Beneath this parable is a bedrock assumption of abundance that we too rarely trust.
There is seed enough to lose, and the God who makes the sun to shine and rain
to fall upon the righteous and unrighteous (Matt 5:45) is indiscriminate
about sharing. Grace is flung and wasted everywhere.
Brian Hiortdahl, The Christian Century06.29.2011
Grace Happens Rev. Catherine Fransson Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 July 10, 2011
Did you, as I, vacation with friends at Spirit Lake at the foot of Mt. St. Helens before the blast? Did you row on the lake, take pictures of her round snowy dome and, seeking shade, hike through venerable old pine, fir and cedar forests? Then perhaps those images haunted us both when St. Helens stirred to life in 1980 in an earthquake, blew a 250 foot hole through her pristine peak, then spewed her whole north side over 200 square miles of grand landscape.
Fifty seven people died. Seven thousand large animals, deer, elk and bears, were killed, and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of small animals died. In one of the nation’s show places, there was devastation of the largest order.
But not so fast. Unknown to us then, vegetation began to recover immediately from the plants that survived the blast and the dispersal of seeds from beyond the blast zone. Scientists were surprised survivors would be so diverse and widespread. They continue to discover many factors that aid the ongoing recovery, beginning with the season the blast occurred, May, when there was enough snow on the ground to provide water to the tiny animals living underground. Yes, the pocket gopher survived. Deaths of cousin animals provided nutrients to the others. Even the wind-blown spiders floating in on the breeze who died provided organic material that supported the life of other organisms and plants. “With what seems like excruciating patience and persistence, nature transform[ed] a desolate landscape into one capable of supporting life.”
Life persists, right? Look at your yard! As silent, mysterious, and hidden is the germination of a seed in the soil, a plant will surely follow. As silent and hidden is the germination of the realm of God, for which the disciples prayed and for which we continue to pray, the kindom will certainly come. Even if the sower, as in today’s case, casts seed upon hard-baked earth, into the thorns and on the rocks, seed will settle, send down roots and thrive. Life persists against the greatest odds.
Missing something? Did you not hear what you often hear in this parable? Whenever I’ve heard it before a small knot in my stomach tells me I am being weighed in the balance and found wanting. Even Jesus explains this parable to show it is the quality of the soil on which the seed is thrown that determines whether the seed takes root and thrives. The point is: is your soil plowed, prepared and ready for the seeds of God? Oh oh.
The image is of Christ casting the seeds of grace, offering life with abandon. Seed falls on the rocks, the path, places it’s never likely to grow. Thorns grow up and choke it. Only part of the seed falls on ground good enough to nurture it thirty, sixty or a hundred fold. If we are the ground, it’s a pretty poor prognosis.
But what of this farmer?! How careless he is! In any other context the point of the story would be his foolishness. Nobody sows seed on a path or rocks and expects it to take root. Even I, only a sometime gardener, know that.
Jesus has to explain this parable, the first in Matthew’s gospel, to the disciples. I speak like this because you are my friends, he tells them, and those others are not. You are blessed to be here with me, and blessed because your eyes see, and your ears hear. We speak the same language. I will tell you what I mean because you have already heard my voice and responded. You have risked everything to follow me.
The disciples may be insiders in Galilee, immediately near Capernaum where Jesus’ ministry is, but even they are not sure they get it. And the gospel writer’s interpretation is but one of many that can be made on this illustration. As we try to understand the open-ended meanings of scripture today, it is unwise for us to settle on any one truth. There are many truths here.
So what about this farmer’s carelessness? Flagrantly ineffective, he sows with abandon, appearing not to notice. Seed is a precious commodity. Those of us who plant, do so carefully, working the ground, preparing it, adding nutrients, water, ensuring the seed will find a home where it can settle in to grow. And yet look what happened at Spirit Lake. Destruction everywhere. The land laid waste. The forest felled over acres of ground. The lake full of trees, rocks, ash; polluted with dead marine life. The area was virtually dead.
There is only so much we can do about ensuring a good crop, protecting the environment from natural cataclysm, but paradoxically, that doesn’t matter. A few verses ahead of these, Jesus explains, the sower sows each day and then goes to bed, gets up and does it again. “Through it all the seed sprouts and grows without the sower knowing how it happens.” (4.27) Paul voices a similar truth in his letter to the Corinthians: I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God gave the growth. (1 Cor 3:6) Is the seed is so potent it takes care of itself? Is God so potent we don’t have to worry?
Admit it, we have little control over the ground. We think we have some over the weather, but that is in great dispute and much of the time, we have little control of ourselves. Even the great missionary Paul confessed he could not control himself. He tried to do what he knew was right, and failed. All he could do was recognize his mistakes and begin again. God has no such trouble. God never gives up. In communities like ours we encourage each other to have our hard places plowed, turned over and loosened up, our rocky places named and removed, our shallowness deepened and enriched…in short, we ready each other to begin again.
Since God is sowing the seed and seeing to the growth, then even on hostile, indifferent and unreceptive ground, the seed will not return to God empty. This is a God who spreads love and life recklessly. As silent and mysterious and invisible is the germination of a seed, so is the growth of the kindom for which we pray. Grace simply happens!
Now, I do believe all things work together for good. But I have as much trouble as anyone discerning whatgood will come of whichthings. And when. Anne Lamott comes immediately to mind…”Grace,” she says, “eventually.” Grace…yes. But not exactly when we want it, and sometimes not exactly what we want.
I need help to live this kind of life: friends, wise mentors, a pit crew. I need time, coaching, practice, and forgiveness. Paul Loeb’s collection of essays, The Impossible Will Take a Little While, details people working small projects against great odds, only occasionally successfully. But Vaclav Havel, for example, believed hope “the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.” Every effort does not have to turn out. Some of what we try to do in our lives, at this church, in our city and our nation, are simply worth doing not because they turn out, but because they make sense, because they are embodiments of who we are and what we believe. “People are often unreasonable and self-centered,” wrote Mother Teresa. “Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway. If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway. For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.” We do what we think reveals grace because it honors our God. And it casts seed on all sorts of unlikely places. Especially on unlikely places and people.
Rachel Naomi Remen, founder of the mind/body holistic health movement, tells of her father who believed his family always had bad luck. Two things: he went bankrupt and she, his only daughter, had chronic illness, so that seemed true. She tells this story: in 1971 her dad won a prize in the New York State lottery…”more money than my dad had ever seen in his life in one place.” He won it when he was in the hospital recovering from the removal of a–benign–tumor. (luck, yes?) He taped the ticket to his chest and declared no one could be trusted to redeem it for him, not any of his friends or family, not even his wife. For a long time he couldn’t even be persuaded to turn it in. As its deadline approached, he convinced Rachel and her mother not to tell anyone, lest they try to take advantage of them if they knew. Eventually he redeemed the ticket, but he never spent the money because he was afraid others would then know he had it.
Remen said she learned more from what he did than what she so often heard him say. Her father created his luck. But even that didn’t prevent her from growing into the intuitive, healing person that she is.
At Mt. St. Helens some plants survived the blast. Some root remnants were watered by the snowmelt. Prairie Lupine was the first to return, taking nitrogen from the air. The northern pocket gopher survived in her dens and tunnels, pulling down the roots of the lupine for nourishment, pushing rich old forest soil up through the ash to create mounds that caught plant spores lofting in from out of the blast zone. Some thrived there. Some died. Others adapted. Today that unbelievable devastation is slowly healing. Earth healing itself. In time earth will heal itself even of nuclear accident…even if humanity as we know it is severely compromised. Earth does not need us. Indeed, it is we who threaten it. If, instead, we plant, and share the watering, God will give the growth.
Grace happens. In spite of volcanoes, typhoons, tsunamis, and wildfire, life persists. In spite of death life persists. God continues to scatter life and love and growth, health and wisdom and patience day after day after day, year after year. Because of that abundance, we know that life begets life.
“If God exists,” writes Sara Maitland, “she exists as a God who wishes to reveal herself; who labours constantly and complexly in her relationships with the creation, both individual and communal, tossing down clues and invitations and introductory notes here, there and everywhere like an ambitious hostess; a God who yearns to be loved and known and engaged with.”
How can we possibly lose?!