Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
Thank you Keaton for sharing the parable of the sower with us this morning. It is a popular story, which has been featured in musicals and Sunday School lessons, and reminds me of another familiar story. There were a group of monks who were diligently writing the words of an ancient manuscript that governed the rules of their monastery. The oldest copy of these rules was starting to fall apart, and they carefully wrote each letter of every word with a feather pen. Suddenly one of the monks began sobbing uncontrollably, and as the brothers gathered around to see what the problem was, they observed he was writing about the rules governing their personal behavioral code of conduct. “Oh no, the monk wailed loudly, someone made a mistake the last time we transcribed the rules; someone left out a letter! This word is supposed to be Celebrate!” ☺ Yes, how we read and understand the ancient texts can make a huge difference.
The point of today’s parable is that people hear and understand in different ways, perhaps due to their unique circumstances and personalities. Jesus explains to his disciples that the seeds represent people, but their failure to understand is caused by Satan stealing the awareness from the person. Even those who hear the word with joy are sometimes unable to persevere, when persecution or trouble arises on account of the Word. We can each think of examples from whatever type of news program you watch, hear or read, of troubles or persecution causing people to react destructively. Persecution pulls people away from the experience of God’s love. Whether the trouble is within your own family, or trends on the national or international stage which represent sinful behavior by corporations or governments, these forces, known in the Bible as “Powers and Principalities, directly oppose those life-affirming foundations of God’s Kingdom, such as compassion, forgiveness, cooperation and the Spirit of Shalom.
I’d like to propose this morning that we can experience the truth of this parable, by looking at another perspective of where the seeds landed may symbolize. Matthew’s account of this gospel gives us one explanation, shared by Jesus to his apostles. Matthew’s focus is on what happens to the seeds, which he says are symbols of people who hear the Word of the Lord. I’d like to look at this parable with a focus on the ground and how the different types of soil can symbolize what is happening in our lives. For it seems that sower who distributed the seed was planting one type of plant: all the seeds were the same. The reason they grew differently was due to the environment. All of the seeds begin with an experience of God’s Presence. You may think of this as any person who has experienced forgiveness and gotten a fresh start in their lives, or who begins to catch a glimpse of themselves as God, the source of all love, perceives them. If you’ve felt unfairly judged, criticized, or shunned, and then experienced the profound acceptance deep within your soul, where you know and understand completely that a divine, god-like presence sees who you are and loves you, that is the experience Jesus’ parable calls, “the sowing of the seed.” We may sense this life-giving, spiritual love as a power that shapes our values; it may come in a moment of silent prayer when you receive an insight or breathe in serenity; it frequently comes with music in worship, but it could also be experienced in the process of Recovery from a time of fear or hopelessness. Maybe it even began with your baptism! Perhaps the parable talks about the various places where the seeds became planted to show our range of experiences.
Scenario One: Seeds could land on the path and be eaten by birds. While this may not be the plan of the sower, we really do not know if this outcome is good for the seeds, as we don’t know what happens next. Sounds like it is good for the birds who had lunch, but if we are wondering why the seed is eaten, clearly it is not because the seed had done something wrong. Some evil power or demonic force or sin has separated the seed from the nourishment of the well-fertilized soil.
Scenario Two: Seeds land on the rocky ground, but are unable to develop a good root structure. Clearly, the environment being hostile in this scene may symbolize times of trouble and persecution in our lives. These may only be occasional times of hardship, or they may be like an endless train filled with stress, abuse, addiction, resentment, pain, and whatever else we characterize under the heading of SIN. The misery of being trapped in a condition that sucks the joy out of life is what I think the parable means by rocky ground. How do we react when we are the ones dealing with this hostile environment? One meaning of the theological concept of “Being Faithful” is to be able to persevere in times of trouble, even when your best efforts seem to be completely ineffective. Yet, in times of trouble, do we want to hear from a self-righteousness church visitor that, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” or, “This will really help you develop patience, self-control, or maturity”? The parable teaches that in the rocky ground, the plants’ roots could not grow deeply enough. They had no depth in the rocky ground; and shallow platitudes also can not convey any depth of understanding. Even if we know: 1}Paul was right in saying suffering produces endurance, or 2} if a coach instilled the phrase, “No Pain, No Gain”, or 3} we know we really will learn more responsibility from these awful consequences, nevertheless, when we are dealing with troubles and persecutions, we need support, protection, and assistance. Rocky soil can be amended with compost, manure, etc. to create healthier soil to provide a healthier environment for all seeds to grow.
In any case, clearly there are times when we do experience bad things in our lives, and whatever imagery you choose to symbolize it, rocky ground or manure, this pain has the potential to separate us from God’s Love, and even from God’s Love as shared by the members of a congregation. A hostile environment can create negative consequences, and this is why churches are called to help people who are caught in oppressive situations. Our congregation gives us opportunities to share God’s Love, to give the blessings we have received.
Scenario Three: Seeds fall among the thorns, and the weeds choke them. Matthew’s description of this possibility is that either the cares of the world or the lure of wealth are symbolized by the thorns. How is it that these weeds can completely choke the experience of God’s Word, or God’s Presence, or the Fruits of the Spirit? How can a person who puts all their energy into accumulating more wealth and power than 98% of the other human beings on this planet, how can that person be separated from Joy, Peace, Serenity, Love, Grace, Acceptance, and ultimately be separated from himself and those he loves the most? This is such a difficult concept for many Christians, especially in the Protestant tradition, with our focus on hard-work and responsibility being the chief values that get one admission to Heaven. Yet, when we explore the biblical imagery of God’s Kingdom, from the original innocence in the Garden of Eden, through the metaphors that Jesus taught, God created us to love and forgive, and accept each other and ourselves, not to live in fear of criticism that we have not been perfect: not perfect enough as parents, as congregants, as workers, as if the human condition implies being born into a condition of “original sin”. No, I think this parable says that we do not have to be perfect people, perfect Christians; there are bad things that can happen along life’s journey, which are not caused by our inherent flaws. The parable says that even when things don’t go the way we had planned, God understands the big picture. Even when we are crushed by the powers and principalities of this world, hope is still possible. Opportunities for sharing God’s Love exist, and our church does respond to situations of inhumane behavior, injustice and oppression. We support each other in getting organized and collaborating with others to make our world a better place, which does help each of us grow into being better than we would be on our own. The fertilizer that helps us grow in faith are all the experiences we have of God’s Presence: in times of forgiveness, acceptance, selfless sharing and compassion. This is why the United Church, of Christ, uses the phrase, “extravagant welcome” to describe how we invite others to share the blessings of following in The Way of Jesus. Today we celebrate the sacraments of Baptism, and of Holy Communion. These rituals reveal God’s Presence to us on a personal level, in the context of a community of others who also understand the parable of the sower in their own ways. Yet we all have an idea about how our church helps point our lives in the direction of our Lord, who creates love and life. Everyone’s life may produce different types of blessings, just as some of the seeds yielded 30-fold, some 60-fold and some a hundred. Some may have more manure feeding the soil, or deeper roots reaching more water; even in the ideal situation there are going to be many individual variables.
Maybe the Fourth Scenario, the seed falling on fertile ground and producing a bountiful harvest is an idealized version of what it means to become a member of a congregation living-out a mission of joining with God, healing the broken, and educating people of all ages. We try not to waste our time by judging others, but we sincerely try to live our lives in line with the teachings of Jesus, to respect and honor all of creation.