Mark 4: 1 Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. 2 He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” 9 Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” 10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” 13 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? 14 The farmer sows the word. 15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. 16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. 20 Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”
So, Farmer Jones drives his combine out of the barn, pulling his computerized, GPS-guided planter, all loaded up with Cargill corn seeds of course, lowers the planter and the disc harrows and starts planting corn, with the discs tearing up the dirt and turning it over onto the seeds he just planted. Sounds good? Well, unfortunately, he’s doing this out on Interstate 35, northbound out of Owatonna. When he gets to Fairbault, he turns around and does the same thing in the southbound lane of I-35, until he’s pulled over and arrested for destroying public property and impeding traffic.
Now you and I know that farmers don’t plant seeds out on the Interstate. Even though sometimes the road feels and looks like they just did. The same was true 2100 years ago when Jesus told this parable about the sower. His audience heard it and likely said, “Hunh? Planting seeds in good soil, that has been turned over, fertilized and weeded, that we can understand. But what kind of fool would waste valuable seed on the road, or on thin, rocky soil, or among weeds? Its so precious, you either plant it or eat it; some years there isn’t enough to do either, let alone both. Why would any farmer sow such precious seed so recklessly, indiscriminately and generously on worthless, marginal soil?”
That’s why the disciples and followers of Jesus would come to him after his teach-in and ask, “What was that about?” And if I might paraphrase Jesus just a bit here, the meaning of his answer would be: “Of course normal farmers worth their salt do not scatter seeds so generously, recklessly and indiscriminately, especially not over such questionable or marginal places.
“But God does.
“And that’s what God is doing now through me, Jesus, the Sower. And that’s what God will do through you, when you learn to join me in this kingdom of God endeavor: to sow kingdom seeds of God, goodness and gospel wherever you go, and to do so recklessly, generously, abundantly and even indiscriminately. In fact, its what God has always done. Its what God does; its how God is: generous, fruitful, abundant and indiscriminate in ways that people often find reckless, even scandalous.”
We can see that seemingly reckless generosity and scandalous abundance in Creation. If you’ve ever done vegetable gardening, you know that one zucchini plant is not enough for proper pollination. But two zucchini plants are way too many. You won’t be able to give all the zucchini away. Soon, you’ll be looking for cars parked with their doors unlocked, so you can leave zucchini inside them for perfect strangers. That’s just one example of how generous, extravagant, and recklessly abundant God’s creation can be.
Or lift your eyes from the tiniest grain of zucchini pollen to the stars and galaxies of outer space and the extravagance, generosity and reckless abundance of the universe is all the more striking. We may think of the infinite expanses of outer space as cold, distant, empty, sterile and hostile, where, as the movie trailer said, “They can’t hear you scream.”
But there’s more there than meets the eye. To think that all the little pinpoints of light we see with the naked eye are actually gi-normous stars or galaxies that are millions of light years wide, and billions of light years away, stretching across infinitely vast distances that dwarf our imaginations and crash our calculators, each sending massive waves of powerful energy that we can see, like light, and massive waves of powerful energy that we can’t see, like radiation, is humbling at the least, even spooky or scary at worst. Some people look at all that power and size and distance and say, “I see neither God nor heaven out there, so there must be neither. And it is all so vast compared to our tiny selves, that we must not matter in the end.”
Or you can say that all that time and distance and power and energy and mind-blowing size and complexity have resulted in creatures that can see it, study it, contemplate it, and marvel at it all: US. As Carl Sagan put it, “We are the stuff of which stars are made,” because the elements and energy that make up stars and galaxies make up us, too. We are reconstituted star dust contemplating the stars.
So, we could say that all that time, energy, space and substance went in to making it possible for us to be here, in wonder and in worship today. How recklessly extravagant, abundant and generous is God, on our behalf, just for his pleasure in our existence and company. Just so we might be, and might marvel at it all.
What is true for our creation is also true for our re-creation through Christ. God so loved the world that he gave us not another principle, not just a few more rules, not a practice, nor just another prophet, but God’s very self, in the face and flesh of Jesus. And God’s invitation to this relationship with himself, the Gospel of the Kingdom, goes out recklessly, abundantly, extravagantly, some would say, foolishly, even scandalously, to all, including to those who ignore it, or worse, despise it.
And that’s what Jesus is calling his students to be: generous, even scandalously, recklessly trusting in the abundance and generosity of God while they share the treasures of God’s kingdom, even though Jesus here guarantees that many people will not appreciate them. Or many things will strike them as much more important, such as the cares of this world. But the disciple’s generous stance of love toward Creation and people is not dictated by the responses of the world, but by the generous, abundant and extravagant love of God.
So much for the disciples’ question to Jesus, Why would any farmer sow so much seed, so recklessly, generously and indiscriminately? More important are the two questions that Jesus and his parable pose to all his hearers, including us:
- What kind of soil are we? And:
- What kind of sower are we? [That’s a better, more succinct way of putting the question than the longer one that I put in the bulletin—but it came to me after the bulletin was printed] What kind of sower are we? Like God, can we be persistent, extravagant, generous, and indiscriminate in casting kingdom seeds, and sharing kingdom treasures? In other words, how much and how long are we willing to persist in scattering gospel seeds even if and when we don’t see growth, and might never see it in our lifetimes?
Now for that first question: Just what kind of soil are we? Speaking personally, sometimes it depends on which day it is and what time of day. If we’re wondering what it takes to be good, fruit-bearing soil, Jesus gives us some clues in the story. Some people are like shallow soil, he said, in which the seed can sprout no roots. So, is there some depth to us, and some depth to our commitment and character? Are we willing to do some digging and deepening, by way of self-examination, contemplation, prayer and study, regularly, with some discipline, in order to be more fruitful?
Some people are like soil that is full of thorns, Jesus said, thorns that choke out the growth of God’s life in us, through the cares of the world, pleasures, persecution and opposition. So, are we, by contrast, able to keep the cares, duties, distractions and worries of life in some perspective? There’s always something else crying to be done, someone else wanting a piece of us and our time. There’s always one more movie or TV show or round of the computer game begging for our time and attention. But can we give God enough priority to turn off the perpetual distraction action machine, or will we be like the person I saw with the t-shirt that said, “Help! I’m talking and I can’t stop?”
If Jesus is using this story to ask us what kind of soil we are, then that means that we have some power to examine ourselves and do something about whatever it is we find. That’s how I think of the spiritual life and disciplines, that’s why I regularly see a spiritual director: to unplug the perpetual distraction action machine and do some digging and turning over to find out what’s in and under the topsoil of the soul. Wherever I find it shallow, weedy or stony, then its time for some clean-up through repentance, confession, and restitution. Then its time to dig and fertilize. And to sow, in place of weeds, seeds of God, of goodness, and of Gospel. If we tend to the condition of our souls and relationships, then God will give the growth.
Perhaps the greatest sign of spiritual fertility and fruitfulness is our steadiness, our patience and persistence in sowing seeds of God, of goodness and Gospel in the world, because we take our cues from the One who gives us the seed, and not from the world into which we spread it. Which brings us to the second question: What kind of sower are we? How extravagant, generous, and indiscriminate are we in casting kingdom seeds, and sharing kingdom treasures with the world? How much and how long are we willing to persist in scattering gospel seeds even when we don’t see growth, and might never see it in our lifetimes? Or will we let the delay between planting and harvesting dismay us?
An example: Over at Cristo Rey High School on Wednesday nights, I am sitting in on the parenting classes, at the invitation of Susana Espinosa, the Director of Urban Ventures’ Latino ministries, and getting to know participants from this neighborhood. Its a good program in any language. The main teacher, Juan Morales, is starting to talk with the class about the seeds that parents sow in terms of actions and words. Not just seeds, they can be like time bombs. Tell a child he is bad, stupid, evil or worthless, and that message could sit and bide its time in that child’s mind and heart until it goes off like a time bomb the next time the child is under stress or temptation. If I’m so bad, stupid, evil or worthless, what’s the worth in trying to act otherwise? he might think.
Or consider the opposite: treat a child and talk to him or her like a valued part of God’s creation and the child will find it all the more easy to believe and act upon that belief later, when temptation arises, or opportunity knocks.
Juan also uses a lot of scripture concepts and phrases in his teachings, usually without giving the Bible reference, because he knows some of the students will walk out of there if they hear mention of the Bible, or if they think that this is a catechism class, instead of a parenting class. And yet these truths are available to all, useful to all, whether or not you believe the whole biblical package. So take from them what you can, Juan thinks, and if you want to know more about the whole big picture they come from, he’s available. He’s planting seeds too, and sometimes, months or even years later, people come back to him and say, “What you said about generational stuff really helped me,” or even, “I want to know more about where your wisdom is coming from.”
Now, that kind of planting takes a lot of patience. Lest it discourage us, let me tell a parable of my own, this one a true story: Not too long ago, the Nature Conservancy bought land from a farm along the Illinois River on which it wanted to reestablish some of the original Illinois tallgrass prairie. For generations that land had pushed up the usual corn and soybeans. Or, some years, for variety: soybeans and corn. To restore the prairie, they would have to find seeds for the rare, endangered prairie grasses and wildflowers that used to flourish there. Fortunately, a few universities and nurseries still have some around.
In the meantime, come late winter, they did a controlled burn. Then, they took out the dikes along the Illinois River that kept the land from flooding in the spring. So it got wet. Immediately after the natural cycle of flooding and burning was restored, what should start to appear but some of the very grasses and wildflowers that they were hoping to scrounge up somewhere, flowers that had not been seen practically since the time of Lincoln? Their seeds were there all the time, for over a hundred years, under all the dirt, the crops, the Roundup, the plowing and the planting, just waiting for the right conditions—flooding and burning– to reappear. And they did.
And so it can be with the seeds we plant, whether in other people’s lives or our own. Whether as teachers, preachers, parents, co-workers, neighbors, whoever, whatever we do, we are always planting seeds of some sort, in our own lives as well as the lives of others, seeds that will blossom and bear fruit some day, for good or for ill. Might as well make them good seeds then, seeds of God’s Word, seeds of good works, and good words. Because we never know just when and how some seed that we plant for God and for goodness will take root and grow. But it just might surprise us too some day.
For that kind of patience, we have to keep our eyes on the One who gives the seed and the growth, rather than on the world in which we sow, and the fruits we might see. Or not. Which brings us back to the first question, What kinds of soil do we find within ourselves?
Let’s take a moment to think and pray about either one of the questions that I have mentioned this morning, that you find highlighted in the order of worship. Or both of them. Feel free even to write a few notes in the bulletin, or come back to them later in the week for your own prayer, reflection, or journaling. Do that and we’ll be preparing and improving the ground of our own lives for more seeds of God, grace and the gospel. The one who gives the seed will also give the fruit.