Rev. Teri Peterson
July 13 2008, Ordinary 15A
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’
Some of you know that I spent some of my growing-up years on a farm—my grandparents’ farm in western Oregon, where we raised sheep. We also seemed to often be involved in some other venture, like making yogurt cultures or growing mushrooms, but mainly we did sheep. And, of course, we had a garden where we grew our own vegetables. I remember the first year I got to have a little corner of the garden all to myself, to grow whatever I wanted. I remember that I chose baby carrots, beets, and corn. I carefully prepared the ground, made little hills in straight rows, and pushed the little seeds into the dirt. I watered, I waited, I weeded, I waited. The carrots and beets grew in abundance, but the corn never sprouted at all. I don’t know if they were bad seeds, or if things just weren’t right in my corner of the garden for corn, or if I planted them wrong, or what—I just know that my very own corn, which I had been so looking forward to, never came up. Ironically, I don’t even like beets or carrots, but that summer and fall I ate a lot of them!
Sometimes I like to tell people this as though it gives me some kind of credibility when I, who have tried for years now to pass myself off as a city girl, drive past cows and chickens on my way to work in an office that looks out on a cornfield. I’m not sure it’s either necessary or working, but there it is—the secret is out: I haven’t always been a city girl, but I like to imagine myself as one!
Interestingly, I don’t think the farmer in Jesus’ parable would have gained much credibility with my grandparents. This farmer doesn’t carefully prepare the ground, removing the rocks, breaking up clumps of dirt, pulling the thorns and weeds, putting down compost. He doesn’t make nice neat rows and carefully push the seeds into the dirt. In fact, this farmer is pretty much the exact opposite of my garden experience—she just flings seeds wildly, letting them go where they will. I imagine this sower tossing seeds left and right, some being carried off by the wind, some falling straight to the ground, some flying back into his face. This is hardly the most efficient way to plant a field! How does the farmer expect any kind of harvest, any kind of return on this investment, any kind of crop with which to feed the family? We all know what’s going to happen—birds are going to eat some of the seeds, chipmunks and squirrels are going to carry some away to a different field, weeds are going to grow up with some, some, like my corn, will never sprout, and some, like my beets, will grow way too thick and bring in more than we can use. Doesn’t this farmer know better?
Well, apparently not. Jesus goes on to explain this parable, saying that the seed is God’s word and that the different places it lands are the different ways we can receive the word. Traditionally we hear about how we want to be good soil, fertile land, where the word can take root and grow and bear fruit in our lives. Which is a good thing to hear! But I have to wonder—can soil change itself? Can rocky soil become good fertile soil on its own? Somehow I don’t think so. And is seed only useful if it lands on good soil? Can God’s word only bear fruit in one type of person? If that’s true, why didn’t the sower take more care with the sowing, checking the soil out first, making sure it was ready and willing and deserving? This is one reckless sower, scattering seed all willy-nilly!
And isn’t that just how God works? Scattering seeds of love and grace and hope, all willy-nilly? We talk a lot around here about how God’s grace is enough for all, indeed that God’s grace is abundant—we don’t have to worry about whether there’s going to be enough for us. As Jesus said earlier in Matthew—just like the sun rises and rain falls on the just and the unjust, grace is sown about, flung far and wide and close by. If God is the sower, then we want the seeds to be recklessly tossed about on every kind of soil! And if God is the sower, flinging seeds all around, some to be eaten by birds, some to be trampled underfoot, some to grow up quickly, some to sprout next to weeds, and some to grow the usual way, then is it possible that all those seeds are useful in some way? Sure, the plant that springs up in the sidewalk and then withers may not look like it’s produced fruit, but the flower might have been just the sign of hope someone needed in the midst of a concrete jungle. So the squirrels and birds run off with some seeds—don’t they need food too? And even plants that grow up with weeds around them give bees and other insects new plants to visit and cross-pollinate. And, of course, almost any plant that springs up will produce new seeds that will be carried away on the wind to plant themselves somewhere new. The life of a seed isn’t as straightforward as it sounds—there are layers and future chapters and sometimes we can’t even see the seed, let alone the fruit!
Interestingly, that’s exactly what people say to me whenever I’m frustrated. I can’t even count the number of times someone has said “I know you’re frustrated now, but you’re planting seeds. Who knows what those seeds will grow into?” And that’s true. But then again, using the traditional interpretation of this parable, it’s God who’s planting, and the seeds appear to be planted in good soil—the people I interact with are mostly people who look like me, and we all want to think we’re the well cultivated field! What about when God is scattering seeds in those other places, the places that don’t look ready or don’t seem right for planting?
I wonder what those places might be? It’s probably different for each of us, but I suspect that sometimes we all have a gut reaction, a first and quickly suppressed feeling of dismay that seed is being wasted on undeserving soil. I often hear about things like this from friends and family when I talk about mission trips or becoming a missionary—after all, part of the American dream is to turn ourselves into good soil at any cost. Today our high school youth, along with their adult leaders, will leave for a week in the inner city. When I told a friend about this trip he asked why I would take our youth “down there” where people don’t want to work, they only want to take advantage of the system. I wonder if this person thinks we’ll be wasting seeds of grace and love when we meet homeless children or when we make meals for hungry people? I don’t think we like to think about these kinds of things—they make us uncomfortable, they make us confront our stereotypes and prejudices, they make us defensive. I think that might be a sign that, once again, Jesus has used a story of God’s love to turn our world upside down.
Did you notice what’s happened in the way we use this parable in daily conversation? The traditional way this parable is explained is that we are the soil, which is an important and useful interpretation. But it seems we often also see ourselves as the sower. But if we follow the story the way Jesus tells it, being the sower means participating in God’s mission by recklessly scattering seeds of love and grace, seeds of good news, wherever we go. Not just in places that we think are worthy of the seeds, but every place. The soil we’re tossing seed to isn’t only the carefully cultivated soil but also the rocky, the weedy, the hard-packed. The soil that looks messy, unkempt, unworthy, that just looks like dirt. God can work with any kind of soil, after all, and so God scatters seeds recklessly and calls us to do the same. May it be so.
Thanks be to God.