The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, July 13, 2008

"A sower went out to sow..."

July 13, 2008
Pentecost 9A, Proper 10
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

“A sower went out to sow…” It begins so simply, with words so familiar. We all know the parable of the sower. If, somewhere, there were a list of the Bible’s “greatest hits”, the Parable of the Sower would certainly have made the cut. It’s one of the earliest stories we learn as children, gathered on Sunday School floors, and we hear it again and again throughout our lives, in part because it’s so simple and so familiar.

Perhaps that’s part of why this is one of our favorite parables – for once, after centuries of hearing, we can hear the lesson of the parable in much the same way as our first century predecessors. That crowd, gathered on the shore, listening to their teacher speaking from a boat, must have felt the resonance of these words as they were spoken. Why would he say something so simple? There must be more.

Fast forward a few years. The earliest members of the church, gathered in houses for their weekly remembrances of the life of Jesus, retelling their stories, retelling his stories. They must have recognized the deep insight conveyed in this simple image. They had sown seeds themselves, or at least had seen them sown. They could, in an instant, picture the story as they heard it. They knew the fate of the seeds before the punch lines could be said: seeds that fall on a path will not grow – birds will eat them before they have the chance. Seeds that fall among the rocks may grow, but their growth can’t amount to much – they would need deep roots to support them, and they’ll never have that among the rocks. Seeds that fall among the thorns and weeds will probably take root and grow, but they can’t be relied upon for the harvest. A lifetime of competition for resources makes one weak and weary. No, seeds need good soil. Loose, black soil. Rich with nutrients and room to break into the earth to grow deep and tall.

The idea must have seemed simple and familiar to them, too.

But there must be more.

The problem with simple and familiar stories, however, is that we do tend to fill in the blanks before we take the time to learn their lessons. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I’d bet that at least a few of your minds went into something like autopilot as soon as those opening words were spoken: “A sower went out to sow…”

To tell the truth, mine kind of did, too. Earlier this week, I read “A sower went out to sow…” and I thought, “Oh, it’s the Parable of the Sower. I can preach about that.” A couple of days later I began to realize, I was preparing for a sermon without having actually read the appointed text!

It was not until I stumbled across a few other simple and familiar words from Alfred North Whitehead that I allowed the Parable of the Sower to take root in me. Whitehead said, “The essence of life is to be found in the frustration of established order.”

While we don’t share the agrarian context of first century followers of Jesus, imagine this familiar parable with through the lens of Whitehead’s insight:

The seed that fell on good soil could break into the earth. Its strength was perfectly matched with the resources of the earth and its yield returned those resources. The rocks would not budge. The thorns greedily consumed all that the seeds would need in order to grow. The path left the seeds vulnerable. But the seed that fell on earth could “frustrate the established order” that surrounded it to find and bear the “essence of life”. The other seeds fell short.

Our lives are often that way. We find ourselves planted in places of vulnerability, or rigidity, or scarcity. In our fear we refuse to “frustrate the established order” that surrounds us. Our fear paralyzes us, and prevents us from breaking into the abundance that is available. Or worse, in our fear we may capitalize on the vulnerabilities and fears of others and hem them in on the path, or among the stones or thorns. Those individuals who climb the ladders of human history by trampling on those around them are not great leaders but superficially successful bullies. Like the seeds that take root among the stones, they may rise, but their lives will bear no fruit. Like the thorns that surround some of the seeds, they grow and thrive, but only at the expense of more fruitful lives.

You may have heard this week that the Church of England has voted to allow for the appointment of women as bishops. Many seemingly strong individuals and organizations within the Anglican Communion have vehemently opposed this move. They fear that the elevation of women will compromise their own strength. They fear that the Church of England is “frustrating the established order”. And they’re right.

Just as the sun must pierce the night sky to squeeze out a new morning, so, too, must we “frustrate the established orders” of the world to make room for the coming kingdom of heaven. It’s not anarchy. But it is tilling and fertilizing and sowing in such a way as to make use of the resources and stability that are available to us.

Even in this world plagued by fears of vulnerability and rigidity and scarcity, we are called to bear witness to the abundance of God – to bring forth new life in the face of a world that says that it is not possible, a world whose faith is placed in scarcity.

In the few verses that we skipped over in this morning’s reading, the disciples asked Jesus, “Why do you speak to [the people] in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘[though] seeing, they do not perceive, and [though] hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand’.”

When we view the world from the perspective of recognizing and embracing the abundance of God, more and more abundance becomes apparent. Conversely, when we plant ourselves in positions of scarcity, that becomes all that we can see.

If our vision of the world were defined by scarcity, it would make sense to fear frustrating the established order. We might even recognize that the established orders of the world fall short of the vision of God. But our fears would paralyze us. And in that paralysis we would cling to the only stability we could imagine, no matter how exposed or rigid or barren that pseudo-stability may be.

But we have been planted in fields of abundance. We nest in the loose, rich, black soil of God’s abundance. It provides us with the stability we need to grow tall and the flexibility we need to grow deep. It frees us from fears of scarcity. It frees us to frustrate the vulnerable, rigid, and barren established orders of humanity and to break through perceived scarcities with the essence life.

There will always be a degree to which we are vulnerable – and the birds will be tempted to snatch us up in those moments. There will certainly be moments when we fear that we are encased in a sarcophagus of rigidity with no room to grow, as we feel called. And there will even be times when the thorns of greed and selfishness encroach upon us and threaten us. But, “to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance”. Remember, “The essence of life is to be found in the frustration of established order.” So with an eye to that abundance, frustrate those orders that restrain you from realizing the fullness of God’s vision for you. Make room for the abundance that is being offered. Amen.

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