That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, 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 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. Let anyone with ears listen!’
‘Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’
- Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Well this is a day I’ve been looking forward to for a while now. Today marks my third anniversary as a pastor - 3 years of preaching Sunday after Sunday, working through the lectionary. But today is a special day because our lectionary is a 3 year cycle, so this is the first time I’ve lapped around the set of readings and prayers for the church year. My first sermon at Christ the King 3 years ago was on these readings. I’m excited because I’m gonna have so much more time on my hands now that I can just use old sermons over and over again each Sunday. I mean, especially for Epiphany - you guys/they haven’t even heard most of these yet. Hello 3 day work week. I’m kidding of course. For nostalgia I looked back at my first sermon from Christ the King and I realized - I wasn’t as good at preaching back then. In fact, it was a bit painful reading through that sermon. But also, the references were not exactly current. If you remember the world was supposed to end on October 21st, 2011, so that reference is a bit dated. Kind of like retired pastors having references to the Cold War. But also, when I looked back on that old sermon, after reading these texts, I realized that these words from Scripture speak to me in an entirely different way today than they did three years ago. All of us can experience this - when we hear God’s Word at different times and in different places in our life, they speak to us in unexpected and refreshing ways. Because, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, the Word of God is alive and active. Our God continues to sow the seed of his word in us and among us, in new and unimagined ways.
In particular this morning, the Gospel reading of the sower and seeds speaks much differently to me than 3 years ago. 3 years ago Carolyn and I lived in a duplex in Ludlow with a postage stamp yard, mostly taken up by the landlords dog. Carolyn had a small container of herbs by the back door, mostly grown from transplants purchased at Big Y. Today, we have a legitimate suburban farm, complete with chickens, berry bushes, vegetables, and more vegetables. Reading this parable again, the thing that struck me, the new word that seemed to come from these words of Scripture now that Carolyn and I are wanna be farmers is this: if God is the seed sower, then God is one lousy gardener. “Listen!” Jesus says. “A sower went out to sow. An as he sowed some seeds feel on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds feel on rocky ground where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil…they were scorched…they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.” Oh, and apparently some of the seed fell on good soil and made out alright. Even I know that is not good seed sowing. This is the Pastor/Father Nathaniel method of seed sowing - a method that quickly inspires Carolyn to grab the seeds form me and say, “Why don’t you go mow the lawn or something.” The seed sower in this parable comes across as careless. Seed spilled on the path, seed sowed where it cannot possibly be expected to thrive. Seed seemingly wasted and not given a chance to produce good fruit.
Except then something really funny happened in our garden this year that made me realize: This seed sower may actually know what he’s doing. Because as good as the soil seems, because as counterintuitive as some seed sowing appears, sometimes you never know what the seed will do.
This winter, for the first time, Carolyn took to starting her own seed. With a gift certificate she got for Christmas she bought the super fancy heirloom and organic seeds from a mail order company. I wired for her a growing table set up that would lead anyone who peered through our basement windows to think that we were illegally growing marijuana. Fluorescent lighting on adjustable chains, two levels of trays, heat pads, the works. She did everything right - a light timer, temperature control, the nicest seed starting soil Miracle-Gro has to offer. Before they went in the garden the little transplants spent a few hours a day outside to harden off - once in the garden a cold frame kept in the warmth of the sunshine, and eventually they were established. Except despite all of these efforts - the perfection of seed sowing that only a biology teacher could accomplish, for some reason, a few random seeds didn’t make it. A few plants withered anyway. Despite the good soil, the ideal conditions, the impeccable care, sometimes, seed just doesn’t take.
But then there were the tomatoes. In our side garden bed, without warning, one day Carolyn noticed firmly established and mature tomato plants. Except she didn’t plant tomatoes there. At least not this year. Last year Carolyn had planted cherry tomatoes in the side bed, but there were so many tomatoes that she wasn’t able to pick them all, and some fell off and rotted. But apparently; and this is where I have a hard time wrapping my non-biology major mind around this; those old tomatoes that rotted, the seeds inside of them went into the soil, and in the spring started growing into new plants. And there’s a mystery as to what exactly they’ll be like too because bees don’t pollenate just one type of tomato, they are equal opportunity pollinators. So it’s quite likely that the tomatoes that result will be some sort of hybrid between those cherry tomatoes and other tomatoes. Apparently they may be kind of weird. But that’s ok - it’s still amazing to me. Fruit that withered and died one year, the next year has given us new and unexpected life.
Sometimes we just can’t stop the work of determined seeds. Kevin Hinkamper stopped by to say hi one day when he drove by and saw me working in the yard. Because of the chickens I decided we shouldn’t treat the lawn with any chemicals, and that I would remove the dandelions by hand. When Kevin pulled over I had already been out there for at least 3 hours, bending over, prying out dandelions by the root, throwing them into my bucket. “What are ya doing?” Kevin asked. “Weeding dandelions.” “Ok,” he said, “Good luck with that.” After hours of work, I woke up the next morning, sore from head to toe, only to view a fresh sea of yellow on our lawn. I spent 3 more days of work in the yard before I finally capitulated a losing battle. Insult was added to injury when the dandelions let out seed and we were awash in a sea of white floating seeds. There was just no stopping that seed. Fortunately the chickens like to eat the dandelions.
And speaking of birds, the birds that eat up the seed on the path in the parable. That biologist wife of mine has also informed me that this is a big way seed is spread. Birds find a tasty fruit, fly away and let it lose in a new area. Since I mentioned pasty butt in the chickens a couple weeks ago, I’ll leave it to your imagination what exactly “letting lose” that seed means.
Tomatoes we didn’t plant, dandelions we don’t want, and even a few strawberries seeds being flown across town for planting. You never know where seed may be sown - you never know what fruit is possible.
As the Church, every week we gather to hear the same readings, to recite the same liturgy, to share the same meal. And yet each time it is new and different and unexpected. The Word read in our midst speaks to us as it never has before. The Word preached or proclaimed in song sheds light on a new angle, a new thought, an unexpected result of that Word heard and experienced long before but suddenly, heard anew. The Holy Meal, God’s word along with ordinary bread and wine that becomes for us the Body and Blood of Christ. At times we’re attentive and curious and open - at times our hearts are Good Soil for God’s word. At other times we’re distracted and anxious - worried and angry, and God’s word falls on our heart as if on a path, as if among thorns, like it were snatched up in an instant by birds. But the Word of grace and hope for us in this parable is that God stops at nothing to make sure the seed takes root and we bear fruit. Our God, the seemingly careless but truly abundant gardener scatters seed everywhere within us and around us, confident that we can only encounter the love and grace of our God so many times before that Gospel planting takes root.
At times in our lives the plant of our faith may wither. At certain harvests, the fruit is meager or absent. But our God, the gracious and generous garden does not give up on us, and continues to spread the good news for us and for the world. And we in turn share that word, in word and deed, doing our own sowing, daring to imagine a harvest in which all people might know the Good News we cherish in hearts.