Despite being raised in Saskatchewan, I know precious little about farming; I’m a city girl. But as I read our Gospel for today, I first thought of the novel Why Shoot the Teacher which is set in rural Saskatchewan in the thirties. The protagonist is a lone male teacher who travels from the big city, Saskatoon, to his first teaching job in the middle of nowhere in a one-room school house. Throughout the seasons of fall, winter, spring, and summer, he speaks about a terrible weed that chokes the crops which he called “Russian thistle.” “…the thorns grew up and choked the good seeds…” our Gospel says. Because I have read the book, I can really picture this; perhaps many of you, however, have actually lived this.
Before we look at the Gospel lesson for today, I want to remind you of a few things. First, the Gospels as we know them were written several decades after the events took place. There had been stories told, there had been sermons preached, and there had been questions answered long before any of the stories were put into writing. Because of our modern inventions, it’s hard for us to imagine what that would be like. Can you imagine how hard it would be today to write a book about Pierre Elliott Trudeau if we didn’t have any newspaper clippings, video tapes, and hundreds of books already written? Some of you will remember some of the things he did and said, but likely many of the details would have been forgotten. But that’s what Matthew had to work with. Memories. Stories passed on from one person to another. Sermons based on those stories. And difficulties separating the original stories from sermons preached about them by Peter or James or John. What was clearly remembered was the fact that Jesus, our teacher, told parables. Many parables. Some of them probably were forgotten by the time Matthew went to write them down. And some were so vivid that everyone remembered them clearly.
If you had never heard this Gospel account before, would you think the parable is about the sower, the seed, or the soil? Where in the story do you find yourself? Are you the sower, the seed, or the soil? And what is the message in the parable for you? I suppose there are people who have felt like the sower. And what strikes me about the sower is the indiscriminate way in which he sows the seed. No farmer would intentionally sow seed on a road or among thorns. People who see themselves as the sower are people who freely and carelessly give whatever it is they have to give. They share the good news of God’s love and are sometimes rejected. The Disciples probably felt like the sower at times. Jesus probably felt like the sower at times. And maybe you have, too.
Once there was a minister who went to his very first church after completing seminary. He was nervous, and so were the people in the church. But his sermon was good. He had worked many hours on that first sermon in hopes that it would be good. It wasn’t great, but it was good. And everyone thanked him for his sermon.
He preached the same sermon the next week. Some people wondered about it, but decided that he was probably still nervous. And besides, he was unpacking and just getting settled in. He probably didn’t have time to work on another sermon. They allowed him to use the sermon twice and thanked him again.
The following week, however, he preached the same sermon again. This time, people were talking to each other. They didn’t quite understand what was going on. But, still, it was a good sermon, so they thanked him.
When he preached the same sermon again on the fourth Sunday, the members of the ministry personnel committee met. They were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but also decided that if he did it again they would confront him.
And sure enough, he preached the same sermon again the following week. So the committee Chair confronted the minister.
“We’ve heard the same sermon five weeks in a row, now. Don’t you think it’s time to write another sermon?
“Well,” said the pastor, “when you do what I told you to do in that sermon, I’ll start on another one.”
Sometimes we don’t see any crops come out of our sown seeds. All we see are weeds. Or the birds take away the seeds and there is nothing left. And sometimes we see the crops grow with varying amounts of effectiveness. There is no rhyme or reason to why some yields 30-, some 60-, and some 100-fold. It can be disheartening if you are the sower in the story.
Have you ever loved someone unconditionally only to see them squander their lives? And at the same time, aren’t there people who respond to that love in a way that multiplies the love? As a sower, don’t you begin to wonder if you shouldn’t be more careful about how and where you sow your seed of love so that it will be more productive?
But the sower in the parable reminds us of the need to be liberal with the seed rather than conservative. God’s grace is meant for everyone everywhere, not just those likely to make a positive response to it.
On the other hand, some of us feel like the seed in the parable. Sometimes we feel like God has put us someplace — and left us there — either to grow or to wither. Sometimes we blame the sower for putting us where we are, we blame the sower for not being very careful when planting us. Or we decide to make the best of where we are and bring glory to the sower of all life.
In a land that allows freedom of expression we find fewer and fewer people responding to God’s call, a call that includes all of us here. In a land where the soil has been rich, we are complacent with a 10-fold return rather than seeing the possibility of 60- or 100-fold return.
If you are the seed in the parable, what kind of soil have you been thrown upon and how are you responding to it? Is there a way for you to be more tenacious, more fruitful, more productive?
Finally, there is the soil. This is the most common way to read the parable, as if we were the soil, as if the seed were the word of God come into our hearts. This understanding of the parable is what is recorded in Matthew’s gospel. In this reading of it, the parable becomes a question of how well we hear, how well we understand: If you are the sower, I believe God is calling you to increase your generosity. If you are the seed, I believe God is calling you to take root where you are. If you are the soil, I believe God is calling you to receive God’s word with faith and allow it to grow. As a congregation, perhaps we are called to be each and all of these. As a congregation, we are called to spread the seed of God’s love in this place and at this time.
Like the teacher in the novel Why Shoot the Teacher, we may sometimes find ourselves alone in the fields of life, surrounded by thorns and weeds. Perhaps it is then that our real growth can occur. Amen.