Sunday, July 13, 2008

Our "Wasteful", Hopeful God

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 13, 2008
Year A: Proper 10

Genesis 25:19-34
Psalm 119:105-12
(Romans 8:1-11)
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Our “Wasteful”, Hopeful God

Today’s gospel lesson is one of the best-known of Jesus’ parables – the parable of the sower. It’s a well-known parable and it seems from the early church it has been recognized as a particularly important parable. The three synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke all present the parable of the sower as the first of Jesus’ parables. And a good biblical rule of thumb is that order is usually not accidental. Mark, Matthew and Luke all seem to agree that this is a particularly important parable.

Why? What makes this parable so important? Why is it placed first in these three gospels? Well, unfortunately I’m faced with a problem that I’ve mentioned before. I’m sure Jesus’ original audience could easily relate to the details of the parable of the sower. They may not have understood the meaning of the parable, but they could easily imagine the situation. But, what about us today? Having spent nearly my entire life in the city, what do I know about sowers, seeds and planting? The closest I ever get to a farm is the produce section at Shop Rite.

Having said that, I do wonder about the sower in this parable. Doesn’t the sower seem kind of wasteful? Think about the vast hunger that exists in the world today. Isn’t it scandalous to think of a farmer wasting seeds by not being especially mindful about where they are planted? First Century Palestine was not a particularly rich society. There wasn’t much of a safety net. Seeds must have been especially precious. Wasteful planting would have been at least as scandalous then as it would be now.

Yet in the parable Jesus describes the sower letting seeds fall on the path, giving a snack to the birds. Jesus describes other seeds falling on rocky soil or among thorns. Whatever the reality of First Century farming, this is sloppy and indiscriminate.

But of course this parable isn’t an instruction manual about farming. In this parable Jesus is telling us something very important about God and very important about us.

In his most recent New Year’s message the archbishop of Canterbury pointed out that “God doesn’t do waste.” He went on to say that God never gives up on any of us, never throws any of us away, and never sees any of us as waste. Instead, God’s Word, God’s grace, God’s love is poured out on everyone – the good and the not so good, the smart and the not so smart, the nice and the not so nice. God’s Word, God’s grace is poured out on everyone, no matter if our soil appears to be rich or rocky. We might think that God is being wasteful, but God doesn’t do waste. God is indiscriminate. God is hopeful. God is generous. God’s Word, God’s grace, God’s love is being poured out on all of us.

I remember the summer I did my clinical training at Christ Hospital in Jersey City. Most days in the morning I would walk to the hospital and at the end of the day I’d walk back home. Each way it took about 35 minutes. As many of you know, I love Jersey City, but the truth is it can be a pretty gritty place – lots of concrete and asphalt. Over the course of that summer what I noticed on those walks was how many people took the time and made the effort to plant flowers in front of their houses – sometimes in the little scrap of dirt along the curb. In these little plots of land, in this inhospitable place people “wasted” their time planting and tending gardens. In the midst of cars, trucks and buses there were roses, marigolds and hydrangea. We might think that this was a waste, but obviously, they didn’t think that they were wasting their seed or their time. These were people of hope, not waste. These people believed life and beauty could sprout in the unlikeliest of places.

And so in this parable Jesus tells us the truth that God is busy sowing seeds in the most inhospitable places. God is indiscriminate. God is hopeful. God is generous. God is seemingly wasteful. God is out in the middle of Route 24 planting seeds. Not waste, but hope. Not waste, but love.

Because the truth is, you never know which seeds will flourish. This is a lesson I learned over and over during my teaching years. When you teach gradually you learn it’s hard to tell the good soil from the not so good. I remember in my early years as a teacher I’d get fooled all the time. I’d have students who looked clear-eyed and super attentive, nodding at all my insights, laughing at my jokes. In my mind I’d quickly peg them as the “good students,” the rich soil. And then there were others who seemed to not be paying any attention, fidgeting, doodling, not nodding at my insights, not laughing at my jokes. In my mind I’d quickly peg them as the not so good students, the rocky soil, the waste of my time.

You know where I’m going with this. It didn’t take me too many school years to realize, you never know. Pretty often it was the kids who seemed not into class who ended up doing the best work and the kids who were doing all that nodding and laughing – well, that’s all that they were doing – nodding and laughing.

And of course, we also know that seeds take time to grow - sometimes a really long time. There was an amazing story recently of a 2000 year-old date palm seed discovered in an archaeological dig in Israel that scientists have germinated and have grown into a plant – a date palm tree that they have named Methuselah.

How often in our own lives have we planted seeds that take a long time to bear fruit? Those of you who are parents of young children I’m sure hope that all your care and nurturing will show results long in the future.

I remember one birthday, maybe I was seven or eight, my parents gave me a very nice, illustrated Children’s Bible as a present. I remember being bitterly disappointed. I don’t know what I was hoping for – maybe a Captain Kirk action figure – but it wasn’t a Bible. Sometimes it takes a long time for seeds to bear fruit!

Again as a teacher, there have been a couple of times when a former student has gotten in touch with me to let me know that something I said or did in class had an impact on their lives. There’s no better feeling. And it’s always been a student I would have never expected and sometimes a student I could hardly remember. It’s hard to tell the good soil from the rocky soil. It’s hard to tell the good soil from the rocky soil because it’s not about our talents or intelligence – it’s about how we respond to what God offers to us. How do we respond to God’s word, God’s love, God’s grace that is being poured out on all of us? We choose to be good soil or rocky soil.

And our Old Testament lesson offers a great example of seemingly rocky soil producing great fruit. We’ve been hearing the story of Abraham’s descendants and particularly the story of Jacob – grandson of Abraham, son of Isaac and Rebecca, twin brother of Esau. This is what nowadays we might politely call a dysfunctional family. Jacob in particular is not an especially likable or promising character. Based on these early stories, one wouldn’t look at Jacob and see good soil. In today’s lesson we have the warm and fuzzy family moment of Jacob getting Esau to give up his birthright in exchange for a bowl of lentil stew and a piece of bread. Nice guy, huh? And a couple of Sundays from now we’ll hear the story of Jacob tricking his blind father Isaac into thinking he was Esau and receiving his father’s blessing. To be blunt, Jacob is kind of a fink.

And yet the Bible tells us that the Twelve Tribes of Israel rise out of the seemingly rocky soil of Jacob. God is indiscriminate. God is hopeful. God’s Word, God’s grace, God’s love was poured out on Jacob long ago and is poured out on all of us here today.

In the parable of the sower Jesus tells us something very important about God. God word, God’s grace, God’s love is poured out on all of us. God is seemingly wasteful. God is indiscriminate. God is hopeful.

The question for us is how will we respond to God’s word, God’s love, God’s grace, God’s generosity? Will we say no to God and choose to be rocky soil? Or will we say yes to God and choose to be good soil?