The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10A): July 13, 2014
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
I know that, like me, many of you continue to be shocked and deeply saddened by the death this last Thursday of our parishioner and friend Jean Chambers. Jean was hit by a car when crossing the street close to her home, and died shortly after.
It is so difficult to even comprehend the sudden death of a member of our church family, and we can make no sense of our loss. What is most important in a difficult time like this is that we support Jean’s beloved family, her husband John and her daughter Maria, and that we also support one another as we grieve.
[There are members of the congregation who are organizing food and other support for the family; contact the church office if you would like to help. The funeral will be on Saturday, August 7, at 5:00 p.m.; we will remind you of that date as it nears.]
Of course, we all struggle with the pain and loss that accompanies death. As I grapple with these mysteries, I find greatest comfort in the beautiful words of our Book of Common Prayer. Let us pray:
O God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day our sister Jean. We thank you for giving her to us, her family and friends, to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn. Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[i]
When I was in college in Texas at a small Methodist school, I was in the choir. Every year we went on tour – you may know how that works at small church schools – we sang in various churches and stayed overnight with parishioners before we went on to the next destination.
One evening we found ourselves in Bryan/College Station, the home of Texas A&M University. My tour roommate and I were paired up with a host, and as we began to get acquainted we learned that he was a soil scientist – he taught at A&M, Texas’ most prominent school for agriculture, so I guess it shouldn’t have been a big surprise. But I was surprised. It had never occurred to me that there were people who made their living studying dirt! Our host and my roommate had a lot to discuss, as my roommate was the son of a dairy farmer; I was most definitely left out of the conversation.
Of course, I hadn’t thought of the ways that conversation might come in handy years later – as a sermon illustration, if nothing else. Jesus seems to take a bit of a foray into soil science today in the Parable of the Sower. I wish I had been listening a little better…
In the Gospel of Matthew this parable is the first of a string of parables that follow one after another, and some say that the parable of the sower sets the stage for all the parables that follow.[ii] In this chapter alone it is one of seven parables. Jesus used parables to explain things that were difficult to understand – they seem to be his favorite teaching tool.
And while the vast majority of the parables are simply told—with us left to figure out what they mean—in this case, Jesus gives us the explanation as well. And I have to tell you, that disappoints me a bit. While many other parables leave me scratching my head in puzzlement, I can think of many different directions to take this one. I sort of resent that Jesus (or the writer of the Gospel of Matthew) insists on pinning this one down.
Jesus explains that this parable is about our receptivity to hearing the Word of God. Whether that is Word with a capital “W” meaning Christ (you remember the opening of John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was with God – that “Word” of course, refers to Jesus), or a lower case word, meaning an understanding of God and God’s ways, the parable is about opening ourselves to the grace of God as given through Jesus Christ. Jesus explains that some are like the path that cannot receive the word; some are like rocky ground where the word cannot last; some are weedy, thorny patches that will not let the word flourish; and some are good soil, where the word can take hold so that it yields good things far beyond our hopes.
OK – that’s good stuff. As my father likes to say, “that’ll preach.” But as I studied this passage, I found myself wanting to put myself in other places in the parable. Rather than only being some kind of soil, I wonder what it might be like to take on other roles in the story?
Of course, the sower in this parable is traditionally understood to be either God or Christ. If the sower is God, then it is the story of God giving his only Son for us—sacrificing that which is most dear for all of us. You can see how that plays out, as not everyone is able to take in the wonder of that gift. If we understand the sower as Christ, then this becomes a story about how he is a prophet without honor in his own country – as a matter of fact, those very words come later in this chapter of Matthew.
But what if we embrace the role of sower in this parable? Have you ever even dared to sow the seeds of the word of God? Have you told others of the gifts that you find in a life following Christ? That’s hard for anyone to do, but especially for Episcopalians, I think. We don’t tend to lead with our story, do we? We are not out there handing out pamphlets like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or sending our young people out to tell the story like the Mormons, or even spending a lot of money on media like the Roman Catholics or the Methodists. We are quieter, more introspective. We pretty much expect new members to find us.
Now that may be the way we like it, but as an agricultural strategy, it stinks. Imagine if a farmer bought seed, and just set it in the field, expecting that nature would do the rest? No, to make things grow—to reap an abundant harvest, the seed has to be sown. It has to be put into the soil—the right kind of soil—and be nurtured.
But we must be like the farmer in this parable, throwing out the seed of the story of God’s love for all extravagantly. As one writer said,
If there is an ideal in this story that I want to model, it’s the Sower! I want to be the one who shares the word of God so lavishly and abundantly with others that I am not for a minute concerned where it lands. That I don’t take out my ‘soil test kit’ before I give—to see if someone may be hardened, or if what I share might be snatched away by birds, or whether there might be rocks or thorns or whatever… that I might continue to spread the word and share the love of Christ everywhere I go with whomever I meet regardless of what I might think of them, knowing that there is so much grace out there that it covers all things and all people… that giving God’s love is never a waste of time, or wasted, ever.[iii]
I think that’s a pretty good way to interpret this parable. I’d be delighted if we were to understand Christ’s words in that way.
On the other hand, can we think of ourselves as the seed? A seed is a truly miraculous thing: it is the greatest model for human potential that I can think of. It has in its small, hard shell the very stuff of life. Something that seems hard and dead is actually teeming with possibility.
Now, I admit that this metaphor is a little harder to work with; we don’t want to suggest that God wastes some of humanity as indiscriminately sown seed. I think that understanding ourselves as the seed in this particular story is probably not what God intends.
But what if, instead, we understood ourselves as an unspoken character in the story: what if we took on the role of the gardener? Jesus says that the seed that “fell on good soil brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” Well, a sevenfold return—that is harvesting grain seven times the weight of the original seed sown—was considered a healthy harvest in Jesus’ day. So imagine the abundance that Jesus speaks of here! A farmer who realized a harvest of a hundredfold would be set for life! That’s some good gardening!
But that doesn’t just happen. Even the seed that falls on good soil must be tended and nurtured. That is the role of the unseen gardener. What if we understood our role in the world in that way?
You see, all of the seed has potential—but if it isn’t nurtured, it won’t grow into what it was meant to become. Someone has to take on the role of gardener, making sure that the soil is right, that there is adequate sunshine and water, that the weeds are pulled so that the plant is not choked, and that the plant is lovingly pruned—all to encourage growth. Seeds, with all their potential, rarely make it on their own. They need help.
The role of gardener is key to the success of living things. A parent is a gardener, to be sure. You give your child all the things they need to thrive—not only food and a roof over their heads, but more importantly love and attention. You try to suppress the bad influences in their lives. You discipline them, when necessary, because you know it is vital to their success. You want them to live to their full potential—to become everything they can be.
There are many in our communities who take on the same kind of caring for our world. Here at St. Michael’s we have the Saturday Kitchen, and Pilgrim Resource Center, and our service to the Trinity Shelter for LGBTQ youth, I know. But could we do more? Surely there are other gardens here on the Upper West Side that need tending. And thinking back to that idea of being the Sower, there is perhaps no better advertisement for a thriving church community than to be seen serving the needs of those outside our walls.
But as great as it would be for our parish to garden together, there are other ways each of you probably can and do serve as gardeners. If you are not already doing so, I urge you to go out and find a garden that needs your care right now! And even if you are certain that your schedule is too full, and you can’t do one more thing, then at least think about how you can create good soil in your daily activities. Pay attention to those around you. Nurture the people you come in contact with. Don’t pass up the opportunity to water the souls that are in need. Start to think of yourself as a gardener in the work you do—in the office, in the community, wherever you are.
Of course, each of us is also looking to be tended. To be cared for. And that brings us back to the parable as explained by Jesus. While it is tempting to see ourselves as “good soil,” we know that in fact we are most often that rocky soil, unable to hang on to or sustain the growth that begins in us; or we are the thorny patch, where all the distractions of 21st century life choke out the potential for abundance; or we are just the hard path, unable to take in the good gifts right before us. I know that my moments of being good soil are far too fleeting, that as last week’s reading from Romans said, far too often, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
The good news that Christ brings us in today’s parable is that God continues to be the Sower. God indiscriminately sows seed, hoping and knowing that the seed will find the good soil of our lives—and, in fact, that God is working as the gardener too, nurturing and encouraging us, so that our souls might become more fertile.
God’s grace is the ultimate fertilizer—better far than Miracle-Gro or anything else that humans can devise. God’s unfailing love nurtures us to bountiful life. God takes our hard-shell selves and nurtures us so that we might break open and sprout into something far beyond our wildest dreams. And God puts us into each other’s lives as gardeners to tend one another. We are the seed, we are the soil, we are the sowers, we are the gardeners, even as God is all of these things too.
And as we come to the table for the Eucharist, we are reminded of all of the potential that God has planted in us. God’s grace is symbolized for us in the bread and the wine, the gift of God’s son for our sake. Today, take the gifts that are provided at this table as a reminder that God cares passionately for you, and, if you will only allow it, will help you to yield a hundredfold for the world. Come to this table and be nourished, that you might nourish the world as God’s gardener. Amen.
[i] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 493.
[ii] Petty, John. John Petty, Progressive Involvement, http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2011/07/lectionary-blogging-matthew-13-1-9-18-23.html accessed July 8. 2011.
[iii] http://www.theologicalstew.com/the-sower.html, accessed July 8, 2011.