Matthew 13:1-9 (13:3-23)
We do not live in an agricultural society any more. So I wonder how well we understand Jesus’ farming metaphor here. I wondered how someone today might tell this parable.
Listen! Life Coach went out to teach. She had a clear and complete understanding that humans are called to a new way of living. It is upside down and backwards from what we have always been taught. But it is the only way. How could she gather people to this new way? She decided to write a book. She worked hard, had a “go fund me” campaign which her dear friends supported because they loved her. And so her book reached the market. People began to read it, but they didn’t understand it. They used little emojis of confusion for their reviews. It didn’t make sense. So they gave the book low ratings, and no one bought the book any more. She was left with boxes of signed copies in her garage, with no one to read them.
But Life Coach still had a passion for her new way of living. So, she opened a Twitter account. She began tweeting wonderful, encouraging 140-character sayings. People loved them and re-tweeted them. Her tweets would regularly go viral! Thousands of people read them quickly, liked them and passed them on. People would even save them to their desktops, post them on their Facebook pages. It was amazing! But pretty soon, the hubbub died down. The Tweets were lost in the forest of newer Tweets. The Facebook feed moved on. And…, nothing had changed. People had gobbled up her lovely sentiments, but never put one bit of it into practice. It all sounded good, but as soon as someone had another idea, it was off to follow that crowd.
Life Coach had exhausted her resources, so she decided to start a nonprofit organization to get the word out. They would have conferences, do consulting gigs, and the principles of the new way of living would be on the website, with a great blog! Maybe she could blog for Huffington Post. Entrepreneurs agreed to serve on her board. They really loved the idea of living the opposite way of the dominant culture. It resonated with them. Be loving and kind and gentle. Don’t go after money. Live on what you have and give away everything. Don’t fight, always make peace. Forgive. What a great new way of living! The nonprofit quickly attracted donors who thought this was a great idea! And they would get tax breaks for supporting it! This is genius! And the blog was indeed picked up by Huffington Post. She became a cultural ideologue. She had a platform and a voice which was being heard. But pretty soon, the board became absorbed with the budget. And their own new businesses were experiencing the ups and downs of the economy. They lost track of the new way of living, in the interest of keeping the nonprofit going. Pretty soon, they began to wander back to their private concerns without really giving this new way of living a try for themselves. They never could connect it to the way they did business themselves. It was always a great idea, but just not practical when it comes to raising a family and preparing for retirement.
But Life Coach was not finished yet. The book was over people’s heads. They didn’t understand it. Twitter was much too shallow and could not get any traction or depth. The nonprofit required too much attention to survival to offer a really new way of living. So how could Life Coach help people live the life?
Life Coach kept talking to people. And one friend, then two, began to have a light spark in their eyes. They got it! Pretty soon they had a small group, and rented space at Taborspace to meet regularly and to encourage each other in the new way of living. It was so simple, but so upside down. It would never be big and commercial, bright and shiny. But a few friends, gathered around a candle in a huddle of encouragement, could live this new way in their families, could forgive those who hurt them because they had enough loving encouragement to let go of the fear. They could talk about their experiences of living in a new way, help each other, begin again, when needed. That hug huddle in the quiet room was producing a mighty crop, almost unnoticed, except for the scrawl on the chalkboard – “Life Coach, Room 05.” Pause
There is a rule of thumb for reading Jesus’ parables: if I interpret it in such a way that there is nothing surprising or even shocking about it, it’s time to go back and read it again. Parables are a little like riddles. Zen Buddhism calls these “koans,” little pithy sayings to make you think. Like, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Parables, like koans, are told to upset the apple cart of what we know. It is then that we are ready to listen.
Really listen. Ponder. Wonder. Chew on it. Where are the surprises in this parable? Ponder, wonder, ask.
What makes soil good soil? It has to have been cleared of its natural growth, cleared of rocks, been given a water source, then plowed over and over and over again to work air and space for seeds into the soil. It has gone through the preparation. The path – no plowing there! The rocky soil – no hours of digging and piling rock and hard pan. The weeds – no careful clearing of the old growth. The good soil has been through the wringer! And that is what makes it open to the seed.
The friends who gathered with Life Coach had been through the wringer, too. They knew they needed each other. Their lives had been broken up enough through their honest relationships with each other that they could receive seeds of truth from each other.
So far, so good. Maybe we or the disciples don’t want to be the broken soil, but it is not surprising to see this soil as productive. It is foundational to the practice of farming.
Is there anything surprising about this parable? I was driving through the bucolic Willamette Valley yesterday on my way back from Salem. My mind wandered to this parable, and to what I know of farming. I was thinking that farmers today are much more careful with their seed than this parable’s farmer. Farmers don’t just go out and throw seed around. There are planters which distribute just the right amount of seed, just the right spacing, just the right depth. There is very little waste. But this sower, with his bag of seed over his shoulder is just throwing it everywhere! That would have surprised Jesus’ listeners, too.
The life of a farmer was about survival. A tenant farmer would only eke out a living for himself and his family if he made wise choices about where to sow, and then was blessed with good weather and a great deal of luck. The wise farmer makes sure to entrust the precious grain he has to the best of soil. But this one tosses seed around with abandon. This farmer behaves as though this most precious seed was available in unlimited supply.
What?! Who would do that?
Here is where we may miss the point of the parable. It is more about the sower than the soils. Jesus is telling a story about God. And God is behaving like the seed supply is endless, abundant. I wonder if that is the whole point. The message of Jesus has always been called “gospel.” Gospel means “good news.” It would be used for the town crier who went out to announce the victory of the army, or the coming rain clouds after a drought. This is wonderful news!
And what is the news? That God has enough seed. No matter what. No matter where you are. No matter what the soil. There is seed lying around everywhere! In the weeds, on the path, among the rocks! There are treasures of God everywhere.
Jesus’ listeners lived in a world of scarcity. And not just Jesus’ ancient listeners. In a crowded world, scarcity seems to be in the air we breathe. It is the human condition. That is what makes the gospel so surprising. God’s good seed – love, forgiveness, hope – is abundant, bottomless, is everywhere! There is always enough, just around the corner, if our hearts are open to receive.
Communities of faith can also get stuck in scarcity thinking. The era of the church as we know it is ended. Well…, maybe not ended, but changing so rapidly that we are having trouble adjusting. That is what we spent our time discussing at the presbytery meeting I attended yesterday. Congregations are getting smaller, budgets are tighter everywhere. But God’s call to ministry has not gone silent. Congregations are still passionate about serving their communities. Even the small, struggling congregations are still reaching out. Our presbytery executive, Brian Heron, observed that all the congregations he visited are alive with Matthew 25 ministries – feeding people, giving a cup of cold water, meeting needs. Even in a change of resources, abundance shows up.
I left the meeting strangely encouraged. That group of leaders is taking seriously all the change facing us, but in the context of God’s abundance.
The truth is that God’s seed of love is everywhere. Even on the path.
The theme image for the divorce recovery group is a photo taken by a friend of a friend. He titled it “Crack Pansy.” He showed it to one of our facilitators and she knew it was a perfect symbol for what happens in our broken lives. As they talked, it turned out that he took this picture on the sidewalk in front of our church. This is our Crack Pansy! From the cracks in our path, seeds grow. God’s good seed is everywhere you look, and it can find root, even on the path sometimes. So Listen! Watch. Pay attention. God is throwing seed with abandon! Be ready to catch it wherever you find yourself.