Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 15
July 16, 2017
Isaiah 55:10-13, Psalm 65, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I first came to North Dakota, Gene Wirtz thought that I needed to learn a little bit more about farming if I was going to be a pastor to so many farmers. (He was probably right.) And so, my first year here, he invited me out to ride along in his tractor when he planted and to ride in his combine as he harvested. So, out I went. And the thing that impressed me the most, particularly in the spring planting season, was the absolute precision of modern agriculture. GPS-driven tractors with computers controlling the placement of each seed, making sure that every seed is planted in the optimal way for it to grow, and that every inch of field is planted in the most efficient way possible for the most number of healthy plants. This is big business. People spend lifetimes studying the best possible way to manage and utilize land, soil types, rainfall, irrigation, plant varieties, fertilizer, and more, and then developing new techniques and plant varieties to make things even better. Everything has to be precise so that nothing is wasted and everything grows. The idea is to spend the least amount of time, money, and resources to get the most amount of results. That’s how modern farmers have yields that farmers a century ago would have thought completely absurd.
It looks absolutely nothing like the sower in the parable. The sower, you see, is indiscriminate. Good soil gets sowed with seed, but so does bad soil, and so does soil that isn’t soil at all. The path gets seeded just like the good soil does. It may not grow anything … but that’s not for lack of effort on the sower’s part. And I assure you, no farmer in ANY era from the beginning of farming to the present would work that way. Would you guys seed the ROAD? No? Guess what, neither would farmers in Jesus’ day. Because it would be stupid, right? You KNOW that it’s not going to yield anything. Even a gravel road, it’s just too hard-packed for the seed to be able to dig in, there are no furrows or anything to get the seed into the soil, and the people passing by trample any young shoots that do spring up, and (as Jesus points out), the seed on the path is just perfect, sitting there on the surface, for birds to come along and eat. Sowing seed on the path is STUPID. And people in ancient times didn’t have modern technology or science to figure out all the things we know, but they weren’t stupid, either. I’m pretty sure that as Jesus told this parable, and he starts out by talking about the seed falling on the path, that his listeners immediately thought to themselves “wow, is that farmer incompetent! What an idiot! OF COURSE he’s not getting any results!”
So why is Jesus telling us this crazy story? He spent a lot of time telling crazy stories, throughout his ministry. Yes, there were times that he just gave straight-up lectures about what you should do or shouldn’t do, but most of the time he spent teaching he spent telling stories. Parables. And we’ve heard these stories so many times that we often don’t pay much attention to how deeply weird they can be. Like that incompetent farmer trying to grow crops on the road. So let’s take a few minutes to remember what a parable is and why Jesus told stories.
First, stories are really important. Human beings think in stories. We organize our world around stories. If you tell someone a fictional story—not just untrue, but contradicting the actual truth—and tell them the true facts at the same time, they will believe the false story. Even if you tell them up front the story is a lie, it will have more impact on them than the facts do. For example: most Latinos in this country are not only US citizens, but have no illegal immigrants anywhere in their family tree. No member of their family has ever come to this country without permission. See, Mexico used to be a lot bigger than it is now. In 1821, Mexico included everything from Texas to California, and a lot of Mexicans lived there. It was their home. But in 1846, the US invaded and conquered those lands, adding them to the United States, and those Mexicans became US citizens overnight. They never crossed the border, the border crossed them. But that’s not the story we tell. The story we tell is of people sneaking in to this country to steal American jobs. And so when I tell the truth—that most Latinos in America are US citizens whose families have been here longer than most of our families—people don’t believe me. Because the story is more powerful than the true facts of the matter.
If stories shape how we see the world, then they’re really important. So it’s no wonder Jesus taught using them. Jesus didn’t care if his followers memorized the right words, or were able to quote him verbatim, or could give the correct answers on a test. Jesus wanted his followers to think like him, to be shaped by God’s Word and God’s will. And if you want to shape how people think and feel, you don’t lecture them or give them a list of things to memorize. You tell them a story. A story they’ll remember; a story they can connect to.
And parables are a special kind of story. “Parable” literally means “to throw alongside.” In a parable, you don’t come at the moral of the story straight-on. In fact, there may not be a simple moral or lesson. Parables are more complicated than that. Parables are designed to make you think. Parables are designed to be complicated, and surprising, and layered, so that each time you come back to it you hear some nuance that you weren’t quite aware of before. Parables are designed so that you can’t possibly simplify them into one right answer to memorize, even when (as here) Jesus explains them. And when there is something in a parable that seems weird, chances are, that thinking more deeply will be fruitful.
Back to the parable of the sower. That weird, incompetent, stupid sower who is too dumb to know that seed scattered on the road is wasted. No farmer in real life would ever do that. But this is a parable, and that seed is God’s word. And so then I have to ask the question: can God’s word be wasted? Is there ever a time when there truly is no point to God’s word? Is there ever a time when it is truly hopeless that it can’t have any effect? I mean, there are times when the chances that that seed is going to yield good fruit are pretty small. But is yielding fruit the only purpose of God’s word? And how small a chance is too small? And so what if most of it gets snatched away or stifled or choked out? Even if it never bears fruit, isn’t the world a better place for it to have been there?
And what does this tell us about God? I mean, we human beings are all about efficiency and returns on investment. If we’re going to put time into something, we want to know we’re going to get something out of it. We want results. Most people don’t bother with things we know will fail. We hate waste. We are convinced that there is a limited amount of wealth and resources to go around, so we had better make sure we get our share. We hoard and store up things until we can get the maximum benefit out of it. And, you know, a lot of times that’s a good thing! When I was a kid, I stored up my allowance and the wages I got for working in my parents’ studio until I was able to afford to send myself to Space Camp in Alabama. That would not have been possible without thrift and saving and being choosy. But at the same time, that’s not how the sower is operating in the parable. That’s not how God’s Word operates.
God’s word is profligate. God’s word is abundantly generous, to the point of absurdity. God’s word is decadently extravagant. No restrictions, no shortages, no measuring it out by the spoonful for maximum impact. Instead, God sprays it out indiscriminately on good soil and bad alike. Sure, it’s not going to grow everywhere, but where it does grow, it grows miraculously huge. God doesn’t restrict it to only the places where God is sure of a return; God showers it everywhere. God does not work as if resources are scarce. God works as if resources are never-ending. There is no need to count the cost, to be choosy, to be efficient. There is more than enough to go around.
And what does this parable tell us about us? Are we the sower, or are we the soil? Or are we both? And what kind of ground are we? Are we the path, or the rocky soil, or the thorny soil, or the good soil? And are we always the same kind of soil or does that change throughout our lives? Can we be good soil one day and thorny soil a week later, when something happens to make us worried? Can we be rocky soil in one part of our lives, but good soil later? And what are the rocks and thorns in our lives, and can we pull them out? Can we help others to be good soil by, say, helping them deal with the cares and worries of life?
What do you think?