Well, in an age of conserving energy and resources, this doesn’t make intuitive sense after all. How can we possibly go scattering seeds willy-nilly when we worry that we don’t have enough for ourselves? We’re tired, we’ve been there and done that. We don’t have enough left. That’s what I hear from people in this church and in other churches when we talk about new things or reaching new people, anything that demands a little more of us, takes us a little further out of our comfort zones. All of a sudden, we’re not sowers of seed, we’re squirrels. Storing the seed away for ourselves and the possibility of our own need. Storing it away even if we won’t ever use it ourselves – because when it comes to the seeds of the grace and love of God, all too often we’re not receiving it ourselves either. We’re as hard-packed as the hardest soil out there, and we’re supposed to be the ones bearing fruit and yielding a hundredfold.
What a waste of a good thing. This resource of God’s love is too precious to hold onto so tightly. And it’s too abundant to be pretending it’s all for us alone. Our churches, our faith communities, ECA, are shrinking all around this country. And it’s not just because other people aren’t being good soil. It’s because we’re not doing the job of sowing. Sowing not because it will guarantee us success, enough pledges and people to fill our committees. But sowing because it is what we do as people of God, people who really believe this stuff.
At home one of the graces we sing before meals is ‘Johnny Appleseed.’ You might know it: O, the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the apple seed, the Lord is good to me.’ Just last week at Family Camp I learned that there’s more to it, a part that most people don’t know., ‘For every seed I sow, an apple tree will grow, and there will be apples there for everyone in the world to share, the Lord is good to me.’ What a huge difference. The seeds and the apples aren’t just gifts for me – they’re meant to be sown, grown, given away so everyone can have them.
So go sow some seeds this week. Tell someone what you experienced in prayer this morning – which means you’d better say your prayers so you can talk about them. Tell people how God is acting in your life and how you see God in theirs. Invite them to join you in doing something that sows seeds of love in this world – maybe here at church, maybe somewhere else. And don’t worry over what response you’ll get. Maybe they’ll listen, maybe not; or maybe it will just plant a seed that will show up much later in their lives. It’s high time we sow something of all we have been given. There’s no more time to waste. Amen.