Hearing today’s parable of the sower just now reminds me of the time, probably 20 years ago now, when I preached in this pulpit about this very same story. It was one of the few sermons I gave here that ever evoked an angry reaction. I didn’t say anything very inflammatory about the story except to observe that the passage comes in two parts—Jesus’s public parable of the sower and then the private explanation to his companions. Being a bookishly nerdy kind of guy, I observed that most Bible scholars accept the parable as genuine but think the explanation was made up later by the church. So I announced that I was going to talk only about the story, not about the flimsy allegory tacked on to it.
You would have thought I had spit on the flag. I stood at the northwest door out there and received nothing but angry accusations. “Who are you to think that Jesus didn’t say that?” I was stunned. Remember, this was All Saints, Pasadena, not some Orange County megachurch. Most of the folks here can’t even say the creed without crossing their fingers. Yet here they were giving me grief for the merest mention of New Testament criticism. For weeks I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting villagers with torches to come and ride me out of town on a rail.
I did keep my job—the rector was out of town, and I guess no one wrote him any letters—and I did learn my lesson. So here goes one more time. Let’s talk about that parable and only the parable. I’ll leave scholarly opinions to others.
Here’s another, gentler All Saints story. When I worked here in the 1990s I was fortunate to have shared some of my time with a retired priest I admired very much, Larry Carter. Larry had been the longtime rector of St. John’s Church in downtown Los Angeles, and he was one of my heroes. His ministry at St. John’s had been an expansive peace and justice ministry. He was known to be a fearless advocate for peace, for minorities, and for the poor. He famously closed the doors of St. John’s as a protest for the duration of the Vietnam War.
My image of Larry was of a fierce prophet. So imagine my surprise, once, in a Bible study I was leading when he said that the opening of today’s Gospel was his favorite passage in the New Testament: “Jesus got in a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.” [Matthew 13.2] Something about that picture of Jesus teaching from a boat while people listened from the shore touched me. Apart from the content of anything Jesus might have to say in his parables, the image this passage gives us of him in the boat teaches us something about what it means to live a centered life, grounded and at home in God’s creation. Hold that thought.
Today’s Gospel is the familiar parable of the sower. Whenever I hear this parable I see two images in my mind’s eye: with Larry Carter’s help I see Jesus teaching from the boat; with the aid of my memory of Vincent Van Gogh’s great painting, The Sower, a reproduction of which I have on my desk. I see a man striding through the fields, casting seed in every direction. You and I live so much in the modern urban mental world that we have to exercise some imagination to get what sowing and seeds meant to pre-modern people. A seed, after all, is a tiny mysterious miracle. In this compact package lies a hidden something that can produce life itself and can do so abundantly. We put seeds in the ground and, amazingly, plants and trees and shrubs come up as if by magic. It’s not surprising that Jesus would use the seed as a symbol of God’s creative, mysterious abundance. Something big lies hidden within something small, and the way it works is entirely hidden from our view. According to Jesus, God is like that: miraculous, abundant, mysterious.
Let’s sit with the story of the sower for a second. What might it be saying to us? To you? To me? If you have ears to hear, listen!
I spent a good part of my adult life before coming here in 1990 studying and teaching American literature, especially the Transcendentalists: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. They too were alive to the power of the seed as an image not only of fertility and abundance but of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Emerson and Thoreau lived and wrote during the nineteenth century, the age of the rise of science, specifically the time of Charles Darwin. They were alert to the complexity of the processes of natural selection at work in the dispersion of seeds. But they lived in an America that was still mostly rural and agricultural. They saw seeds scientifically, but that awareness did not stop their seeing seeds in a more nuanced way, as part of the farming life of planting, cultivating, and harvesting, and therefore as metaphors for life and its processes. Emerson said that the seed was “God manifest in the mind,” “of which the Beauty of the world is the flower and Goodness the fruit” [quoted in Thoreau, Faith in a Seed, “Introduction”, p. 16]. Toward the end of his life, Thoreau became preoccupied with the way plants propagate themselves, and he increasingly saw seeds and their dispersal as a powerful figure of life, death, and rebirth. At the end of the “The Dispersion of Seeds”, Thoreau exclaimed, “The very earth itself is a granary and a seminary,[and the word seminary embeds in it the Latin word for seed] so that to some minds its surface is regarded as the cuticle of one great living creature” [Faith in a Seed, p. 151]. The little miraculous package that makes this holistic vision of life possible is, of course, the seed.
So my question for everyone here this morning goes like this: what, right now, might this story mean for you? What might it mean for you to think of God as someone who is scattering seeds all over the place? What might it mean for you to think of yourself in relation to these seeds? Are you the path, the rocky ground, the thorns, or the good soil? Or might you be all of them at once? What do these seeds represent? How might we let the truth on offer in this story germinate and sprout within us, bringing forth fruit 30, 60, 100 fold?
I won’t, like Matthew, try to give you an allegoridal interpretation. (You see, I still can’t let that go!) But I will tell you how I hear the story this morning. Instead of thinking of the types of soil as types of people, I hear the story asking me to think of the types of soil as aspects of myself, perhaps as periods in my life. There are times when I seem open to what God is up to in the world and ready to respond to and participate with God in God’s creative, redemptive, healing work in the world around me. Those are the good soil times. Then there are times when I am more closed to God’s promptings and resist seeing myself and others as God sees us. Those are the path, the rock, the thorn times. The point of this story has less to do with characterizing different kinds of believers than it does simply with seeing ourselves as always involved and ongoing process of life, death, and rebirth. There are times when I am alive and open. There are times when I am closed and as good as dead. That cyclical, rhythmic process of life, death, and rebirth goes on all through the course of our lives. And if I’m hearing this story aright, then it seems the Christian experience is more like a cycle or a process or a journey than it is like having a once-for-all conversion moment. Some days I’m good soil. Some days I’m thorny rocky ground. When I take this parable in, I know myself to be converted almost daily, and that’s because I can be thorny rocky ground almost daily. But on the good days I exhibit some qualities of good soil, too. Over time we move with God in the right direction. Over time those seeds do take root, and mysteriously and graciously, we become the people God created us to be.
The good news this morning is that God is like the sower as Jesus describes him in today’s parable. God goes out to sow, and God scatters the seed—the miraculous package of mysterious life—God scatters the seed indiscriminately, with almost reckless, joyful abundance. God does not select certain types of people who are privileged to “get it”. God does not select certain moments in your life when you are going to “get it”. God knows that you and I will get it for a while, then we won’t get it, then we’ll get it again. God does what God does: God sows the seed indiscriminately, abundantly, generously. God is always coming toward us, opening up the possibility for us that God’s love and hope and blessing will take root and bloom and bring forth fruit in our lives.
And that takes me back to the thought I asked you to hold earlier on. The thought was about the opening picture of Jesus, sitting in a boat, teaching his disciples in parables, the image my friend Larry Carter thought the most beautiful picture in the New Testament. Jesus was at home in that boat because he was at home in the world. He lived a centered life, grounded and at peace in God’s creation. You can live that life, too. Summer is the time when we have the possibility of slowing down, moving to a different rhythm, a time when we can, if only for odd moments, rest and relax and open ourselves just enough to let some of those divine seeds come into us and do their transforming work in our bodies and spirits. Remember that Henry James said the two most beautiful words in English are “summer afternoon”.
As you go about your life this summer, I invite you to picture Jesus teaching his disciples from the boat. And then I invite you to picture God sowing those seeds in your direction. If Jesus could relax, so can you. Let God’s loving, embracing, renewing purpose wash over you as waves lap against a boat. In so doing, you’ll find yourself becoming open to God’s promise and God’s call to you in ways you maybe hadn’t before. If God’s purpose can take root in rocky ground, it can take root in you. The abundance of God’s blessings will germinate, sprout, bloom, and bear fruit not only in your life but through you in the life of the world. Amen.