Proper 10A July 10 by the Rev. Kate Ekrem
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Did you notice that our Gospel reading skips around a bit? We leave out verses 9-18 of this chapter and hear Jesus’s parable of the Sower, then skip to the explanation of the parable. In between, in the part that our lectionary leaves out, the disciples ask Jesus, “why do you speak in parables? They’re kind of hard to understand!” And Jesus’ response indicates that parables are not supposed to be easy to understand or easily explainable, but instead that we have to be in the right frame of mind to hear them. So the second half of our reading, the explanation, was likely not part of Jesus’ teachingbut was added later by someone trying to explain what Jesus indicated was not really very explainable.
Given that, it’s interesting that the explanation is all about us – and in some sense about our human tendency to categorize and label other people – while the original parable is more focused on the action of the Sower, on what God does, spreading God’s word in Jesus around. The tension between this parable and its explanation to me points to a tension between God’s action – planting the seed and making it grow – and our action, of being good soil. Which is most important?
There’s a children’s story about a raccoon teaching his friend the opossum how to grow a garden. The raccoon gives the opossum some seed and possum rushes home to plant the seeds. He’s very excited to see the results and the next morning runs outside to see what happened. But nothing has happened. He’s really upset. So raccoon tells him, "You can't make the seeds grow. You can only make sure they get sun and water, then watch them do their work. The life is in the seed, not in you."
The seed works in secret, under the ground, mysteriously sprouting into something. Seed is life-giving gift from God – given liberally to everyone, all places. God does not examine whether a place will receive the word, the seed, well and use it wisely before giving it. He just gives it everywhere. The seed does its work regardless of the situation – it will not be stopped from germinating. Even if seed is eaten by birds, it just gets planted someplace else (when the birds eliminate it), or if it dies rots, it goes into soil, still providing life. God’s will for the seed to create life can’t be stopped. Its nature of self-giving is never changed.
The farmer does have some work to do, preparing the ground, making sure the soil is good. It’s interesting that the Sower in the parable doesn’t do that. He doesn’t prepare the ground. He just throws seed everywhere. This sower is not actually a good farmer and not at all like our modern agribusiness. What if God was like a big agribusiness? Would then all the seeds planted in exact right place, genetically modified to do one thing only, and machines would put seeds at perfect depth and at exact density for maximum yield? What if God sowed his word this way? Hmm…. we’d have a smaller number of “crops,” of disciples, but they’d have a larger yield, more like a few super-disciples. A few chosen people who had the most possible spiritual power and mission abilities. They might really do amazing things, like build huge churches or create world-changing mission projects. And these super-disciples would do exactly the predictable thing, too. When Burpee designs a Big Boy tomato seed, it grows into a Big Boy tomato plant and nothing else. You get predictable results. Just the mission project or mega church that you want, or whatever it is. If God were an agri-buisness.
The sower sows seeds in a way totally different than that. It may waste a lot of seeds, but it has other advantages. With old fashioned seeds, you don’t know always know what you are going to get; it could cross pollinate with another plant and grow some totally different kind of tomato. It’s unpredictable, you take your chances. But it also adapts and changes. My husband is sort of a vegetable gardening nut, and he will only buy the old fashioned kind of seeds, because you can’t save genetically engineered seeds. You can’t grow a Big Boy tomato, dry the seeds, and plant them to get tomatoes next year. they won’t grow, they are sterile. But with old-fashioned seeds, you can save a couple of tomatoes and replant the seeds for next year, and they actually adapt to your backyard. That’s what Dave has been trying to do. If you do it year to year, saving the best tomatoes for seeds, they will get more and more adapted to the particular soil and weather of your own backyard. That’s natural selection, right? So your tomatoes, in a few years, might be very different from your neighbors or somebody’s in another state. Lots of different tomatoes, diversity, adaptability, unpredictability, I wonder if those are values of this sower who is sowing. I wonder if that is why the sower throws the seed liberally everywhere, rather than planting a few super-seeds.
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that God would go for the super-seeds, that God would want to create heroes and perfect disciples to do everything right to make God’s plans happen? That’s our human impression sometimes, but God apparently doesn’t work like that. God sows seed everywhere. We’re not super-disciples, but apparently, maybe were not supposed to be. Perhaps, like the opossum, we need to remember that the life is in the seed, and part of our job is to get out of the way, clear away the thorns and rocks, and let God do the work. Really, all of us are all four kinds of soil. We all have our thorns, our anxieties and concerns that keep us from God, we all have our hard places and sudden enthusiasms that we don’t follow through on. And we all have our deep ground, too. We can all be better gardeners, and spending time tilling our soil, clearing away the rocks and thorns, finding our roots, is important. How we respond to God’s seeds, God’s growth in us, is our part of the work.
But what the story is about is how God’s purposes come true. No matter where the seed is sown, the harvest will happen. Can we let that seed, the knowledge that God’s love for us, and life in us, is not based on our worth or actions or perfections, can we let it fall on fertile soil in our hearts and mind, and let it root deeply and grow tall.