Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10A
These days I sometimes feel like I’m living in a zombie movie. I mostly try to stay at home because I’m afraid of what might be lurking out there. When I’m out in the world, I’m constantly aware of my distance to others, constantly trying to stay outside of the six-foot bubble, planning my movements ahead so that I don’t get pinned or trapped where people can get too close to me.
These are the kinds of fears that we all have to live with in the country with the world’s worst record on COVID. The US accounts for 4% of the world’s population, but we have 26% of the world’s COVID cases, 32% of new cases, and 26% of the world’s COVID deaths. And the rate of spread continues to grow every day. It seems like nearly every day is a new record for new cases. And there doesn’t seem to be a plan for how to turn that around.
Like most people, I’m watching more TV these days than I usually do. And I notice that I’m feeling that COVID anxiety carrying over into my viewing experience. Of course, news and sports and late night shows talk about coronavirus all the time, but most scripted shows I’ve seen don’t mention it at all. So I’ll be watching what used to be a very normal interaction, something like a handshake or a hug, and I’ll have a reaction to it, a quick fear response. What are you doing? Don’t you know that’s dangerous? Of course, it’s most noticeable in a crowd scene, something like a dance club with people packed in together. Get out of there! Maintain your social distance.
In the gospel story from Matthew this morning, Jesus is experiencing his own version of my COVID anxiety. It starts with Jesus leaving his house in Capernaum to go and sit on the beach. But he is almost immediately mobbed by people. They aren’t there for a beach party, though; they are there for Jesus. It becomes so overwhelming that Jesus decides he needs to create some social distance. So he climbs into a boat and has them go out a little ways from shore so he can have some space between himself and the crowd.
Once Jesus gets some breathing room, he tells them a story. The Parable of the Sower, we usually call it. It appears in Mark, in Luke, and here in Matthew. And in all three gospels, Jesus tells the parable, then discusses the purpose of parables with his disciples, and then gives a mini-sermon interpreting the parable. Scholars are nearly universally convinced that while the parable comes from Jesus, the interpretation in verses 18-23 was written later by someone else. And we actually have some good evidence for this. The Parable of the Sower appears in another ancient gospel, one that is as old or older than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but didn’t end up making it into our bibles. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus tells this same parable about a sower, and different kinds of soil, and a bountiful harvest, but it doesn’t include the later interpretation of verses 18-23.
All that is just to say that I want to spend more time on the first part of our gospel lesson today than on the second part. It is a perfectly good interpretation of the parable, but it is not the only one. In fact, parables are by nature difficult to interpret. They can have several meanings and change over time and in different circumstances. The way we have it now, with the allegorical interpretation tacked on at the end, squeezes some of the life and mystery out of the story.
But back to the farmer. The farmer scatters seed on the ground. And there are many different kinds of ground where the seed lands. Some lands on a path, some in rocky ground, some amongst weeds, and some in good soil.
Now, I am not experienced at growing wheat, but you don’t have to be an agricultural expert to notice that this seems like a very careless farmer. Why are they throwing seed around just any old place. If you’re going to plant something, you prepare the soil first. You weed, you till the soil, you add fertilizers, you plant carefully, you water. Sometimes you even start plants in a greenhouse to make sure that everything that makes it into the ground will have a good chance of growing. So what is this indiscriminate farmer doing, just throwing seed around any old place without any preparation or care? What a waste!
There are a few different things going on here. First, farming technology has changed quite a lot in the last 2000 years. For one thing, they didn’t have chemical fertilizers. They couldn’t just run over to Wilco for some Triple-16. They didn’t even know about the existence of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. So the sorts of soil amendments that gardeners take for granted today would have been impossible then.
Also, the standard practice at the time was to scatter seeds first and then plow them into the soil. So that may explain a bit of the farmers behavior. They don’t prepare the soil before seeding, they tend to do that afterward.
But even by the standards of the ancient world, this farmer’s actions would seem to be careless. A farmer would normally not try to plant seed in a place where it would not grow. So why is this farmer planting on the path and on the rocks and among the weeds? What is going on here?
There are a couple of possible explanations. Maybe the farmer isn’t really as careless as Jesus implies. Maybe it’s just a little bit of seed that accidentally falls on the path and the rocks, but the vast majority of it actually falls on good soil. Perhaps, but then the parable seems to lose its meaning.
Or maybe the farmer is quite desperate. Maybe there is only a little bit of land, and there is no fertilizer, and so the farmer is willing to take a chance that the rocky soil will at least produce something. That might be getting closer, but it still doesn’t explain why the farmer doesn’t first tear out the thorn bushes and pick out the rocks to try to make the soil as fertile as possible before planting.
In truth, the logical reason that the farmer scatters seed everywhere is very simple: there is no logical reason. It doesn’t make sense. It would seem to be very inefficient. It could not be counted upon to maximize profit. It is indiscriminate. It is careless. It is even wasteful. There is no good reason why a farmer would do it.
And yet, in Jesus’s story, this farmer does. They throw seed everywhere, even places where they know it won’t grow. This farmer throws seed on good soil and poor soil alike.
And that is actually a surprisingly difficult message to deal with. Many of us like to be in more control than that. If I’m a gardener, I can do more than just till the soil and add fertilizer. I can run tests on the soil to determine its chemical profile, and then I can provide just the right soil amendment to make sure that the soil is exactly the way I want it to be for a particular plant. If I’m a parent, I can read all of the books and decide on the perfect parenting style, sign up for all of the best camps and classes, organize all of the correct extra-curricular activities to ensure that my child has the absolute best opportunity to succeed. If I’m a photographer, I can control the light to get the best picture. If I am an engineer, I can check systems for inefficiencies and make my products more and more effective.
I can systematically control my diet to make sure that I am healthy, and if it doesn’t work, I can change to another diet that promises better results. I can choose my clothes so that I am making the precise fashion statement that I want to make. I can cultivate just the right online presence so that the world sees just the version of me I want them to see. I can spend hours online researching just exactly the right kind of backpack that I want, or exactly the right phone case, or exactly the right pair of toenail clippers. I can choose the town that I live in, the people I spend time with, the clubs I join, the jobs I apply for, the car I drive, the companies I invest in, the doctor I see, the grocery store I shop in, the flavor of ice cream I eat, the place I go on vacation, the books I read, the television I watch, even the news that I get. I can control it all.
And here we have a parable about a farmer who doesn’t try to control anything. The seed just goes everywhere. God’s word of good news just goes everywhere. The invitation to repentance and renewed relationship with God just goes everywhere. Grace just goes everywhere. It even goes to the people who don’t deserve it. It even goes to the people who haven’t asked for it. It even goes to the people who are looked down upon. It just goes everywhere, with no thought for what might be wasted.
Because, of course, we don’t always get to control how our actions actually play out in the world. The teacher doesn’t get to choose which students they will inspire on any particular day. The nurse doesn’t get to choose which patients will actually be compliant with their treatment plan. The farmer doesn’t get to choose which year will produce the bumper crop. The mechanic doesn’t get to choose which cars will go 100,000 miles without an accident. We don’t have control over everything.
And especially now, we are learning that lesson. Because there are so many things in our life that seem to be out of our control. I have some control over my actions and where I will risk going and whether or not I where a mask. But I don’t have much control over how others will behave, and I have even less control over the governmental response to this crisis. I feel like I have less control than I am used to.
And I think the Parable of the Sower invites us to embrace that lack of control with a spirit of abundance and wonder. If you don’t know which student you’re going to reach today, you’d better give your best effort to all of them, even the ones who seem hopeless. This might be the day when things finally click and they get it. If you don’t know which patient is going to follow through, you’d better give your best to each of them, even the ones who have been noncompliant before. This might be the time they turn things around.
Sometimes we don’t know where the good soil is ahead of time. Sometimes we can’t tell in advance which of our ideas is actually going to be fruitful, is actually going to make a difference. Sometimes we don’t know which stranger we encounter will end up being one of our closest friends.
And if we don’t know these things for ourselves, how can we know them for God? Sometimes we think we can. We think we can look at someone and tell whether they are honest or not, whether they are responsible or not, whether they would be receptive to us or not. And then we decide that some people really aren’t worth our effort. They’d only waste it. They really don’t need it. They’d never listen to me. People like that are really hopeless anyway. I don’t want to plant my seed here; it might be too rocky.
And when we think like that, we deny God the chance to act. If we don’t try to be welcoming because we are afraid of rejection, we deny God the chance to build a lasting and meaningful relationship. If we fail to try because we are afraid of failure, then we deny God the chance to do something remarkable with us. If we don’t speak up because we are afraid of being laughed at, then we deny God the chance to say something profound through us. If we don’t plant our seed because we are afraid it won’t land on good soil, we deny God the chance to bring abundant life. And it’s all the more important in these times when connection is made more difficult, when the places we would normally go to find good soil are not available. We have to learn how to plant in new ways and in new places.
Jesus says that even though the farmer threw seed extravagantly, without concern for where it might fall, the harvest was amazingly productive. One hundred to one, sixty to one, thirty to one. Scholars think that the average Palestinian farmer could only expect a harvest of five to one. And yet this wasteful, indiscriminate farmer had a yield of one hundred to one.
Being kind is never a waste, even if sometimes your kindness is not appreciated. Welcoming is never a waste, even if sometimes people don’t respond. Prayer is never a waste, even if sometimes they don’t seem to be answered. Sharing your insight is never a waste, even if you sometimes get it wrong. Advocating for justice is never a waste, even if change doesn’t come as fast as you would hope. Loving is never a waste, even if sometimes it doesn’t seem to be returned.
We do these things not knowing what their effect will be. Sometimes we hear years later that something we did, something we said had a profound impact on someone. Most of the time, though, we never know for sure. But we are invited to give anyway, to give abundantly. We are invited to share our hope, our forgiveness, our empathy, our passion, our talents, our love, to give our best, just as God does, with a wild abandon, knowing that whether we see it or not, God will bring about an abundant harvest. Thanks be to God.