7.13.14 Sermon Listen
Rev. Ellen Jennings
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
My friend, Robin, is a Behavior Specialist and Family Trainer, which basically means she works with families who have special needs children and helps them to create structures, environments and routines that work for everyone. Now, you might think that someone who finally manages to procure the services of “Dr. Robin” (her phone message usually says she’s taking no new clients) would be so delighted (not to mention desperate) that they’d do whatever she suggested. But, often, this is not the case. “Listen,” she’ll say, and proceed to give the new family life changing and saving advice. “Listen.” But, oftentimes, in spite of their desperation, the parents do not want to hear. Because the message is overwhelming and will require them to change their ways…
“Listen,” says Jesus at both the beginning and ending of Matthew’s Parable of the Sower. “Let anyone with ears, listen!” But what are we meant to hear? For parables are tricky things—as layered with meaning as a Zen koan and just as hard to pin down. I mean, can you imagine what the crowds who first heard this parable from Jesus might have been thinking? For, whether they’d come to receive clear and compelling religious instruction or to hear a rabble-rousing political speech, they were surely disappointed, or at the very least, confused. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in The Seeds of Heaven:
…what they got instead are more like dreams or poems, in which images of God’s kingdom are passed before them—as familiar as the crops in their own fields and the loaves in their own kitchens—but with a strange new twist.
Strange indeed! For what Jesus suggested to this peasant crowd would most likely have been considered anathema! It most certainly would have been deemed ludicrous. I mean, he proposed to these impoverished rural farmers (and fishers and craftspeople) that they squander seed! Can you imagine? In the words of Peter Woods (The Listening Hermit, 7.5.11):
Just like the shocking story of the waiting father welcoming his profligate son, so the sower of the parable is a prodigal too! To take preciously gleaned, cleaned, stored seed and sow it so recklessly that it falls on the path, in the rocky wastes and amongst thorns is prodigal at best and downright unskillful to boot. This is a story that would have shocked those early agrarians for the sheer waste of good seed. To then have the sower identified as God would have been shocking indeed.
For a prodigal is a “reckless spendthrift”! Did you know that? I mean, we’ve all heard the term, “prodigal son,” a hundred times. But did you know what it means? And, in the Parable of the Sower, yet again, Jesus tells us a story in which reckless spending, living with abandon, wasting resources, is associated with God, or at least accepted by God. For in the story of the Prodigal Son, the father (i.e. God figure) welcomes back the prodigal with open arms. And in the Parable of The Sower, the God figure himself, i.e. the Sower, is prodigal! What?! God as reckless spendthrift?!
Of course God is a reckless spendthrift! It’s the only truly shocking or parabolic way to interpret this story, and it’s completely in line with the way the 1st century agrarian ears of Jesus’ followers would have heard it.
And, yes, I understand that some later editor or redactor, probably whoever wrote the final version of Matthew’s gospel, added the interpretation that places the focus on the ground: fertile, fallow, rocky or thorn-choked. But, that’s not really so surprising, is it? For, by the time this gospel was written, some 50-60 years after the death of Jesus, Christian communities were firmly established, and hierarchy and control were already being asserted and argued. Thus, Matthew’s interpretation has guided the way this parable has been taught and “heard” for centuries, as Peter Woods aptly summarizes:
All through my childhood I was asked and asked myself, “What kind of soil are you? Are you bringing in the best harvest of all that God has invested in you?” The Ol’ time balance sheet, so indicative of Evangelical religion was firmly drawn in my life. I had to balance the books or be damned. Quite literally.
Which is actually quite a Capitalist approach, isn’t it? God puts the seeds in our bank and we either invest them profitably or we don’t. We’re either fertile soil or we’re not. We’re either worth God’s word or we aren’t. Sound familiar? Well, sadly, it probably does, because this is the version of Christianity many of us were taught. “Are we good enough?” “Are we worth it?” “Are we worth anything?”
What a crying shame! What a crying shame that the life-saving words of a teacher—a “savior”—have been so twisted. That, rather than telling the story of a God who loves beyond belief, who scatters His/Her word gracefully and wastefully, we’ve been taught a story about a God who, in a tight schoolmarm-ish manner, tests our ability to learn, our ability to listen, our ability to change.
Not that we don’t need to change! No. And I’m not saying we don’t need to listen, either. I’m just saying I don’t think God approaches us judgmentally, evaluatively—God’s just not that petty!
But if God is not judging, then who is?
Good question. And I don’t have the answer. For my point is not that God never judges. My point is that God is not judgmental. Again, God is not petty. God is not judgy. God does not throw seeds around to see who will create a good garden and who will fail miserably as a gardener. Rather, God throws seeds profligately. Gracefully. Wastefully. Lovingly. Hoping and knowing that somewhere, somehow, sometime they will take root and flourish.
“Listen.” And there it is; the declarative mandate that we do something; the challenging suggestion that we have some control. Which I suppose we do. For we do make choices. The question is: do we make them in fearful response to God’s judgment or do we make them in ecstatic reaction to God’s extravagant love? Which do you prefer? Which causes you to live? Which leads you to love? What makes you want to listen?
As Peter Woods writes: The seeds of grace fall indiscriminately into the lives of all God’s children. The outcome of that gracious sowing will not be immediately known. One never knows what may come of profligate grace.
One never knows. And, really, this is what it means to be human, to be humble. We simply don’t know. We receive. We await. We embrace. But we don’t actually know. For the life of faith is not so much about knowledge as it is about trust. We trust that God will embrace us; we trust that grace will abound. As Suzanne Guthrie writes in Edge of the Enclosure (7/13/14):
When I planted seeds for the first time my mother taught me this old proverb…
“One for the mouse
One for the crow
One to rot
And one to grow.”
Of the seeds you plant, maybe one in four will grow, the adage said. Some versions have the wind or the rook taking away seeds as well. I like the idea of the birds and burrowing rodents sharing the abundance, the wind grasping seeds only to drop them into surprising places. I even like the realistic allowance for biological chance—some seeds folding back into earth without the quickening spark to initiate fulfillment of the life cycle.
The Sower [of the Parable] is generous, profligate, even. I can’t imagine wantonly throwing seed amongst rocks and thorns and pathways. Jesus means to make us laugh. What kind of sower sows with such excess, such uninhibited childish extravagance?
I no longer think of the thorns, the rocks, the pathways, the birds as “others” with us nice Christians as the fertile soil. I embody the infertility, the leaving to chance, the impossibly stubborn thorns, the immutable rocks, the shallow soil, the unprotected ground, the carelessly trodden pathways wide open for winged robbers and burrowing thieves.
But some patches of good rich soil receive the grace the Sower scatters with such playful abandon. And maybe that little bit is enough to multiply one hundred fold. I need not hoard grace—so you birds of the air, you little mice, feed your families, eat your fill. [There’s] Plenty of grace for all.
And that’s really the message, isn’t it? There’s plenty of grace for all. Take that in, my friends, please take it in. There’s plenty of grace for you. God sows her sees wantonly, without judgment, and waits to see where they will sprout. And by sowing with such joyful abandon, she makes sure that growth will occur, even among those of us who are hard of hearing…
“Listen.” Oh, listen. Listen to the Lover of All, listen to the One who wants to welcome you, listen to the One who isn’t interested in who you are or what you earn or what title you have. Listen to the one who simply wants to embrace you as children, as “little ones.”
“Listen.” But beware. For, in so doing, you will have to change your ways. Because seedlings change things. Small plants have been known to cleave rocks. Microscopic algae can choke rivers. You will have to change your ways.
And it may be frightening. It will probably be overwhelming. But it will be worth it.
When Dr. Robin first began working with my family, over ten years ago, our entire household was in turmoil. And when she proposed setting up a whole new routine, teaching our son (who has autism) to bathe and dress himself and actually earn the privilege of playing on the computer, it all seemed ridiculously out of reach; we were just too tired. But, you know what? It wasn’t. It wasn’t out of reach. It actually was possible. Was it easy? NO! But it was possible. And, ultimately, it has made our lives easier. It has freed us up. It has freed up our son.
Of course, the lessons continue. And the life changes and challenges go on. For we will never stop learning and we will never stop needing to learn. And this is true for every single one of us. But God is not judging our educational process. Rather, God is showering us with opportunities to learn, over and over and over again.
So seize them. Live them.