The last few weeks in our worship we have studied together Matthew Ch. 10, Jesus’ instruction to his disciples as they are being sent out in his name to heal and proclaim the kingdom of God. I think we can all agree that Jesus’ call to the disciples is at the same time an important and daunting call. Healing in his name, proclaiming the kingdom of God. It’s one thing to ask this sort of discipleship from those who have been raised in the faith, those who have spent a lifetime learning about Jesus, growing in their trust of him, beginning to understand what this kingdom is all about. It’s another to expect it from disciples who just dropped their nets a few weeks ago and followed. I’m not saying we who are here today “get it” all perfectly now, but at least most of us who choose to answer his call to discipleship have had a little more time to figure some of this out than the original disciples.
I don’t know that the extra time is always helpful, though. Proclaiming a new kingdom isn’t easy, no matter what kind of preparation you have had. We live in a “kingdom” of sorts. We know or are at least familiar with what the kingdom of our cultures, the kingdom of our society is about, what it believes in, what it expects from us, how we can and should act. But Jesus is saying there’s a new kingdom on earth now; it’s not going to come someday later, when we die or when something cataclysmic happens. It’s already started, and it’s just going to keep growing and growing as we who see it live like we’re in it and share our kingdom life with others.
So, we turn our attention this week, and the next two weeks to Ch. 13 of the same gospel of Matthew. Chapter 13 is chock full of a kind of teaching literature we call parables. Jesus uses parables both among his disciples alone and to the large crowds that come to hear him. The parables are particularly helpful for those of us who struggle to understand what this kingdom of God is supposed to look like and how we disciples are supposed to proclaim it.
A few sort of “bullet points” about parables before we move on:
1. Parables are more than just a story with a single point or moral. Don’t think of them as Aesop’s fables that can be boiled down to one teachable sentence, like “One good turn deserves another.”Parables can have multiple meanings at the same time or over time. Each time we come to them we may find something new or come to a new understanding. This is why it is OK to read a parable without the interpretation given in scripture as we will do today.
2. Parables are more than allegories, or point for point comparisons to our faith and daily living. One way of interpreting them is to compare each character or element in the story with something in “real” life, but that’s never the ONLY way to interpret a parable. Instead of looking for one simple meaning, think of a parable as a word picture. In the case of the Chapter 13 kingdom parables they are snapshots of what the kingdom of God looks like, how it operates, not necessarily simply directions about how to live, or rules to govern that kingdom.
3. Parables are based in the common knowledge of the community. They center their teaching story around jobs, tasks, and traditions that everyone knows and understands. In the case of biblical parables that’s great news for the people of Judea 2000 years ago. It’s somewhat more difficult news for us. The things that were common to them are not necessarily still common to us, so there tends to be some learning involved to catch us up to speed with these parables.
4. Parables almost always have a twist. While the parable is based in something familiar there almost always seems to be something in the story that just doesn’t sound right to the hearer. That, I believe, is often where the teachable moment comes in.
With this in mind, let’s turn our minds to Chapter 13, the parable commonly known as the Parable of the Sower. Listen with me to the Word of God.
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 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!”
I have to admit now my relative ignorance in all things planting related. I wrote in our church newsletter earlier this year how the garden is not usually one of my areas of strength or attention. I’m growing into it, but I am, by NO MEANS, an expert or even a good student of all things (or any things) agricultural. It appears, though, that I am in good company. Jesus, the poor city boy, seems to know NOTHING about farming either. The crop yields he mentions are outrageous. And this planting style? Well, it was not how I was taught.
I don’t know about you, but I was taught to be a little more careful with the seed than this sower is being. Look at him! Looking up, away, not paying attention at all. He’s just throwing the seed any old play. My father would have killed me if I had let the seed fly like that!
I can remember planting the flower beds with my father when I was little girl. My mother and father, divorced by this time, had two different ideas of gardening. My mother liked to pick out flats of flowers at the nursery and, for instant gratification, just put them in the ground. My father, on the other hand, liked to start from scratch, putting seeds carefully in the ground at just the right time to ensure a beautiful garden later in the year.
With my father, gardening always involved a tape measure. We’d lay it out across the bed to be sure our rows were straight and had the right spacing. Another ruler would be placed alongside the rows to make sure the seeds were carefully spaced. There was none of this tossing the seeds around while looking off into the sky.
Modern farmers, in my limited experience, would be appalled at this mode of operating, too. Some of you may know that Phil grew up farming with his dad, and his parents still make their living that way in Lexington, Nebraska. Again, I do not claim to have any extensive knowledge of this livelihood, but I can tell you what amazed me on my first few trips out to the farm. Farming can be EXTREMELY technological, and not just on large corporate farms. In the office at home on the farm or really from any computer with internet access anywhere in the world, Phil’s dad can monitor just about every drop of water that irrigates or waters his field. He can turn pivots on the fields in Nebraska on and off from his laptop when he’s up here visiting us.
During and after harvest he can look at maps (like this one) that tell him what his yield has been on each field or even in each row of each field. He uses this information to help him plan how to treat he fields and crops the next year. All of this is to the end of saving resources, working for the highest yield with the least waste possible. (I’m pretty sure none of it was 100- or 60- or 30-fold.)
The planting technology is even more amazing to me. This is a display monitor much like the one that lives in Father-in-Law’s planter. For the most part it looks like a GPS (global position system) not unlike ones that many of us have in our cars for navigating unfamiliar cities or finding the closest gas station. Don’s GPS however, doesn’t tell him the route to the barn (although, I bet it probably could), it tells the planter where to plant. Not only that, with one more gadget attached it can actually drive the tractor to and on the rows themselves.
The benefit here? Nothing is wasted. The GPS, guided by satellites, knows exactly where every seed is planted within one inch of its actual location. It’s craziness to me! With the location of every single seed known, where to apply fertilizer or pesticides become more exact. What the seed needs to grow successfully can be delivered EXACTLY to where the seed lies in the field. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about farming in the last 6 years of knowing Phil and his family, it’s that waste is the enemy. The goal is to get as close to complete efficiency as possible.
Jesus’ parable, on the other hand, is the model of complete inefficiency. What is this sower doing? Those are precious seeds he is holding on to. Those are the seeds that will bring forth the vine or the grain that will feed probably not just himself, but his family, and maybe even the community. Seeds are not to be tossed about without any care about where they will drop. It’s hard to imagine any farmer not doing everything he could to be sure that the seed went exactly where it was supposed to. That it just spilled anywhere or that he might have just scattered it without watching where he was going is beyond ridiculous, even in the days before farming met GPS satellites.
What a waste!
But maybe that’s the point. Remember in a parable, we’re looking for the twist, the point where the familiar becomes the ridiculous. This is our place to step into the story and see what’s going on with God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom, this parable is saying, is a place where seeds, the source of life, are sown EVERYWHERE. God’s kingdom, this parable is saying, is a place where seeds, the source of life, spill over on the path, on the rocks, on the dry, cracked, parched land. God’s kingdom, this parable is saying, is a place where the seeds of grace fall in the middle of thorny weeds even though the weeds will choke them.
God’s kingdom, this parable is saying, is a place where people are cared for with great attention and love, and grace is allowed to fall on all. God’s kingdom is a place where grace is sown abundantly, without judgment of who will receive it, who will reject it, or who needs it most. God’s kingdom is a kingdom of abundant love and hopeful mercy. God’s kingdom doesn’t wait until the weeds are pulled, the earth is turned, or the rains have fallen before grace is sown in our lives.
We have made several trips to nurseries around town to pick out plants for our flower beds and pots. I’m new to all of this, so read every little tag like it is Scripture itself. Is this one for part sun? Is that one for shade? I’m trying to follow the directions to a T to make sure I do it just right. How much water? How far apart? How deep should the hole be dug?
This is just fine for a garden, but it’s not so great for sharing God’s grace. In God’s kingdom everything doesn’t have to be just perfect. In God’s kingdom grace is scattered lovingly and mercifully. The sowers of these precious seeds are called not to hoard them and guard them and share them only when the time is perceived as right. God’s grace is scattered without regard to timing and rules and directions on a tag. It sounds so wasteful to our ears that are tuned for efficiency and productivity by our standards. But what we might see as wasteful, God sees as graceful.
And when grace is sown with reckless abandon the fruit of God’s labor is abundant. The yield is beyond our imagination, beyond our expectation, beyond our understanding, but it’s within the realm of God’s grace in God’s kingdom.
Come this morning to the table of God’s abundant grace. Come taste the fruit of God’s labor. At this table of the Lord may we be fed so that we can become sowers of God’s overflowing grace and mercy.
Grain harvest photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection via photopin cc