Drawn for UKirk Ole Miss; Oxford, MS, August 2017.
Jesus was having kind of a rough go of it when he shared this parable. Earlier, in chapter 12, Matthew describes Jesus being rejected by the Pharisees, and just a handful of verses after this morning’s reading we’ll find Jesus being rejected by his own hometown. I wonder what he was feeling when he told this story of seeds and soil. I wonder what he was thinking, when he “went out of the house and sat beside the sea.” When “such great crowds gathered around him.” Did he get into that boat so they could better hear what he had to say, or did he just want some privacy? Of course I’m just imagining here, since the text doesn’t give us many setting specifics. But Matthew makes one thing clear by situating this parable where he does. Jesus shares these words in response to the people around him not hearing God’s word. In a rather rare bout of actually explaining a parable, Matthew likens the seeds sown on the path to those who hear the word of the kingdom but do not understand. Likewise the seeds sown on rocky ground are those who hear and embrace the word, but who retreat when faced with persecution. Seeds sown among thorns are those for whom the cares of the world are simply too tempting. Being sown in good soil involves more than just hearing. After all, all of four types of seed hear. What Jesus tells us through Matthew next is the distinction. “As for what was sown on the good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields.” Good soil means hearing, doing, understanding and bearing fruit.1 Here, presumably, God is the sower and we are the seeds. Seeds with work to do.
Still, CH Dodd has said that the purpose of parables is “to tease the mind into active thought.”2 So as Jesus used this parable to respond to his own surroundings, what truths might this text speak to ours? Although we are, of course, not Jesus, I’d say there’s illumination to found in the part of the sower. Interestingly, the explanation that Jesus shares in the second part of this morning’s reading is an explanation he only shares with the disciples — not the large crowd gathered by the water. Jennifer Kaalund suggests that this is because the disciples are the sowers.3
Now here we are, sowers ourselves, tasked with scattering God’s word around our world. For these times, there are some things to remember. The sower in this parable doesn’t stop to study the soil before he gets to work. There is no testing the pH of the dirt or laboring to make sure the ground is as well prepared as possible. The sower just sows, without a guaranteed outcome, generously planting seed wherever he can. As Theodore Wardlaw puts it, “the gospel might be bigger than good business practices.”4
In a lot of ways, this resonates with my experience of what it means to do church with college students. At UKirk Ole Miss, we gather each Tuesday evening for dinner and a worship service. While there’s a core group of students that comes regularly, the faces do change a bit, week to week. Some students have had a warm and meaningful life-long experiences with church. Others might not’ve grown up in a community of faith and still others might have been hurt by the church are are somewhere in the middle of finding their way back. My job as the campus minister isn’t to decide which ones are most likely to be future leaders or which ones will turn out to be the most diligent studiers of Scripture. My job — my call — is to say to people who are hungry, “come eat.” To plant seeds that say that grace abounds even in the mess that it is to be human. Young people are constantly encountering uncertain paths to new places. The rocky ground of self-doubt or others’ expectations, and the choking thorns of the pressures they put on themselves. Finding one’s way in this world is quite the undertaking, and we can be quick to think we, as more established adults, have the answers. My prayer for sowers in campus-centered communities is that we might focus on sowing seeds that, at their simplest, say to students “you are not alone as you try and figure all of this out.” Sometimes students might be so preoccupied with classes and internships and other meetings that they won’t actually hear it right then. That they might hear, but not understand. Some might not fill out that survey or sign up for that event. It’s our job to keep sowing anyway.
Writing about the sower in Jesus’s parable, Thomas Long says, “He sows the seed extravagantly, as widely as he can, oblivious to the risks, much as God lavishes mercy upon humanity.”5 Sometimes people will ask me, “so how many people are coming to UKirk now?” We can’t help but be a bit business-minded, wondering what kind of return an organization might show for the contributions we’ve made. Some of the students might be regular church goers when the graduate, but some won’t be. In a shift unique to student ministries, every single year, a quarter of the congregation leaves and is replaced. Of course being responsible with its resources is something every organization should strive for. After all, one of the things that distinguishes campus ministries from more traditional congregations is that our members aren’t the ones financially keeping the ministry afloat. It’s only logical that we land on the question of “how many?” But to those who might be concerned when numbers drop every now and then, I’d say, try not to worry too much.
If you ask me, if even one person shows up it’s worth it. This parable’s sower shows us a picture of generosity, spreading God’s love in the world, without question. I’m not saying that we’ll get this right all the time, but I will say it’s a pretty good model. How might our communities of faith be shaped if our primary goal is simply to share God’s love, no questions asked?
One church with whom I’ve worked shares this unexpected extravagance through breakfast. Each weekday morning for nearly twenty years, volunteers have gathered in the fellowship hall to serve a meal to anyone who comes, no questions asked. Many of these people are experiencing homelessness, but not all. Some are there every morning, while others only need the meal occasionally, in the last days before the next paycheck comes. Of course, there are some complicated dynamics. Church and city clash when people perceived to be unsavory sit on the church steps across from the hotel that so often hosts tourists. Congregation members and breakfast recipients rarely worship together, and eat together even less. Still, tray after tray is filled with bread, apple sauce, grits and a hard boiled egg. Not to mention the nearly never-ending supply of coffee.
Four years of college, in the scale of a lifetime, doesn’t seem long time for sowing. But seeds are planted in even shorter amounts of time. Like the basil seeds I planted on my window sill, once these seeds are in soil, waiting for them to grow is a bit of a mysterious endeavor. You can’t see through the soil, so all there is to do is plant the seed and trust that it will take root. The quick act of planting a few basil seeds turned into the longer-term act of stepping back and really just hoping for the best. (Although, I should admit that when it comes to literal plants, I don’t exactly have a green thumb.)
Coincidentally, just yesterday I wrapped up a week of serving as camp pastor at Camp Hopewell. And if there’s anything that makes me think of planting spiritual seeds, it’s summer camp. Over the years, I’ve spent a total of five summers on staff at four different camps, anywhere among the ranks from counselor to summer director and somewhere in between. With the exception of a few two-week groups or a returning camper here and there, I really only crossed paths with each camper for a week. At every camp there was Bible study and worship, but also the summer heat and homesickness. For just about every camper who was so excited back after last summer, there was one a little overwhelmed by the newness of it all. And every summer, there we were, playing name games and reading Scripture and paddling on the lake wondering what parts would stick. Sometimes you never out. A camper heads home, the next summer you’ve moved on to something else…but that doesn’t mean impact is impossible.
Gary Peluso-Verdend reminds us that the understanding of good soil doesn’t stop with simply saying God is there. “Understanding,” he writes, “does not mean mere acknowledgement. Rather,” he continues, “understanding is insight tied to urgency to act.”6 And while I appreciate many things about Presbyterian governance, urgency isn’t a word I’d necessarily associate with the way we get things done. And there might be times when we do not feel called to be the sower him- or herself. Perhaps we might feel past the seed stage too. What then?
We take care to be the most nourishing soil we can be. Joining together as welcoming, understanding, nurturing soil can in itself be a way to bear fruit. After all, this parable was part of Jesus’s response to his community’s failure to hear and understand his word. All the more reason for us to do our part in creating communities that will cultivate glimpses of God’s grace in the world. We won’t always get it right. Sometimes the thorns will creep in and dust from the path will blur our vision. There’s a lot to distract us out there. And perhaps when we least expect it, in a campus ministry building filled with mismatched couches or a camp chapel that smells like bug spray, something will sprout.
In the midst of it all, this parable is a story about trust. An example that calls us to believe that despite everything in the way, abundance will persist. While there’s some scholarly debate about whether a hundredfold harvest was truly miraculous or just a really good year, it’s clear that even in the face of thorns and rocks and hard-packed paths, there is bounty. It seems like a lot of parables end with inhospitable soil, with reminders of all of the mistakes we humans make. But this isn’t one of them.7 The harvest comes, and there will be plenty to go around. Thanks be to God.
- Eugene Boring, “Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 305.
- J. David Waugh, Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 239.
- This commentary on Working Preacher.
- Theodore J. Wardlaw, Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 239.
- Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 147.
- Gary Peluso-Verdend, Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 238.
- Talitha J. Arnold, Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 240.