On a Parable of Possibility
July 16, 2023
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!
“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word
and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Today’s sermon is titled On a Parable of Possibility. There are a few things I have to make myself do. Exercise is one of those things. I walk. It doesn’t sound very exciting and that is precisely why I choose to do it. I walk fast but compared to other modes of transportation, walking is slow and it feels safe to me, but my favorite thing about walking is I have the chance to feel like I am just part of the landscape, moving through like just another animal. I walk the
same route Monday through Friday. In the wintertime, I walk a large field across the road from my house. In spring, summer and fall, I walk along dirt roads and paved roads near my home. Early this spring, along a stretch of paved road, I saw a spring of green coming right up through the pavement about ten inches in from where the pavement met the sand. The sprig of green was not coming up through a crack, either; it appeared to be coming up through a hole. I was sure
that it would not make it very far.
Every day I saw it (I could not miss it, this little oasis of green in a sea of gray) and soon it was distinguishable as an ash tree seedling. It grew from 3 inches to 5 inches to 7 inches before the top of what could have become an enormous life form could no longer be sustained and it began to curl in on itself. It seemed like a miracle that it grew for a couple of weeks without being knocked down by the wheel of a car. On my way into work today, I stopped my car and got out to see if I could find where that little ash had sprouted. Sure enough, I found the small hole, about the size of a dime, and I stood there for a few moments, my heart filling with admiration for the tenacity of such a tender life form that grew in such a harsh environment, despite all the odds against it. I admit that, standing there on the roadside, I felt a little ashamed at having so little faith that it would survive from one day to the next.
Perhaps I was trying to protect myself from disappointment, keeping my expectations low, playing it safe. Sound familiar? This is a common way to go through life, so common that we may not realize what we are doing. We may not realize what we are missing, either. The prophets can teach us a thing or two about taking chances, about daring to keep our expectations high. We heard a bold assertion from the book of Isaiah this morning. The prophet claims, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have
watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” My word shall not return to me empty; it will accomplish and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. The commitment, the confidence, the faith expressed in those words brought me to tears this week. I am so in need of that quality of clarity and assurance. Our world is so in need of that quality of clarity and assurance.
In our reading from Matthew, a similar message arises, but before the message is given, the scene is described. The scriptures say, “…Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables…” Over the next few weeks we will be considering some of these parables and I hope that we can retain this image of a gathered community of seekers, standing expectantly on the sandy shore while Jesus, from a boat, is teaching them. They are not in the temple, they are not pressed together in someone’s
home, they are in the outdoors, under the sky, by the waters. It is here that Jesus offers what may well be one of the most beloved images of God, God as the sower of seeds.
This image has inspired artists over time. Jean-Francois Millet, whose work greatly influenced Vincent Van Gogh, created a series of images of how he imagined the sower [image is included below]. In 1850, Millet’s painting titled “The Sower” “aroused a storm of controversy” because the painting was interpreted as a heroic portrayal of a peasant in a time when the French bourgeois was in too precarious a place to have the underclasses encouraged by such a confident looking subject they might identify with. Fear colors everything, does it not? In studying about this painting and its artist this week, I learned “for Millet, the subject expressed profound personal and religious beliefs.” In the painting, the sower strides confidently across the sloping field, one arm holding the grain sack close, fist clenched in a protective gesture while the other arm is extended to its maximum reach, hand full of grain that flies from it indiscriminately. The gaze of the sower is not on the seed itself, the gaze of the sower is on some distant point, perhaps some point in the future that only the sower can imagine.
So for all the talk of rocks and thorns and hard-packed soil in our scripture today, it is the image of a sower that looms large in my mind and heart. This sower has not only an abundance of grain but, even more importantly, the confidence and foresight reminiscent of a prophet who is willing to take a chance and sow seed where it may not flourish. It is not the immediate result
that the sower is focused on, it is that distant point we can not yet see. What an image of God we are offered here today! God as sower, indiscriminately casting seeds far and wide and on good soil, rocky soil, thorny ground and the compacted soils of well-worn paths alike.
I see parts of myself in the description of these varying substrates. I know all too well that there are the well-worn paths that I have traveled along for so long that I am loath to venture off of them. Some of these pathways were walked by my ancestors, even. They are familiar and
well-marked; I know them well for they are constructed of my knowing, my beliefs, my opinions, my experiences, my identity, my ego, and my history. These pathways are so
well-traveled and so compressed that it is almost impossible for something new to sprout and take root. Fear sometimes causes me to trample the seed underfoot, making it even more difficult for change to even have a chance.
Just off the pathways are areas of rocky soil, too, places where a seed of change may have a chance, even if it is a slim chance, like that ash seedling I walked by all spring. The rocky soils have boulders large and small, some moveable, some not. In between, where rain and wind and freezing and thawing have worn the rocks into soil there are places where a seed may find nourishment enough to grow. Thorns take root there, too, and threaten to overtake, to overgrow, to overshadow and to overcome. My thorns are things like self-doubt and worry. What are
yours? I imagine we all have good soil, too, soil that has been through enough grief and heartbreak and joy and wonderment that it is rich and deep ready for just about anything.
Through these parts of us the sower travels and casts the seeds with unshakable confidence, somehow knowing that, in the words of the prophet, “it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” And just as the sower in Millet’s painting does not focus on the seed itself, but on some point in the future, we are reminded to do the same.
In closing, I hope to carry with me the feeling of possibility that this parable offers. The sower is not saving seed for only the good soil, the sower is casting seed across the landscape of our lives, without discrimination and with full confidence that something wonderful will take root and grow. So may it be. Amen.
God of wholeness, I thank you for the power of love that dissolves the boundaries between us. I thank you for sending Jesus and all the divine wisdom he embodies as a radical example of a higher love, a deeper acceptance, and a commitment to service that we can always find ways to more fully emulate. Free us from our tendencies to limit, to judge, to exclude. Remind us, Lord, of the ways of Christ and help us to not be discouraged by the limited awareness that surrounds us in humanity, but rather empower us to look for the best in ourselves and the best in others. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
I leave you with the following words from Isaiah 55 that we heard this morning: Go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.