I watched my wife, Christy, sow some grass seed recently. There was a little patch of bare ground near the back door that she wanted to cover, and so she dug it up with a spade until the soil was nice and loose and then raked it into a hundred little furrows where the seed could catch and hold. And then she scattered the seed evenly over the area, being careful not to waste any of it. She put down some wheat straw to hold the moisture and then watered the seeds gently so they wouldn't wash away. She did a good job, and it didn't surprise me to see a week later a light green fringe of grass coming up in that place.
That Christy did seems to me like the textbook way to sow seed. I don't know if she read a book or if she just has good instincts, but it seemed like the right way to do it, and the good results she had would seem to be adequate proof. Which makes the story of the sower that much more interesting.
Apparently this fellow has never read the book and his instincts are terrible. Instead of carefully preparing his plot of ground as Christy did, instead of carefully scattering the seed, this guy is going all over town, throwing big wasteful handfuls into the air. Some of it falls on the road where the birds come along and eat it up; but, really, what would you expect when you throw seed on the road? And some of it falls on gravel where it sprouts after the first good rain but then withers and dies because it doesn't have any dirt to put its roots down into. What would you expect? Some of it falls among the weeds and thorns where it gets choked out by the competition; but, again, what would you expect? The only surprise in this story, the only miracle, is that this reckless sower manages to get some of the seed onto good soil where it produces a yield of 30, 60, or even 100 times as much grain.
This is the only part of the parable that might have upset the expectations of Jesus' original hearers, and we need to pay attention to it because the upsetting of expectations is what the parables are all about. As Jesus told them, they were not just charming little stories to illustrate a point. They were rhetorical tools he used, in the way a builder might use a wrecking ball or a bulldozer, to level his hearers' expectations and clear the ground for the new understanding he wanted to put in place.
A good example is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector from the Gospel of Luke. When Jesus told his hearers that two men went up to the temple to pray and that one of them was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, they knew from the beginning how the story was going to turn out. God didn't hear the prayers of sinners, they believed, which meant he definitely wasn't going to hear the prayer of this tax collector-they were no more popular then than they are now. But the tax collector prays a very unusual prayer. Unlike that of the Pharisee, his is simple and direct-a prayer in which he confesses his sins and asks forgiveness. In the end, says Jesus, it was the tax collector who went home justified and not the Pharisee.
Now, that would have come as a shock to people who assumed the Pharisees had God all figured out. Maybe he wasn't who they said he was after all. Maybe they would have to start thinking about him in a whole new way, which is precisely the point of the story! "Why do you speak in parables?" Jesus' disciples asked. "Because these people have become a bunch of religious know-it-alls," he answers. "They think they know everything about who God is and how he works. Their minds have become so clouded by their misperception that they can't perceive what's going on right in front of them. They have shut their eyes, stopped up their ears. I'm speaking in parables in an effort to break up the hard ground of their wrong-headed expectations, to loosen the soil for the seed of the Gospel. But you," he says, looking fondly at his disciples, "you didn't have any expectations in the first place. Your eyes and ears have been wide open to see and hear the wonderful works of God." In other words, the last people you would have expected to get it are the ones who get it. Which says something about how we ought to go about our own ministry.
This summer, for instance, I'm planning to spend as much time as I can out of the office and in the city of Washington, meeting people, getting to know them, inviting them to church. I'm calling it a "summer of outreach," and I've spent some time thinking of how I might go about it. For example, should I ask for suggestions from my congregation about who I need to meet and where I need to go? Well, yes. Should I do some strategic thinking about the most effective way to spend my time, so that I'm not just wandering from one Starbucks to another sipping lattes? Well, yes. But here's my concern: My concern is that I will begin thinking about how to approach this task in the same way that Christy thought about how to sow grass seed, that I will begin to be careful about how I prepare the soil and scatter the seed and water it. In other words, I will begin to look for the neighborhoods in Washington where my efforts will be most effective, and I will begin targeting the kind of people who would be good prospects, and I will search out the techniques that will be most fruitful and will do the kind of follow up that will ensure the greatest yield. It's just the way Christy went about the work of sowing grass seed, but it's almost exactly the opposite of the way Jesus went about his ministry.
And here's the reason: Jesus wasn't doing anything as predictable as sowing grass. He was trying to sow the Word of God on the unpredictable soil of the human heart. Not only is it unpredictable, it is invisible, which means that you can't tell, just by looking, what kind of heart someone has. So you begin to sow seed everywhere and in every way imaginable. Some people talk to their friends and neighbors quite openly about their faith in God. Others try to show their Christian faith by example. Some leave gospel tracts in public phone booths, and others perform random acts of kindness. All of these can be ways of sowing seed. A lot of it will fall in places where it never takes root. Some of it will fall in places where it gets a good start but doesn't last. Some of it will fall in places where it gets choked out by competing interests. That's just how it is with ministry. Jesus himself could have told you that. But he could have also told you this-that sometimes the scattered seed of the Word finds good soil and grows and produces a bumper crop. And since you can't predict just how or where the seed is going to fall, or when or if it is going to produce, you just scatter it wherever you can and hope for the best.
Fred Craddock tells a story about the time he got a phone call from a woman whose father had died. She had been a teenager in one of the churches he had served as pastor twenty years before, and he would have sworn that if there was ever a person who never heard a word he said, that teenage girl was it. She was always giggling with her friends in the balcony, passing notes to boys, drawing pictures on the bulletin. But when her father died, she looked up her old pastor, the Rev. Fred Craddock, and gave him a call. "I don't know if you remember me," she started. Oh, yes, he remembered. "When my daddy died, I thought I was going to come apart," she continued. "I cried and cried and cried. I didn't know what to do. But then I remembered something you said in one of your sermons . . ." And Fred Craddock was stunned. She had remembered something he had said in one of his sermons?! It was proof enough to him that you can never tell how the seed will fall or where it might take root.
Two days ago I was still jotting down notes for this sermon. I thought about how you can't tell the state of a person's heart just by looking at her. So you throw a little "seed" her way, and you get one of four responses. One, the seed gets snatched away before it takes root. Two, it takes root quickly but doesn't last long. Three, it takes root, but other things choke it out. Or four, I wrote, she becomes Mother Teresa.
Can you believe that less than two hours after I wrote that I got on the bus headed downtown and, there, riding the bus, the only two other passengers were two women dressed in the familiar habit of Mother Teresa's order, the Missionaries of Charity. I must have stared at them, but I couldn't help wondering who it was that scattered the seed of the Gospel on the soil of their hearts, and I wondered if that person had any idea, when he or she did it, that that seed would find such good soil there, that it would take such deep root and produce such abundant fruit. I looked at their faces. They were so young. And I thought, "If I had seen them at the mall dressed in blue jeans and t-shirts, I might not have picked them. I might have picked someone else." All the more reason then to be reckless in my scattering of seed, to be less concerned about efficiency than extravagance, to throw it everywhere I can in the hope that somewhere, somehow, it will find good soil.
The truth is that someone was reckless enough to scatter the seed of the Word where you could hear it; and in some of you, especially, it has found good soil, and taken deep root, and yielded thirty-, or sixty-, or a hundredfold.
Let us pray.
Lord of the harvest, teach us to be reckless sowers, scattering the seed of the Gospel in the most unlikely of places because you alone can know where the good soil lies. Amen.