I trust Jesus with a lot of things, but I’m not sure I’d trust him with a farm.
“Listen!” Jesus says at the start of our passage. And Matthew says “He told them many thing in parables.” This begins a stretch in Matthew full of parables with today’s parable of a sower who goes out to scatter seeds.
The parables of Jesus point to something eternal and grand: the Kingdom of God – or the Kingdom of heaven, in Matthew’s gospel. But in describing something seemingly so far above our heads, Jesus never asks us to take our feet off the ground. In describing the otherworldly, Jesus never asks us to leave our world. In pointing to the extraordinary, Jesus uses the most ordinary of elements: bread baking in your oven, or roads you’ve traveled, or the fields you work in every day.
That’s how Jesus worked in the world. That’s how he works, still. He never told people to go someplace else to experience the kingdom. He didn’t tell them that it was found in things external to their own daily lives. Instead, he said the Kingdom is near to you, even in the most ordinary things like seeds and soil and sowers.
But parables are also full of moments of surprise. Jesus takes these seemingly ordinary situations and inserts twists and turns of extravagance, abundance, even disbelief. As the parables scholar C.H. Dodd once said, he wanted to “tease the mind into active thought.” Jesus knew that we are narrative creatures, who love story. Stories can become portable, carried away with us and sometimes carrying us away.
Roger Shanks has studied story as a communication strategy and its effect on people. His book Tell Me a Story is about how narrative is part of what differentiates humans from other beings, and in it he observes this about story: “The more work your story requires from a listener, the more effective it will be.”
Jesus’ stories ask us to work. They are surprising, confounding, even frustrating or offensive sometimes, so they ask us to engage. To walk away with the story hanging in our ear, and working in us and on us, causing us to bring it up later, all the while passing the truth of that story around the pathways and people of our lives.
So you can imagine these first listeners walking away from Jesus scratching their heads, or laughing to themselves, and wondering about a father who would throw a party for a wayward son, or a Samaritan who would be so benevolent toward an enemy, or a sower who would scatter seed to the wind and then find a harvest a hundred-fold.
Because that’s not how farming works.
Rolf Jacobson, biblical scholar, shares about his brother-in-law who is an engineer with John Deere. He has the job that every kid wants. I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that my kids don’t want to play with little pulpits or preaching robes, but with tractors on the playroom floor. And this engineer works at the forefront of farming technology, where everything is driven to make sure every single seed is planted perfectly. The latest planters actually slow down each seed with a puff of air to make sure the seeds settle on the chosen ground, not rolling out of the furrow as they’re planted. Every advance in mechanization is meant to provide more precision.
My dear friend Courtney Allen, a pastor in Richmond, recently shared how in her home of the Mississippi Delta, her uncle farms with a technique known as “precision agriculture” – or site-specific farming – where GPS technology gives farmers the ability to work with acute focus and efficiency. Rather than fertilizing or watering the entire field, they now have the ability to fertilize and water the areas of the field that most need it. One resource on precision farming explains, “Where farmers once treated their fields uniformly, they are now seeing the benefits from micro-managing their fields.” They even have the ability to do GPS soil-sampling from which soil maps are created showing the “fertility variability” of the different areas of the field down. These maps allow farmers to make decisions about where to plant and where to avoid planting down to a square inch of soil.
We can look out or own windows today to see how the most efficient management has led to a tremendous yield in our Friendly Garden at First Baptist. Our Community Garden Coordinator, Scott Lyle, has told us of the careful process of amending the soil, discovering the latest technique, maybe gained from the latest YouTube video, so as to maximize the resources without waste and produce the most possible to share with our community, including incredible numbers so far this year.
While they lacked the same technology, ancient farmers listening to Jesus were just as committed to efficiency, if not more so, because survival was wrapped up in seeds. The seed would be carefully hand selected from the best of the previous season’s seed. It would have been carefully stored and protected from damp conditions and insect infestation. After tilling the soil and preparing it for sowing the sower would have waited for the the optimum weather conditions and then on the right day gone out to sow, making wise choices about where to sow, hoping to be blessed with good weather and even a little fortune.
Because in any age and era, farmers don’t depend on miracles. They plan ahead, they micro-manage, plowing, irrigating, and fertilizing so as to minimize waste and maximize yield, sowing with as much precision and efficiency as possible.
But the farmer in Jesus’ parable is nothing like that. Not at all.
If Jesus understood smart farming, he didn’t seem to practice it or encourage it. “A sower goes out to sow,” he describes, setting up the tale of one who is soon casting seed here and there – no care for wind or birds or rocky ground. No regard for the expense of the seed. No precision or planning. Seed scatters widely and indiscriminately on all kinds of soil – the rocky, the thorny, the dry and arid alike. No regard for soil maps and no sense of micro-management, only careless, macro-scattering even in places not optimal or ideal. And the story asks to believe that still this seed finds good soil and produces a crop 30, 60, 100-fold. Outrageous.
No one scatters seed so recklessly, and then receives a return. But this farmer does.
And the surprise of that – the outrage of that – tells us something about the Kingdom toward which this parable points us.
The way of the kingdom is you scatter seed. You open your hands. You extend your arms.
In this story, God blesses this farmer beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Normally, the farmer who reaps a twofold harvest would be considered fortunate. A fivefold harvest would be a cause for celebration throughout the community, a bounty that could only come from God to be shared with all. But this seemingly careless farmer who, in a world of scarcity and expense, casts his seed on soil everyone knows is worthless is blessed by God in shocking abundance: a harvest of thirty, sixty, and a hundred times what he sowed.
It’s seemingly so reckless, outrageous, wasteful.
It’s as wasteful as a father who is said to have thrown a lavish, expensive party after welcoming back his wayward prodigal son.
As careless as a shepherd who left ninety-nine sheep in order to search for the one that was lost.
It’s as outrageous as a person who invited his friends to a great banquet and, when they refused, told his servants to go out into the streets and invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind into his feast.
Is it waste. Or is it the deeper truth that God acts as though the most precious things are are available without limit?
No one scatters seed so recklessly, throws parties for Prodigals so extravagantly, invites any and all to the table, welcomes strangers so freely and indiscriminately. But this God does.
So often, we sit around measuring soil, carefully digging rows, creating the optimum setting and waiting for ideal weather, conscious of limitation and risk.
We micro-manage the field and wait for the best possible conditions, while the seed sits in storage somewhere.
We don’t sow places where there’s little chance of longterm success, or where our return on investment won’t be so high.
We don’t want to waste on the thorny or downtrodden, the hard and the dried out.
But God is nothing like that. Not at all. God opens God’s hand and extends God’s arm casting to the wind seeds of love that settle into every crack and cranny of our world.
These listeners gathered around Jesus needed to hear this, as outrageous as it sounded. I can imagine the moment when they realized what it meant for them. And they needed that word of hope during tough times. They were trying to believe in the Kingdom that Jesus promises, but they looked around and, despite some momentary flashes, there wasn’t much evidence of a coming kingdom to earth as in heaven. The world was at war with itself in the very places where we see so much turmoil today. Caesar’s systems were oppressive and unfair. Hunger was a problem for many. People with serious illness faced uncertain futures. Religious factions were in conflict with one another, and the disciples were wondering if their community of faith – and with it the hope of the kingdom – would survive all the pressures of the world.
And to this tiny, overwhelmed, exhausted, dried up group, Jesus tells of this extravagant, giving God, whose love knows no bounds, who sows seeds in the most unlikely places, and who promises that a harvest will come.
This week, as I mentioned, I had the opportunity to preach at UniDiversity Youth Camp, casting out into the large Cox Auditorium of UT these sermons on the themes of Advent: hope, love, peace, joy. it was an incredible experience, but you never know where it will land. Especially given the conditions of a cool, dark auditorium with comfortable chairs filled with teenagers that have been staying up late and using every ounce of energy for the range of camp life.
One night at the close of worship, a young man came up to me during communion as I stood against the wall. “Can I talk to you?” he said. “I just wondered, when did you know you wanted to be a minister?”
And in that youth camp auditorium, suddenly I was transported back 20 years to a similar room and a similar question I asked of my youth minister, standing at the front.
“Well, bud,” I said, “I have to say it started on a night a lot like this.” And we shared together and prayed together, only beginning to dream of what will grow in his life. Or in any of our lives when a seed reaches us.
You have no idea what will happen. You can’t plan it. You can’t measure its returns. You can’t scrutinize the soil. Because God has enough to go around. And God is a tireless sower of seeds, scattering it even in places that don’t seem safe or sure to us. Places like our own lives.
And when it reaches us and we meet a God like that it can start to change the way we see ourselves. We start to imagine that we can even live so freely. We can extend our arms, open our hands, sowing love anywhere and everywhere, without condition or careful plotting, all the while believing in a harvest yet to come.
Reflecting on this remarkable passage this week brought to mind a story told by Tony Campolo in his book, The Kingdom of God is a Party.
Campolo, the sociologist and preacher from Philadelphia, had traveled to Honolulu for a speaking engagement. Jetlagged in his hotel in the early morning, he wandered outside and around the area and ended up sitting at a diner counter with a donut and coffee, talking to the short order cook. Around 3:00 the empty diner began to fill until it was finally maxed out with customers. All women. After a few clues from the cook, Dr. Campolo realized he had stumbled upon the early morning hangout for many of Honolulu’s sex workers.
Next to him at the counter, Campolo heard one woman tell another, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’ll be 39.”
“And what do you want from me?” her friend asked sarcastically. “You want me to get you a cake? You want a cookie? You want a party?”
The banter continued, but it sparked an idea, and after they left Dr. Campolo talked to the cook, Harry. He learned the woman’s name was Agnes. That she came into the diner every morning around the same time. Campolo conspired with Harry and made plans to throw Agnes a birthday party the next morning.
The next morning the place was filled with creye paper and streamers and balloons and a cake that said “Happy Birthday, Agnes.” Word of the party spread, until the place was filled with friends. Agnes entered. She was completely stunned. As the group sang “Happy Birthday Dear Agnes,” a friend had to help her blow out the candles, she was so emotional. Just as they were about to cut the cake, she stopped them. “I’d like to save it, if that’s okay” she said. And she got up from her stool, took the cake, and left abruptly.
There was an awkward silence. Surprise as everyone wondered about Agnes. Watching her go, Dr. Campolo was moved to pray for her. He invited any who wanted to to pray as they joined hands and prayed for Agnes and that God would be good to her. At the close of the prayer, the cook, Harry, barked: “Hey… you never told me you were a preacher! What kind of church do you belong to?!”
In a moment Dr. Campolo describes as complete clarity when just the right words came, he said, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry scoffed, “No you don’t. There’s no such place There’s no church like that. Heck, if there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that.”
I think I’d join that church, too. Because it would be filled with people who have learned this way of the sower, opening their hands extending their arms and casting the grace of God widely into the world.
I probably wouldn’t trust that church with my farm. But I might just trust them with my life.