Growing up as the child of a rural Methodist Minister, there was never a lack of fresh produce in our home. Now that was not because my family went to the grocery store a lot or because we grew our own vegetables, but because multiple times per week, we would find a brown bag sitting on our porch, full of produce from parishioner’s gardens or farms. Sometimes we knew who they came from, but sometimes they were entirely unmarked bags just waiting for us. And sometimes people caught us at home so we were able to thank them properly. But my favorite bags of food came from a local farmer and church member named Frank. Frank was a funny guy – always wearing his overalls, with a bandana hanging out of his back pocket. Frank had lived on farms his whole life, and he had a funny way of talking about the farm. Anytime we tried to thank him for the tomatoes, squash, or cucumbers, he would just scoff and tell us that they were some of Old Bessie’s volunteers.
Bessie was his tractor. Frank used Bessie to seed his fields, but Bessie was temperamental. The device that shot the seeds into the field did not really operate properly – it would turn off and on at will, and so Frank always tried to get Bessie into position as quickly as possible before she start spewing seeds. But invariably, Bessie would spray seeds in the barn, in the ditch on the way to the fields, along the roadside, and even by their house. Though he would curse and yell at Old Bessie, Frank never seemed to get the glitch fixed, and I guess he loved Bessie too much to trade up for a new one. Consequently, he would get “volunteer” plants all over his property. Instead of pulling them up, as they grew and produced all over his property, his youngest sons had to go around and pick them. These “volunteers” from Bessie were the producers of much of the food we ate throughout the summer and fall.
In a lot of ways, I think the sower in Jesus’ parable today is a lot like Bessie the tractor. Jesus says that the sower throws seed all over the place – on the path, on rocky ground, among thorns, and in good soil. By farming standards, the sower is pretty awful at his job. Most farmers and gardeners are quite careful about how and where they plant. For those of you not involved in our own community garden here at St. Margaret’s you may not know that they spent quite a long time planning and researching for our garden. They thought through where the best sunlight would be, how deep the bed should be, what kind of soil to put into the raised bed, and what kind of weed cover to put down. They even managed to secure some fox urine pellets to spread around the box to deter rabbits from eating all our hard work. Nowhere in the planning did our Garden Committee suggest we just take some seeds and throw them around the property and see what happens. And yet this is what the sower seems to be doing in Jesus’ parable today.
The question is why the sower sows seed in such a seemingly wasteful way. The sower must know that seeds do not get a chance to grow when they are so exposed that birds will eat them before they can germinate. The sower must know that the soil is not deep enough in the rocky areas to take good healthy root. The sower must know that thorns usually choke out plants, not letting them grow to full maturity. So why does the sower not simply save the seed for the healthiest soil?
The scarier part of that question is the next natural question. Why would Jesus also recommend that the disciples spread the Good News in such a haphazard way too? When Jesus explains the meaning of his parable, he explains that when they share the Good News, there are going to be times when their sharing feels like fruitless sowing. The devil is going to come in, people’s enthusiasm is going to wane over time, and others will simply be distracted by the cares of the world. Very few will actually receive the Good News and flourish and thrive. And yet Jesus seems to be saying, “Sew the seeds of the Good News with abandon anyway.”
Jesus’ advice to the disciples goes against any sound business practices. I have been a part of many dioceses who do church planting, and in every case they spend years examining the numbers and making plans. They look for areas of new population growth, where young families are moving in or are already present, where Episcopal Churches have not yet been built, and where there are many who are unchurched. They develop carefully constructed publicity campaigns and gimmicks to spread the news about the newly forming church. Billboards, paper ads, new websites, and promotional events are planned. Nothing about church planting today is like what Jesus is talking about in this parable. In fact, many of you have had similar feelings about church growth here in Plainview. Many of you have expressed the sentiment that church growth in Plainview is pretty much a waste since our community has such a large Jewish population. And of those neighbors who aren’t Jewish, the rest are Catholic. So instead of throwing our precious evangelism budget away in our neighborhood, many have encouraged me to either figure out different neighborhoods or to target other towns altogether.
So what is Jesus really suggesting and why do we not seem to want to listen? On Memorial Day weekend, about twenty parishioners walked in the Plainview Memorial Day Parade, promoting St. Margaret’s. Two faithful parishioners dressed up as garden vegetables to help us advertise the work of our Garden of Eatin’. As we walked along, we handed out seed packets and small brochures about St. Margaret’s. Before the parade began, I remember wondering whether anyone would want our handouts. I know people love to catch candy and other trinkets, but I could not imagine anyone actually being interested in what we had to offer. I made a point to watch to see if my theory was right. As I expected, a few people said “No, thank you,” when offered our handout. However, I was almost shocked when I noticed that several people gladly took our handouts – in fact one woman specifically asked if she could have one.
What I, and probably many of us, would judge as rocky or thorny soil, actually turned out to be good soil. That is what Jesus is hoping to get the disciples and us to see. We can never know what different soils will do. When we share the Good News, we have no way of knowing what kind of soil we are sowing seeds into. In fact, I would be willing to guess that many times we often judge soil incorrectly. And since we are probably not the best soil experts, Jesus instead tells us to sow with abandon – to throw our good news all over the place because you never know when a hand might extend toward us, wanting some of the good news we have to share. That is a part of the fun!
For years I have suspected that Farmer Frank never repaired Bessie on purpose. I think he enjoyed the mystery of where the tractor’s seeds would germinate and grow. He liked sharing the abundance of that crazy tractor. He liked teaching his children about volunteer plants and the importance of sharing God’s blessings. And he especially enjoyed spying his neighbors who would stop along the road and pick some extra squash or tomatoes, because they knew Frank and Bessie would not mind. Bessie made all of that possible, and to repair her would have been to take some of the joy and blessing out of life.
This is the invitation of Jesus to us today: to be like an erratic, haphazard, wasteful sower of good news. Yes, you might be known as that crazy lady or guy who talks about God too much. And, yes, your words might fall on deaf ears or be forgotten tomorrow. But occasionally, your words will be just the words that someone needed to hear that day. Your reckless sharing of your blessed experiences with God might just be the food someone was longing for. In time, you may just find that being a crazy sower of good news is kind of fun, and brings you as much fruit as it brings others. Amen.