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 sow my 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.