This is a familiar parable, if you grew up like I did, going to Sunday school. I’ve been hearing this story my whole life. I have heard lots of sermons on this text, as undoubtedly many of you have. Almost all the time, I come away from those sermons thinking, “I want to be the good soil. I want my life to be the place where the word of God grows.” And we like to think of ourselves as the good soil.
That’s a sermon that preaches well, especially in the community where I used to live. Soil is something that people were close to, and everyone knew that there was good rich soil and very poor soil. In the Niagara Peninsula, the tricky thing was that because of the way the glaciers plowed through that area, the good soil and bad soil can all be on the same farm. A hundred yards here and a hundred yards there…drastically different soils. My husband Eugene was amazed by this because he came from the Red River Valley in Manitoba, where you can go for 50 miles and have the same basic soil type. He could hardly believe that in one small field you can sandy loam six feet deep, and less than a stone’s throw away it’s hard red clay soil.
When Eugene started farming there he bought detailed soil maps. A soil map shows you what type of soil is where, something that every farmer wants to know before they buy or rent land. Here in Alberta, land is variable, but the soil maps aren’t quite so detailed, at least not the ones that are available on the government of Alberta agriculture website that I was looking at this week.
Everyone wants to be the good rich soil that grows great crops. That’s what we aim for. And as we listen to that sermon, we all think of people whose lives have not been fruitful, and we put them in the stony soil category.
But I wonder whether that is what this parable is really about, focusing so much on which kind of soil we are. Jesus doesn’t begin his parable with the words, “There are four types of people, four types of soil.” Instead he begins with the words, “A sower went out to sow.” The emphasis is on the activity of planting.
If Ernie Wiens hooks up his tractor and sows barley in the nice rich soil of his back 40, all of us understand that. A good crop is hopefully going to come up. But if Ernie comes to Edmonton with his little tractor, and starts sowing barley on the gravel parking lots along the Whitemud Creek, we would think he was off his rocker. Not only will almost none of that barley sprout, but if any does, people are going to just trample over it. And if Ernie goes onto Highway #14 by his house and starts sowing on the hard pavement, besides having a death wish for driving a tractor on a highway, we might think he should seek psychiatric help for delusional thinking…you will never get a crop there. It’s just stupid, a real waste of seed throwing it on pavement! Does he think seeds grow on trees? Seeds cost money!
A sower went out to sow. That is one crazy wasteful parable. Didn’t Jesus mean to say, “A sower went out to sow. He saw the path, and he didn’t sow any seed there. He saw the rocks and he didn’t sow any seed there. He saw the thistles and he didn’t sow any seed there. And then he saw the good soil, and that’s where he planted all his seeds!”
And how much crazier this might have sounded to the people Jesus was telling this story to. In Jesus’ day, they sowed the grain by hand, like the man in the Van Gogh picture on our bulletin cover today. Someone harvested the plants by hand, cutting each stem with a sickle. Someone gathered up the stalks by hand, and carried them to a threshing floor. There they were flailed by hand, and someone winnowed them by hand, throwing the seeds up in the air to let the chaff blow away in the wind. Then in a world without augers, they shoveled the seed by hand into sacks or containers to be stored for next year’s crop. Those sacks had been woven by hand! And you might not have harvested very much, and you might be hungry, but you don’t eat that seed, because you want another harvest. Those seeds are precious because you are planting food you could eat, and you are planting seeds that took a lot of work to grow and collect. So, with this context, why in the world would the sower waste seeds on soil that they know won’t be fruitful?
The sower went out to sow. This startling parable is about the kingdom of God…I think it is a lesson to us not so much to help us decide what kind of soil we want to be, but rather how we are supposed to sow the seed. The seed is the word of God. The word of God…you could read that to mean the Bible, and some Christians take that literally. They hand out bible verses to everyone they meet. “There,”they think, they’ve done their job! But at the time Jesus was saying this, he didn’t mean physical scriptures. Jesus himself was the Word of God, the embodiment of the Word of God. In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. And Jesus was the Word of God, not just by telling people information about God, but by embodying the love of God for people.
And Jesus sowed the Word of God everywhere. Just flipping back a page or two in the gospel of Luke, you’ll see Jesus sowing the word of God in unlikely places. Healing the slave of a Roman centurion. Talk about stony soil! What good was that miracle, how is that going to further the kingdom of God, helping a Roman? In Luke 6 Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your rewards will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35,36)
And then Jesus raised the son of a widow from the dead. We have no evidence that the woman or her son became followers of Jesus. The sower went out to sow. The sower doesn’t look for the best soil, the richest soil on which to bestow the precious seeds. The sower is indiscriminate, throwing seeds helter skelter. The sower in the kingdom of God doesn’t have any soil maps, trying to figure out where the best yields are likely to be. Hoarding the seeds, being careful to ration them out to the only the most likely prospects. The sower just goes out to sow, and sows.
Are we willing to sow kindness everywhere? Or are we selective, deciding that it’s worthwhile being kind here, but I won’t waste my valuable kindness there.
I knew a man once who told me a story about this father. His father owned a greenhouse business, and he sold a greenhouse to a man in his church. Well the man from his church never paid him for that greenhouse. The greenhouse builder asked him again and again for the money, but his fellow church member just brushed him off, and told him that it wasn’t important. But the greenhouse builder told his fellow church member, “I’m just starting out in this greenhouse business, and I can’t afford this. This is a really big blow for me, it’s making my life very difficult.” But the man still did not pay, he just didn’t seem to care at all.
So after months of this the greenhouse builder went to his minister and said, “That man has to give me my money, I am going to take that man to court because he won’t listen to me! I’ve tried and I’ve tried to make him listen, but he won’t pay!” And the minister after listening to the whole story said, “I think what you need to do is to forgive the debt.” And the greenhouse builder said, “Why should I forgive him, he doesn’t even admit he is doing anything wrong, he just doesn’t care, he won’t even appreciate that I am forgiving him!” And the minister said, “I think you should forgive that debt.” And the greenhouse builder went home and prayed about it and in the end he forgave the debt. But he did it reluctantly, because he was wasting his forgiveness on someone who would never appreciate it. What a waste of seeds of kindness, he thought.
The man telling me this story was the son of the greenhouse builder. And he told me the rest of the story. Fifteen years later, after the man who wouldn’t pay the money had died, the greenhouse builder got a visit from that man’s son. He said, “I know you built a greenhouse for my father, and I know he never paid you. You never took my father to court because he was your Christian brother. That has made me think a lot about what church means. And now that I own my father’s business, I want to pay that debt, with interest.” And he took out his chequebook, and paid the debt right there.
Something beautiful growing right out of the stony ground, out of land choked with weeds. The scripture we read as a call to worship, from Isaiah 55, talks about exactly this, about God taking land that only grows thorns and thistles, and making myrtle and cypress trees grow there. It’s a theme we see in numerous places in the Bible, about God planting forests in the desert. Making things grow where you would think it was impossible for them to grow.
The sower went out to sow. And the sower does not use soil maps. There are no soil maps in the kingdom of God. Because the jury is still out. No matter where the seeds fall, it is possible for them to grow. Think of Cephas, one of the disciples, who Jesus renames Peter, or Rock. We always think of his name as a positive attribute…but perhaps it was just Jesus being observational. That’s what Peter’s soul was like when Jesus first found him, a bit rocky. Peter was an unlikely candidate for the role of a disciple, yet his life was very fruitful, more fruitful than anyone could have imagined. God chose unlikely characters all along; Jacob, Moses, Esther, Mary. Sowing seeds willy-nilly in Adam, the earth creature, the man of the earth.
Taking after Jesus, the sower who went out to sow, we have a job to do. I wonder whether we have the faithfulness to throw out the soil maps we’ve been living with. Soil maps that say, “He’s always been this way, he’ll never change.” “People who come from this cultural group aren’t worth bothering about.” “People who are in prison are always untrustworthy.” “That person hurt me, so I will never trust them again.” I’m not going to waste my time being kind to someone who might not appreciate it, or who I’ll never see again. I’ll only be kind if I know it will bear fruit.
I know I have felt that way. I only have a limited amount of kindness, I don’t want to waste it. In the kingdom of Carol, my energy is very precious to me! My limited resources can only go so far. I want those soil maps. I am pretty partial to the parable of the good steward. Remember…where the one doesn’t do anything with talents, and the good steward invests them and gets a lot of money? I can buy into that one! And that’s the philosophy I can take with me when I’m planting!
But we are talking here about a sower who went out to sow. The seeds are not limited. If we were talking about my kingdom or your kingdom, the seeds might be limited, but we are talking about the kingdom of God. And there are unlimited seeds because God provides them. It is the Word of God, which is not of our own doing, lest anyone should boast.
The church, this congregation, is a part of the kingdom of God. Are we willing to throw out the soil maps that divide the people into good soil and bad soil groups. In a community like this where some people have known each other for half a century, it can be hard to throw out the soil maps, because we know the soil maps almost by heart. This is the type of person this is, this is what grows there. But the sower went out to sow. Don’t worry about the type of soil!
As a congregation, I do see us making some good choices about the seeds we sow. Our church offers a Christmas banquet to people who are serving life terms in prison; they come here once a year, each prisoner escorted by a guard, and have a real meal at Christmas. Why should we do that, they aren’t going to get out of prison anytime soon, and start coming to our church? It doesn’t matter if we think it’s stony soil or not. We are just sowing seeds. Or why serve a pancake breakfast to 100 people in our neighbourhood who probably won’t come to our worship services? One church growth strategy might be to only do things that generate church members. But I think Jesus would be very sceptical about strategic kindness, which is rolled out only as bait for building up the kingdom of Lendrum. We are called to be sowers that go out to sow, joyfully, faithfully, not worrying about the soil maps.
As sowers, we go into our week joyfully, knowing that our job is to be conveyers of the seeds of kindness, sowers of good news. Sometimes people walk away from a sermon I preach, and they get outside and ask, “So what?” This week, that’s exactly the question I want you to ask. It’s a question you get to answer with every single thing you do and say.
A sermon preached at Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church
June 22, 2014
by Carol Penner