Everyone recalls the life science project in which a child takes an egg carton, a handful of beans, and some potting soil. The child fills the cups in the carton with soil and then pushes a bean directly into the center of each cup of rich dirt. Soil is carefully brushed over the top of each bean, and the child then selects the windowsill with the best direct sunlight on which to place the carton. Daily, a bit of water is added to the experiment, until to the child’s wonder and surprise shiny green bean stalks rise from the cups, a windowsill lesson in the miracle of life. Remember that project? In a huge city like Houston, and, indeed, in our increasingly urbanized world, this may be the closest to sowing the soil that many children will ever get. But even in miniature, the experiment teaches an important lesson about sowing: Everything is precious. The soil, the sunlight, the water, and especially the seed…nothing can be taken for granted. Each component, however small, is essential to the success of vitality, growth, and life.
When I lived in Virginia, I bird hunted in corn fields. By far, the best field we hunted was one owned by a farmer who had a habit of taking to the bottle early in the day. Consequently, he was a sloppy farmer. Both when he sowed and cut his field he tended to leave as much grain scattered on gravel, inclines, and the surface as he did in furrowed rows. That made for great hunting, but it didn’t make for much of a harvest. The farmer had forgotten what every child knows, to take deliberate and tender care with the seed.
Such care is important even in the ridiculously rich and fertile farmland of the Mississippi River delta around which I grew up. It is doubly so in more parched areas of the world, with thinner soil and less predictable rainfall, such as the ancient Palestine of Jesus’ day. There, every seed matters, and careful coordination of seed, soil, sun, and water is necessary for a successful and sustaining crop. With all this in mind let’s look again at the Gospel reading today: the Parable of the Sower.
“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the footpath, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they just as quickly withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”
For the villagers and subsistence farmers to whom Jesus first told this story, it was scandalous. Do you see why this was so? With precious seed—the very difference at harvest time between life and death— not to be wasted, the sower in the story is sloppy. The image is of a farmer walking, or perhaps stumbling, through the field almost as though drunk, throwing seed hither and yon, taking no heed of where it falls. And, the farmer reaps what he sows. In every case but one, the seed fails to find purchase.
Were Jesus’ parable only a pithy story about a careless farmer, the people might shake their heads in amusement and call the man a fool. But the sower in the story isn’t just any farmer. He is God himself. So, what do they—what do we—make of that?
Before we can form an opinion of God in Jesus’ parable, it is worth considering again the second half of the Gospel reading, where Jesus reveals the identity of the soils in the parable’s metaphor. If the seed God sows is the Gospel, then each of the soils, it turns out, is a different kind of hearer. One hearer is the footpath, where feet trample the seed; another is rocky ground where the seed cannot take root; yet another is a briar patch, where thorns choke the new shoots. And only the fourth is good soil, where the beanstalks grow. Four different hearers; four different soils. And the question begged for each hearer of the parable is, which kind of soil am I?
And yet, reality is more complicated than that. I have read this parable a hundred times over the years, on different days, in different phases of life. And like a tableaux that shifts with each reading, I discover that my identity in the story changes each time.
Once when I read the parable, my life is harried, and deadlines loom. My prayer and study, I believe, steal precious time from the work before me. And so, I goosestep through the parable, trampling its message underfoot, and I get up from my chair as quickly as I can to take care of the important things on my to-do list.
Another time I read the parable, it connects with me in a way that warms my heart and gives me joy. I get enthusiastic for God and the wisdom of scripture and the ministry of this place, and I leap from my study renewed. But then I check the news feed online. And I remember the financial pressures that ministry faces. And the drudgery of the day takes over. The shallow root of the Gospel withers until I can’t remember why the parable first moved me so.
Another time, I study this parable as I am also working with a grieving family, or visiting a loved one in the hospital, or navigating a vicious argument with a cherished friend. The parable tries to speak to me, but I am choking on the thorns of life, and I cannot hear it.
Do you see? The different soils are not different people. They are all me. And they are all you, depending upon the season of our lives. You see, despite what some more evangelical Christian traditions might contend, the life of faith is not a steady march toward attention to God and spiritual perfection. Faith is rocky, and thorny, and sometimes shallow, and can often be trampled underfoot. And the lived experience of our lack of attention, or our fickle and transient commitment, or of a world that seems to conspire against us, can be deflating. In those moments we might ask in near despair, as God sows the Gospel in the world, why would God waste precious seed on us?
And that is the very reason Jesus tells this parable. It turns out that God is not a careful farmer, and in the economy of God’s spiritual agriculture, the seed of grace, while surely precious, is not scarce. You see, no matter what soil you are today, God sows grace upon you and within you. You may be distracted (even from this sermon!) and wishing you were somewhere else. Or maybe your heart is moved, but you have the sinking feeling that your enthusiasm will wane by the time you get to Sunday brunch. Or maybe there are anxieties or dependencies in your life that are consuming you and, even as you sit here, are choking you like thorns. And yet, even now—even now—God sows grace. Hither and yon, on the rocks and inclines and shallow ground in our lives, God sows grace. In ways so small that, in the moment, we may not even notice, God sows grace. That is the miracle of the parable.
In addition to miracle, Jesus’ parable ends in promise: As people of faith, no matter what soil you were yesterday, no matter what soil you find yourself to be today, God is slowly and meticulously preparing you and enriching you. With love like sunlight, through the sacraments like nourishing water, and in the soil of this cathedral, God tends each of us like the farmer tends his plants, so that the day will be (maybe even this day) when God’s grace growing in you and in me will bear fruit one hundredfold, and when our very souls will bloom. Let those who have ears hear!