You can listen to this here – or read it below.
When I was in seminary, some body of the Church decided to survey Episcopal Parishes on what they most desired from the then thirteen Episcopal seminaries. One question asked something to the effect of “What is the most important attribute for a priest?” The overwhelming majority said “relevant, practical biblical preaching.” I remember hearing that and thinking, “of course, and that is exactly what I will do. I’ll preach relevant, practical, biblical sermons.” And for the most part, I feel like I do. I’ve heard, and I understand that I could be more practical. I could spell out for you exactly how to live your lives, what activities to partake in, what charities to give to, what prayers to say and what scriptures to read. Instead, I think of a sermon like a coloring book. I draw the lines, giving you a general idea of the picture on the page, your job is to take your crayons and bring the page to life. It is an arrangement that for the most part works out well, but there is a problem with relevant, practical biblical preaching. The problem is that sometimes the Bible is ridiculously impractical. Today’s Gospel lesson is no exception.
The crowd following Jesus continues to swell. It has become so large, in fact, that Jesus is forced to push out from shore in order to teach to the whole group. Jesus knows, however, that many of them are there for the wrong reasons. Many, if not most, of those following him (including his disciples) are convinced that Jesus’ is the military leader who will bring them freedom from the oppressive Romans. They are eagerly and impatiently waiting for Jesus to give them their marching orders, when he pushes the boat out from shore and launches into this third teaching discourse. His language is veiled in the ancient art of parables, probably because there are spies in the crowd. His cousin, John the Baptist is already in prison. Jesus scans the crowd, sees their hearts, and knows that his message must be on point. The Sea was surrounded by fields, so there is a good chance that as Jesus scanned his audience, he saw a farmer planting seed for the new season. “You see that farmer over there sowing seed? Let me tell you about The Farmer,” and he launched into this first kingdom parable about seed that fell on four very different types of ground: the path, where birds ate it up, rocky ground where the fresh sprouts were scorched, thorny soil that choked out the new growth, and good soil that produced a crop in record abundance: a hundred, sixty, or third fold.
The practical preacher would now say something like, “be good soil and give to the building fund.”1 He would then follow up with various ways in which you could tend the soil of your heart to make the Gospel message flourish in your life. The practical preacher can do this, even if it feels a lot like a to-do list for getting yourself into heaven, the dreaded works righteousness, because of the allegorical explanation, attributed to Jesus, that follows right after. The path is like a hard heart that can not hear the Word and so the devil snatches it away. The rocky ground is like a heart eager to join up, but ill prepared for the trials of discipleship, so when the going gets tough, the rocky heart runs away. The thorny ground is a heart too focused on the worries of the world and seeking after wealth, too preoccupied to produce any fruit. The good soil is a fertile heart that hears, understands, and lives the Word producing yields of ridiculous proportions. The Practical Preacher gets to look at her congregation and say, “All you have to do is listen and understand, cut out the worry and the money grubbing, and you’ll be good soil.” But I don’t buy it. Parables weren’t meant to be understood at face value, they were supposed to disturb the hearer and make them think. They were supposed to have many sides, to be looked at from many angles, and to bounce around in the hearers mind for days on end until, when it finally seems to make sense, the process starts over again. So, despite the fact that most Episcopalians surveyed want this sermon to be relevant and practical, I have to agree with Barbara Brown Taylor who asks, “What if this story is not about us at all but about the sower? What if it is not about our own successes and failures and birds and rocks and thorns, but about the extravagance of a sower who flings seed everywhere, wastes it with holy abandon…” What if this parable is totally impractical for our lives except where it opens our eyes to the fact that God is reckless in his love for us? And if that’s the case, well then maybe it isn’t impractical at all. Surely we can make this more relevant, with just a few easy twenty-first century changes. Let’s hear the parable again.
“The Farmer, having hooked up his planter to the back of his John Deere tractor, started out of the barn. He put the machine in gear, turned on his four way flashers, and flipped on the PTO setting the blades of the planter spinning and seed flying about. He slowly made his way down the long gravel driveway, turned right onto County Road 97 and began the two mile journey to his southern fields. Seeds bounced off the asphalt roadway, some fell into the ditch, some pinged off the windshields of cars attempting to pass. When he finally arrived at the south forty, he cut across the weedy, thorny right of way, seed still flying, and then began the slow, methodical process of seeding the well groomed, fertilized, lush field.”2
No farmer in their right mind would be that reckless with seed. Not in first century Palestine and not in the cut throat twenty-first century American agricultural industry. Seed is just too expensive to throw it away in the barn, on the driveway, along the road, and in the right-of-way. No farmer would be so prodigal in their flinging of seed, but God is. God, the creator of all things, seen and unseen, in heaven and on earth can afford to be “confident that there will be enough seed to go around.3” He sees into our hearts and even though he sees barns with treasure stored up for ourselves, gravel driveways parched from lack of living water, roadways paved over and over and over again by doubt and cynicism, and the thorns of fear, addiction, pride, and greed – he keeps throwing seed, again and again and again. He lavishes his good seed not just on the good soil, but on every heart that he has made.
Our modern day parable finishes up like this, “Several months later, when the harvest was finally ready to come in, the farmer started up his combine, turned right onto County Road 97, made the two mile drive to the southern forty and reaped a harvest that was in some spots 100 fold, in others 60, and still others 30. He who has ears, let him hear. She who has ears, let her hear.” The harvest is so plentiful that even with all that wasted seed, there is more than enough to go around. More than enough to fill the barns of every neighbor to the point of overflowing. More than enough grace for every man, woman, and child ever created.
For the practical preacher, this a story of seed falling on four soils. Good Protestant work ethic combined with the “I can do anything” American ethos wants to tell us that we can choose what type of soil we are. The bad news is, you can’t. You have no more choice about the soil of your heart than the soil of the earth does about whether it is paved, built upon, left fallow, or tended to with care and craft. And truth be told, none of us, if we were to be really honest with ourselves, would find only one type of soil in our hearts. All of us, carry all four types of soil within us. It would be wise, of course, to do our best to remove what thorns we can, to water what dry ground we find, to give up worrying about wealth, and generally to keep the soil of our hearts in good order, but we all know that is easier said than done. Ultimately, it is only by the grace of God that any real change takes place. In the meantime, the good news for us today is that this is this a completely impractical story of our God, The Prodigal Sower, who will keep flinging seed in your direction, from now, until the end of time. Which, for those of you, who, like me, still struggle with sin everyday, is actually quite practical indeed. Amen.