When I was in seminary I was privileged to be part of a three week run of the musical Godspell. Many of you have seen the musical by Stephen Schwartz which is a retelling of the book of Matthew. Our cast was a motley assortment of all ages of seminary students and instead of choosing to set the production in clown garb, as it is often done, the director had chosen to set it with a Brady Bunch theme. Which meant that we wore groovy clothes circa 1975, while dancing in front of day-glo sets. Even today it is difficult for me to read a passage from Matthew without imagining that itchy polyester mini-skirt I wore, and the pigtails that curled and tickled my cheeks as I danced. But more than these visceral memories are the very real way in which the parables came alive for me, and the conversations I had with my fellow actors and seminary friends as we lived the stories.
The parable of the sower and the seed was a one of our sillier interpretations coming in the second act of the play before things became serious and we sang “By My Side,” which recognizes the fate of Jesus. And in the parable, I played the role of the seed choked by weeds, I was especially proud of my dramatic interpretation of being choked by the other actors and was allowed to demonstrate a very impressive death scene complete with gagging and hacking noises (never let it be said that I am subtle). And then, the woman whose role it was to be the healthy seed that thrived, the good seed on good soil, did a little song and dance and bowed and curtseyed to the audience.
I confess that it was a scene, though, that always left me a little uncomfortable. You see I am a worrier, and with each acting of the scene I would find myself wondering where I stood in my faith. Was I that seed that would be plucked by birds? Was I weak I on shallow ground? Was I exuberant now, only to be lured away by promises of materialism later? The odds clearly weren’t in my favor; after all, there was only a 25% chance of being the good soil.
And so I came to live with the text this week with a little hesitancy. Because let’s be honest, sometimes there are those scriptures that we don’t always get, there are those scriptures that sometimes we don’t quite have the ears to hear. I sat at my desk on Thursday and made little notes for myself to try to get my head around this scripture. I drew little stick figures…there’s the seed on the path, and look there’s my pathetic attempt at a bird pecking at it…there’s the seed on the rocky soil…there’s the sun coming out to wither the seeds away. I spent a lot of time thinking, thinking about how to convey these four soil types into modern day language. It was exasperating, sort of like a math equation. Type A soil would equal yield X. And then my eyes fell to the heading of the story in my Bible, “The Parable of the Sower,” and something clicked and it occurred to me, “maybe this is about something else…maybe this is not about what is sown, but about who does the sowing.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her book The Seeds of Heaven writes this, “We hear the story and think it is a story about us, but what if we are wrong? What if it is not about us at all but about the sower? What if it is not about our own successes and failures and birds and rocks and thorns but about the extravagance of a sower who does not seem to be fazed by such concerns, who flings seed everywhere, wastes it with holy abandon, who feeds the birds, whistles at the rocks, picks his way through the thorns, shouts hallelujah at the good soil and just keeps on sowing, confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty, and that when the harvest comes at last it will fill every barn in the neighborhood to the rafters?” (Taylor, p. 26). What if this story is instead about a grace filled God who has enough grace to waste it all over, and if that is what the kingdom of God looks like? Not one of measured careful soil analysis and calculated crop yields, but one where the seeds are scattered in abundance absolutely everywhere!
As many of you know I have a four-year-old son, Grayson. And Grayson is a fairly spirited child, to call him exuberant might be an understatement. Lately I have been trying to introduce him to an evening practice of devotion and prayer that I learned from a Quaker friend, a time of reflection meant to deepen the spiritual focus of children. I ask him when he saw the light of God shine that day, when he felt especially aware of God’s presence. Grayson tries to participate with his pastor-Mommy in this exercise. He really does. I give him examples from my own life. I say, “Grayson, Mommy felt God’s presence when I sat around the table with Tess and Brynn and Daddy and you and felt the love of my family as we had supper.” I say, “Grayson, I heard mourning doves coo and thought of God’s creation.” And Grayson scrunches up his eyes in an attitude of prayer and when I ask, “And tell me, tell me, when did you feel God?” And he’ll say, “I see God everywhere!” And then I press, “I know, but what exactly…” And quizzically he says, “In everything!” My grown-up brain tries to measure out the seeds and plant them in certain locations, guessing where the good soil is, only seeing God in those places which are known, and which are safe, and this four-year-old sees the abundant God who scatters the seeds to the wind and finds God everywhere, and opens the door to see God in everything. I view a world that rations out its sacred and puts it in safe and tidy ordered confines and he sees the abundance of a world where God’s handiwork is never separated from any of us at any time.
The parable of the sower asks us a question, and perhaps it isn’t the question of how we become good soil. Instead, maybe the question is this: how do we as a church live into the vision of this sower who practices such impractical grace? Knowing that God throws seeds even into places where they might not take hold how do we also take those kinds of risks and scatter seed everywhere? How do we imitate our own radical seed sowing?
Brian Hiortdahl in last week’s episode of The Christian Century names the truth of the scripture this way, “Beneath this parable is a bedrock assumption of abundance that we too rarely trust. There is seed enough to lose, and the God who makes sun to shine and rain to fall upon both the righteous and the unrighteous is indiscriminate about sharing. Grace is flung and wasted everywhere.”
I have come to believe that the kingdom of God must be one in which we always err on the side of grace. I have come to believe that the kingdom of God must be one where we stop trying to decide which of our brothers and sisters in the world is worthy of love, and which we will do not feel safe taking chances on. I have come to believe that the kingdom of God must be one where all are welcomed, even if they are different than we are, or threaten what we believe. And I have come to believe that the kingdom of God must be one which is characterized by sowing seeds everywhere, and not just in safe rows which we can control and shape to fit our purposes.
I want to close by reading to you a retelling of this parable by Barbara Brown Taylor from the perspective of the sower:
Once upon a time a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came along and devoured them. So he put his seed pouch down and spent the next hour or so stringing aluminum foil all around his field. He put up a fake owl he ordered from a garden catalog and, as an afterthought, he hung a couple of traps for the Japanese beetles.
Then he returned to his sowing, but he noticed some of the seeds were falling on rocky ground, so he put his seed pouch down again and went to fetch his wheelbarrow and shovel. A couple of hours later he had dug up the rocks and was trying to think of something useful he could do with them when he remembered his sowing and got back to it, but as soon as he did he ran right into a briar patch that was sure to strangle his little seedlings. So he put his pouch down again and looked everywhere for the weed poison but finally decided to pull the thorns up by hand, which meant that he had to go back inside and look everywhere for his gloves.
Now by the time he had the briars cleared it was getting dark, so the sower picked up his pouch and his tools and decided to call it a day. That night he fell asleep in his chair reading a seed catalog, and when he woke the next morning he walked out into his field and found a big crow sitting on his fake owl. He found rocks he had not found the day before and he found new little leaves on the roots of the briars that had broken off in his hands. The sower considered all of this, pushing his cap back on his head, and then he did a strange thing: He began to laugh, just a chuckle at first and then a full-fledged guffaw that turned into a wheeze at the end when his wind ran out.
Still laughing and wheezing he went after his seed pouch and began flinging seeds everywhere: into the roots of trees, onto the roof of his house, across all his fences and into his neighbors’ fields. He shook seeds at his cows and offered a handful to the dog; he even tossed a fistful into the creek, thinking they might take root downstream somewhere. The more he sowed, the more he seemed to have. None of it made any sense to him, but for once that did not seem to matter, and he had to admit that he had never been happier in all his life.
Let those who have ears to hear, hear. (Taylor 28-29. The Seeds of Heaven, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004).
May our God’s abundance inspire us to be radically giving and sowing as well.