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Sow Some Seed -- Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (Sixth Sunday After Pentecost)

This summer, we have been worshipping with the theme, “Together We Create” – as we move through these dynamic, changing times – together we serve, together we live life, together we create.

o We began with this theme a few weeks ago with the creation story in Genesis 1, exploring what it means that we are created in the image of God. God has created us and empowered us – and all creation – to create – to continue to co-create with God. Being creating beings is part of our DNA.

o Then, moving on into Genesis, with Sarah, we considered the creative power of hope – God’s power to create through and beyond our imaginings.

o With Hagar, we considered the creative power of lament – to break something open in the world, to name something true – the pain of the world – our pain – and to make room for the creation of something new and healing.

o And last week, on the Fourth of July weekend, we considered our “freedom for” – our freedom to live for the good of each other – to create together, with God, a world where everyone can live free.

And this morning, we come to this parable that Jesus tells where folks are going about the work of creating – this Parable of the Sower – rolling up their sleeves, getting their hands dirty – sowing and harvesting abundant crops with God. Together we create.

The Scripture is read.

Parables are tricky. They present like these harmless little stories, told by Jesus. Some of them almost quaint. But the more you look at them, the more questions they raise. The word “parable” means “to throw alongside.” [1] With a parable, the storyteller throws a story alongside some bit of life, and says this is like this – what do you think? In the Gospel of Matthew, it’s often “the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like a net that catches fish. The kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure. But you see, as soon as you start telling those stories, you start to go, “Huh? How’s that so?”

This week, Patrick told me that the Holy Play curriculum describes parables as little gifts; every time you unwrap them there’s a different present – you find a new meaning. I like that. I might describe them as puzzle boxes – you turn them around, look at them from every angle, slide the doors, move the pieces – and with each move, you discover something new.

Amy Jill Levine – a professor of both New Testament and of Jewish studies – approaches the parables as the 1st century Jewish stories that they are, and she cautions that we can’t reduce any one parable to any one meaning.[2] As stories, she says, “they evoke numerous meanings; our job is to sort them out.” She says we do that, first, by trying to understand them in their 1st century Jewish context: How would Jesus’ listeners have heard them? And then we try to understand how they translate into our world.[3]

Levine also suggests that we look not only at what they mean, but also at what they do – what they put in motion in the world. Parables are generative. They get you thinking – as one writer says, they “tease our mind into active thought.”[4] They do something in the world, in us, as we sort them out, and live them out. (Think about that for a second – think about a better known parable – think of how you’ve seen the Parable of the Good Samaritan at work in the world – how has it worked you – how has it become a part of our culture – or not.)

This morning, we have this parable of the sower told by Jesus, as written down in the Gospel of Matthew: There was a sower who went out to sow seed. Some seed fell on the path and got scorched. Some seed fell on rocky ground and couldn’t take root. Some seed fell among the thorns and got choked. But some seed found depth of soil, and produced a crop a hundred times what was sown.

Now this scene would have been familiar to those who first heard the story.[5] Jesus would have told this parable to a 1st century audience who lived close to the land. They knew what it was to sow seed – that’s what they did. Matthew’s community – who wrote down the story 50 or so years after Jesus – they also were a Jewish community, as what was becoming Christianity was emerging from what would become Judaism.[6] There’s some evidence that there’s been a split in community – perhaps Matthew’s community had been thrown out of another community.

And after Matthew tells the parable, this is one of the few times that we also get an explanation, of sorts. Jesus tells the parable to the crowd, says that it’s hard to understand, and then (as Matthew tells it), Jesus explains the parable to the disciples: The seed that falls on the path, and on the rocky soil, and in the thorns – that’s where the Word comes and doesn’t thrive. The good soil is where the Word thrives, and produces a hundredfold.

Now, there’s a historic reading of this parable, that focuses primarily on the seed and soil – almost like this is an allegory – and says, “Aha!” This story is about those who get it and those who don’t. Good seed/bad seed. Good soil/bad soil.” It’s an exclusionary reading. And maybe Matthew’s community – thrown out of another community – maybe they meant some of that. But that’s beyond problematic – that reading has been used to do harm over the centuries[7] – and it doesn’t fit with the expansiveness of the good news that we find in the Gospel of Matthew and throughout Scripture. There are better readings than that.

Let’s keep turning the puzzle box.

Some scholars look more carefully at the soil – and ask – “Hmm, so what does it mean to be good soil?” One scholar says this parable asks us to consider our response to the Word.[8] Another asks, what are the practices that we can cultivate to let the Word grow and thrive in us? How can we become good soil?[9] That adds some good meaning.

Some scholars then look to the sower. What does it mean that this sower goes out and sows seed broadly and expansively, on every kind of soil, parched, rocky, thorny, receptive? Does that make any sense – to scatter seed even on soil that might be rocky? Sowing seed generously, expecting that it will take root – somewhere, somehow – and produce abundance. One scholar writes that this parable accentuates “the bold, venturesome sowing of a farmer which, in spite of heavy losses due to various contingencies, gains a rich harvest.”

We can look at the seed, the soil, the sower FLORETTA – I suggest that we do all that and hold all that – and also notice that this parable is about a process – the sewing of seeds. It’s about a generative and inclusive process. It’s inclusive – it encompasses sower and seed and soil – all kinds of seed, all kind soil. And it’s generative – this sowing of seeds is generative – it generates, it creates life. And not only that , it sustains life – what’s happening here will produce crops that will feed and nourish life. This sowing of seeds is a generative process for a generative season.

Now I name that because we, too, are in a generative season. We’ve been talking about these past few months as a season of pandemic, and of sheltering, and of turmoil. All that is true – it is our world as we experience it. AND, this is also a generative season – a season of unprecedented creativity as we have had to re-create almost everything we do in life – not just in church, but in every part of life.

We’re starting to think about that with some intention in the Moving Forward Together Team. As I’ve mentioned, the Session has formed a Moving Forward Together leadership team to figure out and to create ways for us – as a community – to continue to move forward through pandemic – through this world that seems to be changing every moment.

As we are beginning that conversation, we’re aware that we’ll be moving forward into and through regulatory framework—public health regulations in this time of pandemic.

AND, we are also thinking of this as creative work, as design work. We are continuing to create new things – new ways of connecting, new ways of being in worship – online – and when we can – new ways of re-introducing ways of being in-person again. We are continuing to create.

And so the Moving Forward Together team thinking of our work in terms of design, and we’re adapting a design process – not unlike the scattering of seeds – that was developed by the Stanford School of Design.[10] It’s a process for generating ideas, trying them out, and moving forward through a world of dynamic change. The design process starts with conversation – to find out what our needs are and to define the problem we’re trying to solve – or better yet, the outcome that we desire in all this. We’ve started that conversation on the leadership team. Right now we’re thinking of the desired outcome in terms of this question:

As we move forward through pandemic and modifications in the sheltering-in-place orders faithfully and safely, how do we craft worship experiences, service opportunities, and ways to connect and nurture that

o include the most people (e.g., in-person and on Zoom), 

o are grounded in what we value most, and 

o create opportunities for innovating and learning?

We are designing together, creating together – for that.

Over the next few weeks, there will be opportunities for the congregation to join in that conversation – there will be a survey, and some type of Zoom experience we are still creating.

Then we’ll generate ideas. And we’ll do them. Or in Stanford language, we’ll prototypethem. We’ll try them out; we’ll see what works – what finds depth of soil; and we’ll put our efforts there.

Now that may sound too abstract, so I want to get specific – and I want to take some time to think about the things we have already been creating in this community – and to celebrate that. The deacons have led the way in creating new ways for us to stay connected. Church & Society has worked to find new ways we can continue our social justice work. Our Anti-Racism team has reconfigured itself, is now meeting every-other week, emphasizing action and activism -- making sure we live out the words we say.

And this morning I want to look at worship -- to stop and notice what has come to life here, in our worship. Let’s take a look – just at some of the things we’re doing today:

o Think about our prayer. On Zoom, we’ve been able to expand the time that we spend together in prayer. We incorporate some rich time for silence – and during that silence, we have this ability to share our prayers in the Chat. Now, I’m not able to read the chat during worship – I’m doing things to keep the Zoom moving. But after worship, I get a print out of the chat, so that I can pray with the prayer requests over the week. What I’ve noticed is that during worship each week, we are collectively writing a prayer – writing a liturgy, a litany, it’s almost a poem. Every Sunday in this space, we create a prayer – together.

o That time of prayer also reminds us that music is part of our prayer – that all of our music is prayer – and think of all ways that Daniel, and Natsuko, and Linda, and Robin, and Christine, and so many others – against all odds – have created ways to keep music alive as part of our worship.

o Now there are some of the things that we’ve tried that worked for a time, but then needed some new thinking. Figuring out our offering. – without collection plates – hasn’t been easy – we had to get new technology up and running and then introduce it. And after we did that, I got some feedback that the offering time in worship felt a little too mechanical and transactional, could we find a way to bring back the spiritual experience of sharing the offering? (That feedback was kind. I actually started to feel like a televangelist.) And so we introduced prayers of gratitude. This prayer that we write every Sunday, we wrap up our worship in gratitude to God.

o And some new ideas have immediately found depth of soil – like Coffee Time. Mary Kathryn came up with that idea – she and Vivian and Martha Olsen Joyce and the greeters – brainstormed and launched it – prototyped it – tried it out. And it works. So we’re going to regularize it on the 2nd and 4th Sundays.

o And there’s one more thing I want to point out. This slide here – our Zoom instructions. I got this idea from my friend Bruce Reyes-Chow, and I know it’s repetitive – kind of like the flight attendant as you get ready for take-off – but we want to make sure that every Sunday folks can find their way around in this space.

But there’s this: This little phrase – when I put it there, it was almost a throwaway line – a way to move from these technical instructions into worship: Grace Abounds. We say that every Sunday. And inevitably we need it. And we’ve leaned into that. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve said to each other, Grace Abounds. I’ve started to hear us start to say it in community even beyond worship – almost a mantra for this season of struggle and stumbling. Grace abounds.

Two words, that actually take us to the heart of what we believe in Jesus Christ: In the toughest of times, when we are struggling to find our way, when we stumble and fumble, when we need God most – God comes to us in Jesus Christ. Grace abounds.

And I think that takes us back to the parable. Grace abounds. That’s what is happening in this generous sewing of seeds – as the sower walks through the field scattering seed with generous abandon – seed for every soil, with the expectation that something good will take root, and grow, and thrive, and give life. That tells us something of how God loves us in Jesus Christ. That shows of something of how grace abounds.

Here’s how I might tell this parable on July 12, 2020:

The kingdom of heaven is like some sowers of seed who went out to sow, and one day they were taken to a new field, an unfamiliar field. As they gazed out on the expanse of arid land, the ground baked in the heat of day – there were rocky patches, and brambles, and thorns.

But they were sowers of seed, and their families needed to eat, so they picked up their bags of seed, and began to scatter their seeds. Now, to be sure, some seed got scorched, and some landed on the rocks, and some got caught up in thorns – but some found good soil – depth of soil – and the seeds began to sprout.

And those sowers of seed spent their time there – they watered, and weeded, and tended the crop – and by harvest-time the seed they had sown in that field yielded 100-fold, some 60-fold, some 30-fold. All that’s to say, there was enough – enough for their families and enough to share with the world. And then in the next spring, when they found themselves in yet another new field, these sowers of seed went out again to sow...

As that parable came to me on Friday, I scrambled to find a piece of paper to write it down before it left me – and what I pulled out of my preaching notebook, was a writing by Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman that I’d tucked away a few years ago. It’s called, Look Well to the Growing Edge! Dr. Thurman speaks into a world of living and dying – a world of planting and ripening, and he says this:

“All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge! It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and people have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. The birth of a child – life’s most dramatic answer to death – this is the growing edge incarnate. Look to the growing edge!”[11]

Grace abounds.

© 2020 Scott Clark

[1] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (HarperOne, San Francisco: 2014), p.7. [2] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (HarperOne, San Francisco: 2014), p.7. [3] Id. at 19. [4] J. David Waugh, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 3 (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 2011), p.239. [5] See Waugh, p.241. [6] See Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (Crystal Press, San Rafael, CA: 1976). [7] See especially Amy-Jill Levine, pp. 22-24, cautioning against historic anti-Jewish readings of the parables. [8] Waetjen, 153-54 [9] Holly Hearon, Working Preacher commentary for July 12, 2020, [10] See Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, Designing Your Life (Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 2016). [11] Howard J. Thurman, “The Growing Edge,” excerpted in A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life (Beacon Press, Boston: 1998, eds. Walter Fluker & Catherine Tumber) .

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