Hearers of God's scattered Word, grace and peace to you from God our Creator, Christ Jesus our Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit, living and moving within and among us this day. Amen.
My father farms 300 acres of rented land on the southwestern edge of my hometown, Wakefield, Nebraska. Wakefield is a town of about 1400 in northeastern Nebraska, approximately halfway between Sioux City, IA and Norfolk, NE on Nebraska Highway 35. The farm where I grew up is about three miles west of town, in the hills that make this one of the prettier parts of Nebraska, but the additional land my dad rents "down by town" is pretty flat, with one exception: the depression we've come to call "Johnson Lake."
If winter has been normal and the spring hasn't been too terribly wet, my dad can usually get into Johnson Lake with a field cultivator and a planter, especially if last year's corn stubble can help hold the tractors up as they roll through the wet spots. But every year, when the spring and summer rains come, Johnson Lake shows up whenever a nice sprinkle turns into something more. For a few years it seemed like my brothers and I were competing to see who could get stuck the deepest in that muckhole – one year I remember getting stuck so bad it took two tractors and our Chevy pickup to get the tractor out. I can only remember one year in the last ten that Dad's been able to harvest anything out of that depression: most years there is still standing water to freeze when November rolls around and everything else has been harvested.
It might seem wasteful to plant seeds in this ground that so rarely produces anything worthwhile. To be truthful, I've often wondered why Dad even bothers to plant it, because the odds are pretty strong against any kind of worthwhile harvest. But my dad has been farming for almost forty years on his own, even longer if you count the years he helped my grandfather before getting married and setting up his own farm. He might seem a little foolish, sowing seed in a Nebraska mudhole year after year, but compared to the sower in the parable from Matthew, my dad's a genius. The sower? He's a real piece of work. In fact, he might just be in the running for the title of Dumbest Farmer Ever.
No one farms like this – ever. Not today certainly, with GPS navigation to take away the risk of leaving what my brother and I called “Buffalo tracks” when we’d cultivate Dad’s corn, with herbicides and fertilizers to eliminate weeds and maximize yields. We’ve got agronomists to analyze our soil and advise us on crop rotation. And, best of all, there’s the Conservation Reservation Program for those acres that just don’t produce – you can let them lay fallow and still earn money. Farmers today are far more educated than farmers in the days of my grandfather, who could remember when his dad bought his first tractor. But even the farmers of Jesus’ day would not have farmed like the sower of Jesus’ parable. True, they would scatter the seed, then rake it into the ground – but that’s not so old-fashioned; I can remember doing it myself in the years we planted oats on our farm. But throw seeds into thorny soil? Not a chance. Cast seeds onto rocks? No way. Scatter seeds on the path? Would you throw seeds on I-35? Not at all – but this sower did. Dumbest. Farmer. Ever.
This, of course, leads to that good Lutheran question: “What does this mean?” Why would Jesus teach with such an improbable parable? More importantly, where am I in this? Am I the seed that is scattered on the soil? Am I the good soil, the rocky soil, the weedy soil or the path? Who is this sower? Who are these birds snatching the seed away? What does this mean?
Well, here’s the thing: this parable isn’t necessarily meant to be easily grasped. Jesus says it himself: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” Do I think that this means Jesus is purposely trying to keep people from understanding? No. But I do believe that Jesus’ teachings were meant to be more than just the latest self-help fad, instantly digested and just as instantly forgotten. It’s the difference between taking up the Atkins Diet and trying to follow a healthy lifestyle as a whole. The first is just a means to a superficial end, and not a very good means at that. But becoming more healthy as a whole is not so easily grasped; it is something that has to be teased out of our lives on a daily, hourly, sometimes minute-to-minute basis. In the same way, Jesus taught in ways that changed lives, that transformed souls, with words that were meant to confront and upset and even afflict in order that they might be more than the latest fashion for the trendy set in Galilee. It is still grace, what Jesus offers, but it is not cheap: as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “it is grace that must be pursued.” In the same way, understanding what Jesus meant in today’s parable is not a matter of getting our heads in the right place or solving Jesus’ words as if they were a story problem in 11th grade algebra class. Good thing, too, because I barely passed algebra and it was the last math class I ever took.
The truth is, I can't tell you where you are in this parable, how to read it, how to understand it exactly mostly because wherever you are, you're not likely to be found in the same place tomorrow, or next week, or next year, or in the next decade, if you live that long. Maybe you'll leave the church building today with God's word bursting forth in your soul, producing fruit and claiming your life forever. Or, so you think, until Monday's bills come due and your new-found faith is swallowed by the worry about how to pay for that new minivan and keep your cable television at the same time. Maybe you've already stopped listening to anything that I have to say, but at Bible Study on Tuesday with Pastor Myron you'll find yourself captivated by what God is saying to you, and your soul that is a hard path today becomes a freshly tilled and planted field on Tuesday. But I'm not going to stop by saying I can't tell you where you are in this parable – I'm also going to insist that I WON'T tell you where you are in this parable. It doesn't matter if you're rocky ground or a weedy, thorny mess. It doesn't matter if God's Word has been snatched away from you like birds snatching away seed, or whether you've been made so ready for planting that you reek of that wonderful, loamy scent that I remember from all the days running a disk on my dad's farm all those summers while I was growing up. None of this matters.
What does matter is that the sower is still sowing, the seed of God's Word is still being scattered lavishly upon you, and God has promised that this seed, this Word, shall not return empty. To the educated eye, to those of us who supposedly know how these things work, the lavish scattering of good seed on substandard, unprepared soil seems reckless, foolhardy, the kind of thing that only the Dumbest Farmer Ever would do. Yet these seeds, God's Words cast into our lives, take root in the unlikeliest of places. God's Word invades the concrete barriers of our cynicism and our hopelessness. God's Word overcomes the thorns and weeds of our greed and our complacency. And, in the end, we find ourselves bearing fruit the likes of which only the most ignorant of farmers would have predicted.
How do I know this? Because I’ve lived it. I’ve seen seed scattered on unfertile ground – some of it was mine. By way of example, let me tell you about a guy I’ll call Dave Brown. Dave agreed to be the Sunday School teacher for our senior high youth group when I was about fifteen years old. Now I wish I could tell you that Dave was one of those adults who just “clicked” with kids, who had that gift of being able to relate without pandering and without becoming just another kid. But that’s not who Dave was: Dave was an adult, and very much disconnected from our youth group, through no fault of his own. We were terrible to him. We didn’t listen. We didn’t enjoy our time together. We resented our parents for making us show up for Dave’s lame classes. Finally I told my mother (with all the pomposity and narcissism a teenager can muster) how ridiculously boring our time with Dave was, and my mother, to her credit, wouldn’t just let me off with complaining to her: she told Dave what I had said in the hopes that together we could fix things. One Sunday at church Dave cornered me in a hallway and we had a little chat. “I know this isn’t working for you guys,” Dave said, “and I’m sorry. But I want you to know that I’m not giving up on this, because it’s important. Your faith is important to you, and you are important to us as a congregation.” We were unworthy soil for such dedication and commitment – yet through the work of this one man God was scattering seeds where no one could have expected anything to grow. Only now, years later, do I see how the seeds of that faithful man are bearing fruit in me, and it gives me hope for our ministry today and for the fruit it will bear in years to come.
This parable of the sower is not an agricultural object lesson teaching us how to be good soil: it is a parable of patience and hope, promising us that the soil which today seems unworthy of its seed may someday produce a bountiful harvest. If God is the sower in today's parable, then God truly is the Dumbest Farmer Ever, but you didn't come here looking for farmers, did you? There are plenty of smart farmers here, and you could call them whenever you want. Whatever you came looking to find in this place, what you've got is a God of hope, a God of promise, a prodigiously generous, lavish, reckless God who throws hope and love beyond measure into lives that often seem ill-prepared to receive it. It might look wasteful. It might look foolish. It might look like nothing good will ever come out of it. But still the sower shoulders his bag, making ready for yet another day of scattering the precious seed of his Word because He cannot, he will not allow that Word to return empty. From the days of Abraham and Sarah’s laughter at the thought of bearing children in their 90s, to the days of Isaiah’s words of hope to a people living in exile in Babylon, 400 miles from their homeland, to the days of a carpenter from Nazareth who had the audacity to preach and teach with the authority of God’s own Son – in those days and in all the days leading up to this day, God’s word has been sent forth and it has NOT returned empty. You, my friends, are soil onto which the invading, uprooting, transforming Word of God has been scattered: go now, you who have been seeded by the Dumbest Farmer Ever, and bear His good and redeeming fruit for the sake of the world in which you live. Amen.