I don’t know about you, but this gospel lesson always makes me a little nervous. As soon as I hear about the different types of soil where seed is sown, I start to get paranoid. I think of the countless times when I did not understand what the kingdom of God was about, or what God was trying to teach me, and how the evil one started clouding my thoughts. Or, I think about that those moments where I have been filled with new fervor for God, only to get distracted or anxious, and lose that sense of intimacy with God. And the good Lord knows that I have been more than distracted by the cares of the world and the lures or preoccupation around money and lost touch with my faith. Of course, by the time I get through that litany of doubt and self-loathing, I feel a sense of doom. I will never work hard enough to be good soil!
The good news is this parable is not about me or you. At least not in the way we think. Whenever scholars talk about this text, the text is referred to as the parable of the sower – not the parable of the soils.[i] By getting distracted by all of the ways we do not measure up or the ways in which our faith is sometimes shallow, unsophisticated, or self-centered, we miss the point altogether. This is about the nature of Christ – the original sower of the Good News, and the expectations of how the disciples will be similar sowers. To understand what that means, we need to let go of our anxiety about our soil, and hone in on the nature of the sower. You see, the sower might recognize that three-fourths of soil is not fertile. The sower even confesses that of fertile soil, the yield will be different – some hundred-fold, some sixty, and some thirty.
Being aware of this math, you would think the sower would develop a strategic plan, assessing how to maximize productivity, avoid burnout, and get the best return. That is certainly how modern farmers would go about things. I learned this week of a new machine produced by a major farming company that has perfected the art of planting seeds. The planter slows down the seed through the use of a small puff of air. That puff of air makes sure the seed does not roll where it should not, and perfectly lands where the farmer intends. The machine is a genius development through science. And that machine is nothing like the sower in Jesus’ parable.[ii] Despite all the data – that three out of four seeds will fail to thrive, and of those seeds planted in good soil, the productivity will vary in size, the sower casts seeds in all of the soil. The sower takes his time, his money, his knowledge and, based on our standards, wastes it. The sower just throws seed everywhere, letting whatever happens happen. The sower knows that each seed will do something – whether be feed for birds, or experience the joy of new faith, or even get close to growth before distraction. But the sower does not care. The sower seeds with abandon. The sower sows with reckless extravagance.
I am not sure I am capable of sowing like the sower sows in this parable. I think about Jesus encouraging his disciples to be recklessly extravagant sowers, and instead, I think my method would be a little more like what Barbara Brown Taylor imagines. Her modern retelling of Jesus’ parable goes something like this:
“Once upon a time a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came along and devoured them. So he put his seed pouch down and spent the next hour or so stringing aluminum foil all around his field. He put up a fake owl he ordered form a garden catalog and, as an afterthought, he hung a couple of traps for the Japanese beetles.
Then he returned to his sowing, but he noticed some of the seeds were falling on rocky ground, so he put his seed pouch down again and went to fetch his wheelbarrow and shovel. A couple of hours later he had dug up the rocks and was trying to think of something useful he could do with them when remembered his sowing and got back to it, but as soon as he did he ran right into a briar patch that was sure to strangle his little seedlings. So he put his pouch down again and looked everywhere for the weed poison but finally decided just to pull the thorns up by hand, which meant that he had to go back inside and look everywhere for his gloves.
Now by the time he had the briars cleared it was getting dark, so the sower picked up his pouch and his tools and decided to call it a day. That night he fell asleep in his chair reading a seed catalog, and when he woke the next morning he walked out into his field and found a big crow sitting on his fake owl. He found rocks he had not found the day before and he found new little leaves on the roots of the briars that had broken off in his hands.”[iii]
This version does not work as well as Jesus’ parable. In fact, this version captures our resistance to the kind of extravagance Jesus is promoting. We like control, measured actions, and predictable results. We like efficiency, productivity, and practicality. Just look at any church that has been planted in the last twenty years. The Diocese conducts a study, location is considered for months, research is done to ensure maximum yield before a new church is ever begun. Or even look at our own evangelism efforts. We are strategically considering neighborhoods that are near the church, where people may be looking for a church home, or how people may fit in with certain demographics before we spend capital on evangelism campaigns. And all of those efforts are smart business.[iv]
But that is not the kind of business that the sower in the parable is about. The sower is about throwing the Good News everywhere. The implication for us is clear. The sower’s example means that we too need to be extravagant with our sowing of the Good News. We cannot look around our neighborhood and say, “I mean, he already has a church, or she clearly had a bad experience with the church, or we’re not even that close, so….” We tend to wait for months to ask someone to even come to a movie or a fall festival, let alone church. What if they say no? What if they avoid us afterwards? What if they assume we’re pushy? What if they ask me a question I can’t answer? We get so caught up in “what ifs” that we are like a sower standing frozen with our pouches. Instead, Jesus’ sower is standing beside us whispering, “Go ahead. Throw the seeds anyway.” The sower not only tells us to not be afraid of talking to others about our faith and the Good News of God in Christ, the sower tells us that we should not care – not care if the soil is fertile or what the yield will be. In knowing the yield will be limited to 25% of those approached, the sower says we should just throw that seed, that Good News all over the place, because ultimately, what the seed does, or how the soil is, is not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to sow the seed.
The sower in our story encourages us to be another way. The sower says, “Hey you, on the path, in the thorns, in the shallow soil, and in the succulent soil, I want to share something with you. Hey you with birds, thorns, rocks, and nutrition creeping in, I want to spend some time with you even though it may be a total waste of time. I want to listen to you, I want to reflect with you on where God is acting in your life, I want to tell you why I got up today and drug myself to this awesome place called Hickory Neck.” I know the work sounds scary and even illogical. I know even attempting to sow seeds may feel like a task you are just ill-equipped to do – or you may assume is the work of the clergy. But let me leave you with this: you came here today because this community means something to you. You came here because you are fed here, challenged here, loved here. Why wouldn’t you want to invite someone into that wonderful experience? Why are you clutching onto a pouch of seeds that could mean new life for someone else? Jesus has already warned us that the return will feel low. But you never know when you are going to encounter that soil that produces not just thirty- or sixty-fold, but sometimes a hundred-fold. In fact, scholars tell us that those numbers indicate an unimaginably large amount of productivity. A good amount of produce would have been seven-fold.[v] Jesus promises much more return! We cannot control how our Good News will be received. Our invitation is to be as illogically, recklessly, extravagantly gracious and loving sowers as our loving Lord who could not care less about the results. So grab your seeds, and let’s go!
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 26.
[ii] Rolf Jacobson, “SB549 – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 15),” Sermon Brainwave Podcast, July 8, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=911 on July 10, 2017.
[iii] Taylor, 28-29.
[iv] Theodore J. Wardlaw, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 237.
[v] Talitha J. Arnold, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 236.