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!” (Matthew 13:1-9)
My mother’s side of the family is Pennsylvania Dutch, Mennonite, and though I didn’t grow up on a farm, many of my Mennonite relatives were (and are) farmers. When I was young, it always fascinated me to spend time with them down in southern Illinois. And so my backdrop for hearing this story Jesus tells about the sower is from my own experience down on the farm. This parable of the sower which Jesus tells does not ring true to me. No farmer, no sower – whether it be with corn in Illinois, or apple trees in Massachusetts, or with grapes and figs in Israel/Palestine – no farmer, no sower would sow seeds like Jesus describes. I don’t think so.
What I saw growing up was how my farmer-uncles would prepare the land. Rocks were always floating to the surface of the fields, and those rocks had to be constantly cleared. Weeds were a never-ending problem. Some of them were tilled away; some of them were sprayed away; some of them were pulled. There was the never-ending task of constructing and repairing fencing around the fields, mostly to keep livestock off the field, but also to clearly demarcate the land – where certain crops would be planted, where boundaries were set – lest there be confusion with the neighbors. As one of my uncles would say: “Fences help keep honest people honest.” Also, with the fences, there were fewer chances that neighbor folks would take shortcuts across the fields and unintentionally destroy the young crops. Then there was the constant problem of birds wanting to feast on newly sown seed, and so I remember my uncles’ occasionally using scarecrows and netting and high-decibel horns to keep the birds off the tender soil. The ground was also aerated and fertilized. And there was careful attention paid to the grade of the land so that the rains would evenly irrigate the fields and not simply flood a certain portion of the crops, washing away the seed or the young plants. I also remember my uncles’ regularly leaving portions of their lands fallow, giving the land a rest. This gave reverence to the land… but it also, ultimately, produced bigger and better crops. That is how I saw my Mennonite uncles preparing the land in which they would very carefully sow seed… which was never wasted, both because it was expensive and because it was so precious.
Which brings me back to the story that Jesus tells about a sower and why this story does not ring true to me. Now, mind you, I’m quite aware that most of my experience of farming comes from the 1950s and 1960s in southern Illinois, which is far from first-century Palestine. But I have spent an amount of time in recent years in the Holy Land and in rural Africa. From what I have seen of farming there – both where the agricultural technology is extraordinarily advanced and where simple farmers, out in rural areas, are tilling their plots with oxen, not unlike their ancestors 2,000 years ago – the principles of farming and sowing seed look remarkably the same to me. And the reason that Jesus’ story does not ring true to me is that no sower – 2,000 years ago or now – no sower would sow seed the way Jesus describes. No sower would sow seed with the kind of reckless abandon that Jesus describes. I’ll bet you don’t do it that way in your backyard garden and neither does a New England farmer.
No sower would intentionally sow seed on a path where birds are known to feed. No sower would intentionally sow seed on rocky ground where there is no depth of soil and where it surely will get scorched. No sower would intentionally sow seeds among thorns that, obviously, will choke the seedlings to death. Sowers sow seed on ground that is prepared and promising. Period. Farmers – ancient farmers, modern farmers, backyard gardeners – simply do not do what Jesus describes here. It does not ring true to me… unless Jesus is trying to make some other kind of point. And I think he is.
In the gospels things often get turned upside down. Jesus is forever catching people off guard because it’s usually not the way they thought it would be. (Jesus has this “one liner” that goes: “You have heard it said… but I say….”) And I think that’s a clue to understanding this conundrum. This is one of Jesus’ upside-down stories. This is not the way farmers farm, and Jesus’ listeners, then and now, would know it. But this is the way God sows the seeds of life and love into this world, every day, and with a kind of reckless generosity. And that does ring true to me. I imagine all of you know what it is to participate in God’s generously sowing seeds of life and love into the world. You do this most every day. You know what it is to give everything you’ve got, again and again, for the life and growth and transformation of other people in your life. You likely know about this in your relationships with your spouse or partner, with your parents or siblings or children, with your friends and neighbors and colleagues.
I suspect you know very well what it is to sow seeds of life and love onto a path, and you can clearly see it’s a path. It may be the path on which you’ve been required to march; it may be a path on which your forbearers or predecessors walked and worked, not necessarily a path of your choosing but it is now your lot. It may be the path of history, full of precedent, perhaps full of problems; you pray that it also be full of promise. And yet you can see that the way you are sowing and what you are sowing – your best seed from the prime of your life, the prospect of its being received, of taking root, of even being noticed is some days highly unlikely. More likely it will be ignored or wasted, and maybe even despised or rejected. This may not a path of your own choosing, but it is where you now are, sowing for all your life, and you could do none other.1
You may know very well what it is to sow on rocky ground, with no depth of soil… where there’s such shallowness, immaturity, pettiness, small-mindedness, inward looking, where narcissism is called faithfulness or self actualization or duty. When Jesus talks about the sown seed in this shallow ground being “scorched,” I imagine many of you can identify with that: what it is, shall we say, to be “burned” by someone, especially when you knew it was coming. No matter what you would do, what you would say, how you would react, given the best you could possibly be or do, no matter, it would be used against you. Perhaps you’ll be roasted or slandered or gossiped about. You know the ground on which you dwell. You weren’t born yesterday. You can see this coming; you know it will happen. And yet, these are the parameters of your field of service, this is your life, these are the limitations in which you must live and work. You have few, if any, alternatives if you’re to have integrity. This is where you’ve been called; these are the pitifully, painfully inadequate resources you’ve been given to work with; this is the talent pool from which you can draw; this is the weather that you find; and with wide eyes, you sow and sow and sow the very best seeds of life and love among those with whom you live and work.
You may know what it is to sow seeds where you can see there are choking weeds: your having to interact or interface with individuals or groups in settings where you are, in actuality, not welcome. The interventions or altercations you cannot avoid, and where you face lose-lose propositions. And the defense which you would long to make for yourself – why you did what you did, or spoke what you spoke – a defense which you can seldom make for yourself because only God, and perhaps God alone, can know what you know. If they could know what you know, they would say “Hosanna” and want to crown you; but they don’t know and probably cannot know, and so instead, some days, you are simply crucified. Some days, some seasons, you can probably feel the life being choked right out of you by the strangling weeds.
You also know a great deal about good soil. Whether it’s an enormous plot in your life right now or just a little patch. I hope you know what it is to sow your best seeds of life and love and see a return on your investment, thirty or sixty or a hundredfold, be it among your family members or friends or neighbors or colleagues. Some person, some place, some project, some outreach or ministry is like the apple of your eye.2 That fecundity keeps you going when the way is rough.
This Gospel story may be a mirror of your life. You sow seeds for all you’ve got, day after day. You are sowing, not so much as a farmer but as a co-creator, co-creating with God who then sows the seeds of life and love with reckless abandon. We worship and serve a God who, in the beginning, creates life out of nothing, and who sows with a reckless, unbounded love even where there will be no soon return. Jesus’ parable about the sower is like that old TV program, “This Is Your Life.” I suspect that Jesus’ story, if turned upside down, rings true for many of you here. This is your story.
I’d like to name just one more thing in this Gospel passage. It’s one “soil layer” deeper. This story is not only about what you do; it’s also about what you are to God. You re-present the sower, and yet you are also this ground Jesus describes.
Where you are right now is not where you were five years ago, or ten years ago or twenty years ago, or when you were an adolescent or child. You have changed, I bet. Many things about you are now quite different than they were. This story Jesus tells may be how God has experienced you over the years of your life. I can only imagine that there have been periods in your own life where you were like that rocky path, and the best seeds of God’s life and love for you were trampled or ignored or scattered like the birds of the air – periods of your life where you didn’t get it. That there have been seasons, as you look back, where you were like that shallow ground. If you only knew then what you know now… but you didn’t… and God knew you didn’t, and yet God continued to sow seeds of life and love with reckless abandon into the ground of your being. That there have been periods of your life –maybe even now? – where your attention, your motives, your priorities have been very mixed, choked by preoccupations; your priorities and attention divided perhaps by ambition, perhaps deformed by revenges or angers, and God continued to recklessly sow the seeds of life and love into your being. God has all the time in the world. God has waited with hope for you, for what would grow within you when you were finally ready.
That the kind of faithful tilling, planting, watering, weeding, feeding that you do most every day in your life and your work actuality mirrors God’s work in your life, how God has worked for and wanted in you, since you were conceived. God has waited a long time for you to grow into who you have become today… which may be a great gift of hope for you as you participate in tilling the soil of God’s kingdom. God waits for us and God waits on us, stooping low to meet us at the ground of our being, where we are. And, God knows, in the fullness of time, roses do bloom, even in the desert. You are like a beautiful rose for God, for whom it was well worth the wait.
You are the sower; you are the sown. And God has even more in mind for you, far beyond what you could even ask or imagine.3 There’s more. And it is very good. Keep it up! God will.
1 St. Paul uses evocative metaphors in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17 to describe the essence of who we are: “But thanks be to God who also leads us in triumph and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of God everywhere, for you are the aroma of Christ….”
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