Soil and seed

Good morning, Friends! I hope you’re all doing fine today!Good morning, Friends! I hope you’re all doing fine today!Thinking about a story that Jesus told one time. Jesus loved to tell stories!

I wish you could just see the way Jesus told a story. I wish you could see the crowd sitting down by the beach. People were crowding Jesus so much that he had to get in a boat, put off a few yards, and have people sit down all along the beach to listen. I wish you could see it.

Jesus had a way of getting people to understand God in a whole new way. Jesus starts off with something we all know about – seeds. Hands up — how many of you here have ever planted a garden?

Good. So you know what Jesus is talking about. And when we first hear Jesus talking, it sounds simple.

“One day, a farmer went out to plant. Some of the seed fell along side of the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some of the seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was thin. It sprung up, but it couldn’t put down roots, because the soil was thin. And when the hot weather came, it all withered away. 

Other seed fell among the weeds and thorns, and got choked out by them. And some seed fell on good soil. It grew up, and brought back thirty, sixty, or a hundred times what had been planted.”

 – Mark 4:1-9

Anybody who has ever had a garden can understand that story. We know about seeds! Some of us planted marigold seeds in a paper cup, to grow for Mother’s Day when we were kids. Some of us grow things in window boxes. Some of us are even involved with bigger gardens.

My dad always had a big garden when I was a boy. Forty by sixty feet. Some years even bigger. Squash and zucchini and potatoes. Long rows of peas and beans and beets and corn. Tomatoes growing in little cages, to keep them up off the ground. Anybody here done that?

Anybody here ever gone out early in the morning, when everything was all covered with dew, and saw your garden glistening with dew drops in the early morning sunlight? Nothing prettier.

Anybody here ever spent the afternoon picking? Coming in with baskets of produce. Your back aching from bending over. But didn’t that fresh garden stuff taste good? Can’t beat it!

So, “a farmer went out to plant.” Here in North Carolina, that’s a story we all understand. But the shocking thing, is that in the story Jesus told, three-fourths of the seed is wasted.  One part gets eaten up by birds. One part gets withered by the hot sun. One part gets choked by weeds and thorns. Only a quarter, 25%, survives to grow up.

That part of the story always bothers us. Why – if the farmer was even half-way intelligent – why wasn’t the farmer more careful? Who on earth would plant that way? Hey, if we were in charge, we sure wouldn’t be that careless!

This is where what Jesus says stops being just a story, and it starts being a parable. Because now we’re starting to think. What is this story really about? Is it just about a sower and the seed, or is it about something else?

To Jesus’ credit, he didn’t explain the story to the people who were there. He simply said, “If you’ve got ears to hear, use ‘em.”

It isn’t totally clear who the farmer is in the story. Is the farmer God? That sort of rings true, because God certainly does things like this. This story always makes me step back and re-evaluate my understanding of God.

A lot of people think that God is mainly in the judging business. God makes the rules. God puts us here, and then God just waits for us to do things wrong, so that God can jump on us. God is the judge. God is always on our case. God is always right on the verge of being angry with us.Some people really think that way.

But is that really the way God is? Is God a judge. Not according to this story. God is a farmer.

According to the story of creation in the book of Genesis, God created the world, bit by bit, a little each day. At the end of each day’s work, God looked around at everything God had done, and it was good.

Light and dark, skies and seas, earth and life, sun, moon and stars, the whole works. Good. Good!

And at the end of the week, it says God kicked back, laid down in a hammock, pulled the tab on a cold root beer, and looked out at the whole world, and said it was all very good.

I like that picture better than God the judge. I like the picture of God the sower, God the planter, God the one who is always planting seeds, every day.

This story is also indirectly an answer to the question, “Why isn’t God doing all that big stuff that God used to do? Where’s the parting of the Red Sea? What about the fiery furnace and the lion’s den? Why doesn’t God make the sun stand still over the raging battlefield any more? Where’s the earthquake, wind and fire? What about all that flashy stuff?”

Jesus says, “God’s planting seeds. God’s a farmer. God isn’t hiding up in heaven. God’s out there in the field, planting seeds, every day, in season and out of season, on good ground and on what looks to us like barren ground.

Maybe God really knows that the risks are high, that the odds are bad, that not every seed will grow. I think God understands this a great deal better than we do.

think this story says that God is a risk-taker. I even wonder if maybe God likes it that way. I mean, if God were the kind of careful, plan-ahead, no-risk sort of personality that I am, God would never plant anything. Maybe God would just stick plastic geraniums in the ground. God would certainly be a lot more careful to mark out what and where to plant, and God would permanently write off large areas as worthless.

But God seems to be more of a gambler than that. God seems to enjoy taking chances on unlikely soil, on places no one else would take a chance on.

And God seems to be willing to risk precious seed, in a planting pattern that seems almost random and senseless to us. I mean, look at it – three-fourths of the seed is wasted, according to the story.

One of my favorite sayings, which I tell people who ask me why their lives and actions feel worthless, is that “in the economy of God, nothing is ever wasted.”

I don’t think that God is careless. I think that God cares totally about what happens to the seed. I think God yearns and prays and stays up nights, hoping for the seed to grow and bear fruit.

But God also knows you can’t make seed grow, by pulling on it. You’ve got to wait. You’ve got to be patient. That’s life. And sometimes, the seed doesn’t come up. That’s life, too.

Actually, the story never says that God is the sower. That’s one way to hear the story. But it’s not the only way. Maybe the preacher is the sower – sowing the word. Maybe we’re all sowers – maybe everything we do is a seed of some kind.

Every time you tell the truth. Every time you say a prayer. Every time you reach out in friendship. Every time you mend a quarrel, you’re sowing a seed.

Every time you welcome someone. Every time you give a blessing. Every time talk about mercy, not punishment. Every time you let someone know they’re forgiven. You’re sowing the word.

I said before that Jesus didn’t explain the parable, at the time he told it. But later on, in private, his friends asked him to explain. And you get the feeling Jesus was a little exasperated with them. He wanted them to figure it out for themselves.

He said, “Don’t you understand this parable? If you don’t understand this, how are you going to understand everything else I’m going to teach you?” (see Mark 4:13)

Then he told them, “OK. The seed is the word of God. The farmer sows the word. People who hear about the kingdom but don’t take it in are like the seeds that fell along the path. The Evil One comes and snatches away what was planted in them.

The seeds that fell on the thin, rocky ground stand for the people who receive the word gladly, but it doesn’t sink deep into them, and they don’t last long. They’ve got no roots. So when trouble comes along, they give up.

The seed that fell into the thorns and weeds stands for those people who hear the word, but they worry about this life, and their love of riches chokes the word, and they don’t bear fruit.

And the seed in the good soil stands for those who hear the word and take it in; they bear fruit, thirty, sixty, or a hundred times what was planted.”

So, maybe the point of the story isn’t just about the farmer. I think that’s an important point, because this story tells us a lot about God.

But the story is also about the soil. It’s about what kind of people we are. Are we hard-packed, thin, shallow, full of weeds? Or are we deep and rich? That’s an important question. Is God wasting time and effort and good seed on me?

Am I the kind of person who can listen to God? Do I need to get the hayseed out of my ears? Am I so worried, or so focused on other things, that the word of God gets choked in my life?

That’s where I find myself in the story today. I get too busy. And I worry way too much. It’s not that I’m a bad person, but I get overwhelmed by other stuff. I feel as though my inner life gets strangled sometimes. I wish I had fewer possessions and fewer commitments. I wish I had a lot less pieces of paper and passwords to keep track of.

The early Friends used this parable all the time. The Seed was probably their favorite image for understanding God. In one of the earliest Quaker letters, George Fox wrote:

“And all Friends every where, in all your Meetings know and feel the power and the Seed of the Lord God amongst you, over you and in you, and then ye will feel the presence of the Lord God dwelling in the midst of you. And to the Lord your hearts will be brought, and it will bring you nigh unto one another, and to come into sweet love and unity, and into easiness and openness of heart. . .” (George Fox, Epistle 104, written in 1655)

I think that’s what it’s all about. And if that’s not what we’re doing, then we’re doing the wrong stuff. And the sooner we change, the better.

I think there’s probably a lot more we can get from the parable of the sower and the seed. But maybe the best way isn’t for me to keep talking, but for all of us to spend some time in worship together.

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