Walking alongside the portion of Jennings Creek that follows the greenway, I began to notice the creek bed, just a quarter of a mile back was flowing with water, now looked rocky and dry. The large limestone rocks looked as if they hadn’t seen water in days. And yet, just a little way downstream, the water of this small creek flows as it makes it way to the Barren River. Each time I walk with my dogs by this creek, I pay attention to the terrain; noting the dry, rocky places and the places where the water stands seemingly still, and the places where the water seems to be in a rush to get to the river. Though the terrains all look different when they are taken individually, they are all part of the same creek; all differing parts of the same whole.
Yesterday while walking along this creek, I was reflecting on the gospel passage for today. The terrains that Jesus mentions in this well-known parable are not that different from those found at Jennings Creek. And not unlike the way that I observe and take in the way the terrain shifts and changes along the creek, I often feel myself pulled anytime I hear this parable to focus on the terrain. Whether my focus is on myself or on the experience of others, this parable often elicits for me a deep sort of introspection. Am I the right kind of soil? Am I doing enough? What if the roots aren’t as deep as they ought to be? What if there are too many thorns in my life and the word gets choked out? In short, I find this parable to not be a source of comfort about the beauty of God’s kingdom, but often an anxiety-inducing criticism of being the right kind of Christian.
And as we round the corner on four months of Church at Home, I looked up the lectionary text for this week, and I gave an audible and palpable sigh, because I wasn’t sure I had it in me to be challenged and to challenge us to collectively consider what type of terrain we are at the present moment. Throughout the past two weeks, the Nave has been undergoing preparation for our second phase of reopening, A Good Place to Say Your Prayers, which Father Steve sent a letter about out this week. During this phase, folks will be able to reserve a time to come and pray in the Nave; we know that you miss your pew as much as we miss you being in it. Bur part of that preparation has meant that all the prayer books and hymnals have been removed, there are not visitor cards in the pew in front of you, and Rick and Linda Mitchell have moved their elaborate audio-visual set up, which has literally been a gift from God throughout this season, out into Surface Hall, so the Nave feels emptier than ever.
And to be quite honest, to be forced to take stock of what kind of soil I am these days forces me to admit I’m tired and dry. Perhaps I had such a visceral reaction to Jesus’ telling of this parable, because I knew that if I was forced to look at what sort of terrain I am right now, I wouldn’t like what I would see. Perhaps I felt such a resistance to this story about what the kingdom of God is like because I so often read it with tunnel vision that focuses on how to be “good enough,” how to be who I want to be, without realizing that no soil, no terrain is fertile all the time. Perhaps I felt such inner resistance because when I hear this story of what the kingdom of God is like, I immediately rush to the result of the seeds and the planting, and fail to focus on the sower.
The sower, unlike the various terrains, doesn’t waver. While a temptation of this parable might be to focus on the four terrains that Jesus lays out and to find out where we fit, almost like it’s a pop culture quiz, the invitation that I hear today is to pay attention to the sower. And I’m most indebted to writer Debi Thomas in this, because as I mentioned, when I read this lectionary passage I was not enthusiastic. Yet when I read her grace-filled, passionately hopeful perspective on this passage, as she invited me to look at the sower, I began to weep. I wept because it is a time of high anxiety, as we face a potential resurgence of COVID cases, after a long few months of doing our best to flatten the curve, and I think we’re all tired. In preparing a sermon, I often read many sources and perspectives to try to hear where the Spirit might be calling me to preach, and her work always is a highlight of this research, but I think this week’s hit me so hard because rather than forcing me to take a long look at what type of soil I am, she invited me to see that the kingdom of God in Jesus’ parable is not just about the soil and the seed and the harvest, it’s also about the extravagant sower. To quote her directly:
Consider again the actions of the sower as Jesus describes them: The sower goes out to sow, and as he sows, the seeds fall everywhere. Everywhere. Imagine it — a sower blissfully walking across the fields and meadows, the back alleys and sidewalks, the playgrounds and parking lots of this world, fistfuls of seed in his quick-to-open hands. There is no way to contain that much seed. No way to sort or save it. Of course it will spill over. Of course it will fall through his fingers and cover the ground. Of course it will scatter in every direction. How can it not?◊
She goes on to remind us that the extravagantness of the sower is not about ignorance or a lack of awareness about where seeds might grow, but that God is the giver of all good gifts, and that God gives with abandon. In the kingdom of God, one does not have to prove to be worthy, to prove to be the “right kind” of soil to receive the gift, but rather God is aware that all the different terrains are part of the whole. That the birds eat the seeds that fall on the rocky places, that time can eventually wear our thorns down so that the seed can begin to grow. And to quote her again,
How I wish seeds of love, mercy, justice, humility, honor, and truthfulness would fall through our fingers in such appalling quantities that even the birds, the rocks, the thorns, and the shallow, sun-scorched corners of the world would burst into colorful, riotous, joyous life. In this time of sickness, scarcity, anxiety, suffering, and loss, what does the world need more than a Sower who is lavish? A Sower who errs on the side of wastefulness? A Sower who’d rather lose a bunch of seeds to inhospitable terrain than withhold a single one? ◊
In a week where the invitation to look at the terrain seemed a little too heavy, I’m grateful for faithful voices like Debi Thomas who help draw my heart to the truth that this parable isn’t about getting it right, but rather that this parable is about the good news of the kingdom of God, and the good news of this parable is that God’s grace is spent with abandon from a lavish sower, and when we follow in the footsteps of the sower, we, too, will plant the seeds of the kingdom soon to come.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on July 12, 2020 via livestream for Proper 10A on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23