Every summer when I was a kid, our family would drive from our home in the Baltimore suburbs out to the country for our annual family reunion at my Uncle George's farm. Uncle George and his wife Betty owned a small farm in Howard County, Maryland, where they raised chickens, pigs, and steer and grew all manner of crops and vegetables. Some of my most cherished childhood memories are of walking around that farm with my Uncle George. He was a big man with a kind soul and an infectious laugh--and he absolutely loved the farm. He'd show us the chicken coop, let us throw slop to the pigs, and take us around the hay fields on his tractor. I remember once watching him feed his favorite bull right out of the palm of his hand. For a kid from the suburbs, Uncle George's farm was an entirely foreign, yet delightful place. And even as a kid, I recognized the great care that Uncle George took with the farm. Vegetables were planted in just the right spot for the proper amount of sunlight and the most nourishing soil. Every inch of the hayfield was used to grow feed for the animals. And the front hall of the great old farmhouse was filled with food shelves and freezer chests, ensuring that none of the harvest would go to waste.
That's why, when I read our Gospel for today, I don't understand why the sower in Jesus' parable is casting his seeds, well, so carelessly. The story goes that a sower went out to sow; and as he cast his seeds, they fall on all manner of terrain: on the path, on the rocky ground, among the thorns, and finally in the good soil--pretty much all over the place. And the seeds that fall on the good soil yield an abundant harvest. But I have to say, I cannot imagine my Uncle George being so reckless with his seeds or anything else on his farm. Seeds cost money and farmers need to make the most of everything they have--land and water, feed and seed, plants and animals--to help the farm achieve optimal productivity. Unlike this sower, Uncle George would have been very careful that his seeds found their mark.
You know, thinking about my Uncle George makes me wonder if we might be reading this parable from the wrong direction. After all, many times, we interpret it in a pretty moralistic way, applying it most directly to ourselves. As the text is read and the preacher preaches, we spend our time trying to decide which kind of soil we are. Are we rocky or thorny or the packed down path? And forget being good soil, we think. That's somebody else, not us. And so this wonderful parable can quickly become about judging ourselves and spiritually comparing ourselves to others. But when I read this parable, especially in light of Paul's assurance in today's epistle reading that in Christ there is "no condemnation," I suspect that Jesus was pointing us in another direction. So how else could we approach this text?
For me, this parable is much more about the character of the sower and far less about where the seeds land or what happens to them afterward. This is, after all, the Parable of the Sower, not the Parable of the Soil.
So who is this sower? We might call him, as I have already, careless or reckless. We might call him foolhardy or wasteful. My Uncle George most likely would have. But what if we think of the sower as generous and hopeful, perhaps even a relentless optimist for believing that life can take root even in unlikely places, even rocky and thorny soil? Maybe the sower wasn't being wasteful or careless at all. Maybe the sower knew exactly what he was doing.
In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah speaks of God as a sower--a sower of the Word, which is God's message of grace and forgiveness. He says that just as the snow and rain come down and water the earth, bringing forth life, so God's Word rains down and accomplishes that for which it is purposed--engendering faith, hope, and love in those who hear it. Here, all manner of terrain, the mountains, hills, and the trees clap and sing and rejoice.
It's not hard to infer in Jesus' parable that God is the sower here too. It is God who casts the Word all about, without regard for where it lands, loving every type of soil, and showering it with the Word, with love, grace and mercy. And God not only sows the seeds and tends the soil; God waters us with rain and snow and brings forth good fruit in us by the power of the Word. While we're sitting here wondering what kind of soil we are, God is showering us with all manner of seed and blessing. Where Uncle George had to be precise and careful where he sowed his seeds, God can of course afford to be generous, extravagant, and without a care about where the Word may fall, take root, and begin to grow.
Here's where something I learned from my Uncle George makes lots of sense as I read the parable from the perspective of the sower rather than worrying about the quality of the soil. Uncle George taught me that that good soil is broken soil. Good soil is broken soil. The good soil is soil that is tilled and turned, soil that has cracks and ridges where seeds can drop down and take root. And we are, each of us, in our own ways, broken soil--turned over and over in all kinds of ways throughout our everyday lives. And this brokenness, which we often so desperately try to hide, this brokenness that we think disqualifies us from God's love--this brokenness is the very thing that allows the seed, the Word, God's love to take root in us.
You know, Jesus spent most of his time with people and in places that would have been considered bad soil in his day. He consorted with despised tax collectors, the ritually unclean, the sick, Samaritans, women, and rough fishermen turned disciples. These were not the spiritual elite. They were not good soil by most any measure. But Jesus walked with them, taught, and healed them. Jesus showered them with mercy and love, and they did indeed bear much fruit.
Just as we can be quick to judge ourselves through the lens of this parable, we can also be quick to judge others--to place them in certain categories because they are young or old, of color or not, whether they are in church every Sunday, periodically, or not at all. It is part of our human instinct, a symptom of our brokenness, to label and to categorize where God does not. We are called to follow Jesus and his example of loving all kinds of people, all kinds of ground, trusting in the power of God's Word and Holy Spirit to transform even what appears to be barren or broken soil.
I still spend most of my time in the suburbs these days. My last call took our family to the suburbs of Boston, right along the Interstate I-95 corridor. And I mean literally right along it. You could see the highway from the church's front door. Everyday when I took the dog on a walk, I would walk underneath the highway. Now, highway overpasses are forsaken places--with their fair share of graffiti, broken glass, and litter, and the smell of car exhaust wafting down from the highway above. And yet, even there, in the cracked concrete overpass, life takes root. For below the rusted metal grate that lay between the two sides of this massive superhighway, to my amazement, plants still rose up out of the broken concrete, growing several feet tall, reaching up toward the sunlight. I don't know what kind of plants they were, but they were green and very much alive--alive in a dark, forgotten, and completely unexpected place.
It was a reminder to me of how persistent life is, how sometimes it only takes a little break, a little crack, a few inches of dirt, for life to take root. And so it us with us. God's love is more potent and more powerful than we think. And though we may feel more like the highway overpass than the dark, rich good soil, even so, God brings life in the midst of our brokenness. God brings life out of death--resurrection in the most unlikely of places--a cross and a tomb. Perhaps, then, it should be no wonder that when Jesus appeared to Mary on that first Easter morning, she first thought him to be the gardener. And maybe, just maybe, he greeted her with the same kind of infectious laugh my Uncle George would let loose when he saw us. For if Uncle George was, by necessity, more careful about sowing seeds than the sower in Jesus' parable, he was certainly carefree when it came to love and joy.
Let us pray. O God, we are so quick to judge ourselves and so quick to compare ourselves to others, but your parable reminds us that your Word takes root everywhere in all places, in all people. Help us to see the ways in which your life is taking root in us and to share that life with others. In Jesus' name, amen.