By The Rev. Sherry Deets
5 Pentecost, Proper 10 – July 13, 2014
“Let anyone with ears listen”. The verb “to listen” is in present tense. To hear God’s Word is not a one-time occurrence but an ongoing characteristic of discipleship. Listening is essential to discipleship. The story line in our gospel today is simple enough. A sower goes out to sow, and casts seed so that it lands in four kinds of places, with four different results. The seed that lands on the hard path is eaten up by birds. The seed that lands in rocky soil grows up only to wither. The seed that lands among thorns grows up, but is choked by the thorns. But some seed ends up in good soil, and brings forth abundant grain.
“Let anyone with ears listen”. What did you hear? Where are you in this parable of the sower? Better yet, when and how have you felt all of these responses to God’s word? So the story of the sower demands our attention. What are we to make of it? Is it merely a simple story, or does it offer something more?
Robert Farrar Capon [Capon discusses the Parable of the Sower in his Parables of the Kingdom (Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 61-86.] is an Episcopal priest, a theologian, and handy enough in the kitchen that he’s published a cookbook.
Capon claims that in this parable the sower is God the Father, and the seed sown is the Word of God, Jesus himself. The parable then supports the belief that Jesus is everywhere in the world already. The task of discipleship, then, is not to take the Word where it is not, but to find that Word in all the places where it is, like an unending treasure hunt.
Capon also proposes that the parables of Jesus, and this one in particular, insist upon four important aspects of God’s kingdom. He calls these characteristics catholicity, mystery, actuality, and last but not least, hostility and response. These characteristics are what make the parable of the sower a challenge to the first disciples and to us. They make this treasure hunt something that perplexes and fascinates.
Catholicity refers to what is universal. When Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God, he proclaims its catholicity: that it is at work everywhere, always, and for everybody, rather than simply in some places, at some times, and for some people.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the story of the sower. A sower goes out to sow, and he tosses the seed in every direction so that it lands in every possible place.
The landing places represent every kind of person, every sort of human situation. There’s no way for any of us to opt out of this story.
This story is about everybody. It suggests that everybody has at least a chance at the kingdom. This catholicity, this universality, sounds great until we see that seed can land in the places we consider beyond the boundaries. We can feel sideswiped by the outrageous hospitality of God.
The second characteristic of the kingdom is mystery. So often we expect God to come on with Fourth of July fireworks. We want God to be obvious, unmistakable, punishing bad people and rewarding or at least rescuing good people (ourselves included). We want God to behave like any comic book superhero. But the way of God’s working to which Jesus points is different from that.
The sower sows the seed. And do you know what? That seed disappears. It literally goes underground where nobody can see it. To all appearances dead and buried, it sprouts, and becomes what its original size and shape would never suggest.
How strange! We want the kingdom to come in a way that’s noisy and noticeable, and what do we get? Jesus talks to us about seed. Then he becomes one. Into the earth he disappears. He’s dead and buried. Then he comes to life unexpectedly as the bumper crop’s first installment.
The third characteristic, actuality, is especially troublesome. The sower doesn’t just think about sowing the seed, or imagine it, or worry about it, or anything else. He sows the seed! Through the wide world the sower goes, casting seed every which way.
Whatever happens to a particular seed, it is still good seed. Its operative power remains unimpaired, like those seeds that sprout after spending thousands of years inside an Egyptian tomb. If there’s a problem, it’s not with the seed. The power of life is present there all along.
Jesus remains Jesus through his passion, death, and resurrection. The seed never becomes less than itself. The word is not unspoken. Our salvation is something actual.
The last characteristic is hostility and response. The point here is that hostility is real: the seed-eating birds, the oppressive sun, the choking thorns are not fantasies. What Jesus dies on the cross is a real death. But all this is turned away from its hostile intention to serve the purpose of God. We call the day of his demise Good Friday.
It is the Word alone, and not the resistance to it, that finally matters. The harvest is sure to happen. Our spot may be barren, but there’s a wheat field on the way. The only question is this: Will we obstruct growth on our own spot of soil, or will we stop blocking our life, and let the harvest happen to us?
We do ourselves a favor by letting the harvest happen. It is the kingdom of God. It is not something we do, yet it grows in the soil we are.
There are, then, four characteristics of God’s kingdom.
First, catholicity. The seed’s been scattered everywhere, and who knows where growth may happen.
Second, mystery. The kingdom doesn’t hit us over the head, but creeps into our hearts and our circumstances.
Third, actuality. The redeeming Word is never unspoken, but remains present, come what may.
Finally, there’s hostility and response. We’re not here to earn gold stars, but to respond to grace by bearing fruit.
If Christian discipleship is indeed a treasure hunt, then here we have clues for the game. The kingdom is hidden, yet everywhere.
It is not a possibility, but a reality. It is not something we earn, but something we welcome.
We can keep our eyes on the bare spots in our lives and other people’s. We can fixate on disaster and sorrow. We can focus only on the infuriating birds who eat up seed, or the dead, withered plants, or the ones choked by thorns and weeds.
Or we can open our eyes to the harvest. Not just a little local harvest, but a universal one.
The wondrous growth–thirty, sixty, even a hundred times the return on investment–this happens not just inside the church or among Christian people. It happens here and there, in countless places through the wide world which God loves. It happens wherever anyone acts from a sense of mercy, justice, compassion, love. This wondrous growth happens whenever relationships are mended, wounds healed, hope restored.
Today’s gospel celebrates one of the most overwhelming aspects of God’s nature — abundance. The very existence and creation of everything, us included, demonstrates God as the ultimate giver. So awesome is God’s ability to do this, that even in the midst of broken lives and broken dreams, we humans can experience this abundance; God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness.
We trust in his promise to be with us to the end of the age. Amen.
The text of this sermon is the property of the author and may not be duplicated or used without permission.