The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 10
July 16, 2017
The Rev. Christine Mendoza
(Church of the Good Shepherd, Austin, TX)
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
Holy Spirit of God, may the refining fire of your love reach into our hidden, inmost places
and make us one Spirit with You.
Good morning! I bring greetings from your brothers and sisters in Christ at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Austin, Texas. My name is Christine Mendoza, and I am joined by my husband, Jonathan, and our daughter, Emma. We are so happy to be here with you for the next two weeks, stepping in for your Rector, Austin Rios, as he and his family are in the States on sabbatical. I am the second of five priests from Good Shepherd and the Diocese of Texas who will serve St. Paul’s over the summer.
Just a couple of weeks ago, my friend, Cynthia, related at story to me about a thieving squirrel in her yard. I haven’t yet seen a squirrel here in Rome, but in Texas, we have tons of them – so many that we call them tree rats! They swipe food that you drop, make lots of commotion and noise during mating season, and even knock acorns on to your head in the fall. Depending on how tall the tree, a falling acorn can be surprisingly painful.
Well, one day my friend Cynthia was working in her study and she looked out the window to see a to see a squirrel running up a tree in the back yard. There had been a lot of squirrels around that afternoon, but she was puzzled when she saw this squirrel holding something pale and the size of a walnut in his jaws. What in the world, she wondered and, after puzzling for a few seconds more, she jumped up and yelled a curse word, which I won’t repeat, and ran outside to her garden.
Sure enough, where just earlier that morning there had been three walnut-sized green tomatoes on her tomato plant, now there was only one. She never imagined that green tomatoes were favorite food for squirrels, or else she would have protected her plants. Disgusted at her loss (2/3 of her crop at the time!), she went inside to get a white bedsheet, and draped it over the tomato cage. Maybe you, too, have had a garden experience where you sow seed—or in my friend’s case, plant a small tomato plant — and the birds carry away the seed. Or one of the Texas armadillos dig it up. Or a squirrel steals the fruit.
Jesus’ audiences knew all about farming, and in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who sows seed in various soil conditions. A priest friend of mine says that he finds it harder to preach about a well-known passage than one that is lesser known. I agree – it can be hard to hear with fresh ears a lesson that you’ve heard so many times before. Of recent times, much attention has been focused on the conditions of the soil in this parable. Wanting a fresh perspective, I did some research and found Verna Dozier, lay preacher and theologian, who once taught that the best question for this parable may be this: “Why do you think it is called the Parable of the Sower?” Ms. Dozier suggested that the world would be a better place if we concentrated on the sower rather than the conditions in which the seed was sown – whether that be thin soil, rocky ground, packed dirt, or soil good for planting. I think this may be very important to keep in mind. Jesus himself named the parable and so let us focus on the Parable of the Sower rather than the Parable of the Four Soils.
C. H. Dodds defines a parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and (this is the part I really like) leaving the mind in sufficient doubt as to its precise application to tease it into active thought.” We are not meant to know, once and for all, what this or any parable means; we are instead meant to wrestle with its meaning. Parables serve to make meaning within each hearer’s particular context and time. We are invited to tease a parable, each one of us, and with the aid of the Spirit, come to an understanding — or not.
To better understand this parable, it may be helpful to look back several chapters in Matthew’s Gospel in order to see what had been going on. After teaching the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been on the move, preaching the Kingdom of God and healing; but there is always trouble, it seems. Jesus heals a demoniac and the people who witness this miracle are afraid and ask him to leave their territory. When he tells the paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven, lawyers mentally question his authority to do so. Then John the Baptizer’s disciples come to ask him why they have to fast and Jesus’ disciples don’t.
And then in the next chapter, John, who baptized Jesus himself and recognized him as the one who is to come, sends a question to Jesus: are you the one, or not? By the end of the chapter, Jesus explodes, saying that if the miracles he has brought about had been done in Gentile cities, those people would have believed and followed him. And then he breathes deeply, exhausted from being rejected and criticized, and from the anger he has expressed, and he says, “Come to me, all whose work is hard, whose load is heavy, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke for it is good, and light to bear.” Our Gospel lesson last week ended there.
But then the sniping continues. Why are you picking grain and eating it on the Sabbath? How dare you heal that man’s withered arm on the Sabbath. You healed that blind man by the power of Beelzebub. Frustrated again, Jesus fires back, Criticize me, but if you criticize the Holy Spirit, you will never be forgiven. Jesus has been faithfully casting the word of the Kingdom, the Good News, throughout Israel, and hardly anyone has received it with joy, not even his own family. Mostly Jesus has heard, Who do you think you are? Discouraged and tired, with sore feet and sunburned scalp, he tells a story about a sower and seeds. And not just one, but three – in a row. In this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus seems obsessed with sowing seed. If he is the sower, he must feel that he is failing.
So, Jesus tells a parable about seeds and soil and a farmer. Because of Verna Dozier’s question, let’s ignore Jesus’ supposed explanation — for nearly all Biblical scholars agree that these words are Matthew’s addition and not Jesus’ — and instead let us focus on the parable itself and on the sower. First, did you notice there is no command in this story? This parable is merely a description of how things are. There is no judgment, no moral, just a statement. Most people do not receive the seed, for one reason or another. Period. There is not even condemnation of the birds who eat the seed.
But what is most notable about the unnamed sower is just how profligate he is. He does not measure and mete out his seed. He not only cast seed on ground meant to receive seed, but also on outlying and inhospitable places where no good Jew would waste a single thought, much less a seed. This sower is like Jesus who healed the demoniac living among the tombs in the country of the Gadarenes. The one who will tell his disciples, after he is risen, to go to the ends of the earth to baptize all nations. Go to the nice and the not nice, to the amenable and the skeptics. Go to Jews and non-Jews…. All we have to do is watch him and be like this sower, not worrying about what kind of seeds we have, as long as they are good news, nor what kind of soil we find as we walk through a day. It doesn’t matter says the master sower. Just sow, sow, sow.
In 1 Corinthians 3, the people of Corinth have been squabbling about whose they are and who brought them to faith. Paul might have been thinking of the Parable of the Sower when he tells them, “What is Apollos? What is Paul?” We are simply God’s agents in bringing you to the faith. Each of us performed the task which the Lord allotted to him: I planted the seed, and Apollos watered it; but it was God who made it grow.
We are everyone of us called to be sowers. If all us were busy sowing the seeds of the Kingdom, there would be no concern about soil. There would be so many seeds that the Good News would choke out the thistles and begin to break down the rock. The wonderful part of this commission, this calling, is that all you have to do is cast the seed, for God will take care of the rest. If you have something worthwhile in your spiritual life, don’t do soil testing. Don’t hoard the joy you have. Just throw it all over your world, and leave the sprouting to God.