Let those who have ears, listen.
A farmer went driving in her tractor – set out to sow seeds. But she drew stares. Her method was – odd, shall we say. Reckless, even – she rode around, not looking, throwing seed everywhere. Over her shoulder, off to the side, up in the air.
Some of that seed fell to the east of here – big houses, all looking the same, falling onto families as they shuttle off from music rehearsal to sports games, to board meetings. Though their busyness made them swiftly moving targets, the seed hit them all the same.
Some of that seed fell far west of here – in small towns, people who believe in guns and agriculture, suspicious of cities and books and government.
Some of that seed fell here in Lawrence, in the student ghetto as undergrads sloshed back their trash-can punch, and some fell in the halls of academia as professors and students chased ideas from books into thesis statements and term papers.
Some of that seed fell far South of here – along borders – on people who are motivated by desperation and hope – on persons with names who are categorized as ‘illegal’.
Some of that seed fell in bigger cities, which feel worlds away – on people speaking other languages, wearing clothing that wouldn’t quite match in rooms like this – and yet who bear similar joys and concerns.
Some of that seed fell in the ICUs of major hospitals – on patients clinging to life, on doctors who operate and diagnose, on families who wait patiently in that thin, holy space between news of life or death.
Some of that seed fell on refugee children – children who run and play and jump and laugh, but whose young lives are already marred by the realities of war and violence and scarcity.
Some of that seed fell on government buildings – on men and women in suits and on cell phones, moving at the speed of business. The seed fell as they made decisions of economy, justice, human rights and development.
Some of that seed fell on the lucky – the people whose lives seem easy – too easy – folks whose cares seem minor to the jealous onlooker.
Some of that seed fell on the unlucky – folks who receive pity upon pity for all their misfortune – unable, it seems, to catch a break.
Some of that seed fell on the stay at home parents, who mend scrapes and kiss bruises, and shuttle families between school and sports and music and work.
Some of that seed fell on working parents who struggle with the pressure to “have it all,” struggling to feel adequate when holding up the world’s measuring stick of success and perfection.
Who is this farmer riding her tractor, indiscriminately throwing seed on all people and all places? Doesn’t she know the ins and outs of farming? Doesn’t she know that she must first inspect the land – and till it – and nurture the soil? What a waste of seed and soil to scatter the seed where it will never grow.
Doesn’t she know? Surely not. Or maybe she does.
Maybe she knows more than the master gardener observers.
Certainly the first century audience had similar trouble suspending enough disbelief to listen to Jesus’ story. Then he gets to the end – and the harvest is equally unbelievable. The harvest that is promised at the end of the parable doesn’t just make for a pretty good year for the farmer. The manifold harvest makes for a downright miraculous year.
Hearers of this story might chalk this up to hyperbole on the part of the story-teller. But for a Jesus who commanded his disciples to cast their nets again, resulting in more fish than they could carry, it’s just the kind of unpredictable thing for which Jesus is known.
Abundance – unbelievable – miraculous – those are our measurements. But notice how thoroughly unsurprised Jesus is – perhaps we ought to recognize this as the abundance that is normal for our God of grace and love.
So maybe the sower doesn’t know what she’s doing – or maybe, just maybe she knows something deeper and truer than we can grasp. Maybe she knows that an abundant harvest can grow just about anywhere seeds are sown.
That doesn’t mean – or guarantee – an abundant harvest everywhere – but it does perhaps mean that we will be surprised where the seeds are thrown and where the plants will thrive. “We may want to entertain the possibility that this sower throws seed just anywhere in order to suggest that ‘anywhere’ is, in the final analysis, the arena of God’s care and redemptive activity.”
We also assume that it is obvious from the beginning which soil was which. What if it hadn’t been? What if this farmer threw her seeds everywhere in order to discover the good soil – to find where the seeds would take root?
Where are we in this parable?
We often think about this parable as though we are the sowers – and treat this as a cautionary tale about picking the best mission fields or target people groups. I believe we miss the point – the deeper and truer point – if we place ourselves as the sower.
Really, we are the soil – but even by that reckoning we aren’t to take this parable and apply it to individuals, groups of people, other nations and try to figure out who is good soil and who is not. Because, if we’re honest, we are always going to find some way to play us vs. them.
We will find a way that we are the Good Soil, and they are the rocks or birds or thorns. The soils aren’t categories – they are ways of understanding all the ways we ourselves respond to and receive God’s word and let it in our lives – or not. Can’t we all identify at different points in our lives ways we grew quickly, but then lost steam, like the seeds who grew in the rocky soil? But I still don’t think the soil is the most important character in the parable.
The story is good news – but the story’s best news is found when the Sower is the focus. The Sower is not us – the Sower is God. The story could really be called the parable of the foolish farmer, because the way God sows is indiscriminate and foolish. God’s word and God’s grace go everywhere – they are for everyone. Not because God is a stupid farmer, but because “One never knows what may come of profligate grace.”
The story is good news because of what we learn about God. While this sower seems reckless and indiscriminate – “what is she doing throwing seed everywhere?” – that’s not the point. The point is – or at least one of the points is – that God – the sower – promises abundant harvest. That God’s promise is Good Soil will be found.
If it were up to us – if we were the sowers – we clearly wouldn’t be so foolish. We are often stingy sowers – not wanting to waste our seeds. We prefer to wait until we are confident – until we can predict, or be sure of a successful outcome. What this story is saying, it seems to me, is that confidence, success, certainty – those are not the point. We wouldn’t be wasteful – our sowing would be measured, budgeted, planned; it would be strategic – and we would consider ourselves Exemplary Stewards. But that’s not how God works. We want to do good business, but the story serves as a reminder that God is the sower – not us. The story serves as a reminder that God is the one who sows goodness out of places only we deem as wasteful or unlikely or undeserving. The strange – but good – news of the parable is that the Gospel is bad business.
What if the sower doesn’t see the soil the way we do- as rocky or weedy or Good? What if all the sower sees is potential? I like to think that all the soil looked a little broken – but the sower trusted and threw the seed everywhere – and surprised everyone when the seeds grew – when the seeds found the good soil.
Another promise that I hear in this story is the good news about our own rocky and weedy soil. It turns out that the sower will reap abundant harvest where we might never plant in the first place – our mistakes and our failures may actually be the perfect Good Soil – the breeding ground for God’s work and God’s word to take root.
Where is the brokenness in our lives – where is the strange and foreign and unlikely of places for the holy to break through? Where do we feel undeserving of God’s grace? This parable seems to suggest that it is precisely those places where the seed of God’s word – God’s love – God’s care – God’s grace will find the Best Soil.
What if we let ourselves be surprised by the moments and seasons in our life that we are quick to label as bad soil – and let God find good soil in their midst? Do we believe that this is possible? Do we believe that God is working for Good – that God is a God in the business of Resurrection and new life?
I know I want to. I want to make the choice to cling to this promise every day. And it is incredibly difficult some days.
Some days I wake up and step out of bed and place my feet on soil so rocky it feels downright dangerous to my frail and feeble bare feet.
Some mornings I walk out of my house and make my footprints on soil that I can barely see because of all the weeds (both literally and figuratively).
And some mornings I walk through my life on the Best Soil – confident and secure in God’s promises and God’s abundant grace.
The parable reminds us that God’s grace is free – but asks us how we will respond. To be sure, much is required of us – how are we going to cultivate our own soil? How will we nurture and care for the seed of God’s work and word?
But we know that the Good news is that it isn’t up to us entirely. And that God will always surprise us with goodness when we have ourselves convinced that we will only and ever be tangled up in weeds or carried away by birds. How do we cultivate our soil? Do we find ourselves seeking God’s face? Are we convinced that we are too busy or too independent for spiritual growth? Are we waiting until we feel ready or until we are guaranteed some kind of success?
The surprising message of this parable reminds me of the truth that all of it is a gift – all of life – even our rocky ground is gift – and we are called to cultivate our soil, and trust in God’s goodness. We are supposed to believe in God’s abundance – in the promise of the harvest. We’re supposed to plant our feel on that soil.
I love this story because it reminds me of one of the things I know for sure. What I know is that God is always a God of surprises – “God is up to a little mischief, giving a winking reminder,” that God is always working for Good and Resurrection.
I also know that God is also always a God of Goodness – with a capital G. A God of goodness is always making things new. Surprising us with Good Soil where we expected rocks, or weeds, or birds.
We hear this parable and we get it: we get that the odds are enormously stacked against the success of the seed taking root. We often feel like the odds are stacked against us – to keep up with life – wondering if we can possibly be the Good Soil for God’s goodness and grow and thrive.
This is true for literal seed-sowing too. Especially if the seed’s success is dependent on me – quite literally – I am terrible at keeping plants alive. Which seems beside the fact, but it isn’t. Just as we act like we are both the sower and the soil, we also act like it is completely up to us. It isn’t. And that’s the reality of God’s grace – God’s surprising and mischievous goodness and newness.
I know for sure that God is a God of Goodness and Surprises because I’ve lived that truth. And I’m grateful for it.
I’m grateful for a God who surprised me by calling me to Kansas – a place I couldn’t have imagined calling home just a short time ago. I’m confident that God is working goodness and newness in this place – in each of our lives – in places and moments and seasons where we would expect and predict the exact opposite.
I’m grateful that the God of surprises surprised me with this congregation – with you – and I’m confident that God will continue to surprise us with goodness breaking through as we are all created and re-created and working to cultivate the Good Soil.
 Theodore Wardlaw, Feasting on the Word, Year A, volume 2, p. 239.
 Russell Rathbun, The Hardest Question, 18, July 2011, http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/ordinary17gospel-2/