Our Gospel today brings us one of Jesus’ parables – these stories he likes to tell. Why does he do that so much, anyway?… In the verses our text skips, Jesus gives one answer, quoting the book of the prophet Isaiah: “The reason I speak to [the crowd] in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” The purpose of the parables is to perplex people, to keep the truth obscured.
I wonder…. I think Jesus probably really said something a lot like that. But I think there’s more more going on here. If you want to hide the truth, why preach to enormous crowds? In Mark, Jesus goes on to say, “Nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” So maybe parables are supposed to leave you wondering – until the penny drops and you say, “Oooh! I see what he meant now!”
Telling stories can be a good way to get away with public speech that might upset the authorities. There are several moments in the Gospels where people suddenly realize that a story Jesus is telling is about them – and not in a good way!
Telling stories is a great way to talk to people who aren’t in the habit of listening to sermons or lectures – and Jesus wanted to reach people like that. People remember stories; they invite you in and stick with you much more than an expository speech making the same point. I try to use stories in my preaching often, for the same reason.
Stories can hold big, strange ideas in deceptively simple containers. This might be the main reason Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God mostly in stories.
The writer Francis Spufford offers this overview of Jesus’ Kingdom parables:
“When [Jesus] talks about [the Kingdom], it sips from analogy to analogy… Yeshua’s kingdom apparently exists in ever-changing resemblances. He does not say what it is, only what it is like. It’s like a tiny seed. It’s like a big tree. Like something inside you. Like a pearl you’d give everything to possess. Like wheat growing among weeds. Like the camel climbing though the needle’s eye. Like the way the world looks to children… Like getting a day’s pay for an hour’s work. Like a crooked magistrate, who has fixed the case in your favor. Like a narrow gate, a difficult road, a lamp on a stand. Like a wedding party. Like a wedding party where all the original guests have been disinvited and replaced by random passers-by. Like yeast in dough. Like a treasure, like a harvest, like a door that opens whenever you knock…. The kingdom is — whatever all those likenesses have in common. The kingdom, he seems to be saying, is something that can only be glimpsed in comparisons, because the world contains no actual examples of it. And yet the world glints and winks and shines everywhere with the possibility of it.” (Unapologetic, p. 123)
So there are lots of reasons Jesus might have spoken in parables. To fly under the radar; to catch people’s attention; to point at ideas and realities hard to capture with other kinds of language. And Jesus’ parables do leave us thinking, and wondering. Even the “easy” ones, the ones Jesus pauses to explain, like the Parable of the Sower.
In his explanation to the disciples, Jesus describes the different soils as different people. That’s a reading that makes sense in that moment, as he’s preaching his message to larger and larger crowds. Let’s just note the genius here: with this parable Jesus is doing exactly what he’s talking about. He’s tossing out this story like seeds into the crowd, knowing it will only take root in a few. And as he explains the parable to his friends, he is managing their expectations. He’s saying, Not everyone in that crowd is going to get it. And not everyone who gets it, will stick with it. But don’t be discouraged. Enough will get it. Enough will stick with it. Enough will go on to bear fruit.
This is a parable that says something about results, about outcomes. When we are good soil, we bear fruit. Jesus talks often about fruitfulness. Those whose hearts and lives are changed by turning towards God are expected to live lives that are fruitful in some way. Not to earn salvation or God’s love by deeds or accomplishments! No; our deliverance, our belovedness are givens. But as our response, as our willing participation in God’s work of healing, liberating, and reconciling.
These verses about bearing fruit can weigh heavily because we’re not sure what it looks like – and we may compare ourselves with others, thinking our garden should look just like theirs. I can be prone to that myself sometimes. But I think God expects our gardens and fields to be different. What fruitfulness God wants to see in your life is an intimate, prayerful question. For me, it means asking God often, What matters? Where should I be putting my best energy? And trying to notice, and follow, any holy nudges.
Which brings me to the way I’d like to dwell with this parable a little together.
Jesus explains this as a parable about how the seed of God’s word lands in different people. But that might not be the only way to receive this parable. Parables are like that. As I read about the Sower and the seed, I notice that I have all those kinds of soil inside of me. Our lives are full of opportunities and invitations – to begin or deepen a relationship, to get involved with a project or process, to help or advocate or build or connect or learn or rest or share joy. To bear fruit for God’s kingdom. And we don’t take all those invitations. We can’t. God understands that. God knows our limitations better than we do.
Take the seed that falls on rocky ground.This reminds me of the inevitable seed sprouting projects that come home from school with young children. The traditional Dixie cup, or even worse, the plastic bag… I love teachers, don’t get me wrong, but WHY do they do this to parents? Get a child invested in a tiny fragile living thing and then send it home, putting it on the parents to either transplant it – tearing up tiny roots that have nothing better to grow in than a damp paper towel or cotton ball – and try to nurse it along until the child loses interest and it dies, or leave it in the bag and hide it quietly and hope the child forgets about it.
These plastic-bag seeds sprung up quickly! They had moisture and sun. But they do not have what they need to keep growing and become mature plants. 99% of the time, they are not going to get past the seedling stage.
What’s like that in my life?… In these seedlings I recognize my temporary enthusiasms, things that are gripping and exciting and urgent for a day or a week, but then fade into the background. For whatever reason, they didn’t get rooted in my life. Maybe because I didn’t take the time to plant them well. Maybe because I’m not the right soil for that project.
Right now I’m working hard – I think many of you are, too – to keep our renewed commitment to racial equity from being one of these quick-to-grow, quick-to-wither plants. Transplanting the seedling from that Dixie cup to a pot, with soil and drainage. Watering it, putting it in the sun. Committing to tending it for a season, and seeing what it may bear.
Next there are the seeds that get established OK, but then get overgrown by weeds. Weeds that tangle around, stealing the sun and the water, crowding and choking the young plant. Oh my gosh, so many things are like that for me. There are a lot of weeds right now, y’all. The ongoing thrum of anxiety, stress, grief – over lost opportunities, lost people, lost normalcy – all of that is big stuff that we can’t turn off. It may weigh heavier some days and lighter others, but it’s always there.
It’s why I’ve pulled back on some impulses to create LOTS of content and LOTS of opportunities in our virtual church household. Sure, some of us have more time now than we did in the Before-times – but most of us have less bandwidth, less mental, emotional, and/or spiritual capacity. A lot of things we might like to do in principal are getting choked out by the cares of the world, as Jesus says.
And then there are the seeds that the birds grab before they even get rooted. I struggled a little with finding this in my life until I realized – these are the seeds that never even start to grow. These are the opportunities and possibilities that cross my path, but don’t even register. I don’t click the link. I have a schedule conflict and don’t make it to the event. I don’t ask the next question that would take the conversation somewhere deeper. I know these misses happen all the time – even though I try to pay attention and notice which of the thousands of things that cross my path have that glint or shimmer of holy possibility.
Now and then I recognize a miss, and grieve it. But most of the time I don’t even know the misses happen. That doesn’t keep me up nights… much – because I trust in God’s Plans B, C, D, E, F, G, and so on. Maybe that seed bounced off me and got nobbled by a bird. But somewhere else – I hope, I pray – a seed landed in warm, rich, moist soil, soft and deep enough to send down roots.
And that’s where this parable points us. It’s a parable of reassurance. Maybe only a quarter of the seed lands in the good soil. But the ones that land in the right soil at the right time – they grow enough that there will be a harvest. A banquet.
As I was working on this sermon, my husband Phil was out in the garden picking the first fresh pea pods off our pea plants. He picked a quart of peas – and that’s just the beginning. And each of our happy, prolific pea plants started as one pea. One. Pea.
Now, it was work to give those pea plants good, rich soil, and make sure they get enough water and enough sun – even cutting down some old dead trees a few years ago! – and to keep critters from eating the seedlings. But it’s not work to make the plant grow, or bear fruit. If the conditions are right, the plant just *does* that.
Our lives are full of opportunities and invitations to be part of God’s work of healing, liberating, and reconciling. And some of those possibilities WILL land in good soil. The season is right; there’s just enough sun, just enough rain; and the seed takes root. When something is really rooted in your good soil, it uses the gifts and skills you already have – AND it calls you into getting better at what it needs from you. When something is really rooted in your good soil, you don’t have to talk yourself into doing it because your heart is already there. Maybe it feels easy, maybe it feels hard – but it draws you onward. It grows.
Here’s an example of something I currently want to drop everything else and work on: Turning the last fourteen chapters of the Book of Genesis into a script and a virtual Vacation Bible School for August. It’s not a big or significant project by many standards. And there are moments when I reproach myself for wanting to put my time into something fun and frivolous.
But then I remind myself of the endgame, the harvest I’m trying to cultivate with projects like this: Nurturing kids- and grownups! – in this church whose consciences and imaginations are deeply formed by Scripture, and its call to be people of justice, mercy, and reconciliation.
When something is deeply rooted in your good soil, you want to give it your time and energy and skill. It’s okay that not everything is like that. But it’s glorious that some things are.
We all have rocky soil within us, friends – and weeds that tangle and crowd. But we have good earth too – rich soil where things can grow, where things are already growing, already bearing fruit, already turning one seed into twenty or forty or a hundred. We all have the capacity to grow something for God’s kingdom – watermelons or cherries, zucchini or chives or potatoes… After all, fruitfulness comes in all shapes, sizes and flavors, thanks be to God!
Is there something in your life that you want to weed around, and water, and give a little more chance to grow? …