July 16, 2017
William G. Carter
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 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!”
I am always astonished at the tenacity of vegetation. The dandelion pops up overnight, blossoms in a burst of yellow, then explodes in a puff and scatters across the yard. There’s a vine that wraps itself around the back fence. Every year it gets snipped down to the soil, but every year it returns and grows taller. It’s well planted. Or there’s the blade of grass that pokes its head out of the crack in the driveway – how did the seed get there?
It appears a good seed, given the right conditions, can grow just about anywhere. A few years ago, my mother gave us some a few spearmint plants for the front garden. They took over. Now there’s no room for anything else. The few daisies that our friend Carol shared were planted in our rocky backyard and they are doing just fine. While I sipped my morning coffee, I saw them greeting the morning sun and singing alleluia.
A good seed can grow just about anywhere – but not everywhere. The rocky mountain has a bald spot somewhere around ten thousand feet. The grass grows in the crack of my driveway, but not on the driveway itself. And if it ever stops raining this summer, the sun might eventually burn out the well-lit lawn.
So Jesus tosses this familiar parable toward the ears of his hearers, uncertain where it will land. There is no telling which response will happen this time.
Some of us will race ahead a paragraph or two, and find a freeze-dried, just-add-water explanation of the parable. It’s given in the same style as Saint Augustine, who taught that the parables can function like a hidden code. He liked to say that every detail of the parable stood for something else. The Word of God’s kingdom equals the seed. Each patch of soil equals the individual listener. Rocky soil is the person with no depth. The scorching sun equals the troubles of this life. The thorns that choke out the seed are cares of the world and the lure of wealth, and so on.
This is how the early church understood the parable. It is an obvious interpretation that comes by observation. Just watch who shows up on a Sunday, and the following Sunday. Take note of who is flourishing. The Gospel seed is thrown into all kinds of soil.
There are people who stumble into a church, sit down and listen, and quickly discover a life-giving Word from God. They are excited. They return early the next week. They sit down front. But should they lose a job, have trouble at home, get snubbed at coffee hour, or discover that all the Christians have flaws, they may slip away. And if they hear something challenging in a sermon or a Bible study, they evaporate. Nothing grows. They are only around for the excitement, not the growth. It’s easy to call that shallow soil.
Or consider the people who move into town, buy the big house, have 2.3 perfect children, and drive the big car. They come to First Presbyterian Church, because it would never occur to them to go to Last Presbyterian Church. The music is stunning, the building is well-kept, the preacher went to Princeton, and most of the people look just like them.
But then, some friends at the Club mention some wonderful vacation spots. The kids get involved in weekend sports, not because they’re great athletes, but there’s where their friends are. Time passes, and one of the deacons seems them in the grocery store on a Tuesday night. “It’s been forever since we’ve been in church,” they confess. “Our weekends are just so busy.” The Bible says, “Cares of the world, the lure of wealth, it yields nothing.”
It’s easy to evaluate by the results. That’s how John Calvin developed his views on predestination. Calvin was preaching the Gospel twice a day, every day. He noticed that some people got it and others fell asleep. Some people grew in the faith while others daydreamed. Calvin said, “Obviously God has turned on the lights for some and kept the lights off for others.” It never occurred to him to evaluate the quality of his sermons, but, well, he was noticing the results.
American church people love to look at the results. Where is the growth happening? Where is there a thirty-fold, sixty-fold, hundred-fold return? Where are the other churches growing? What are they doing? What fresh ideas can we steal from them? After all, they’ve been stealing our members; we should up our game and steal some of theirs.
It’s tempting to look at the results. If you look at the results, you never ask what kind of soil you are. Is this acidic soil? Are there some rocks here? Has it been paved over?
Even tougher: have I allowed the crows to snatch the seed away from me? Are there thorns of privilege and affluence wrapping themselves around my legs?
It’s a hundred times easier to look out there than it is to reflect in the mirror and ask, “Why isn’t the seed of God’s kingdom growing and flourishing in me?” It is a worthy question - - but I don’t think it has a lot to do with the parable.
This is the parable of the Sower. The Sower went out to sow. And what does he do? He throws the seed all over the place. He shows no caution, no preparation, no hesitation, and so the seed goes everywhere. He does not prepare the ground, pull up the weeds, or remove the stones. He doesn’t chase away the birds, block the sun, or chop down the thorns. No, he’s not the gardener. He is the Sower.
So let’s pay attention to what we learn about him. I have made a list.
First item on the list: he has a lot of seed. He never runs out of seed. You might say he’s the source of all the seed. Never has a shortage when it comes to sowing the seed.
Second item on the list: this Sower is terrifically generous. He throws the seed all over the place. It’s not restricted to carefully dug furrows. The seed is thrown everywhere. It doesn’t matter if the soil is rough or welcoming. There is always fertile seed which carries its own promise within its own shell.
Third item on the list: the Sower is not interested in controlling the outcome. All he wants to do is spread the seed around as far as he can. There are all kinds of soil; for all we know, the Sower may have created all that soil too. But for now, it is the season for seeding, and he is doing a marvelous job. The seed is all over.
Fourth, and maybe the most important item on the list: the Sower knows if that seed is going to grow, it’s going to grow. It’s good quality seed, the best seed possible. In fact, it might be the only seed there is. Its source is in the Sower. It is his seed, and his seed alone.
As I reflected on this, I remembered the prophetic poem of Isaiah which we included as one of the readings for today. Let me remind us of the pithy parts:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
Do you know what I hear emerge in those words? That God is responsible for God’s own kingdom. That God gives life to the soil and the soul. That God’s own Word will take root and flourish. That God is not concerned with wasting words but creating bread, specifically the Bread of Life.
So I think about this. I don’t believe our job is to be selective, restrictive, or evaluative. No, in the name of the Sower, we are called to be generous. Keep spreading the seed of God’s kingdom.
I recall a conversation with a youth group leader. She was feeling worn out. Plans would be made for the youth of our community, and few of the kids would show up. She would say, “I don’t know what to do.” I responded, “Keep going. You never know when the seed might take root.” So she would try again. There would be little, if no response.
One day, she was getting ready to send out some information and she had two sets of labels. I said, “Why two sets of labels?” Well, one was the A List, and the other was the B List. The A List comprised the few kids who were a sure bet to come – they loved the program, or their parents forced them to come, or maybe both. The B List named the kids who never came. The information was only going to get sent to the A List. She said, “Why should we waste the invitation on the ones who never come?”
I simply responded, “Because you never know.” You never really know. This is not harvest time yet. It’s sowing time. And God has a way of creating life where you can’t imagine it possible. Come over and look at the grass sprouting up in the cracks of my driveway.
Now if you have ears to hear, and you hear this parable of Jesus, and if you flinch when you hear him speak of “shallow soil” or “the thorns that choke out the seed, due to the cares of the world or the lure of wealth,” pay attention to that. Make the necessary changes that you might welcome “the life that really is life.” (1 Timothy 6:19)
Every week, I meet people on the street or in the stores, and they say, “Oh, I don’t get to church as much as I should.” Or “it’s been a while since I’ve been to church.” Or “Hey stranger, I bet you’ve been missing me.” Well, of course I’ve been missing you. To quote a favorite poet, “What life have you if you have not life together?” It’s good for us to be together, if only for an hour a week.
But I cannot change anybody’s schedule for them. I am powerless to rearrange anybody else’s priorities. It is not my role to cancel somebody’s trip to the shore or declare that travel soccer is the bane of all Christian educators. It’s up to each of us to consider what we might do to welcome the Word that God speaks, to nourish it in our hearts, and take part in the fruitfulness of the Gospel of God.
And let's keep our eyes on the Sower. As for me, I want to sow the seed of the kingdom, as God sows the seed: generously, lovingly, without restriction, because I have seen what happens when the love of God takes root in a person’s life. The hopeless brighten like the summer daisies. The drunkard sells his beer and buys furniture. The self-centered suburbanite befriends the poor. The old crank transforms into Santa Claus. The fractured souls are healed.
The Gospel bears abundant fruit. Just as the Sower intended.