Sermon preached July 13, 2014
Texts: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Miles Davis, “So What” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylXk1LBvIqU
People who know jazz almost instantly recognize this song from the moment it begins. You can hear it’s title in the notes – “So What.” The minute the trumpet sounds, if you are a jazz aficionado, you know that this is Miles Davis. Someone once said that Miles Davis plays the trumpet “like a man walking on egg shells” (Barry Ulanov).
Jazz is a unique American art form, and among its unique features is improvisation, that is, creativity on the spot. Each solo is played a little differently each time it is played. Music writer and critic Albert Murray says that jazz is “the creative process incarnate” (Ward and Burns, Jazz, xvii).
You all did not show up this morning for a music appreciation lesson, though there is always a lot of music here to appreciate. I begin with jazz because my sermon title is a play on Miles Davis’ song – “sow what” – and I am sorry for any of you who might have seen the sermon title and thought I was going to be talking about hogs today – but the parables of Jesus are a little bit jazz. They are creativity incarnate. They create something new and fresh. They open us up to new ideas, perceptions, ways of thinking and therefore, also, ways of living. “In the parables of Jesus language opens onto a greater reality” (Robert Funk, Jesus as Precursor). Scholar John Dominic Crossan writes about the parables that they intend “to make us probe and question, ponder and wonder, discuss and debate, and above all else, practice that gift of the human spirit known as thinking” (Crossan, The Power of Parable)
We are not always so very comfortable with such creativity. We rather like the way we think right now thank you very much. Being challenged is not always our favorite activity. We sometimes like to domesticate the parables if we can, and we are not alone in that. It seems that even the earliest followers of Jesus sought neat interpretations of the parables. Today’s parable, often called the parable of the sower, is one of the few parables that is given an explicit interpretation. It is put in the mouth of Jesus in the gospel.
So here is a challenging idea for you. What if this interpretation really comes from some of Jesus’ early followers and not from Jesus himself? The issues here can be complex and I want to leave them for the discussion after church if you want to come, but there is some wide scholarly consensus, and this has been around for about a century, that the interpretation of the parable of the sower in the gospels probably did not originate with Jesus but with the early church. That doesn’t make it bad or wrong. In fact, it provides one helpful lens on the parable. That lens seems to suggest that the important fact in the story is the kind of soil you are – do you receive the word of Jesus like good soil? Of course, those in the early church might pat themselves on the back and say “we are the good soil.” The parable might have been a word of comfort in difficult times. Nothing wrong with that, except that we may, in reading the parable in this way, miss some of its power.
The words of philosopher and therapist, Jonathan Lear seem relevant here: We both do and do not want to live with routine understandings of ourselves (A Case for Irony) There is something that draws us into more creative ways of thinking, but something that we fear about this as well. The urge to domesticate the parable is strong.
What if we let the story stand by itself, without this interpretation? What if we do a little thinking, pondering, wondering? What if we let the parable be more riddle-like, and we exercise that gift of the human spirit known as thinking? What might this parable say to us other than – “congratulations for being such good dirt!”? How might the Spirit speak to us in fresh and creative ways, a little like the voice of jazz?
“Listen! A sower went out to sow.” He does not seem like the best sower to me. He wastes a lot of seed, throwing it hither and yon, wildly whipping it about. I am told, though, that this method of scattering seed was not uncommon in Jesus’ day. I have to think, however, that there are some limits to the amount of seed any particular sower might sow. Yet this sower keeps sowing. Seed gets eaten by birds, the sower keeps sowing, maybe even glad that some birds are getting fed. Seed falls on shallow ground where it may not do well. The sower keeps sowing. Seed falls among thorns, and they don’t do well, yet the sower keeps sowing. Finally, seed finds some good soil, but here’s an interesting point easily overlooked. Just as there are three not-so-good scenarios, so there are three better scenarios. There is good soil – yielding thirty-fold. There is some better soil, yielding sixty-fold. There is the best soil – yielding a hundred-fold.
So here are a couple of thoughts to ponder. Maybe God is like that wild sower. Maybe God “loves wastefully” to use a term from Bishop John Shelby Spong. Maybe the real good news in this story is not that we are such great soil, maybe the good news is that no matter what kind of soil we are at a particular time, God keeps sowing, sow what – love! Isn’t the truth of our lives that we are sometimes distracted so that life flies in and hides something of God’s love from us? Aren’t we sometimes shallow in our faith life? Don’t we get caught up in the cares of the day, and let what’s more important get chocked out? Even then, God keeps casting seeds of love and grace, tossing them into the wild winds of God’s Spirit, hoping that the soil condition of our lives will change.
And here’s another bit of startling good news. While the sower’s behavior in the story may have fit the times, the description of the harvest does not. A good farmer could have expected a yield of about ten to twelve-fold – not thirty, sixty or a hundred. What kind of wild story is Jesus telling? Maybe this, when God’s love connects with our lives – wow! God’s love is strong enough to help heal damaged relationships, damaged psyches, a damaged world. God’s love was enough so that fifty years ago people worked really hard to build this building we are worshipping and learning and growing it. God’s love is enough so that once a month we open our doors to whoever will come with their twenty dollars and we help feed them. God’s love was enough that thirty years ago a kind of shy kid from the Lester Park neighborhood had a bishop lay his hands on his head and ordain him and he stands before you today as your pastor.
So the story may speak to us about God if we let our imaginations play with it thoughtfully. I think the story speaks to us as a church. Maybe we are to be the sower in the world. Whatever you think of John Shelby Spong, I think he got it just right when he wrote, “the business of the church is to love people into life” (Resurrection). The business of the church is to love people into life. Our United Methodist Church says that the mission of the church is to makes disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It is another way of saying we want to love people into life. This church says that we welcome all people, are guided by the teaching and unconditional love of Jesus and are inspired to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. It is a longer way of saying we want to love people into life. We want to, in the words of Spong, build “a world in which everyone can live more fully, love more wastefully, and have the courage to be all that they can be” (Jesus for the Nonreligious).
We want to love people into life, and there are many ways we can be doing that. We cannot do it all, so we have to choose. Some of the choices we make will be like casting seeds to the birds, yet we are to keep on. Some of the choices we make will be like throwing seed on rocky soil, yet we are to keep on. We will cast some seeds into the thorns, yet we are to keep on. We will readjust our aim from time to time. We will give up some forms of sowing to take up other forms. Some of what we do will fail. Yet we keep sowing.
This parable can speak about God, if we ponder it thoughtfully and imaginatively. This parable can speak about our church, if we ponder it thoughtfully and imaginatively. This parable can also speak to each of us, if we let it.
Know you are loved. You are loved by a God who keeps casting seeds of love and grace in your direction hoping to catch some good soil in your heart, mind, soul.
Loved by this God who sows on the wild winds of the Spirit, love. Love wastefully, wisely, imaginatively. If wasteful and wise seem contradictory, well, they are, sort of. The riddle is always to hold them in creative tension. If we seeks to be too “wise” in our loving, we may become stingy sowers. If we only love wastefully, we might never catch anything but pavement.
One good story deserves another, so here’s one. Kent Nerburn, an author from Bemidji writes about a time when he was present in the courtroom where a young man was on trial for murdering a girl he had seen walking down the street. It was the kind of crime that is rare, but one that we fear deeply. It was a random act of violence. This young man and a friend dragged this unsuspecting girl, whom they had never met, into the woods and shot her. The prosecuting attorney described in grim detail the specifics of the murder…. The horror was almost too much to bear… but through it all the father of the murdered girl sat impassively, watching the trial, watching the boy. The young man was found guilty, and afterward the father announced that he was going to visit the young man in jail. People were stunned, but the father was adamant. “That boy and I are forever bound…. We need to know each other. I do not know if I can forgive him. But perhaps if I know him I will not hate him. This is about healing and reconciliation. (Make Me An Instrument, 22,23)
This story comes from Nerburn’s book on the Prayer of St. Francis, which is about sowing – “where there is hatred, let me sow love.” Sow what - sow love. Towards the end of the telling of this story, Nerburn writes his own thoughts. “Sowing” does not imply that something is fully grown, only that the seeds of possibility have been planted. (25)
A sower went out to sow. So what – big deal, who cares? Except that this sower might tell us something about the love of God, a love cast abundantly on the wild winds of the Spirit. When those seeds of love and possibility sink deep inside us, we too can cast them out wildly and joyfully, as church, as people. That’s so what, so sow what?, sow love. Amen.
Quotes and Questions for Reflection
In the parables of Jesus language opens onto a greater reality.
Robert Funk, Jesus as Precursor
A parable… is a metaphor expanded into a story, or, more simply, a parable is a metaphoric story…. Challenge parables mean – that is, intend – to make us probe and question, ponder and wonder, discuss and debate, and, above all else, practice that gift of the human spirit known as thinking.
John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable
A riddle is a riddle because it uses intentional ambiguity and expects an answer…. Some of the parables [are] intentionally ambiguous statements that solicit a response (though not necessarily a verbal response) from the audience…. Jesus’ parables are “metaphors” in the general sense that they compare two things, and that some of them are “riddles” because they make their comparisons in a way that generates ambiguity.
Tom Thatcher, Jesus the Riddler
Then follows the interpretation of the parable of the Sower. Now this whole passage is strikingly unlike in language and style to the majority of the sayings of Jesus…. These facts create at once a presumption that we have here not a part of the primitive tradition of the words of Jesus, but a piece of apostolic teaching. Further, the interpretation offered is confused.
C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom
We must conclude, then, that the interpretation of the parable of the Sower is a product of the primitive Church which regarded the parable as an allegory, and interpreted each detail in it allegorically.
Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus
We both do and do not want to live with routine understandings of ourselves.
Jonathan Lear, A Case for Irony
What do you think of the idea of parables a rich in meaning because they are metaphoric stories, even riddles which evoke a thoughtful response from their hearers?
Do you agree with Jonathan Lear that we both do and do not want to live with routine understandings of ourselves, and therefore may tend to “domesticate” the parables?
What do you think of the idea that the interpretation of the parable belongs to the early Church community and perhaps not to Jesus himself? How does this have in impact on your understanding of the Bible?
What grabs your attention in the parable and provokes you to deeper thought?
The business of the church is to love people into life.
John Shelby Spong, Resurrection Myth or Reality?
What do you think of Spong’s statement?
The call of God experienced in Christ is simply a call to be all that each of us is – a call to offer, through the being of our humanity, the gift of God to all people by building a world in which everyone can live more fully, love more wastefully and have the courage to be all that they can be…. God is about living, about loving, and about being.
John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Nonreligious
What do you think of Spong’s statement? Does “love wastefully” have some resonance to the sower in the parable?
“Sowing” does not imply that something is fully grown, only that the seeds of possibility have been planted.
Kent Nerburn, Make Me An Instrument