In today’s parable, Jesus is talking about a farmer, a gardener, someone going out to the earth to sow seeds.
My imagination immediately flashes back to my grandpa Bobby’s garden – a giant, empty lot in Roanoke where he spent his early retirement planting, tending and harvesting all kinds of vegetables and flowers. I remember planting beans with him and my cousins: we’d drive his big blue Ford pick-up truck over the bank and into the garden and, after he tilled the rows, we kids got handfuls of pink and white October beans.
I have a vivid memory of those seeds in my hands – such bright colors, for seeds. And they were slightly chalky, maybe from chemicals meant to prevent mold, maybe just because that’s how the seeds were. I remember the feel of a handful of beans, fillng my palm. I remember feeling very useful, to be planting these seeds. And I remember feeling very important, to be here in the garden with all the adults.
We were clearly instructed about where those October seeds went: they did not get not thrown out willy-nilly, not discarded in the grass, not strewn about without any plan. Those beans went in these rows. And so, we walked, up and down those rich brown garden rows, dropping beans into the tilled rows, methodically, one after the other. I mean, most of the time. Most of the time we followed directions and dropped seed after seed into properly tilled and readied row. Most of the the time. We were kids, after all.
I am not a gardener. My thumbs are fairly gray – houseplants have a fifty-fifty chance of surviving in my apartment. But I have vivid memories of being in Bobby’s garden and dropping those chalky pink and white beans into the prepared rows.
And I have equally vivid memories of the end of the process – late in the summer, sitting on my grandparents’ back patio, my grandma JoJo with a big bucket of full-grown beans, pulling out a handful, snapping the ends off into a plastic bag and throwing the snapped beans into a pan to be washed and, later, canned. I remember the slow afternoons, the sound of those beans snapping, the conversation that flowed over and around the work.
And after the snapping and the washing came the canning, and eventually, later in the year, the eating. I hated beans for a long time – glad to plant and snap but reluctant to eat any of them: no limas, no half-runners, no pintos, no peas. Beans were gross.
How was it that I was so excited to be a part of the sowing and harvesting, snapping and canning but couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the delicious yield? I regret, these days, that I missed out on so much fresh, homegrown, manual-labor and love-infused food.
I’m not a gardener. But I did learn a thing or two from those summers with my grandparents. I learned about the processes of sowing and reaping, the way that hard work can yield nourishing food for the family. I learned where food came from – not only McDonald’s or Mom’s freezer, but from the ground. I learned that the food that sustained me and helped me grow was the result of someone else’s hard work, dedication and care.
I confess that I forget these lessons all too often – that my current state of health and welfare is, so often, the direct result of someone else’s hard work, dedication, and care, sown long, long ago.
In this parable, Jesus is talking about a sower. But this sower did not listen very well to Grandpa Bobby’s instructions. The seeds did not end up in the neatly tilled rows of the garden. Clearly, this sower has been neglecting her job – maybe playing over at the edge of the garden with her cousin Ashley instead of walking neatly up and down the rows, maybe distracted by her sister Leah’s dance routine over in the far corner, maybe distracted by her cousin Adam’s jokes in the next row, maybe running down the tree line to catch a glimpse of that deer and her babies that lived close by. The seeds aren’t ending up in the right rows! The seeds are all over the place, falling through the cracks in the sowers fingers, unheeded, neglected…wasted.
Or so we think.
Jesus says that while the sower was out sowing, some seeds fell on the path and birds came to eat them.
Some other seeds fell on rocky ground, where nobody had tilled a safe, deep row for them. They sprouted, but since they had no roots, the sun’s warmth quickly scorched them.
Some other seeds fell among some thorny plants (squash, probably, or the rose bushes in the far corner), and the thorny plants grew up and choked out the seeds.
But some seed – some of it – did fall on good soil. And the seed that got in that good soil had INCREDIBLE results! Some yielded a ratio of a hundred to one, others a ratio of sixty to one, and still others a ration of thirty to one.
And, with that right there, this tiny, simple, weird little parable of the sower, Jesus says: “Everyone who has ears should LISTEN!”
Well, all right, Jesus.
I’ve got ears, so I’m listening to you.
But I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me. I’ve been a sower of seeds. I’ve had those pink-and-white Octobers fall through my fingers, and I’ve had them drop deliberately into their prepared good soil.
So, what is it that you’re wanting us to HEAR, here?
Much of the interpretation of this parable ends up focusing on where the seeds fell. We could spend days and days trying to find ourselves in the seeds, figure out if we are the seeds who are on the road, or in the rocky ground, or among the thorns. We could spend months trying to decide if we’re the ones with shallow roots or being pricked to death by those annoying thorny people around us.
In fact, Matthew even goes so far as to include an explanation of the parable a few verses later, awkwardly inserting an interpretation for this parable, but not for every other one. Even in the text, the explanation feels awkward. It condenses the possible meanings into an awkward one-to-one correlation. You can almost hear Matthew talking to himself as he scratched out his gospel: “Oh, man, this is a WEIRD one, Jesus. They’re gonna need some interpretation for this one. I’m going to just go ahead and write out the key here, even though I KNOW you tell these stories so that they have as many meanings as there are ears that hear them…”
And, anyway, Jesus doesn’t ask us to explain the parable, or to understand it so we can file it away as one more idea, conquered and defined. No, Jesus asks us to LISTEN to the parable.
Well, when I listen, I find myself not so much curious about the seeds as I am curious about the sower.
What kind of gardener would toss the seeds about like that? What kind of bean planter would let so many beans escape the carefully tilled rows and end up tossed all over the place?
Maybe the sower IS like those little kids in my Grandpa Bobby’s garden, less intent on planting properly and more excited simply to be there, helping with the process, out in the sunshine and near the rich brown earth.
Maybe the sower is less of a perfectionist and more of an opportunist. Maybe the sower has so much seed that she can afford to toss it up in the air in celebration. Maybe the sower delights in a cousin’s companionship or a sister’s performance or a sighting of delicate wildlife more than she cares about the proper placement of each and every seed.
Maybe the sower is sowing, not out of necessity or fear that there won’t be enough, but out of sheer joy and abundance at getting to be part of the process. Maybe this is a sower who can afford to let the tiny, chalky seeds fall through the spaces between her fingers just for the enjoyment and wonder of the way that feels. Maybe this sower is far less concerned with keeping the rows straight and much more interested in sharing the seed with every nook and cranny of the place.
What if Jesus is asking us to listen, in this parable, not to the possibilities of seeds growing in various contexts, but to the possibility of becoming planters like this one – so caught up in the joy of planting, so delighted by the experience of joining the crowd of gardeners, so immeasurably excited to have that handful of october beans to share that we cease to worry about proper placement of the seeds, or the exact depth of the tilled rows, or the appropriate chain of command in the garden enterprise, or the coordinated timing of the harvest…
If that were the way gardening worked, I would certainly be more interested in taking it back up. If I could be a sower like little kid Dana was, celebrating the very opportunity to be a part of the enterprise, letting beans fall where they may, throwing a handful up in the air just to see them shower down…well, maybe my houseplants would survive a little longer.
But here’s the thing: In this parable, that IS how gardening works! It isn’t an efficient way of gardening. It’s not frugal or stingy or calculated, but the seed that does fall on good ground? Well, it yields 100 fold! It turns out that all that seed that dropped in other places wasn’t wasted after all. It was part of the process. It was part of the joy. The seed that grew in good soil yielded enough and more than enough. There was no reason to worry about scarcity after all. There was no reason to get angry at those clumsy sowers preoccupied with delight.
I am taken by this parable, taken by the possibility of becoming sowers of delight – less preoccupied with whether or not we are doing this faith thing ‘right’ and more interested in whether or not it is an undertaking of joy, delight and attentiveness.
This morning, our worship is focused on the mission resourcing campaign of the Virlina District. They’ve chosen this passage as their theme, and it seems fitting. Our call, in this parable, is not to worry about whether or not the church as we know it will survive these coming years, not to wring our hands about the proper placement of limited resources in the here and now, not to argue over the size of the rows or the exact placement of the seeds, but to be sowers of JOY – sharing what we have now where and how we can.
And if we sow this way, we might find – like I learned from all those hours spent with my grandparents in the garden and on the porch – that our hard work, dedication, care and JOY can become the things that create health and well-being for others we don’t even yet know.
Our job is not to perfect the rows. Our job is not to sow only in proven good ground. Our job isn’t even to worry about rocky soil or thorny plants or any other threats to the seed of the gospel that we are called to share. Our job is to be a sower like this one – to arrive joyfully at the garden, so taken by the opportunity to join in the planting that we cannot stop smiling. Our job is to sow recklessly, abundantly, trusting that the growth doesn’t depend on us, but on the one who gave us the seed in the first place. Here: have a handful of beans. There: there’s the garden where they’ll grow.
Go. Sow. Dance and shout with the joy of it.
A blessing, from Bishop Ken Untener, of Michigan:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.