SPARE NOT THE SEED
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
July 16, 2017; 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Genesis 25:19-34; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
“Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain,
some a hundredfold,
some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
Many, many years ago, when I was a kid in Sunday School, I came back home from church with a Dixie cup full of potting soil. Deep within that soil, I knew — because I’d planted it there myself — was a single bean seed.
Take it home, the teacher had said. Put it on a sunny windowsill. Water it every day or two. Watch and wait — and see what happens!
A week or two later, all of us from that Sunday School class were able to come back and tell our teacher what we’d seen: a little green sprout poking its head up, out of the rich black soil. To this day I can’t recall what the Bible lesson was, on which that project was based. But I still remember the paper cup and the bean sprout.
It’s no great feat of agriculture to coax a sprout out of a bean seed. Those are pretty big seeds: easy for little fingers to press down into the soft soil. And they germinate in just a few days: that’s instant gratification by gardening standards!
Would that all agriculture were so easy!
Jesus’ listeners knew it wasn’t easy. A good many of them worked the land themselves. They knew how hard it was, year after year, tilling the soil and planting. They knew how unpredictable the harvest could be: some years a bumper crop, others barely enough for their families to eat.
Even good farmers knew what it was like to have a bad year. So many factors were beyond their control: wind, rain, temperature, attacks by insects.
They would also have recognized that there was something a little off in the way the farmer in Jesus’ parable sows his seed:
“…some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil… Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.”
This doesn’t sound like a very capable farmer. Who sows seeds on the hardened earth of a footpath; or in a place where soil is thin, over rocks; or in a briar-patch, where there’s too much competition from other plants?
Then, as now, seed was one of a farmer’s most costly assets. You didn’t waste it. You sowed your seeds only where you were sure the soil was good, the sunlight constant, the water supply reliable.
So, what are we to make of this spectacularly irresponsible farmer? Why did Jesus tell the parable that way, when he knew his listeners would be dumbfounded by the seed-sower’s poor judgment, his wasteful ways?
I think he told the parable that way precisely because he wanted to shock his listeners. He wanted to shock them awake.
A good parable has something in it to strike the audience as strange or unusual: something to knock them off balance. So often, the purpose of Jesus’ parables is to highlight in unmistakable terms the differences between the world as we know it and the coming reign (or kingdom) of God.
Which is why, I think, Jesus chose seeds as the subject-matter. On the one hand, seeds are commonplace. We plant them, sometimes we eat them, we think of ourselves as thoroughly familiar with them — except we’re not, not really. There’s something wondrous and, yes, mysterious about a seed: something about the way that life-essence dwells within — a power even our best scientists don’t fully comprehend.
I just finished reading a remarkable new autobiography: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. Hope is a college professor, a research botanist. She’s also a mighty fine writer. I’m sure she knows how to write a scientific abstract, in all its mind-numbing precision, but in this book she demonstrates she’s also got the soul of a poet.
Let me read you an excerpt. She’s writing, here, about seeds:
“A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature – moisture – light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance — to take its one and only chance to grow.
A seed is alive while it waits. Every acorn on the ground is just as alive as the three-hundred-year-old oak tree that towers over it. Neither the seed nor the old oak is growing; they are both just waiting. Their waiting differs, however, in that the seed is waiting to flourish while the tree is only waiting to die. When you go into a forest you probably tend to look up at the plants that have grown so much taller than you ever could. You probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sit hundreds of seeds, each one alive and waiting. They hope against hope for an opportunity that will probably never come. More than half of these seeds will die before they feel the trigger that they are waiting for, and during awful years every single one of them will die. All this death hardly matters, because the single birch tree towering over you produces at least a quarter of a million new seeds every single year. When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.
A coconut is a seed that’s as big as your head. It can float from the coast of Africa across the entire Atlantic Ocean and then take root and grow on a Caribbean island. In contrast, orchid seeds are tiny: one million of them put together add up to the weight of a single paper clip. Big or small, most of every seed is actually just food to sustain a waiting embryo. The embryo is a collection of only a few hundred cells, but it is a working blueprint for a real plant with root and shoot already formed.” [Lab Girl (Vintage, 2017), 30-31.
So much of Hope’s professional life centers around the study of seeds — but I like the way she hasn’t lost her sense of wonder. A bit later, she tells of one very remarkable seed indeed:
“After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed…and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. And then one day this little plant’s yearning finally burst forth within a laboratory. I wonder where it is right now.”
Can you start to see why the life of seeds is a good image for the reign (or kingdom) of God? As Jesus presents it, God’s reign is both already-here and not-yet. The signs of God’s power to transform this world are unmistakable. Even the tiniest living shoot — a bean-sprout like the one I once grew in my paper cup — has the power to push all sorts of things out of its way in its journey towards the sunlight. How many sidewalk slabs have you seen lifted up by tree-roots? Two strong construction workers would have a hard time heaving up a slab of concrete that large, but a tree can manage it with ease. Now, granted, it does it very, very slowly — but maybe that says something about God’s timing. If eternity is your frame of reference, then what’s a year or two, or even ten?
Ah, but we with our small minds keep trying to make God’s plan fit into our flash-in-the-pan timetables! I have to wonder about all the Christian zealots who spend so much energy poring over apocalyptic scripture passages, dabbling in obscure numerology, trying to figure out whether or not we’re truly living in the “end times.” What audacity to think they have insider knowledge of a divine plan that includes within it 2,000-year-old seeds! Sure, there are plenty of scripture passages that say the Day of the Lord will come suddenly, when it finally does arrive — but there aren’t many that give the impression it’s going to happen soon. Suddenness and soonness are not the same thing!
It so happens there are passages like 2 Peter 3:8-9 that weigh in on the side of exceptionally long periods of time before the reign of God breaks in:
“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”
The spectacular extravagance — even wastefulness — of the farmer in the parable begins, now, to make sense. It’s consistent with the world around us. If a single birch tree releases a quarter-million seeds a year, then sure, a great many of them are going to end up on the road, or get lost in the briar-patch. This seed-sower in the parable is no human farmer, carefully portioning out his seeds one by one, laying them at precisely-measured intervals along a trench dug out by a plow. No, this character’s sowing seeds of the reign of God — and if that’s what you’ve got in your bag, you may as well fling them into the air by the handful, because there’s no end to those seeds — nor is there any way of predicting where they may end up.
There’s no end to what they can produce, either. Notice what Jesus says in the parable about the seeds that land in good soil: “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”
That’s a lot of grain. Even the low end of it — a thirtyfold yield — would cause any farmer to go wild with excitement. And that’s the low end of the scale. The high end is a hundredfold return on investment: so far beyond the experience of any human farmer, it’s hard to even conceive of. But to the God who traffics in thousands of years rather than single days, that’s nothing extraordinary. When you’re the creator of time itself, you can produce all manner of wonders.
The thing to remember, though — whether the seed falls on stony ground or on good soil — is who’s in charge of the whole operation. You and I are not the sowers of the seed. It’s God who does that. We’re partners, fellow-workers, laborers in the vineyard, but we don’t have any say over what sort of soil the seed may land in.
There’s something very freeing in that. It takes the pressure off. You and I, my friends, are not responsible for the success of God’s mission in the world. Remember whose mission it is: God’s, not ours. We are participants. We are farmhands.
Sometimes one of our mission projects succeeds. When it does, we do well to give God the glory. Other times, the result fails to live up to expectations. In that case, perhaps the seed landed on rocky soil — for reasons known only to God.
We ought not to be surprised when we see this happen. God, it seems, expects it to happen a great deal. The Lord’s attitude seems to be, “Sow as much seed as you can, as broadly as you can. Not every seed will sprout: but some will.”
Renowned professor of preaching Tom Long understands this well. He has this to say in his commentary on Matthew:
“The church knows the truth of this parable. It takes the gospel into the world, hardly knowing where to cast the seed. A new idea for youth ministry falls flat on its face. A proposal for a needed neighborhood day-care center is choked out by bureaucratic regulations. A door-to-door evangelism program encounters locked doors and generates no new church members. Hard soil. Scorching sun. Sharp thorns. The church knows the truth of this parable.
But the church can also hear the promise of this parable. Keep on spreading the seed; keep on preaching the gospel and showing the compassion of the kingdom. In ways that we do not always know and in places we cannot always see, the gospel is falling on good soil, and even now the great harvest of God is growing rich and full in the fields.” [Matthew (Westminster John Knox, 1997), 147.
The key is to avoid getting discouraged by the failures that are built into the system. God, the great sower of the seed, doesn’t seem too concerned about seed that goes astray: on the pathway, in the rocky soil, in the briar-patch. Why should we?
Many of us have a tendency to beat ourselves up over that sort of thing. We’re such perfectionists — even more so, when it’s God’s work we’re doing. We have this irrational expectation that everything’s got to go well, all the time. But that’s not the way the world works: nor is it the way the reign of God works.
As the ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky is famous for saying: “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”
Winston Churchill — a man who led his nation through some very dark days — had an interesting definition of success. “Success,” he once said, “consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
Some seed’s going to end up on the rocks. It happens. But as long as we trust God to keep sowing seed out of that limitless supply, and to cast it far and wide, we know some of it’s going to land in fertile ground, and will be a blessing to others.
Ensuring the success of the mission of Christ’s church is not our responsibility. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit. You and I, we’re just along for the ride — and what a ride it is, as long as we trust the Lord to keep re-filling that seed bag!
Let us pray:
Lord of the seedtime and of the harvest:
what a privilege it is to be called as your partners
in this beautiful work
of seeding the world in love and grace.
Allow us to understand the scope of this task.
Remind us that our perspective
takes in but a tiny portion of your great work,
which is spread over such a long period of time.
And when it happens that you do entrust us
with particular tasks,
entrust us also with the faith and knowledge
that there’s something in every seed
that mirrors the whole:
a harvest as yet unrealized. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.