Planting Seeds: The Sower
As is the case with many things, these days, preaching on Planting Seeds wasn’t my first plan for our post-Easter Sunday sermon series. In fact, I think it’s the third or fourth sermon series I had scheduled for this time slot, before feeling like I’d found the right fit for the right season. We celebrated Easter Sunday last week, but it’s still Easter. The season of Easter lasts for 50 days, representing the time between Jesus’ resurrection and between when we celebrate Pentecost, a day when the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit and were empowered for ministry by it. For 50 days, we celebrate Easter. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before, all Sundays are considered mini-Easters. We’re always people who live in the joy and knowledge that life can’t conquer death, and that new life is ours for the receiving. But in this season of Easter, resurrection and new life are our main focus. And I think that’s good news, that we get to experience both the abruptness that new life can mean sometimes - Jesus was dead and now he’s alive - and the slow way new life can sometimes work its way into our hearts. Sometimes bringing forth life takes time, doesn’t it? Reviving something from the brink of death isn’t always an instantaneous prospect. Resurrection sometimes takes time, and so this Easter season, we’re taking our time with resurrection.
We’re focusing on planting seeds. There’s a lot of people trying out gardening right now - planting seedlings, looking to produce vegetables or herbs or flowers at home. Some of us have the time, now, that we don’t normally have. And I think many of us are drawn to the way planting seeds is an act of hope. Planting seeds means even when things are difficult now, even when we see people in pain, suffering, even when we are struggling, we believe there’s a future in which the seeds we plant will grow and produce and be ready for harvest. Planting seeds is a hopeful act, an act of resurrection and new life. I think it makes us feel like our time right now is not just useless. It’s not just a pause. This time is valuable. These days count, they matter. And maybe we’ll come out at the other side with an abundant harvest instead of overwhelmed by loss.
And so, in this season of Easter, we’re looking at passages of scripture that talk about seeds and planting and new life. Today, we start with the parable of the sower. Whenever we read the parables of Jesus, it helps us understand them if we remember that they’re meant to tell us something about what the kingdom of God is like, about what God’s reign is like. One of the things Jesus tried to communicate repeatedly in his teaching was that the kingdom of God was at hand - God’s reign was here, on earth already, just as it was also eternal. When we live into the values and characteristics of God’s ways right here and right now on earth, we’re experiencing God’s kingdom, God’s reign already, as well as preparing our hearts and souls and minds for life everlasting with God. So, whenever we read a parable of Jesus, we can ask ourselves, “What does this tell us about what the kingdom of God is like, here on earth and in eternity?”
There are actually two sections to this parable, the parable of the sower: the one where Jesus tells it to the gathered crowd, and then a bit later where Jesus gives an explanation just to the disciples. In the explanation, Jesus says that the seed is the word of God, and the various kinds of ground on which the seed falls are those who hear the word of God. But sometimes when we go straight to the “explanation” of this parable, we forget how flexible parables are. We forget to envision ourselves in many roles in the story. We forget how imaginative and playful parables are. So today, we’re focusing on the first part of the text. Jesus tells us that a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path where birds gobbled them up. And others fell on rocky ground, and without soil depth, they started to grow but never really got rooted, and they were scorched in the sun. And other seeds fell among the thorns, and were choked by the weeds. But some, some seeds fell on good soil, and brought forth grain, and they yielded 30, 60, 100 fold. Jesus concludes, “Let anyone with ear listen!” What do we hear?
I want us to think first about the sower. What do we think about the sower’s actions? I’ve gardened off and on over the years, but my earliest gardening experiences were under the direction of my grandpa, who had a real gift for it. Grandpa always gave me a little corner of his huge garden to plant my own things. Now, I was the kid whose bean in a Dixie cup in school never grew – the one kid with the dud seed that left the teacher trying to come up with something nice to say about how I could share in caring for someone else's plant or something. But somehow, under my grandfather's care, my garden always bloomed. He taught me tricks of the trade – how to hang empty pie tins up to scare away birds, how to plant corn: "One for the blackbird, one for the crow, one for the soil and one to grow," as the rhyme goes. How to space my seeds and pull weeds, and use chicken wire fences for tendrils of pea plants to curl around. I can tell you what my grandfather never did: He never just threw seeds here there and everywhere and hoped for the best. He didn’t throw seeds on rocky soil, or among thorns, or in the middle of a path. That would have been wasteful and foolish. Sure, maybe a stray seed or two goes where you don’t want it, but nearly all of the seed goes carefully into good soil which you’ve taken time to prepare.
But, this sower is extravagant with the seed. Reckless. Do they even have a plan? I think we can interpret the sower as being either extravagant and wasteful, or extravagant and generous. Is the sower foolish? Or just reveling in the abundance of seed, ready to risk it, spread the seed far and wide, and see what happens? The text doesn’t tell us who the sower is, even in the explanation of the parable that comes later. So let’s try a couple of options. Perhaps God is the sower. If God is the sower, our experience of God lends us to understand the actions of the sower differently. If God is the sower, I’m more inclined to see God’s extravagance as generous than foolish, aren’t you? If the parable is telling us something about the nature of God, we see a sower who seems to have plenty of seed, and a sower who sows seed everywhere. God has an abundance to give - love that doesn’t run out, grace with unlimited supply, forgiveness to spare, good news that’s without end, an offer of salvation, wholeness that’s for everyone, that can reach into every nook and cranny of the earth. Of course if God is the sower, God doesn’t need to worry about where the seed falls - our God of abundance never runs out of God’s gifts, and they never cost God too much to share with us. God is reckless with generosity.
So what if we put ourselves in the place of the sower? If it is you and me who are spreading the seed, God’s word, the good news of Jesus' grace and love, the good news that God’s reign is right now, here on earth - what kind of sowers are we? Are we reckless and foolish? Are we extravagant risk-takers? Can we even get our heads around sowing in this way, or do we insist on counting out each seed and carefully placing it in the soil we already know is good? Truly, these are hard questions in these days when it is so easy to feel driven by scarcity instead of plenty. In days when suddenly you might find certain shelves empty in a grocery store that was once overflowing with options, when people are buying up anything and everything that someone mentions that might help us get through these challenging days, it’s maybe even harder than usual to imagine ourselves being so reckless with resources. It might be hard to imagine virtually throwing away seed by taking so little care for where it lands.
And yet, just when we could be letting ourselves be ruled by fear, I am finding so many examples of people sowing seeds of hope in the same way God does - secure in the knowledge that that supply is limitless. I was talking this week with someone who has been working really hard to practice generosity in this season and to encourage generosity in others. And as she’s been trying to practice and encourage generosity, she’s been met with some resistance. Folks have suggested that perhaps some are taking advantage of the generosity. People might be getting help who don’t really need it. People are getting away with getting stuff they don’t really deserve. Sometimes I struggle with that too. I want to make sure people who need it most are getting what I have to share. I feel like that’s responsible stewardship of resources, some of which I have only in limited quantities. But I believe that God’s hope and aim for us is a life of generosity where we trust that we have enough to share. And if there are some resources we have in limited supply, there are others we have that are limitless. How extravagant are you with your love? How freely do you sow forgiveness? How much mercy can you give? How many times are you willing to share God’s love and the good news that Jesus brings? How many places will you share? With whom will you share? The kingdom of heaven, the reign of God is like a place where a sower sows knowing nothing ever runs out. If we want to see God’s reign embodied on earth, we sow like that, knowing there is enough of God and from God to share with everyone, everywhere.
Once we have a picture of the character of the sower in mind, I find I can think about the seed and the soil with the same generous mindset. Jesus says that the seed is God’s word, God’s message to us, and the various places the seed lands are ways that we can receive God’s message. Obviously, we want to be good soil. There, God’s word, God’s message to us can take root, and grow, and be well-nourished, and produce magnificent results in our lives. But oh, sometimes my soul seems like a barren path, and sin gets in the way of responding to God as I’m called to. God’s message gets gobbled up by the other things I’ve given room in my heart, by the things I’ve let come first instead of God. Sometimes our souls are rocky ground, and when we’re facing struggles and challenges, when we’re in pain or suffering, we find it hard to hold on to God’s word, hard to trust, hard to hope, and our little bit of faith fades away. Even the Twelve disciples experienced that, falling away when Jesus was tried and crucified. Sometimes my soul is a thorny place, and tending to the “cares of the world” outweighs the attention I give to the ways of God, and so when I look for harvest, I find nothing. But when the soil of my soul is good - God can do amazing things in my life, in my heart, in the world when we receive God’s message and let it take root in our hearts.
Jesus frequently repeats either verbatim or in essence the words with which he closes the telling of this parable: 30, 60, 100 fold results. His numbers sound extreme and grandiose. But they’re meant to. The kingdom of God, God’s reign on earth? What happens when we let God’s ways be our ways on earth? The results are more astonishing than we can possibly imagine. We get so much bang for our buck. The results are exponential. The return on investment is such that no savvy person should pass by the opportunity. In modern-day terms, the kingdom of God works like a meme you post on facebook that goes viral, shared over and over and over, reaching well-beyond your circle of friends. This is what God can do when we receive all that God offers to us and let it take root.
We can help this happen by tending our soil as best we can. What are the practices you can keep that help create a spiritual soil that is ready for what God is planting? I encourage you to spend some time this week answering that question. Journal about it. Pray about it. If you’re watching live, you could post your ideas right now. What are the practices you can keep that help create a spiritual soil that is ready for what God is planting? But we can also help each other tend the soil. If God is the sower, then maybe we can be God’s helpers, helping to tend the garden. And maybe sometimes I can’t remove the rocks from my own life, because it seems to hopeless. But you could remove a rock for me. Maybe sometimes you can’t seem to pull out the weeds that are taking over your life, but I can help you. Together, we can care for God’s garden.
A sower went out to sow, and the seed - it went everywhere. And the garden grew, and grew, and grew. Amen.