Have you ever watched a farmer or gardener as he planted his crops at the beginning of the season? It is a meticulous process. First, the ground has to be prepared. Weeds have to be pulled, perhaps a little top soil or fertilizer needs to be put out. The dirt has to be loosened and tilled, and rocks have to be removed. Once the ground has been prepared, the farmer or gardener must prepare the rows in which the crops will be planted. Finally, the planting begins. The gardener gets down on his hands and knees with a trowel and carefully puts each seed an appropriate depth into the ground before covering it over again with dirt. The farmer goes through much the same process, except perhaps with a piece of farm machinery doing the majority of the work. In either case, planting seeds is a careful and thorough process. And once the seeds are planted, the work still continues. The seeds have to be watered. Weeds have to be pulled to keep them from choking out the plants. Animals and bugs have to be warded off. And if all goes well, the gardener will enjoy a bountiful harvest as the season progresses.
So it goes in the business of farming. These days, farmers and gardeners go to great lengths to ensure that no seeds are wasted. It is quite the opposite picture of the sower in Jesus’ parable we heard just a few moments ago. Here, the sower follows the practice of farmers in Jesus’ day, who spread the seed first, and then plowed the ground. Whether or not the seed grows, as Jesus tells us, depends simply on where the seed happens to fall. It is a powerful parable that carries with it two messages for any and all who will hear and understand.
Of course, one message of this parable is the explanation offered by Jesus, in which hearers of the kingdom message are compared to the different soils on which the seed is sown. We will focus on that message in a moment, but first I want us to explore together another message of this parable, and that relates not to the soils, but to the sower. You may or may not be aware that this parable is known by two names, "the parable of the soils," and "the parable of the sower." There is a good reason for that; as much as there is a message about the soil in which the seed is sown, there is also a message about the one doing the sowing.
As we think about the work of the sower in Jesus’ parable. Remember again, the task of the gardener described at the beginning of this sermon. He works diligently in one area to prepare the soil for planting. And then he plants there so that, hopefully, no seed is wasted. It is what any responsible, economically-minded gardener would do, right? But in those concentrated efforts, think of all the soil that didn’t receive any seed; that never even had a chance to produce a harvest!
Jesus intends that as we hear this parable, we will understand the Sower to represent God, or perhaps even Jesus himself. And the seed, of course, is the promise of God’s kingdom. When the sower throws out that seed, he does not know the quality of the soil on which it lands, he just throws out the seed indiscriminately. He seems willing to just fling that seed anywhere. Why would God do that? Maybe he does so to remind us that the gospel might be bigger than just good soil. Maybe the sower throws seed just anywhere in order to suggest that "anywhere" is, in the end, the total arena of God’s care, God’s activity; what we call God’s kingdom. This sower throws seed not only on good soil, like the diligent farmer, but also amid the rocky, barren, broken places, so all might know that God’s vision for the world often takes root in strange and even broken places.
A fellow minister tells of his visit to a juvenile court and detention center. Listen to his story:
"That place was so depressing, its landscape marked by wire-mesh gates with large padlocks and razor wire wrapped around electrified fences. When the doors clanged shut behind us, I imagined how final they must always sound when adolescents--children!--are escorted there. We were led, floor by floor, through this facility by an amazing young judge who worked there. She showed us the holding cells where the new inmates are processed. She showed us the classrooms where an ongoing education is at least attempted. She showed us the courtrooms where cases are prosecuted.
"Near the end of our tour, she led us down one bleak hall to give us a sense of the cells where young offenders lived. Each cell had a steel door with narrow slots about two-thirds of the way up, through which various pairs of eyes were watching us as we walked down the hall. Some of these children were accused of major crimes; some of them were repeat offenders. Most of them, we learned, had had little or no nurture across their brief lives--not from a primary adult who cared for them, not from family, not from neighborhood, not from church. It was hard to notice those eyes staring through narrow slots without doing something." He says. "So I lingered at one door and whispered to one pair of eyes: ’God loves you.’ The eyes did not appear to register much, and sometimes I wonder what, if anything happened next. Did that news fall on the path to get eaten by birds? Did it fall among thorns to get choked out? [We] will never know."
I imagine we could all agree that a juvenile detention center doesn’t exactly seem like the best place to be "sowing seed." But that is why we must explore this story as the "parable of the sower." This sower is not so cautious and strategic as to throw the seed in only those places where the chances for growth are best like our modern gardeners and farmers. No, this sower is a high-risk sower, continually and indiscriminately throwing seed on all soil--as if it were all potentially good soil. On the rocks, amid the thorns, on the well-worn path, maybe even in jail!
So, here’s the lesson from the "parable of the sower." Even though the parable puts God in Christ Jesus as the sower, as Christ’s Church today, we are to continue his work. Whether preacher, evangelist, missionary, teacher, or lay person, we too have seeds to sow. And if we start to get picky about where we’re putting that seed, we may very well miss some wonderful opportunities, some places where God can work even in unexpected ways. The sower doesn’t know in advance what is beneath the soil’s surface, where the ground is hard, where the soil is shallow, or where weeds will choke. Neither does the church nor anyone in it know the quality of the soil before sowing. It is the purpose of the sower--the preacher, teacher, apostle, missionary, evangelist, the church to simply be out in the world sowing seeds...everywhere!
And that brings us to the "parable of the soils," and the other important message of this one parable. Sowing results in some disciples. The "parable of the soils" (hardened, shallow, thorny, and good) serves to remind the church of the necessary conditions for the growth of fruitful disciples. In order for disciples to grow, they must understand, be attentive, and persevere; the harvest of which will be another disciple of Jesus Christ, another sower sowing seeds in the community and around the world.
When we open ourselves and our minds to the message of Jesus Christ, we can come to a place of greater understanding. It is like we are creating a space where the seed of God can be planted in us and not be snatched up by birds coming along the path. In the same way, when we are attentive to the seed of God’s kingdom planted within us, we will water it regularly with His Word, with worship, and study, and prayer. And we will pluck away the weeds of the world that come into our lives and seek to choke out the fruits of God’s kingdom. These are the things that make "good soil." Followed persistently, these are the conditions under which God’s seed can take root and grow in each of us.
And in the concluding explanation of this parable, Jesus tells us that seed sown in good soil will have miraculous yields. So, as we talk of being persistent in understanding and attentiveness so that God’s seed can grow in us, we must also realize that the yields of God’s harvest are so miraculous because, ultimately, all growth comes from God. Faith is a gift from God, and fruitful discipleship is the work of God in us when we open ourselves to him. Though God seems to scatter the seeds only and not tend to them, that is not the case. Like the attentive farmer who prepares the soils and then plants and waters and weeds until the harvest, God the sower spreads his seeds far and wide, and through his unconditional love and prevenient grace cares for each and every one with the hopes that it will take root and bear fruit.
So here is where this all comes together. One of the signs of fruit in our lives, one of the greatest signs that the seed of God’s kingdom is growing inside us, is that we are out in the world scattering the seed of God’s Word everywhere (everywhere), indiscriminately, and extravagantly. If we are truly Christ’s disciples, then like the sower in the parable, we go out to sow the seeds through which God will work in the people of this world. And if we are not doing this, then it is just as if our seed has been plucked up by a bird, or scorched by the sun, or choked out by weeds and thorns.
How does your garden grow? Is the soil bad? Or are you cultivating a place where the seed of God’s kingdom can take root and bear a fruitful harvest? As we tend to the soil of our lives, may we also see that what we do has ramifications for the whole world. For God needs us out in the world, out there, sowing the seed of God’s kingdom all around!