Pentecost IX, Proper 10 (A)
July 13, 2008
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, Lover of all, we hold before you: those burdened by regrets and anxieties, those broken in spirit or in body, those torn by relationships and doubt, those who feel deeply the divisions and injustices of this world, and all those who carry and uphold them in prayer this day. Amen.
Today’s gospel reading is very familiar – the parable of the sower, or more to the point, the parable of the four soils. I am willing to bet that most all of us learned this one in Sunday school. Millions enjoyed the graphic enactment of the parable in the movie “Godspell.” For centuries, paintings and stained-glass art have represented it. It is easy to remember because of the vivid description, we readily envision an ancient farmer striding through a rough field with a bag hanging on one side as he casts handfuls of seed on the other. We can also imagine a wider-angle view around the field – with birds flying over a hard-packed path, rocks sticking up out of the shallow earth, and patches of thorny weeds growing menacingly. For that matter, many of us who garden or work in our yards or in the fields here on the Vineyard are not that far removed from the approach to agriculture that is depicted in this parable.
At the same time, anyone familiar with a twenty-first century farming community will recognize that the parable presents a somewhat strange and unproductive method of agriculture. Modern farming practices are a much more efficient operation – a neater, more productive one, with nothing but rich soil devoid of rocks and sprayed with fertilizers and chemicals to control the growth of weeds and health of the plants. Paths do not cut across most modern fields; today tractors plow within a few feet of remaining farm houses and barns. Sophisticated machinery plant seeds precisely and nowadays almost nothing is left to chance.
I doubt that Jesus would be very impressed with modern farming methods, because he was not really interested in telling us about growing crops. He simply took a familiar activity of his time and used it to illustrate an important fact of human life. From this perspective, the lessons are as important today as they were 2,000 years ago. Though modern agricultural methods are much different from those of former centuries, our lives are not so different from those who lived in Biblical times.
We might pause to consider that in trying to apply the parable to our lives, the odds are against us: there are three kinds of bad soil and only one that is truly productive. Yet the Christian life is never free of challenge and our presence here today reminds us that it is worth the effort. Today’s challenge comes from Jesus’ wonderful extended metaphor that can help us discipline our lives and provide us with a helpful self-evaluation. If we have the courage to examine ourselves in light of the four kinds of soils, we can become more like what God hopes for and intends us.
Everybody knows the old saying about optimists and pessimists – how a pessimist says the glass is half empty and an optimist says the same glass is half full. It’s a familiar platitude. But did you ever stop to think about how terribly important the issue here is? It really matters how you understand the glass under consideration. What if someone asks you to share whatever is in it? What if you wondered whether you were blessed or needy, rich or poor? What about choosing to live gratefully and generously, or resentfully and selfishly?
The perspective of the glass being half empty easily inspires one way of living; just as the other perspective (it’s half full) inspires a radically different way. Yet they are both based on the same objective facts: the same glass, the same contents. What matters is how we see things. This parable that Jesus just told us has at its heart this notion of perspective, of how you see things.
One place to start is by remembering that, these days, this parable is all about us. That is, we are the sowers, we are the ones called to “go out to sow,” to try to live as our faith calls us to live, to try to share our faith in word and deed with those whom God puts in our path; to share the love of God that we have been so abundantly given.
And that means taking action, getting out and doing things. It involves reaching out to people; it involves serving, and caring, and risking – all sorts of scary things like that. However, if we try to do this, if we try to offer ourselves, our time, our energy, our caring, to others, then before very long, (like, pretty much immediately), we’re going to wonder whether it’s worth it; we’re going to wonder whether anything of value or meaning is going to come from all of our efforts.
We will wonder that because we will notice – and that right quickly – that a whole lot of what we do appears to be wasted effort. Nothing much comes of it. Isn’t that right? A lot of our efforts are wasted. Now, I want you to hold on to that thought, because I will come back to it after another look at the parable.
The first people who heard this story knew all about a sower going out to sow; they saw it happen, they in fact did it themselves, year after year. They knew that seed was usually sown by broadcasting it. That is, the farmer would walk along and toss it out in every which direction. The land was plowed later, after it had been sown. This means that when you were tossing out the seeds, it was virtually impossible to tell what sort of soil it was landing on. It all looked pretty much the same from the point of view of the one who was out there sowing. (What’s more, if you stopped every few yards to take a soil sample, your family and perhaps even the whole town would probably starve.)
So, everything that Jesus said about problems – the thin soil, the rocks, hungry birds, thorns, weeds, whatever – this was all old news to his original hearers. That was the way it always worked. Much, probably most, of what you sowed would be wasted. They all knew that.
Now, if the important part of this parable were about the soils, and the difficulties that come with planting anything, and the dangers involved, and the seeds that would be wasted, then there was no big deal here at all. There was nothing new or interesting in it – the people listening to this story already knew all about that.
However, there is one thing that was really shocking to the first people who heard this parable. That was the yield, the harvest. Seven or eight fold was probably about all that could ever be hoped for. Ten fold was amazing, and anything above that was simply inconceivable.
Yet even the poorest yield as told in this parable was beyond their experience – and the greatest almost beyond comprehension. To promise this sort of result was more than optimistic – it was to live in a whole different order of creation; it was to operate out of a whole different vision.
To sow with this sort of hope and vision is to have the perspective of the Kingdom of God. With this vision you don’t mind the rocks or the birds or the thin soil or whatever else may get in the way. All of that stuff just doesn’t matter. It is swallowed up in the promise of the entire task that is before you. This perspective, the promise of a vast, almost unconceivable harvest, is the very heart of this story.
After all, we already know that much of what we do is wasted. We know that very well. We already know what it is like to try and try and try to care and to make a difference and not get anywhere, or not be noticed, or not succeed, or (perhaps worst of all) not even be appreciated. We know what it is like to reach out a hand and get it bitten or to pull back a bloody stump. We know all about that. If the parable is about that, then it doesn’t have much new or interesting to say to our contemporary lives.
Instead, remember that the point of the parable, and the point of what it is that we are about, what it is that we do, is that, by the grace of God, the harvest will be great beyond measure, great beyond belief, great beyond imagining. What God will make of our efforts is more than we can imagine. Much will be wasted, but that isn’t what matters; that’s all right.
And the one who sows – that’s us, you and me – we do not need to worry about that. The one who sows is simply called to scatter the seed – to love and to serve – and to trust. The rest will be taken care of. This is not because of our abilities; it is because of the grace and power of God.
This perspective of hope and confidence is the gift of the parable. There is a carefree abandon to this image. We are to broadcast love and service, knowing full well that most of what we do won’t amount to anything, that bad things are going to happen – but trusting, none the less, in the incomprehensible abundance of the harvest. Yes, without a doubt, much will be wasted, at least as our human eyes have the ability to see it. Maybe even our very favorite seed, our best, most self-sacrificing good deed, our smartest remark, our greatest insight, will end up on a rocky path, or inside some gluttonous bird. But that is not ours to control; it is not ours to fix; it is not even ours to worry about.
Each one of us individually, and our parish itself, all of us together, have at our feet fields to walk and seed to sow. We are called to do that. This parable is a gift to empower us to lighten our step and extend our reach. It gives us the wonderful gift of perspective. So we can wave at the birds and smile at the weeds – because after all is said and done, they are not any concern to us at all.
For the love we offer in the Lord’s name is the word of the Kingdom of God. And that word, God promises, will not return to God empty – but it shall accomplish that which God intends for it; and it will prosper in the thing for which it is sent. Amen.