Image Description: A large field of golden wheat with a blue sky and clouds above. Public domain image.
This sermon was preached with Northside Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor and was focused upon Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23. An audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
‘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!’ . . .
A sower went out to sow.
That’s simple enough. That’s how Jesus’ parable begins. A sower went out to sow. Plain and simple. A sower went out to do what a sower does: Sow seeds.
But is it simple? I mean, what kind of sower is this, really?
Now I confess that I know little to nothing about farming, but even if I were to plant a small garden, perhaps large enough for me with some extra vegetables thrown in to share with friends from time to time, I would till the ground in some way, and I would sowmy seeds in a methodical way. I would likely place my seeds in rows. I would certainly place the seeds in such a way as to know where to find them! And even with my limited knowledge, I would somehow take inventory of my yard. I would discover which area of the yard has the best soil, or at the very least, which area of the yard has the greatest access to the right level of sunlight, not too much, not too little. I would look into these things. I would sow methodically.
But not this sower. Not at all. This sower seems to throw seeds around willy-nilly. A little here, a little there. It’s as if this sower just throws seeds to the wind, letting them end up wherever they might go.
So what would make someone do this? It doesn’t really make logical sense, does it? I suppose we can’t really know the answers to those questions, but perhaps this sower really had hope and faith that something positive – something fruitful – would come from these actions. So instead of picturing an irresponsible or even an inept sower, perhaps we might begin to see an image of playfulness here. Perhaps we might begin to see a sower who throws seed in absolute delight, with great abandon, with the entirety of the sower’s being overflowing with abundance, with full confidence that the seeds are just the beginning, and that the fruitful increase of unexpected harvest is just around the corner. Maybe our sower is that kind a sower – mysterious to us in ways that we can’t fully understand, yet a sower we can picture with our limited imagination, one we can envision as seeds are thrown with imagination and playfulness and even conviction. This is the sower of our parable.
So as Jesus speaks these words, this sower emerges as one who throws seeds continuously, everywhere with belief – with trust – that fruit will emerge even in the most unlikely of places. This is good news for us.
But you might also say, “Now wait a minute! Don’t some difficulties emerge in this parable too?” There’s is a good deal of realism in Jesus’ words, isn’t there? Some seeds end up on the path, and before they can get into the ground at all, they’re gobbled up, right into the stomachs of birds. Other seeds fall into shallow soil. No fault of their own. But the conditions just aren’t right for them to thrive in the long term. And still other seeds, fall into places where danger lurks. There are thorns and weeds growing around them, choking off the possibility for them to blossom and grow in a healthy way. Even though the final word of this parable is abundance, Jesus’ parable is full of realism too. And since you and I live in the real world, maybe it’s helpful to see that Jesus gets it. Maybe this is good news for us too.
I’m sure that Jesus’ first hearers could relate to this realism because many of them were farmers themselves. And if they weren’t farmers, they knew people who were. This parable was certainly a lived parable. Jesus’ audience knew what it was like to start with good intentions and then be forced to deal with a less than perfect harvest. They knew what it was like to sow well – perhaps even methodically – only to discover that conditions beyond their control could throw the harvest out of balance, or worse, cause its destruction. Drought, floods, and pests could threaten more than the livelihood of profit for an individual farmer. They could ravage the food supply entirely, all there is to live on. This is a lived parable, one to which Jesus’ hearers could relate.
But we also learn in the latter half of this passage that this parable isn’t just about seeds. It isn’t ultimately about farming techniques. It’s about people. It’s about us. And when we move to the level of people and the word of the Kingdom, this ultimate good news that Jesus depicts as seeds, we also see some realism here. When we move to this level, we realize again that this parable is a lived parable.
Jesus and his disciples were itinerant preachers, moving about all the time. And like sowers scattering seed, Jesus and his disciples were scattering words about everywhere, scattering words of good news – the Kingdom of God is coming and is already here! These seeds – these words of the Kingdom – are about the Ultimate Good, but in Jesus’ experience, they didn’t always lead to perfect blossoming when they were spoken. In the Gospel of Matthew, people misunderstand, people follow Jesus only to turn away when he makes inconvenient demands of them, people receive the word and yet struggle intensely with temptations; in the case of the rich young man, you may remember, the pursuit of wealth and the desire to keep many possessions were true stumbling blocks. Jesus and his disciples lived this parable.
And this is a parable that we live. When we think about our own lives – when we think about our relationship with that mysterious, imaginative, abundant Sower – we know that we have lived this parable. In the different moments of our lives, we too have misunderstood, we too have followed Jesus only to turn away when he makes inconvenient demands of us, we too have received the Word and yet struggled intensely with temptations. We’ve lived this parable too. And we’re not just one category. We’re not one type of seed or one type of soil. We’re not destined to live this way or to get stuck in any of these places. We’ve simply experienced them in our lives. That’s realism.
But this reality is not the final word. In order to know the what is the final word, in order to know Who is the final word, we need only to look to the Sower once again. On one hand, this Sower is so unlike us – unmethodical and persistent in imaginative possibilities. Yet on the other hand, this Sower is so with us! This is the Sower who never gives up, who believes an abundant harvest is not only possible but is what we are destined for. This is the Sower who keeps throwing seeds our way – seeds of love, calling, nurture, vision – who keeps willing us and dreaming us into good soil. This is the Sower who looks at each one of us and at this community of us and says, “You are Beloved. And I have named you and claimed you to be endlessly and profoundly good in my sight.” This is the Sower who knows the soil. This is the Sower who throws seed with total abandon and reaps a harvest beyond all imagination. This is the Sower who makes a harvest out of us, one that is miraculous. Apart from that Sower’s vision and action, it seems almost unbelievable.
It is almost unbelievable, isn’t it? When we look back on this parable and see seeds thrown all over the place – upon the beaten, bird-filled path; upon the barren, shallow soil; upon the soil filled with stumbling blocks of weeds and thorns – it would be miraculous if even a normal harvest were to emerge. It would be miraculous if the typical harvest were to come through: five-fold or seven-fold. But that’s not what happens here. Despite difficulties and problems, this Sower produces harvests that are thirty-fold, sixty-fold, beyond all odds, one-hundred-fold! This is miraculous! This is astounding! This Sower who knows the soil dreams possibilities for harvest that come to fruition beyond our wildest imagination! Incredible.
When Jesus tells parables, he often issues a call. “Let anyone who has ears, listen!” Maybe Jesus is saying something similar to us in this moment, “Listen up! Notice what’s around you right now! Pay attention!” As God spoke to Moses in the wilderness, perhaps our Sower is telling us, “Pay attention! Look around you and see that you are on Holy Ground! Together, you are Holy Ground. Open your eyes and ears and recognize that you are on good, holy soil!”
You know, a healthy dose of realism that takes difficulties seriously and sees them for what they are is a gift. But those difficulties are not the final word. Realism: We’re living during a pandemic. We ourselves are scattered like seeds and more physically distant from the nurture of one another. Realism: We’re living in a world with systemic harms. Systemic racism persists. People are pushed into poverty. Some are maligned for their body’s needs. Some are discriminated against because of who they love or for daring to live precisely as the people they are.
It’s good that we’re paying attention to these needs. It’s crucial to note this realism. That’s part of our calling. It’s a call to action. And at the same time, we can open all our senses to the constant seed-throwing that’s coming our way, that’s happening around us, and among us, and in us, and even sometimes, in spite of us.
So here is a message for us today:
Notice this love. Notice its possibilities and its actualities. Notice a Sower who weaves us together even though we’re physically distanced. Notice a Sower who doesn’t give up on us but still dreams a better world around us and through us. Notice a Sower who persists. Notice a Sower who is playful. Notice a Sower that does indeed bring about abundance, not in one area alone but broadly and fully in many directions.
And know this too: You are good, holy soil. We will keep that realism present. And we will keep our dreaming and our acting present. While we do that, God, our Sower, will keep calling us to live with joyful abandon and abundance. So go forth expecting an unimaginable harvest. Go forth expecting that we’ll see flourishing in truly surprising places. And in all of it, thanks be to God. Amen.
***This sermon was influenced and enriched by the insights of four authors who write on this passage in Feasting Upon the Word: Year A: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost. Those authors are Gary Peluso-Verdend, Talitha J. Arnold, J. David Waugh, and Theodore J. Wardlaw.
Disclaimer: You should really only watch this video if you’re willing to have a better day. Because it’s pretty challenging to avoid the joy here. The precious kiddo in the blue shirt just can’t keep it together. When you pair clapping with sudden bursts of silence, it’s . . . well, the best thing in the whole world.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” – Luke 10: 38-42
Image Description: Bright, yellow flowers with green stems and leaves on a brown table with two brown chairs behind them. The flowers are leaning over the container in many directions.
Before COVID-19 hit, I used to keep yellow alstroemeria flowers on the dining room table. I did this regularly because they’re beautiful, but I also loved that when I brought them home and put them in a vase, they would typically last for about three weeks.
Around this time last year, I bought a bouquet. I kept them in their sleeve on a table for just a couple of hours, and… they wilted completely. Way more than the first photo above. They seemed destroyed. This was such a quick transformation that I assumed I needed to put them immediately in the compost.
“Well, I guess I’ll try,” I thought. I put these extremely wilted flowers in a vase with water and plant food. They looked like a sad cartoon. Then I ran an errand, and when I came back, they had perked right up. This too was completely surprising to me. And a couple of days later, they were even stronger and more vibrant.
This had me thinking…
Sometimes, nourishment is the work.
Nourishment is what we need. We can give this gift to ourselves in self-care. And community-care can be even more transformative, when with consent and empowerment, we are nourishing each other.
Sometimes, nourishment is the work. And when we choose it and help cultivate these nourishing conditions collectively, more is possible than we tend to think. Sometimes the seemingly impossible becomes possible.
Image Description: A group of lambs. Some are eating grass. Some are looking around. Public domain image.
If you’re feeling stressed in any way, I just want you to know about this thing that happens. I want you to imagine it and smile.
I have a friend who lives on a farm where they raise sheep. And every night before sunset, all of this year’s lambs, who are now functionally tweens, get together in a little tweeny bopper gang and run around the farm en masse. It’s a thing they do.
As they near dusk, they just get the urge to be with their peers and exert their energy in a collective romp around all the grounds of the farm. A little gang. Of tweeny bopper sheep. Running around together. In the joy of adolescence.
I just want you to know about these tweeny bopper sheep.
I want you to know that this happens every day.
Image Description: This image shares the four primary nervous system responses to trauma — fight, flight, freeze, and fawn — as well as symptoms for each and ways they are commonly mislabeled. I am sharing the image text throughout the blog post below. I found this image on @SELSpace on Facebook.
As we move through this time of upheaval and pandemic, this is an important time to learn about trauma and the responses that our nervous systems often take in response. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, we can move into states of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. We might also vacillate between a couple of these.
In addition to these becoming activated due to present circumstances,
— some people have endured past traumas as well, and these can become reactivated in our nervous systems in these ways,
— some people have lived with dysregulated nervous systems throughout much their lives, not necessarily remembering large, traumatic events in childhood, but rather, growing up in households that felt stressful and overwhelming in a generalized way. In these households, it was difficult to have needs cared for and nurtured, or caregivers may have also had dysregulated nervous systems, making it difficult to co-regulate alongside them.
In both of these instances, people may live with symptoms of PTSD or CPTSD (the C stands for complex and means that the traumatic events or environment was long-lasting).
In a moment, I’m going to list symptoms of the 4F pathways of trauma. You may recognize some of these in yourself or your loved ones. Please know that these don’t have to remain stuck or static in the body, and we don’t have to stay stuck or static in these patterns. There is help. Therapy certainly helps, and it’s okay to seek that help. In fact, it can be transformative. There are a variety of somatic therapies that help to heal our bodies and these patterns. (As just one example, I’m a big cheerleader for EMDR. Check it out.)
These are the 4Fs of trauma and PTSD. Which pathways tend to be primary for you? I am typing out the text of the image above.
‘Self-preservation at all costs
Explosive temper and outbursts
Aggressive, angry behavior
Can’t ‘hear’ other points of view
A pronounced sense of entitlement
Demands perfection from others
Typically mis-labelled as
– Conduct disorder
Obsessive and/or compulsive behavior
Feelings of panic and anxiety
Can’t sit still, can’t relax
Tries to micromanage situations and other people
Always ‘on the go;’ busy doing things
Wants things to be perfect
Typically mis-labelled as
– Panic disorder
– Mood Disorder
Isolating self from the outside world
Difficulties making decisions, acting on decisions
Wants to hide from the world
Feels ‘dead,’ lifeless
Typically mis-labelled as
– Clinical depression
Scared to say what they really think
Talks about ‘the other’ instead of themselves
Flatters others (to avoid conflict)
‘Angel of mercy’
Can’t stand up for the self, say ‘no’
Easily exploited by others
Hugely concerned with social standing and acceptance, ‘fitting in’
‘Yes’ man (or woman…)
Typically mis-labelled as
Do you recognize these patterns in yourself or your loved ones? They are natural and do truly discharge traumatic energy. Our bodies have them because we need them at times. But we don’t want to become stuck in them. That causes larger problems for us. These patterns may spin out, causing us pain, and impacting our relationships.
But we can heal these patterns, and we can do the work of healing the systems that cause so much trauma in the first place. I love how the word ‘heal’ is both passive and active at once. We receive healing and cultivate it over time, and we can act as healers for a world with less trauma.
This is a sermon I prepared for Northside Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor this morning on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. Most of the scripture text is embedded in the sermon. The video above is from Facebook Live. If you have any challenges accessing the video in this post, feel free to go here. There is a transcript below.
I know this doesn’t come as a surprise, but…
There are times when people don’t want to listen and don’t want to change. There are times when we don’t want to listen, and we don’t want to change. And so we live in contradictions — whether they are held within ourselves, or whether they are held within our culture at large, particularly upheld by those who have the most power.
“I don’t see color,” some say, while also making broad, generalizing statements about whole groups of people according to their skin color and what “they” are like.
“I want a haircut!” some demand in protest at the Michigan state capitol — some also with guns — while lambasting Black Lives Matter protests against state violence and police brutality.
“Wearing a mask is an infringement on my liberty!” some cry, including some in Texas where other Texans are no longer permitted for the time being to have important surgeries because medical professionals need to make more space to treat COVID patients.
These contradictions are all on display right now. And we carry some inside ourselves — some large, but some much more subtle. They’re not always sinister, though they can be difficult or painful. They may also do harm inside ourselves or to others.
Of course, there are also times when people use contradictions as excuses to avoid listening or changing. There are times when we use contradictions as excuses to avoid listening or changing.
Our Gospel text begins with one of these. In fact, Jesus is frustrated with it. “To what will I compare this generation?” he laments. Then he seeks some analogy, some image to bring it home. “It’s like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,”
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed and you did not mourn.’”
It’s never good enough. There’s always some excuse not to participate or change. There’s always some excuse to discredit the ones who are calling for participation or change.
Jesus continues and says, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon;’ the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’”
Indeedit’s never good enough. There’s always some excuse not to participate or change. There’s always some excuse to discredit the ones who are calling for participation or change.
“Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” Jesus says. When we live our lives in the direction of transformation, wisdom vindicates those deeds, and in fact, those deeds vindicate the wisdom behind the actions.
Without needing conditions to be perfect or good enough, there are always reasons to participate and change. There are always reasons to follow the leadership of those who call for participation and change. Wisdom is often vindicated in the end.
Jesus seems to believe that wisdom is turned on its head or perhaps revealed most fully at the bottom — revealed among those who are just as valuable as anyone else, yet who pushed to the bottom of the social hierarchy. Wisdom is vindicated inside these people and these communities. And Jesus gives thanks.
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to the infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”
Greg Boyle is one of the people I most admire. He’s a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California, an organization that provides job training and healing to people who want to leave gangs and people who have been incarcerated, giving them a new chance and building kinship community together. At Homeboy Industries, people who used to belong to rival gangs work side by side, heal their lives, and open possibilities for a new future.
These individuals have known great pain and have often caused great pain. In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, Greg Boyle writes that every single person he has ever met who joined a gang, did so not because this was ultimately what they wanted to do with their lives but because they were running from something — often great, personal trauma.
And together, at Homeboy Industries, they do that healing work, the work of transforming the past, making amends, and healing toward another future. Father Boyle teaches them about a God who loves them, enters their pain, and invites them to transform the pain they have experienced, ultimately participating in God’s final things — love, justice, peace, wholeness, and connection with God and neighbor.
This is what Greg Boyle says about those who live at the margins. This is the calling he places before us too. Imagine this vision… There is…
“No daylight to separate us.
Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.” (From Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion)=
It is to those on the margins and to us that Jesus says,
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
What if we were to move closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased?
We know this can be hard work — not necessarily getting to know the neighbors who are pushed the the margins, but giving up the privilege that so readily centers and comforts us. I know that I feel this even as I say this… I know that I find myself sometimes living in contradiction with what I am apt to say and preach. This work is not always easy and light. It is sometimes filled with internal tensions; it is often challenging.
But life on the margins, so that margins are erased? This great vision that Jesus practiced with his living and loving? When we live in kinship, the yoke is easy and the burden is light; it is no longer heavy and burdensome for some alone.
We also know we haven’t realized this vision. Not fully. We live far from it in many ways, and yet it calls to us. And yet… it is invoked by Jesus, one who is a friend of the tax-collectors too, one who meets with the powerful and accompanies them into transformation too.
“Come to me,” he says. “Come to me, all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens”… those who are under the load of oppression and those who are weary of the distorting role of oppressor… Come to me… toward the margins… so that the margins will themselves be erased… so that their reality will be transformed, and we ourselves will be transformed.
No daylight to separate us.
Only Kinship where we will find rest for our souls.
Image Description: This cartoon image is by Ben Montero. A bunch of friends — an alligator, two birds, a frog, a worm using a wheelchair, and a dog — are all together, smiling, and looking in different directions. In the middle, some text says, “Sometimes, I Can’t Make It On My Own,” and then in the bottom right of the image, some text says, “That’s OK!”
Happy Interdependence Day!
I always post this image by Ben Montero on July 4. I really love it.
“The myth of independence is the idea that we can and should be able to do everything on our own and, of course, we know that that’s not true. Someone made the clothes you’re wearing now, your shoes, your car or the mass transit system you use; we don’t grow all our own food and spices. We can’t pretend that what happens in this country doesn’t affect others, or that things like clean air and water don’t bound us all together. We are dependent on each other, period. The myth of independence reflects such a deep level of privilege, especially in this rugged individualistic capitalist society and produced the very idea that we could even mildly conceive of our lives or our accomplishments as solely our own. And of course, the other side of this is not just that it’s not true—not just that the emperor has no clothes, but that everyone else should pretend he’s fully clothed too. So, the Myth of Independence is not just about the truth of being connected and interdependent on one another; it is also about the high value that gets placed on buying into the myth and believing that you are independent; and the high value placed on striving to be independent, another corner stone of the ableist culture we live in. Interdependence moves us away from the myth of independence, and towards relationships where we are all valued and have things to offer.”
So today… think about interdependence also. This is a liberating way for us to live collectively.