This sermon was preached by the Rev. Nancy Vogele, July 16, 2017, 6th Sunday after Pentecost. Gospel reading: Matthew 13:1-9,18-23: The Parable of the Sower
The Prodigal Sower
About 10 years ago, my parents moved from their home of 45 years to a rental property in a retirement community. My dad has always liked to garden but was having a lot of trouble getting a new garden to thrive at their new place. At one point, early on, I was there for a visit and he asked me what was the matter. I went outside with him to take a look and immediately knew what was wrong: the soil was horrible. It wasn’t dry as dust like a few places at our house. No. It was exactly the opposite– a wet clay-y heavy mess of soil. I told my dad that he had to make the soil a lot better before anything would grow well.
So we went to the garden store and bought a lot of good dirt and then we dug up the wet heavy soil and replaced it with a new soil.
Last week I went and spent four days visiting my parents. I couldn’t believe how beautiful my dad’s garden was. His flowerbeds were gorgeous. Everything seemed to be in bloom. He said it is the best it’s ever been.
He’s always been proud of that garden and likes to send me photos. Sometimes he’ll call to make sure I got the photos and once when I told him they looked fabulous he added, ”Well, none of it would’ve happened without you telling me I had to improve the soil.”
When it comes to this morning’s gospel passage of the Parable of the Sower, that is how I’ve preached it. It’s a lesson about the quality of the soil and the importance of amending the soils of our lives so that the seed– the word of God– can produce an abundant harvest in us – 30, 50, even hundredfold.
But Dylan Breuer, an Episcopalian blogger, has written this about parables:
Here’s a rule of that I use for reading Jesus’ parables: if I interpret a parable in such a way that there is nothing surprising or even shocking about it, it’s time to go back and read it again. Jesus’ parables serve a purpose a little like that of a Zen zoan – those “riddles” like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
The point of a koan isn’t that there’s a correct answer that springs instantly into mind. A koan isn’t supposed to inform you; it isn’t supposed to give you information that will increase your feeling of mastery. If anything, it’s the opposite of that: it pulls our minds in to confound them, and that kind of dislocation from our usual ways of thinking helps us to open up [and see anew.] A koan doesn’t inform; it transforms you as you wrestle with it.
Jesus’ parables were kind of like that; each one ends in a shocking reversal of his listeners’ expectations. With that reversal, the story pulls us out of entrenched patterns of relationships and ways of being in the world; it dislocates us from what’s comfortable to free us to establish new kinds of relationships, new ways of being.
In reading and preparing for this sermon, the shocking thing, to me, became the Sower.
Now the seed that a sower was sowing would have been carefully hand selected from the best of the previous year’s seed. It would have been carefully stored and protected from damp and insect infestation. And after tilling the soil and carefully preparing it for the actual sowing, the sower would have waited for the optimal weather conditions and then – on the right day – gone out to sow.
But this sower doesn’t do that. This sower tosses his precious seed willy nilly– all over the place. Just like the shocking story of the father welcoming his prodigal son, so the sower of the parable is the prodigal, too!
To take preciously gleaned, cleaned, and stored seed and sow it so recklessly that it falls on the path, in the rocky wastes, and among thorns is prodigal at best and perhaps just downright wrong.
This is a story that would have shocked the farmers of Jesus’ day for the sheer waste of good seed. And then for Jesus to identify the sower as God would have shocked them even more!
But Jesus needs to shock us in order to get us in touch with our expectations –“Farmers don’t operate like that! At least not successful ones.” – and then use our exposed expectations to demonstrate how profoundly different the kingdom of God and God himself are from our expectations. Remember God chose what is weak to shame the strong and what is foolish to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27).
Of course, farmers don’t scatter seed like that, but God does. Why? Because God is a God of grace. God showers rain on the just and unjust and makes the sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous. “My ways are not your ways,” says the Lord, “neither of my thoughts are your thoughts.”
God does not operate according to our rules but invites us to start living according to his grace.
Think about it. As a teacher, you operate like this sower all the time. You don’t just teach to those students whom you think are ready to receive your teaching best. You teach to every child and that’s why it’s such a challenging profession. And even if a child seems to be thorny or rocky soil that doesn’t stop you. You think, perhaps this child needs something different, something else to understand. Your sole desire is for each and every child to get the “Oh ,I get it.” excited look on their face and, in that moment, experience for themselves the joy of understanding.
Every good coach does this as well. You keep trying with a child or young adult so that they can experience the joy of getting it.
Many times, at least at first, it’s just a momentary “aha” and then the student or the player slips back into old habits and old thinking. But at least, however briefly, they experienced it a different way– a more fulfilling way.
And that’s why a teacher’s job or a coach’s job is never done. For we all need to be taught and coached into fuller understanding and greater and greater abilities.
I studied in Toulouse, France, my Senior Fall at Dartmouth and I lived with this amazing family, the Boscus. Every weekend we would go to the countryside where Claude, the father, grew up. He had restored his grandparents’ home. And they had a huge vegetable garden. His brother, Henri, lived across the street with his wife, Solange. They were “premers” which meant that they sold vegetables at the markets. Well, Henri was quite the fun guy. He was always joking and he was very, very generous. One day, Solange was walking over to their own huge vegetable garden to pick things for a salad and asked if I wanted to go with her. I was delighted to go.
When we got to the garden, she started telling me what we needed to pick. The only problem was that Henri hadn’t planted the vegetables in nice rows like most folks. Solange said that he just mixed all the seeds together that year and flung them willy nilly all over the garden patch. He thought it would be fun! I remember her saying to me to find some radishes and she had to show me what the leaf looked like. With that, I searched until I find some. And then went back to see what else there was to find. It became a wonderful scavenger hunt.
That’s how God is– for the sheer joy of seeing what will grow, God keeps flinging seeds – even on imperfect soil so that– even if it’s just for a brief period of time, we can experience what it feels like to discover God’s word growing in our lives.
It’s not that there’s no work needed on our part. But that all the work is in response to God’s gracious and prodigal sowing. We delight in discovering it but then see how worry, or selfishness, or laziness then snatches that precious growth from us. All of a sudden, because we at least experienced the joy of the little seedling growing in our lives, we are determined to protect it better next time. So we learn to do what will help God’s word and God’s abundant life to grow more fully in our life. All of a sudden, because we at least experienced the joy of the little seedling growing in our lives, we are determined to protect it better next time.
God showers the entire world with good seed – with his word– Jesus himself – as a free gift in order that the entire world may once again live in the garden as God intends. And God keeps sowing seeds on us – hoping we will at least catch a brief glimpse of the life that is intended for us all the time.
It doesn’t come in nice neat rows. It’s more like a scavenger hunt. Know that God has sown the seed with gracious abandon. The outcome will not be immediately known. One never knows what may come of that amazing grace.
Thanks be to God.