“Listen, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprange up quickly, since they had not depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”” Matthew 13: 3-9
Have you ever wondered what you would do without rummage? Just imagine with Hangers would be jammed into your closets full of clothes that were out of style and no longer fit you. Shelves would be overflowing with shoe boxes and old scarves and the many T shirts we all accumulate every year. You would still be hanging on to the sweatshirt you bought at the Cubs game that time you went when the temperature dipped to 61 degrees. Then the basement would begin to bulge with the bookcase with the broken shelf you took out of your office and the overstuffed chair that no longer matched your new family room sofa. Boxes of discarded kitchen utensils and old cookbooks would be jammed into the corners of the garage along with the three your children have now outgrown. The attic would be filled with old pillows and worn out bedspreads and quilts and the first fake Christmas tree you bought 15 years ago. If you never gave anything away to rummage the upstairs halls would fill with old toys and faded curtains and the living room would look like a furniture warehouse. In other words your house would become so cluttered with the old stuff that you couldn’t even make your way from the bedroom to the bath. Lucky for us we have rummage. It encourages us to literally dig through our lives. It forces us to sort through and clean out and give away. It makes us dig through the stuff of our lives and decide what we really need and want and what we would just as soon live without. It makes us look at all the things we should have never bought as well as the things that have been well worn and well loved. To me there is nothing like the feeling of shedding myself of all kinds of things I don’t need or that aren’t useful to me any more. It makes me feel calm and centered with my priorities in the right place.
Most of us, at one time or another, choose to, or are given the opportunity to do some metaphorical digging through our lives as well. It might be an unresolved conflict with a sibling or a boss who intimidates you or a general sense of sadness and disappointment with your life that encourages you to dig deep. We dig in order to know ourselves better, to examine our motives, or to face our strengths and weaknesses. As we dig we find things we had forgotten about ourselves and things we regret ever accumulating as part of us. And as we dig we prepare the soil of our lives by weeding out, and turning over hard ground and removing the stones that are in the way for the seeds of new life and new faith to grow in us. When we dig we also prepare ourselves for something new to grow in us.
Steve Hoopes’ Care Page entries have been like a daily devotion for many of us over the past few months and one of the entries is the best way I can think of to illustrate the value of digging into your life. Steve writes, “I had difficulty sleeping last night. I was remembering when I was Ashley’s [his daughter) age. I was living with my mother and my brother and a number of intermittent “uncles” in an apartment complex that had an outdoor swimming pool. The pool personnel gave kids swimming lessons during the day in summer, which was a poor excuse for babysitting. It was a challenge to keep the younger kids interested, so they devised a variety of games to keep the kids in the pool. On a couple of occasions, the instructors threw coins into the pool and encouraged the kids to retrieve them. They threw pennies into the shallow end, nickels into the middle, and dimes into the deep end to bribe the kids to practice swimming underwater while holding their breath. As I lay in bed last night and pondered this memory, it occurred to me that in a lot of ways, it parallels our experience of grief. If you try to push grief away, handle things yourself, just swim along the surface, there is very little for you to find of value. You have to hold your breath at times, commit to grief, and dive deep to find the hidden treasures – the Blessings – that God has hidden there – like courage, strength, friends and faith. The trick, so it seems to me, is fighting your way back to the surface, out of grief and back into life again, and to still hold on to those blessings.” Going deeply into his life Steve found seeds planted by God to nourish him in difficult and painful times.
The story of the sower and his seed is one of the many parables that Jesus told. Parables are somewhat like the game of shedding light. They are riddles that conceal as well as reveal. Jesus uses this mysterious way of communicating throughout the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. A parable is simply a comparison, a putting of one thing beside another to make a point. A parable makes you stop and think and wonder. At first the story may briefly appear to be obvious but then with a little digging you realize that the point of the story eludes you. And that is the point – to make you struggle for an explanation that works – that is airtight – but you can never quite make it work. Matthew 13 is about what most people call the parable of the sower. But it could also be called the parable of the seed or the parable of the soil. Even Jesus’ explanation leaves us with questions and that is what a parable is supposed to do. Beverly Gaventa writes that Jesus’ “interpretation of the parable by no means answers the questions the parable poses. Who is the sower in the parable.”? Who is the seed? “And the most uncomfortable question: Where might we be among the seeds that have been cast across the landscape? Or in this parable are we the soil, hard, rocky, weedy or rich and ready for producing a good harvest.
The 1st century farmer in Israel would, between November and January, scatter seed in his fields and then plow or hoe to bury it. The farmers knew, just like many of you gardeners, that without careful planning and proper follow through, their fields would probably perform poorly. Today when a farmer cultivates the soil he loosens and aerates the soil, which in turn facilitates the deeper penetration of roots into the soil. This helps in the growth of microorganisms and worms present in the soil which helps to maintain the fertility of the soil. It helps in the mixing of organic matter and nutrients evenly throughout the soil and it is used for destroying weeds. Farmers back then, as today, would have been careful where they scattered the seed in order to avoid wasting it. But the farmer in Jesus’ parable literally threw caution to the wind and tossed his seeds generously everywhere with the hope that, no matter where some of it landed, it would produce what he needed. So some seed fell on hard ground where it just sat on top of the soil ready to be picked off by the birds. Other seed fell in areas where the soil was very thin and could not sustain quick, new growth. Seeds also fell into areas where weeds, the gardener’s enemy, grew up quickly around the seed and kept it from getting the sun and air and space it needed to grow. But other seed fell on good soil, soil that had been prepared, where it was nourished and grew into a larger harvest than the farmer could ever expect.
In an article in Christian Century Bradley Schmeling tells how he walked for miles through Atlanta, breaking in new hiking boots in preparation for walking across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago. Often walking on broken sidewalks he kept his eyes carefully on the path to avoid twisting an ankle or stepping into a hole. With the parable of the sower in mind he began to wonder how he could tell which soil was good, which was rocky and which was filled with weeds. “Beautiful flowers pushed their way through cracks in cement, for example, their beauty an example of God’s handiwork in a city of concrete….The city terrains were mixed together in marvelous interrelated patches of fertile and questionable soil….Growth was happening in every corner of my journey.” Schmeling goes on to reflect on the soil of his own life in comparison to Jesus’ parable. “It struck me that my inner terrain was more like the patchwork terrain of my hike than the neatly differentiated terrain in the parable of the sower and the seed. My life is filled with patterns that are so well trodden, overlapping and sun baked that it’s virtually impossible for the seed of the [God’s] word to take root. I’m often afraid to let new growth occur on those well-traveled tracks, lest I be forced to build a whole new path. I’ve got weeds of fear and doubt that choke out the most hopeful messages planted by the most determined sower. And it would be embarrassing to list all the different faith practices that I’ve been excited about and then abandoned – the latest prayer beads, icons or meditative texts.”
Rumi, the 13th Century mystic and poet said, “If you don’t plow the earth, it’s going to get so hard nothing grows in it. You just plow the earth of yourself. You just get moving. And even don’t ask exactly what’s going to happen. You allow yourself to move around, and then you will see the benefit.”
If we choose to take Rumi’s advice and plow the earth of our lives, just what is it that God wants to grow in us? There once was a CEO of a successful company who was ready to retire. So he called all the executives of the company around him and told them that he had decided on a plan of succession. He would give each one of them a seed which they were to go home and plant and cultivate for a year. At the end of a year they would all bring their plants back to the office where he would judge them. Whosoever’s plant he chose would be the next CEO of the company.
One of the executives, Jim, took his seed home and excitedly explained to his wife what he had to do. So she helped him get a pot and some soil and fertilizer and they planted the seed with great hopes that it would grow into a gorgeous and healthy plant. But day after day, week after week, month after month, despite watering, fertilizer and good sun from an eastern window and tender loving care, nothing grew. All they had was a pot of black soil.
At the office Jim heard all the other executives talk about how their plants were growing and becoming lush and beautiful. Jim couldn’t understand why his just wouldn’t grow. After a year the CEO announced that it was time for everyone to bring their plants back to the office, and Jim knew he was doomed. He told his wife he couldn’t take in an empty pot, but she encouraged him to be honest about what had happened. So, feeling somewhat sick to his stomach, he took his empty pot into the office.
When he got there he saw that all the other executives had brought in beautiful plants that had grown tall and full. The others all laughed at Jim’s empty pot. When the CEO entered the office he looked around and seeing Jim, standing in the back with his empty pot, asked him to come up to the front where he declared that Jim would be the next CEO. Everyone was stunned. It didn’t make sense until the CEO explained that he had given everyone a dead seed. So when everyone brought in a beautiful and flourishing plant, he knew that they had substituted another seed for the one they had been given. “Jim was the only one with the courage and honesty to bring in a pot with my seed in it,” The CEO announced. “Therefore, he is the one who will be the new Chief Executive!”
“My struggling faith,” continues Schmeling in his Christian Century article, “as full of weeds as it is, has been the place where I have been able to connect with others. The cracks in the facade, the moments when people have seen past my smooth attempts to pull off a good harvest, have been exactly the moments when seeds of the genuine harvest began to sprout. For me, writes, “this parable pulls back the curtain and allows us to see the mystery of Christ present and planted in all things. “
Jim’s fellow executives were determined to have a good harvest, even if they had to fake it. Jim, on the other hand, was faithful to the seed that was given him. The paradox, for Jim, is that in honestly facing the failure of his plant to grow, he was able to show that he was a man willing to dig deep beneath the surface of his life. As he waited for his dead seed to grow, patience, faithfulness, and self control, all gifts of the spirit, grew in him. Like Jim’s fellow executives, we often try to make something out of dead seeds. They were all so sure that what the CEO wanted was a large, thriving plant. But what he really wanted was an honest and humble heart.
All our lives are full of rocky and smooth, hard and soft, weedy and weed free ground. God wants us to be good farmers of the soil in which we live. God wants us to dig through it and cultivate it, as best we can, so that God’s seeds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness and self-control can grow in us. The good news is, as always, that God generously throws out his seed over and over again in the hope that it may land in some soft, warm and cultivated spot in our hearts to help us to grow into God’s likeness. Amen.