Sunday, July 16, 2023

Seveth Sunday after Pentecost

“Sowing Seeds” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

Once upon a time, I lived and served a church in a rural community in America’s “Heartland” — a place where agriculture anchors the local economy and where people work hard to raise all sorts of things. And, as you would expect, many folks in my community and in my congregation were farmers of one variety or another.

So when we decided to remove a bunch of dead trees and brush in a large swath of our yard and plant grass, I did this with some trepidation. Sure, people had been growing stuff in that region for hundreds of years because it’s relatively easy to grow stuff there — the soil’s good, the temperature’s moderate and it rains a lot. But I was anxious because I didn’t want to screw this up.

I mean if you can’t manage to cultivate a lawn in that place, under such ideal conditions — where you literally have to mow at least twice a week in the spring because grass grows so well and so fast — it’s probably time for some serious self-reflection.

My anxiety was intensified by the fact that a significant number of the people I encountered on a daily basis actually did this professionally. And it’s a widely-acknowledged yet unspoken truth in those parts that lawn care is a competitive sport. I mean, if you’re a farmer whose yard isn’t lush and green, then other farmers might assume that you aren’t much of a farmer — and that’s a lot of pressure to deal with.

It would be kind of like standing in the pulpit and speaking to a congregation in which there just so happened to be other pastors; I can only imagine what that would be like.

Anyway, even I, with my limited understanding of agricultural matters, knew that I couldn’t just throw grass seed everywhere and expect a resplendent sea of green to appear at some point in the future — even in that agrarian paradise. No, deep down inside, I understood that this was going to require intention and work.

I had to make sure there was a layer of good topsoil in which the seed could take root; I had to water — not too much but not too little — and constantly balance that watering against the rainfall; I had to cover the seed with straw to hold in moisture and to protect the new shoots from the  summer sun, but not so much that the seedlings would mold; I had to fertilize when the time was right, varying the type of fertilizer with the season and making sure not to burn the young grass; I had to cut the lawn in order to foster growth, but not too early and not too often lest I kill it. Like I said, it definitely took intention and work.

Thankfully, though, I received no shortage of advice from my fellow townsfolk. And why did they share it with me? Maybe it was because I was their pastor; maybe it was because they felt sorry for this city dweller who was trying to work the land (albeit a very small piece of it); maybe it was because they cared deeply about their chosen craft; maybe it was because they were, for the most part, really kind people who would have given you the shirt off their back (even if we didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye about some things); maybe it was a combination of some or all of the above.  

For whatever reasons, they imparted their individual and collective wisdom upon me — and all of it boiled down to this basic premise: You can’t just throw a bunch of seed on the ground and expect to get a crop out of it. And they knew this because they were farmers, not just sowers.

This is an important distinction to make — not only amongst the rolling green hills of Northeast Ohio, but also in the context of today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, which is commonly known as the Parable of the Sower. And I say this because, by all accounts, the title character may not be a great sower and they’re definitely no farmer either.

Think about it for a minute: They head out to field to do a job and just throw seeds all over the place. Some landed on the path for the birds to eat (even I know that this isn’t very good sowing), some ended up on the rocky ground where they couldn’t possibly grow (Shouldn’t they have known this would happen?), some dropped in the midst of choking thorns (Yeah, they probably should have realized this wasn’t a good idea either) and a few managed to find their way to good soil and yielded various quantities of grain (because even a broken clock ends up being right twice a day). And then the sower just walks away.

Now, there’s always been a tendency, when it comes to Jesus’s parables, to try to draw clear, bright lines between the various images in the story and what they are supposed to represent in real life. The problem, though, is that Jesus’s parables are not that simple and straightforward.

In this particular case, one might assume that the sower is God, that the seeds are the grace that God distributes so freely, and that we are the soil of various types. But such facile interpretive assumptions are accompanied by some peril.

For starters, how can we reconcile the idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing and always-engaged God with the image of this sower who doesn’t seem to either know much about how agriculture works or care all that much about his job? I’m honestly not sure. I wish we could actually ask Jesus. Then again, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t give us much of an answer because he didn’t give his disciples much of one when they asked.

And what about the soil? You could certainly read this story and assume that Jesus is making some kind of statement about us here, and he probably is — it just might not be the obvious one.

It’s so easy to jump to the conclusion that Jesus is drawing distinctions among different types of people and their willingness to receive the gospel here. And maybe that’s true, to some degree. As Jesus’s ministry in Galilee is just getting underway, people aren’t quite sure what to make of it — some seem receptive to it, and some don’t; some kind of seem to get it, and some don’t. When it comes to this aspect of the parable, Jesus doesn’t seem to be judging people on the basis of their faith; he mostly seems to be describing the reality of the situation in which he currently finds himself.

But let’s just say, for simplicity’s sake, that God is the sower and God’s grace — the good news that Jesus is sharing — is the seed. If you’re the good soil in which that good news can take root and grow, you’re in luck (or blessed, if you’d prefer to put it in more theological terms); if you’re the path or the rocky soil or the patch of thorns, not so much.

As you might expect, for the past two thousand years, people have spent a  lot of time and effort explaining why they are the good soil. But, given the fact that Jesus repeatedly declares that the gospel is meant for everyone, and that we’re called to love our neighbor in a world where everyone is our neighbor, such exclusivist thinking misses the whole point of the gospel. So what if we were to look at the soil differently?

Anyone who’s ever tried to grow anything over a long period of time and paid any kind of attention along the way has probably come to understand at least a couple of important things about of things about soil.

The first is that it’s a living thing that changes with time and circumstance — this year’s great soil might not be so great next year, and vice versa. So, maybe Jesus isn’t placing people into fixed categories here; maybe he’s acknowledging that people’s receptivity to the gospel and their willingness to live it also change with time and circumstance. Let’s face it: there’s some days when loving God and loving your neighbor is whole lot easier than it is on other days. It’s just part of being human.

The second is that we can actually do things to change the quality of the soil. If it’s dry, we can water it; if it’s soaked, we can drain it; if it’s rocky, we can pick up rocks; if it’s filled with weeds, we can pull them out or cut them down. In other words, we can farm. So maybe, just maybe, Jesus is also saying that we need to create and sustain the conditions in which the gospel can take root and thrive here on earth, instead of expecting God to do that for us.

Perhaps the most intriguing image in this whole agricultural parable is one that’s not actually in the parable at all. We’ve got a sower, we’ve got seeds, we’ve got soil, but what’s missing? A farmer — the one who’s called to do the work of bringing it all together and bringing it all to fruition.

Then again, maybe that farmer’s been right there the whole time; maybe that farmer is the disciple who takes in and wrestles with this parable — both two thousand years ago in Galilee and today in Holladay, Utah — and realizes what it’s calling them to do.

Let that sink in for a while and see what happens — you know, kind of like watering the lawn…