Matt. 13: 1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’
The Parable of the Sower Explained
‘Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’
Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, when I was a theatre major at the University of Iowa, (I’m dating myself now), I made friends with an aspiring director and writer. Years later we met up again in New York City and started an off-off Broadway theatre on the upper west side of Manhattan. At that time my formal religious expression was going through a somewhat dormant period. I had left the Catholicism of my youth - for the most part - attending church on special occasions. My friends were pretty much like me. We were in our mid-20’s and had more pressing things on our minds. I fell into the category that millennials today refer to as spiritual, not religious.
Drawing parallels to Jesus’ parable today, I guess you could say my soil was still fertile after thirteen years of parochial education and regular church attendance, but some weeds had encroached on the seeds, and they weren’t producing at the moment.
So it came as quite a shock to myself and my circle of friends when our director friend announced that he was changing careers and going to enroll at Union Seminary and become a minister. Bruce? - who was raised by atheist parents and had never gone to church growing up? How could this be?
He told me about a re-occurring dream he had had for years. In it he was a minister. He had never understood why he kept having this dream. What did it mean? He didn’t even go to church. It made no sense at all.
Could it be that God was tossing some seeds Bruce’s way, year after year, but they landed on a hardened path and they couldn’t take hold yet? After all he had little capacity to respond to the Word. He had no foundation to understand it, so the seeds just sort of came and went, like in Jesus’ parable - landing on the path, and before you could count to ten, the seeds were eaten up by the birds and gone.
Soon after college Bruce married his high school sweetheart. When their first child was born his wife wanted him to be baptized. Bruce didn’t understand much about it, but had no objections. So Sandy arranged to have Brendon baptized in the denomination she had grown up in - in the church her sister attended. Bruce went along. Seeds were planted, and that hard path was starting to break up. God showered them with more seeds, and before long, Bruce was taking instruction, was baptized, and they joined the church.
One Sunday, a guest missionary was preaching, and Bruce said it was like he was talking directly to him. He knew at that moment where God was calling him. The seeds had finally landed in fertile ground, and the meaning of the dream became crystal clear. He was finally able, not only to hear the News, but to understand it, not merely intellectually, but with a commitment at the depths of his being. Over the years they’ve produced a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.
As I’ve journeyed along my own path, I’ve come to believe that God is continually showering us with seeds, with news of the kin-dom and how to arrive there. And over our lifetimes we respond in different ways, pending on the condition of the soil in our souls. Throughout the Bible the writers use the imagery of planting and harvesting to describe the seasons of our lives, the condition of our soul’s soil, our journeys to understanding the will of God.
Nothing in this world is ever stagnant. Everything is constantly changing, evolving, transforming. Our faith, too, is constantly evolving, through different seasons. “Harvest” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “haerfest,” “autumn”. It came to refer to the season for reaping and gathering grain and other grown products.
As the parable tells us, God gives us the seeds, but our soil must be fertile, or they won’t take root and grow. There are times in our lives when the seeds fall on hardened paths. We’d rather sleep in on a Sunday morning, or work in the yard, or sit in front of the tube watching football.
Like Bruce, some of us don’t have the foundation to understand the word. The timing isn’t quite right. Others choose not to. It’s easier to claim ignorance. If we really got it, if we really understood what Jesus was trying to tell us, we might have to clean up our act, change our lifestyle. Jesus’ message was not exactly an easy one to follow. As the interior battles go on, that’s where Jesus describes the Evil one coming in and snatching the seed out of a person’s heart.
There are seasons when doubt and confusion set in. Some things don’t make sense anymore, and we’re not sure what to believe. We see this taken to extremes in people like Hitchen and Dawkin, and other popular atheist writers who seem only to communicate with the most fundamentalist proponents of any given faith tradition, and then reject it all as nonsense.
We go through seasons when our ground cover is shallow, hiding solid rock under the surface. You know these people: all enthusiastic about something, and ten minutes later they’re off to something else, never settling long enough to put down roots, let alone produce a harvest.
They come into church all excited, and quickly disappear, leaving others to wonder “Where did they go? What happened?” Sometimes they return later on when the timing is right, sometimes not. Sometimes they’ve found another path that allows their soil to be nourished. We all have different paths to follow.
Jesus says “when trouble or persecution arises, they fall away.” I thought immediately of an old friend, a gay man, raised by atheist parents, who in the throes of clinical depression started to pray. He didn’t know what else to do. A friend invited him to church thinking it might help. He came back again and again, until the Sunday the minister preached on homosexuality, equating it with rape and pedophellia. He left those church doors never to return.
Sometimes the soil is fertile, but overgrown with weeds which get the upper hand. It happens when we let worries or the wrong set of priorities take over. Those priorities may appear to be all good on the surface: success, good jobs, beautiful homes, vacations, all the good things we’re taught to strive for in our lives. Isn’t this the sign of a good harvest? Joel Olstein, with his prosperity gospel, would say “yes.” I’m not so sure - not if it takes over and strangles the Word, so that it is no longer heard, not if the word takes a back seat to the rest of our lives, or worse yet, is confined to the trunk.
But there are those seasons when our soil is rich for the planting. The person hears the word and understands and produces a harvest beyond his or her wildest dreams. These people love, and care, and go, and do, and give, and are embarrassed by any recognition. We’ve met them. They are in our families, our churches, and communities.
They fertilize their soil. They take time to tend to their spirits, to nourish and feed it - talk to it, pray, let it breath - alone and with others. Attending to the spirit nourishes and eventually shapes who we are, and how we shape the world we live in.
That world is in desperate need of sowers and sowing. But it’s a world that demands instant results and gratification - a need to succeed and see the fruits of our labors. Sowing, on the other hand, is a tedious task. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s slow, labor intensive work that requires persistence and patience, never knowing when the seed will root, and never quitting until it does.”
How many seeds were sown, and how long did it take for them to bear fruit in the struggle for equal rights for the African American and GLBTQ communities? - for women’s rights? How many people became disillusioned along the way and just gave up? How many were persecuted and killed in the process? How many seeds are still looking for good soil to take root?
“The willingness to sow seed on barren ground, on rock and in thorn bushes is the prophetic task of the sower.” says Sister Joan Chittister, in her book “For Everything a Season.” I think of Bill McKibben who started 350.org. How many seeds has he planted in the hearts of people across the globe who care passionately about the environment? He may never see the final results of his work, but he has a vision and goal that’s more compelling than all the obstacles standing in his path.
“If you expect to see the results of your work,” the Talmud teaches, “you have simply not asked a big enough question.”
We are not shying away from the big questions here at Eliot. As a community of faith, our mission is to be constantly sowing seeds. Chittister, says “The real function of each generation is to sow seeds that will make a better world possible in the future … Even in the face of the impossible, we must act as if the miracle will come tomorrow. That’s what sowing is all about. It requires trying when hope is thin and faith is stretched and opposition is keen.”
As some of us gather next Sunday with clergy and members of other churches here in Newton to brainstorm ideas about how to make a lasting impact for the good on the lives of homeless families, we are planting seeds. We have no idea which ones will find fertile ground and take root. We have no idea what obstacles will stand in our way, but we rest assured that God wants a better world for all of its inhabitants. We who plant seeds must have trust, and wide-eyed hope, and a willingness to fail and fail and try, try again.
We know that installing solar panels on our roof, and increasing our divestment from fossil fuels will not stop climate change, but we plant these little seeds with hope to make a better world possible for future generations, for our children and grand-children.
We are all capable of producing good soil. It happens at different times in our lives. I firmly believe that each of us sitting here today have some seeds rooted in good soil, with crops in various stages of growth, some even ready to harvest. God keeps tossing those seeds our way, regardless of where they fall. You never can be sure where they will take hold.
What condition is your soil in? What seeds have you planted? What are you harvesting? Where is God in all this? The bulbs you received when you came in today are a reminder. Plant them. Watch them grow. How will your faith be harvested during this Lenten Season, and beyond?
I invite you to a sermon talk back today after, or over, coffee in the parlor. We’ll talk about prayer, and harvesting our faith. I hope to see you there.