That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’
So I have a confession to make this morning. I know it must seem like I make a lot of those from this pulpit, but this is church after all, where we make our confessions and hope to receive some grace in return. My confession for this week is this—and I admit this one's a bit overdue, but here goes—I was a TERRIBLE, awful, no good confirmation student. Many of you know that I grew up Catholic, which meant two years of classes, once a week, memorizing stuff I no longer remember. What I do remember about confirmation was that my friends and I were positively awful to our confirmation teacher. The poor guy was a lay member of the church, and I don’t think he signed up for a bunch of 7th graders giving him grief over every little thing, but that’s what he got. I also remember behaving very poorly during church services especially when I got to sit with my friends— but surely none of you know anything about that… right?
In all seriousness though, if I remember much of anything of depth from that time, it was the stories about this man who didn’t seem to care what other people thought of him—a man who went around doing some seriously awesome stuff— like healing sick people that no one else even wanted to acknowledge, or feeding hungry people when his disciples told him there wasn’t enough food, or talking to a hated Samaritan woman as if she was just as good as everyone else. I remember thinking that this Jesus character seemed like a pretty awesome guy, and that I wanted to do my best to be a little more like him. Even in the midst of my bad behavior and my absolute NOT caring about this thing called confirmation class, somehow, seeds got planted.
Fast forward a few years. Confirmation class was over, senior year in high school had rolled around, and things had gotten tough for me on a few levels. The truth is, I was depressed. And the thing about being depressed in high school is that hardly anyone notices, because everyone else is dealing with their own teenage angst and can’t possibly be bothered with yours. But there was one girl—an acquaintance of mine who was sweet but a little bit odd—and well, she noticed. And she didn’t make a big deal of it, but in my senior yearbook, she simply wrote one thing— Jeremiah 29:11. Now, being the Biblically illiterate Catholic that I was, I had some difficultly looking up the reference, but I found it eventually. Jeremiah 29:11 says this: God has a plan for your future. Plans to prosper you and give you hope. Now I can tell you that it was going to be a long while before I started to believe that any of that was really true. But in that moment, seeds were planted.
Now I could bore you with endless repetitions of this pattern— but perhaps you are already starting to get the point. My confirmation teacher would never have pegged me as the preacher type. And if he had, I probably would have laughed in his face. But what he did do was plant a seed. And my friend in high school— had she tried to tell me then that this plan God had in mind would require 3 years of seminary at Yale University, well, again, laughter in the face. But she planted a seed. And now here I am, a fully ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Whenever I think back to how on earth I got to this point, the answer is fairly simple—someone, somewhere, planted a seed. Some of those seeds took years to come to fruition. But they eventually did, likely in ways that those who originally sowed those seeds never would have intended or imagined.
This morning’s text from the Gospel of Matthew is all about planting and sowing seeds. Now, those of you who are into gardening or who know anything about farming may already see the glaring problem with this parable. The sower, as Jesus describes, is clearly a terrible and foolish farmer. After all, what kind of farmer would take his precious seeds—the very foundation of his livelihood—and scatter them indiscriminately over roads, rocks, and thorny soil? Wouldn’t it make more sense to sow the seeds only in the good soil—the soil which would have been painstakingly tilled and meticulously prepared in order to ensure against any of the seeds going to waste? And yet, the sower in Jesus’ parable seems to take no heed of where he scatters the seed. He is downright careless—reckless, even—when it comes to where he sows. And you can be sure that Jesus’ audience would have picked up on this. Jesus did most of his preaching in the rural villages and towns of Galilee, which meant that most of his listeners would have had at the very least, a basic understanding of common agricultural practices. And therefore, most of them would have heard this parable and scratched their heads in confusion. “What kind of farmer in his right mind behaves in this way,”they might have wondered. But herein lies the beauty of parables—the way they can take even the most obvious and conventional wisdom—and turn it completely upside down.
Now it’s not hard to pick up on the metaphors in this parable. The seed is meant to represent the Gospel, and the different kinds of soil represent the ways in which people respond to the Gospel when it is shared with them. All of that is pretty straightforward. Where the parable starts to play around with conventional wisdom is when it comes to how the seeds of the Gospel are actually shared. It is not with calculated precision or careful judgement of the recipient. It is not based on caution or practicality or the intent to achieve the most efficient results. Rather, the seeds of the Gospel are shared, in the words of preacher Barbara Brown Taylor, “with a kind of wasteful and reckless abandon.” The sower scatters the seeds in any and all directions trusting that somehow, each seed will end up exactly where it needs to be.
I can’t help but think that when it came to that 7th grade confirmation teacher, for the longest time, I had it all wrong. You see at the time, and for many years afterwards, I thought he was kind of a fool for trying to get a bunch of unruly middle schoolers to care about faith, religion, or church. I bet a lot of other people thought he was foolish too. He probably had friends who thought he was wasting his time. Maybe even he felt that way that sometimes. But in hindsight, and in the light of this parable, perhaps he held a kind of wisdom and faith that we could all use a little bit more of. Perhaps he understood that he was only planting the seeds—and it was up to God to make them grow.
And so it is for all of us. Brothers and sisters, we too are the sowers, and we too are called to sow extravagantly, perhaps even a little bit foolishly and recklessly. To share the good news of the Gospel—and to share God’s radical love and grace—without careful calculation or strategic precision, without an aim towards efficiency or high yield results, knowing that all we can do is plant the seeds, and have faith that God will tend to them in God’s way and on God’s time.
Now I realize this is easier said then done, because the truth is, we like results, don’t we? We want to see the fruit of our labor. If we do a good deed, we want to be rewarded for it and we want to see good come out of it. But sowing the seeds of the gospel doesn’t always work that way. We may plant the seeds of faith in the hearts of our children, for instance, and we not see them embrace their own spirituality until they themselves become adults with children of their own. We may plant the seeds of hope in a troubled loved one, and it may take years of struggling and painful mistakes before they finally find their way forward. We may plant the seeds of peace and justice through advocacy work, community outreach, or simple acts of compassion and kindness, and the truth is, we may never know the full extent of the good we’ve done. One simple act of kindness towards a stranger may alter that person’s life intensely, but we may or may not be privileged to see it. I say this as someone whose life was altered tremendously by one person’s small act of kindness. Years later, when I spoke to this acquaintance of mine from high school and told her about the impact she’d made, she didn’t even remember that she had given me such encouragement. She didn’t have any idea that she had helped plant a seed that would alter the course of my life. And so you see, we may never know the impact that we have. Sometimes, I suspect, it’s not for us to know. It’s for us to have faith that the seeds we sow today will be nurtured by God tomorrow and in the days to come. It’s not for us to judge whether the state of someone’s heart is rocky, or thorny, or fertile ground. It’s just for us to share the good news of God’s love and trust in God to do the rest— to take our little seeds of faith, kindness, and generosity and transform them into something more beautiful and powerful than we could have ever intended or imagined.
So the question for all of us this morning is:what seeds will you plant today? What seeds will you plant this week? Brothers and sisters, go out into the world and sow generously, recklessly, and even foolishly. Trust in God to do the rest.