I should preface this sermon by saying that I am perhaps the least qualified person to talk about planting or gardening of farming or anything else to do with seeds. I have quite the opposite of a green thumb; I can kill plastic plants. And yet, we’ve been dealt this parable today about a sower and soil and seeds and growth and I’ve got to make sense of it all. So, here we go.
You know how the story goes. A sower sows seeds. Some seeds fall on a path, some fall on rocky ground, some on thorns, and some on good soil. And then you know how the explanation goes. The good soil represents those of us who hear the word of God, understand it, and bear fruit.
You know the story, but my guess is that you know it too well. You know it so well that you forget to ask the obvious question: Why in the world does the sower, who, unlike me, supposedly knows what he’s doing–why does he spread seed on places where he knows it won’t grow–like the path, the rocks, and the thorns? Why does he waste his time and energy and seed on presumably “bad soil”? Why is he so reckless? I don’t know a lot about gardening, but I do know, from our short stint of gardening ourselves, that the quality of the soil makes a difference. I remember, for example, adding bags of clay breaker to the red clay of our backyard, and the advice of at least one person to add crushed egg shells to the soil. This sower seems not to heed any type of gardening tips, but rather haphazardly tosses his seed.
Instead of assuming this sower is ignorant, however, I wonder: Could it be that the sower knows something that even the most experienced gardeners among us don’t?
Several years ago, I participated in an event here in Charlotte called the Charlotte Creek Releaf, sponsored by the Charlotte Public Tree Fund. On a Saturday in the fall, hundreds of people got together to plant trees. What’s interesting about this event is that we didn’t plant trees on what was considered to be the best land. We planted trees in floodplains. The soil was rocky with broken concrete mixed in it. But the people who know more about trees than I do say that when you can’t use the land for anything else, you can still plant seedlings in it, and they will thrive. Or at least certain kinds of trees will thrive there.
Is this more in line of what the sower was thinking? Not that only the so-called “good” soil is the only soil worth cultivating, but that even the so-called “bad” soil has some potential. Maybe the indicator of good soil is not so much the soil itself–the ph level or the nutrients in it. Maybe the indicator of good soil is whether or not you give it a chance, and whether you plant the right kind of seed. We’ve all seen pictures of that lone tree whose roots find a home in the crack of a rock. That rock is good soil–for that one tree.
The seed in this parable represents God’s word. There are a number of reasons the sower, whom we might understand as God, can be so reckless with it For one, the word of God, the grace and mercy offered through Jesus, is so abundant in this world that no matter how much you sow, you’ll never exhaust, or even diminish, the supply. You can’t waste God’s word.
Another reason God can be so reckless with God’s word is because God never underestimates the potential for growth in even what we might consider “bad soil.” God’s word has the amazing capacity to take root in all sorts of places and adapt to its environment. God’s word can be relevant anywhere. In fact, I’m convinced that if God’s word can take root in my heart, the sometimes selfish, jealous, sinful, self-deprecating bad soil that it is, then God’s word can take root anywhere. In may look different in your heart than in mine; it may bear different fruit, but it’s God’s word at work, just the same. God’s word can grow with the wealthy and with the poor, in prisons and in country clubs, in megachurches and in small mission starts, and everywhere in between, in the United States, and in West Africa, and in Central Asia.
The soil, though, however it may be composed, still needs cultivating.
That’s where you and I, and the global church and our local congregation, play a role. In fact, that’s what makes our work incredibly exciting–especially our work together as Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. For if God’s word can take root anywhere, then we start seeing potential for growth everywhere–within our own congregation of Holy Trinity, at Merry Oaks School, in West Charlotte, where there’s a new Lutheran mission start, among the homeless and refugees of our city. You name it–there is potential for growth in God’s grace and mercy.
Next month, I will be attending a training sponsored by the ELCA on the topic of congregational vitality. The dictionary describes vitality as “the state of being strong and active; energy” and “the power giving continuance of life, present in all living things,” as in “the vitality of seeds.” I am expecting this training to equip me with tools and resources that will help our congregation to both plant and look for growth of the seeds of God’s word. This is exciting work, for it is participation in God’s work, and since we can’t underestimate the potential for growth with God, even in what we might think of the worst of soil, it means we’re in for some pretty life-giving surprises.
When I think of that sower, spreading the seed so recklessly, I actually think of the dog my family had while I was growing up. He was an outdoor dog and we had a carport at the time where my parents stored a bag of birdseed. You can see where this is going. One day the dog got into the birdseed and tore open the bag. Do you know what you get when you cross a reckless dog with a bag of birdseed? You get a surprise sunflower garden growing in your backyard. The dog had strewn the seed all over our back yard, and after a while we began to see unfamiliar plants sprouting in a strange pattern. Curious as to what it was, we just let it grow and mowed the grass around it. Sure enough, we had five and six-foot sunflowers growing in our backyard in a very unusual shape.
When God’s word grows in you–when you grow in faith, hope, and love, you can’t help but rip the bag open and sling God’s word as far and as wide as you can.It’s that good. God is that good. And though I am still relatively new here, it is my job to tell you: God’s word is very much alive in this place. It has taken root here. There is vitality here. This congregation is alive–with faith, hope, love, grace, mercy–however you want to understand it. Why would we not want to spread that in a wider circle, and as recklessly as possible?
There is soil out there waiting to be cultivated. Part of the joy of growing with God is spreading God’s most loving word, expecting growth to sprout, anywhere and everywhere, and then, by God’s grace, discovering it and rejoicing in it when it does. So, get ready. We’re in for a wild ride with our reckless God, full of surprises. Amen.