Today we have a chance to hear Jesus teach us in a parable. Story telling is a significant part of Jesus’ ministry, especially in the Gospel of Matthew, and in the other Gospels as well. And the parable of the sower who went out to sow seeds begins them all. We are invited to stand or take a seat on the beach with the crowd of others, times past and present, to listen to Jesus sitting out in a boat, because there isn’t room for him on the shore, teaching us and others, in parables – stories, typically simple, ordinary, but often surprising stories, about the mysteries of God’s world. Jesus sits before us and says to us, “Listen.” I am struck by the opportunity this is – if we can avoid thinking, “I’ve heard this before”, or, “I know what this means.”
And here’s a surprise right away: Why would Jesus tell an agricultural story while sitting in a boat on the sea before some, including some of his own followers, who were fisherfolk? Surprise! Here’s a farming story on the West Coast.
But we get it, I think. Whether we’re transplanted prairie folk or from another area or part of the world where seeding and planting are part of everyday life – like it is now for so many more as a result of the pandemic. What a good thing that is! The basic principle that seeds need decent soil to grow makes common sense. That you would sow or plant seed where the soil is best, that’s logical. Although, not every sower has a choice. You don’t choose the soil on the land you have. You can work at it, but it is more a given, at least to begin with. Soil that is hardened by use, rocky, weed infested, it’s not the best. But sometimes it’s all you have. And we’ve all marvelled at how a seed can take root and grow in surprising places, a flower in a sidewalk crack, a sapling clinging to the rocky shoreline, vegetables among the weeds. It’s amazing resilience.
So Jesus teaches us with this short story about someone seeding and the seed falls on all of these types of soil, and what typically happens when it does, eaten by birds, grew quickly but wilted, choked out by weeds, and some on good soil that produced 100, 60, 30-fold. There, that’s the real surprise!
However good the soil, a harvest of 100, 60, 30-fold is great by any measure! And what does that teach us? To be good soil? The story doesn’t work well that way. Soil can do little to determine its goodness. It can be worked, which to some extent is up to the farmer/sower. But a harvest of 100, 60, even 30-fold, is a bumper crop in most anyone’s world. Maybe laughing, at least smiling or shaking their heads might have been the first people’s response. And Jesus says, let anyone with ears, listen!
It is good to ponder this surprising harvest, even as Jesus is good enough to give his disciples an allegorical explanation of the story in Matthew’s Gospel that we hear today; relating it to the variety of ways people/we receive God’s word: not understanding and it’s taken away by the evil one; quick to receive it but falling away because of struggle; hearing the word, but cares of the world and wealth choke it out, or those who hear and understand and bear fruit for God’s world.
All well and good. Thank you, Jesus, for teaching us about the need for good soil, not packed down, rocky, weed infested soil that doesn’t bear fruit for your world. Not hardened, shallow, distracted lives that don’t understand your words. But are we sure exactly what that means in receiving God’s words to produce fruits, 100, 60 even 30-fold?
Deacon Michelle Collins, as part of the weekly summer sermon series by Bishops and Assistants from the five synods of the ELCIC, in her sermon this week, speaks about parables being not like instructions in a manual to make something, or “to construct the correct way of understanding and articulating how it is that God shows up in the world, what God is up to, and who God’s work benefits. But Jesus makes it clear that understanding the kingdom of heaven is not like following assembly instructions. It’s more like listening to a story over and over again, each time hearing something different. It’s more like the process of planting, where you watch the beauty of creation happen in ways that are largely beyond your understanding. It’s more like being in a relationship with someone who becomes more complex and multi-dimensional the deeper the relationship goes. It’s more like sitting on a hillside listening to a story and realizing that the story is not really about seeds and soil, but about the abundant potential of life and creation. Good words.
I received a beautiful little book recently from the daughter-in-law of Laura and Barry Baldwin of this community. Laura died this past December, and Barry a year or so before. Their daughter Karen’s wife, Kim McKellar, has put together a small book during this pandemic of short stories/reflections, each with a photograph, capturing an image and thought or insight in this extraordinary time. The title of the book is What the earth already knows. Opposite a stunning photograph of a pale purple and yellow crocus growing up among thick straw and grasses are these words:
is there anything the world can offer more beautiful than this crocus, at this moment.
anything more important than the sweetness it brings to a dull grey day.
thank you, fresh earth for planting in me a memory to nourish my hungry heart,
that first moment when I saw it and felt surprised by joy.
I wonder, can we see and hear this parable of Jesus about planting and growth like this crocus, this image, these words, in “what the earth already knows” of hope and life and growth for God’s world, and be surprised by joy?
Ralferd Freytag, a member of this community who died recently, spoke some last words that I have been thinking about connected to this parable. I share them with the permission of Ralferd’s family, tender and important as they are to them, and they trusted they would be to us. Ralferd said to his son Erik that Tuesday in his last breaths, “I love you. Here I stand. Lord have mercy.” And, “I never thought of it that way.” Words expressing his love of family to his last breath. And of course, Ralferd would quote Luther and the liturgy. But what does, “I never thought of it that way” mean? It made his family smile to think of the conversation Ralferd was having with himself or with God/the Spirit/Jesus, gaining a new insight, a new way of thinking as he passed from this life to the next. “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” after 94 years, offers a gracious invitation, a seed, to see, think, act, in some new way that is being opened up, that is growing and producing new life, abundance, 30, 60, 100-fold. Can we see the parable of Jesus inviting us into this same possibility – a new way of thinking, understanding, growth for God’s world?
Into all that is happening now, in the upheaval of an isolating and frightening, and for too many, deadly pandemic; in the global movement of Black Lives Matter for lasting change to systemic racism everywhere; in truth and reconciliation for indigenous peoples including murdered and missing indigenous women and girls; in tents and hotels for the homeless and poor in our community for lack of basic income and supports; for a pandemic of death for the addicted and forgotten dying alone in our neighbourhoods; in continuing refugee crises; in the need for greater acceptance of queer and other diverse lives and abilities in others who are still rejected, abused, scorned; in all of this and more, and personal challenges and changes, griefs and pains we bear, individually and together, Jesus teaches us with this parable of a sower sowing seeds, and the different ground and chance of growth upon which it falls, the wholly/holy gracious potential of some soil to produce, 30, 60, 100! fold yields of abundant new growth, new life, new ways of thinking and acting that the earth already knows, individually and together, in love and compassion, for change, for God’s world, for good. Can you hear Jesus’ words, this parable, teaching us that? Let anyone with ears, listen! And pray! And trust! And act! In grace and growth. Let it be so, in all our relations. Amen.