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Seeds for our Rocky, Weedy, an
Deep Dirt Times: The Parable of the Sower
That same day 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 soul and brought forth grain,
some a hundred fold,
Let anyone with ears listen!"
The first thing I like about this story is the very beginning, which we tend to overlook. Jesus got out of the house and went to the beach to be alone. So many people eventually followed him that he got in a boat and sat there.
Then he decided to tell this story, which we call the Parable of the Sower.
When do you first remember hearing this story? How many remember it from elementary school? How many middle and high school? How many as adults? For how many is it new?
What were you told about it? What do you most remember for your first hearing?
My father worked for the American Bible Society, a non-profit organization that distributed scriptures all over the world. One day my dad brought home a little record player that required no electricity. It was for missionaries to use. You turned the turntable with your finger and it played a little record; in this case it was the parable of the sower.
The Bible Society even made a little promotional film, which featured my twin sisters, dressed in matching suits and hats my mother had made, turning the record. I don't know how that film played in Africa. I still don't know where I was when the film was made.
Nevertheless, I loved that little record player, and I would crank it constantly. Thus I heard the parable this way. A Sower went out to sow over and over again.
Even then I realized how easy it was to memorize this passage. Like last week's story of the unforgiving servant, this too is told in three parts. Some seed fell on the path, some on rocks, and some among thorns. Then three kinds of harvest, one hundred fold, sixty fold, thirty fold. This form is a trademark of Jesus, a format easy to remember.
I remember from high school the interpretation that Matthew gives the parable. The seed is the word of God. If you hear it and don't understand it, evil forces will come and snatch it away. This is the no brain, always on the highway Goofus. How much was I like that? Or if you hear the word and it starts to grow but withers when the going gets tough, you're like the seed on rocky ground, you're Shallow Sal. How much was I like that? Or if you hear the word and it does take root, but you're caught in so many conflicting priorities you never have time to weed out the distractions in life, or you're easily sidetracked by peer pressures, you're Choke Chuckie (these were all men's names back then). Was I like that? Finally, if you hear the word, understand it, move the rocks out of your garden, clear out the weeds, and let it find good soil, you're like "Clutch Clarence" who has purpose, is uncluttered, knows what he wants and makes time for it.
That's probably the most familiar understanding of this parable. It's got a decent amount of truth to it.
But, as I said last week, the first and easiest interpretation of any parable is usually the most limited. Parables are meant to show us something new about our lives.
So what could be new in a parable as simple as this?
First, The bible scholars I read all agree that Matthew probably added on the long interpretation in the style of an allegory to suit the needs of the early church. In this allegory, each element is a code for a certain part of the church. The hard path stood for people who heard the gospel but never followed. The rocky ground was people who got the initial idea but never let it put down roots. The weed filled soil was people who got a good start in faith but so easily got distracted. Weeds choked the word for them.
This may be helpful, but it's not a parable. A parable says the word or
kingdom of God is like this experience. It discloses a new truth that is never literal. It's metaphor. It can never quite be pinned down. A parable is like a song, a painting, or a poem. It points to truth, but it has its own unity. It has new meaning in new situations.
So let's go back to the parable itself as it's printed in your bulletin.
Notice first of all that even though we call it the Parable of the Sower (Jesus never named it that) the story is not about a Sower. There are no issues related to the sower. It is about seeds. It's just accepted that a Sower walks along throwing seeds all over the place, on the path, rocks, weeds, and prepared soil. The first seed doesn't even germinate. It hits a path and has no chance. It can't get started.
The second seed falls among rocks. It does germinate, grows for a little while, but has no roots and dies. It can't take the heat, as it were.
The third seed actually takes root and does better than the first two seeds but fails to make it to harvest because weeds choke it.
Then notice how quickly success is described. It's one sentence about good soil in which the yield is one hundred fold, sixty fold, and thirty fold. Mark tells the story by saying first thirty, then sixty, then one hundred fold, which makes more sense, so we'll use that order from now on.
There's a lot of debate in biblical circles about whether this thirty, sixty, and one hundred fold yield is miraculous. I tend to agree with those who say that the three numbers represent a modest, successful, and pretty good harvest. If the story was supposed to point to a miracle it would have at least continued to double, 30, 60, and 120, and maybe even 240. But it goes 30, 60, and then stops at 100. The last number is out of order. It is Jesus' way of saying that the numbers stop on this side of reality. So it's not about a miracle or about the final coming of heaven on earth.
Think of other seed stories. Stories of seeds typically point to the miracle of a seed becoming a fruit or tree, or even forest. But in this story three scenes draw us to failure, only one to success. I don't know of any other ancient story where a seed fails. What's going on here?
I don't think the story is telling us that some people are like paths, some like rocky soil, and some are full of weeds. If that were the case, there would be nothing we could do about ourselves. If I'm a beaten, path, a rocky field, or a weed-choked garden, I'm screwed. I've got to change or eradicate that part of me, forever, or I'm a lost soul.
The parable reminds us that we are all these things plus good soil, and that failure is inevitable in both what we give and receive in life. God throws seeds everywhere in my life. Sometimes very good, intelligent and loving messages and gestures come my way and they land where everybody has walked over me. They don't have a chance. In other times God's love falls where life has been rocky for me, makes a little attempt to grow, and then withers. There are other parts of my life where I just can't clean out the weeds that vie for God's grace, and they choke the good right out of me.
Jesus is saying: "These things happen." They happen in God's gifts to us. They happen in our gifts to others. The gifts we disperse, the seeds we sow are also going to land on roads, rocks, and weeds and fertile soil.
There are places that life doesn't work out, not for God, and not for us. There is no judgment or condemnation against those seeds or soils. Jesus doesn't say, "And what a glorious waste of time and resources!" Failure happens. Then, so does grace. That's the miracle. Failure and success grow side by side. They are both part of God's kingdom. That is the miracle of God in this world. The failures are not judged. The successes are not miracles. They're all part of life. We don't need to hold back and be more careful with the seeds we spread, because God doesn't hold back. God keeps sowing seeds - everywhere, in all kinds of situations.
The kingdom of God is not morally perfect. Nor is it the final judgment where God takes over, everybody's happy, and all the streets are paved with gold. Jesus goes about his business among prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, and mentally ill. We could think of each of them as being like a bad path, rocks, or weeds. But Jesus doesn't think that way at all. . He loves them, hugs them, calls them friends, and lives with them. And they, to paraphrase Pogo, are us.
Look at us. Look at our church, our families, our friends ourselves. We're all a mixture of failures and success. We're beaten paths, rocky soil, weedy fields, and good dirt. The kingdom of God is for us.
I know of churches that fancy themselves as pure soil. They call themselves intentional communities. You don't get into them unless you're doing something very significant with your life five out of seven nights of the week. I see their pastors sign in at workshops as pastor of the "Peace and Justice Intentional Community of Care For All Beings and Keepers of the Air," or some such thing. They're claiming to be the Church of the Good Soil Only. When I go to workshops, I sign in as pastor of a great but still mixed bag church. They cluck condescendingly at me, "Ah, I see you're the church that takes the slackers."
Wouldn't it be wonderful if every sermon I preached caused every person here to be more holy, moral, upright and true? Wouldn't it be grand if every lecture you gave made every student better and brighter? Wouldn't it be rewarding if every word you spoke to your children, or parents for that matter, made them behave perfectly and live meaningfully? Wouldn't it be great if every product or service you made, sold, or delivered made every patient, customer, or client healthy, wealthy and wise? Wouldn't it be nice if all seeds fell in good soil?
It might? That's the Beach Boys world of Good Vibrations, not the kingdom of God. God's world is full of hard traveled roads, toe-stubbing rocks, and life sucking weeds. The down times do not wipe out the promise that in this world and in every life, there are also places of good deep rich dirt, where dreams do come true, sometimes at a rate of 30%, sometimes 60%, and sometimes 100%. That's the kingdom of God. And that's where we live.
In prayer what are the parts of your life that feel like a hard traveled road?
Let God's love surround that road, even if it's weary.
What parts of your life are filled with rocks that make it hard to go deep?
Let God's love fall on those rocky places, even if they hurt.
What parts of your life are snarled by weeds, competing needs that sap your strength?
Let God's love struggle among the weeds, even if they feel like they're strangling you.
Then see the part of your life that is open, rich, deep soil, the places that give you nourishment and from which love returns to produce average, good, and even great harvests. Celebrate your deep soil. Name it. Nurture it. Water it, fertilize it, and trust that you may draw on it not only to sustain your life, but so that you may be able to give of your abundance to others.
And before you close your prayer, see yourself casting your seed upon this world, like God does, accepting and loving the paths, the rocks, and the weeds as well as celebrating the places your life has taken root and risen in the world around you.
Let us pray together