At the coop where we live, I am chair of the Tenant Selection Committee – that group that makes people shake in their shoes and be on their best behavior. They come fully prepared to tell us why they will be such a good fit for our community. A lot of times people will talk about the 10 acres of manicured gardens on which our buildings sit. They speak poetically about Morningside Gardens as a kind of oasis, a place to get back to nature, a quiet space in the midst of Manhattan madness. People say lots of things to pass a coop board interview, but when prospective tenants talk about the garden and what it means to be so close to the earth, I suspect they are telling the truth.
We might be urban people, but we are still attached to the good earth. It seems to be built into our DNA. The root word for human is humus – the organic material in the dirt. The Scriptures wisely say that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And that is as it should be. It is the natural order to go back to where you came from.
My own love for the earth and plants began very early. My mother sent me out to work in the garden and to pick wild berries. I didn’t like the work, but I was fascinated by what I saw and tasted. I have clear memories of eating those blackberries still warm from the sun or tasting the earthy goodness of a radish pulled fresh from the ground and washed under a garden hose. Planting and reaping and feasting are elemental human experiences that are transcultural, and that makes the Bible’s images immediately relatable.
One day Jesus went down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and began to teach, but the crowd was so large that he had to get in a boat and row out just to be able to breathe. In addition to providing breathing space, the water also served as natural amplification – the sound of Jesus’s voice bouncing off the surface and toward the people.
Jesus raised his voice from the boat and said: “One day a farmer went out to plant seeds and some of those seeds fell on the footpath. And the hungry birds saw all that delicious, free food and gobbled it up. Some other seeds fell on rocky ground and quickly sprang to life. But their roots couldn’t grow very deep into the soil because of the rocks, so that when the hot Mediterranean sun beat down on them, they quickly died. Still others of those seeds fell among the thorns and weeds. And since the weeds were stronger, they choked them out. But some of those seeds actually fell on good soil. And those seeds took root and grew. And they didn’t just grow – they went crazy, producing 30, 60 and 100 times more than usual.
This story is called the Parable of the Sower, but I think a more accurate description might be the Parable of the Sloppy Farmer. What’s going on here with seeds hither and yon? When my mother planted her garden, she plowed meticulous rows and carefully dropped in the seeds. But that’s not how farming was done in Jesus’s day. In his time, the farmer would walk into a field, grab a handful of seeds from the bag he carried, and throw them into the air on a windy day. Once the seed was scattered, then he plowed. But using such a method meant that not all of the seed was successful. So how is that like the Kingdom of God? What is the spiritual point of this agricultural tale?
Well, that is not so easy to discern. The parables of Jesus are sometimes said to be “simple stories for simple people.” But these simple stories rarely have simply meanings. What you see at first is not always what you get in the end. They are not logical progressions. Parables invite us into a conversation and allow us to find our own answers.
One way to interpret this parable is to simply use Matthew’s interpretation. Matthew reports that Jesus said that the seeds on the path eaten by birds are like the people who receive God’s word, but then the evil one comes and snatches it away. And the seeds on the rocky ground are those folks who receive the good news with joy, but then learn that this Christian life requires sacrifice and service, and that’s not what they thought they were signing up for. And the seeds that fell among the thorns are those people whose spiritual lives are choked off by the love of money and the cares of the material world (ouch!). But the seeds on the good ground represent those who hear the Gospel and let it produce, in their own lives, a harvest of abundant goodness.
So this sounds like the story of four different kinds of people. And if that’s the case, then it is our job to be people of the rich soil. But the uncomfortable truth is that the seed of the Gospel only sinks into this rock head every once in a while. More often than not, it gets snatched away by the cares of my life or by my selfishness. And I don’t like service and sacrifice anymore than the next person. I want to be good soil, but I only am some of the time. Which makes me wonder, is Jesus describing four different kinds of people or is he describing me on four different days?
And here’s another way to interpret this parable. Unlike my mom, the methodical planter; unlike the precision of 21st century agribusiness, God has never seen fit to improve on ancient methods of farming. Wasteful extravagance is built into God’s system. The Creator walks around the fields of this world; the fields of our lives filled with the stones of our grudges and the weeds of our regrets and throws seeds everywhere. With abandon God walks the fields of human hearts and tosses seeds of justice, mercy, healing and wholeness high into the air while the wind of the Spirit carries it all along. And God does this again and again even though most of it will not find root. But some of it will. And apparently, God thinks it’s worth it.
Or maybe there is yet another way to see this parable. Maybe God is not the sower at all. Maybe we are. --In case you haven’t noticed, churches are very methodical places. 21st century American churches are obsessed with planning and methodology and verifiable results. We never have a more animated discussion in this church than the one about budgets and bottom lines. It’s easy to fall into that trap, especially for ministers. But here’s a newsflash: the Gospel is not a business. And maybe planting such straight rows is not the most faithful way to sow seed. Maybe this church’s job is to throw as many seeds into the air as we can and trust that the Spirit will land them where they are needed most. And if in the process this church grows – great! And if in the process our finances increase – wonderful! But we must never mistake success with faithfulness. God measures our success by our generosity of spirit.
Now maybe this goes against your grain. “Waste not, want not” – right? But here’s the thing: there is no want with God. There are no such things as diminishing returns in the Reign of God. Every time we reach into the seed bag for more justice and love and mercy, there is more. There is always more. And just about the time you think that nothing will ever grow in this garden again, a patch of green appears. I have seen it happen again and again. We scatter seed and there is human flourishing. We scatter seed and hope blooms in this urban desert and in shriveled human hearts. We scatter seed and the Reign of God sprouts up here… now.