Sowing Surprising Abundance

The 6th Sunday After Pentecost, July 12, 2020

Proper 10A: Matthew 13:1-9,18-23; Romans 8:1-11



One summer when I was a child of maybe ten or eleven, I got interested in gardening. I wanted a little space to grow something. Not vegetables like my grandfather with his legendary tomato castles and massive zucchinis, and not the beautiful flowers and other ornamental plants of my mom’s garden. But plants that had caught my eye over time and interested me in some way. For some reason I chose two plants: California Poppies, the state flower of California, I knew, and what are called money plants (I still don’t know their proper name). I only knew that the latter produced beautifully round, silky, translucent coin-like…flowers? pods? with a single seed inside.[1] I think I’d seen them in a friends’ mom’s garden. So someone helped me buy packets of seeds, my mom let me till a small section of her garden, and I planted them in a few rows, the way I’d helped my grandfather plant carrots, except alternating: one row of poppies, one row of money plants, etc. That soil got hot and dry, so every day I’d try to water them. Before too long, I excitedly noticed that little green tendrils of poppies were coming up. This encouraged me to water them almost every day. They got bigger, and they may even have bloomed at some point—I can’t actually recall. I didn’t notice any progress with the money plants, however, which was disappointing. I couldn’t figure out why. At some point during the summer this little garden project ceased to hold my attention and I moved on. It faded out. It had been an intriguing experiment.

This morning our passage from the Gospel of Matthew features Jesus’ famous parable of the sower. It is the first of several parables we will hear over the next three Sundays, using this form of story-telling not simply to tell but to evoke in some sense what the reign of God is like. In her commentary on Matthew, Anna Case-Winters notes that the Greek word sometimes translated as “kingdom” basilea, is derived from the verb basileuo, I rule or reign. For this reason, she finds the translation “the rule or reign of God” – using English nouns that preserve their own verbal origins – more true to the original than the noun “kingdom.”[2] This verbally oriented noun also suggests that God’s reign is characterized by actions and patterns more than the notion in the word “kingdom” of a static place, a kind of land in which to arrive. So, as Jesus’ parable this morning conveys it, the reign of God is like the action of the sower, abundantly flinging seeds in settings that are variously receptive. Jesus’ description of this sowing reminds me in an odd way of a grass seed spreader we had years ago in Massachusetts when I actually tried (for a brief period) to help the paltry grass in our yard grow. The spreader was like a mini green wheelbarrow or a baseball field chalker that sprayed the seed ahead of me as I walked. Only, in my minds eye, as I hear Jesus’ description of the sower, it’s as if I’d left the garden and started walking the seed spreader up the street, down some stairs, through a parking lot, a playground—wherever! Predictably, some of those places would be more hospitable to the seed than others. Grass could grow out of the cracks in the sidewalk or other pavement, but probably not too well. Birds could have a field day eating the seed left to dry in the hot sun (this can happen on lawns as well-- I can remember actually looking out the window and observing the birds eating my grass seed and thinking, this is completely futile). Some grass can grow reasonably in well prepared, abundantly watered areas… such as golf courses, as opposed to yards. The parable evokes God’s reign through a combination of abundant seed flinging and receptive or inhospitable growing sites.

The parable’s explanation then turns our attention to those sites. As it happens, biblical commentators tend to suggest that these explanations are less original to Jesus than the parables themselves. The parables in their own right have an evocative, multivalent, often surprising quality that the explanations can sometimes flatten, shifting the parable in this case to an allegory with a bit less flexibility than the original.[3] Our parable’s explanation also places emphasis on human agency in the process of receiving and cultivating the seeds – or falling short in our response. So the seed sown on a path only to be eaten by birds is akin to “hearing the word of the reign but not understanding;” the seed sown that grows without deep roots on a rocky path is like not being rooted enough in our faith and commitment to withstand difficulty; and the seeds sown among thorns evokes the impact of the good news in a life that is overcrowded with various pressing distractions – the cares and delights of the world, as the passage puts it (Mt 13:19-22).

It is easy enough to hear this explanation as a description of four different “types” of people, three of which are failed in some way, leaving us hoping we might somehow be in that fourth, proverbially “good soil” group. If we’re clear we’re a mixed bag, however (which, frankly, I think we all are), I think that way of reading is more likely to rebuff us than to invite us to go deeper. What if it’s not so much about rocky, rootless, scorched, thorny, choked people, versus goody two-shoes, good soil people? What if instead we hear these various scenarios as different moments and seasons, different struggles over the course of a lifetime? What if this parable and its explanation can help us name how, at different moments in our lives we are more or less able to let God in, more or less able even to perceive that God is present with us in the midst of whatever may be going on?

My mom once reflected to me about an insight that came to her decades ago, early in the time when she began navigating her chronic illness. It was fascinating to her who showed up in her life, who came to visit or help in some way. People she did not expect to do so, came and sat with her, brought her things, helped out in some way. She was really surprised and touched. Others whom one might have assumed would show up did not. What she learned through all of this, she emphasized to me fairly recently, was not that some people are really there for you while others let you down. What she really learned is that when people step forward, show up, do things, they do so because they are in a time in their lives when they actually have the capacity to do that. The people who can come will come. The point was respect for people’s capacity, for people being where they are and dealing with whatever they may be dealing with. It’s a refusal of a framework of judgmentalism and scarcity. And it’s also a mindset, or heart-set, of faith that while some may not be able to respond in a given time or context, others are and will be. There is a sense of openness and abundance, that the seeds of care and possibility will not finally be squelched. Like the various scenarios of the sower’s seeds, I think we all find ourselves at different points in time more challenged, more or thorny or arid, less able to respond to a new possibility, not as able to make room for it and to grow into it. At other points are hearts are more spacious. We sense something afoot, we pay attention to it, we nurture and water it. We see what grows. Faith, embodied in our care for one another and in our actions, following a Christ who bound up the broken-hearted, who cared for the sick, who clothed the naked, who uplifted and gathered in the lost, is offered to us, inviting us in abundant possibility and deep freedom.

The Holy Spirit has a key role to play in this framework, this ongoing cultivation. Here in this season unfolding from the feast of Pentecost several weeks ago now, we are invited to open ourselves to the work of the Spirit. In his letter to the Romans, which several of us discussed in our adult formation in June, Paul emphasizes the role of the Spirit in gifting us with a sense of freedom. The question to ask ourselves is on what we have “set our mind,” what is framing our way of walking around in the world. So much imagination and possibility is squelched when our framework is overly ruled by the world as it is, what Paul calls a framework of “death.” Yet, as Paul declares in his second letter to the Corinthians, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (1 Corinthians 3:17). When we open ourselves to the Spirit, we fundamentally reframe what matters in our lives and in the world in which we live, the world we impact by our actions. We paradoxically yoke ourselves to a freedom beyond our capacity to understand it. And that freedom changes us. In 2 Corinthians Paul continues, “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). The Spirit has the capacity to transform us more gloriously into the very image of God in which we were made. The Spirit has the capacity to enliven our very bodies, to redeem the world we live in, a world so crushed by the pandemics of disease and racism, a world so filled with hopelessness and despair. We may feel overwhelmed by it all. We may feel utterly unable to imagine how to join with God in transforming the massively unjust structures of this world in which we are embedded. We may just in our own lives feel unable to see how to do any more than to put one foot in front of the other. Yet even now, we are invited to hear, the seeds are being sown. The possibilities for joining God in manifesting that just and joyous reign are abundantly being scattered. If we have been feeling overwhelmed, lacking in capacity to make a difference, the point is not to become paralyzed with doubt and judgment. The point is to open ourselves to the Spirit’s freedom. The point is to honor and deeply respect the movement of that freedom, the just reign of God that calls out to be nurtured and tended in solidarity. We are invited in this moment to consider prayerfully how we can open ourselves to the Spirit’s intervention and allow the Spirit to shift us, to be present to us, to allow us to see what we are not seeing, to perhaps open up possibilities even when things seem impossible or overwhelming.

Back in that corner of my mom’s yard, the scene of my early gardening efforts, other larger and more glorious plants ended up there some time later—hydrangeas, I believe—and I didn’t think much of it. Except one day, years later, when I was in high school, I made my way to that part of the garden to work on a photography project. I had an assignment to capture the play of light and shadow, and I was photographing a spider web. At some point I noticed something else capturing the light. It was a small, translucent coin-like petal. A money plant. Actually several. I was astonished. Somehow, even though they hadn’t taken at the time I’d planted them, they’d later found a way, reseeding themselves every year. I went inside and told my mom and we both laughed. Years later when I was visiting her from Massachusetts, they were still there! I clipped some “coins” and brought them back to plant in our Medford yard, along with some California Poppies. They did take, though the poppies did significantly better, so much so that G used to call them “the California side of our yard.” The little coins proliferated enough that I could save some and I have them here now, in an envelope in the garage, waiting to be cultivated here sometime in the days or months to come. I consider this little gardening experiment to be one small, somewhat quirky way of cultivating the capacity to be surprised by the reign of God. It is one practice among many others, a way of seeking to be open to the Spirit’s wild cultivation, and to joining others in that activity, in large ways and small. Our call is to be in solidarity in various ways with all who would seek to transform this world, to reflect the beauty, and the deep, just, joyous freedom of the God who created it. May we all be so invited this morning and in the days to come. Amen.

[1] I now know their Latin name is Lunaria Annua and they actually have several seeds inside, not one, as a photo I found later made clear! [2] Anna Case-Winters, Matthew (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 175. [3] Case-Winters, 175-176

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