The Parable of the Sower: Finding God at the Center of the Story

This sermon, preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on July 13, 2014 is based on the Gospel reading for Proper 10 in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find that reading here.


I don’t know if you all had a chance to see the email it didn’t come out until Friday it was too late to get into the bulletin announcements. Leanne Puglielli, who is here with us this morning, has been attending Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church on the east side of town for many months in an attempt to establish and deepen the relationships between our parish and theirs. She is inviting folks to go with her on the Sundays that she attends that church on the east side of town. The announcement that we sent out had a schedule of dates and opportunities for you to go and also asks for other folks who might be willing to be ambassadors in an effort to address the racial disparity in the city that was identified by the race to equity report and the report of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. So I hope that you will keep that in mind and that you will watch your calendars and look for an opportunity to join the many folks from this parish who have already visited Christ the Solid Rock and become a part of this effort to get to know folks who are in different circumstances and look different than we do but who are in fact our brothers and sisters in Christ.

As part of this effort Leanne and I had lunch with Christ the Solid Rock’s Pastor on Tuesday over here at Brokaw’s and in the course of that conversation he invited me, and maybe the right verb would be challenged me, to come and preach at his church. Now I went and visited Christ the Solid Rock on the last Sunday of my sabbatical back in March and I know that Everett stood up and preached for a solid 25 minutes. And that he was yelling for at least 18 of those 25 minutes! Leanne told me later, sitting next to me there on the bench of Brokaw’s when Everett issued that challenge, she could just feel the fear radiating off of me.

In that moment Everett and I were laughing and talking about preaching and how that works for us.   He told me that he doesn’t preach according to a lectionary and that I would be allowed to pick any passage I wanted to preach on when I’m there. I told him that we use a three-year lectionary cycle and while I get to choose between the Old Testament and the New Testament and the gospel I am confined to those readings for any given Sunday.   Then I said, “you know I’ve been ordained for 12 years now that means I probably preached on the Parable of the Sower four times and this Sunday I’ll get the preach on it for the fifth time. I’m struggling to come up with something new to say.” As the week went along I realize that that was about as far from the truth as I could’ve gotten in that moment.

I think part of the beauty of our Scripture is that we can come back to the same stories over and over and over again: and because we have changed and grown, because our context has changed and we are in different places in our lives, every time we read those stories we can hear something new. Different words will jump out at us. Different layers of meaning will reveal themselves. Different aspects of the story will catch our attention. This is true of all scripture but I think it’s especially true with a parable.

Jesus taught almost exclusively in parables. Some of those parables, at east on the surface, seem pretty easy to understand. Others are very confounding and confusing. But we need to wrestle with those parables in order to understand what Jesus is saying.

I think that parables lend themselves very well to the repeated approach, repeated encounter, repeated sense of joy and discovery that our lectionary offers us.

The great Welsh New Testament scholar and theologian C. H. Dodd gives a great definition of parables in his book The Parables of the Kingdom.   He says

“At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

To tease it in two active thought… That’s the goal of any good teacher; to tease the minds of their student into active thought so that they will grapple and wrestle and explore on their own. If you give somebody the answer right away they don’t own it. All they have to do is regurgitate it. So what you do is tease your student’s minds so that they will explore and wrestle. Then they can own their discoveries and truly learn and be changed. That’s why Jesus teaches in parables, to tease our imaginations into active thought. So let’s try that exercise with The Parable of the Sower this morning.

To begin with we need to recognize and understand that as we enter the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus has just been in conflict with the religious authorities and with people who refused to hear and accept his message. So he’s coming out of this experience where people have rejected him, scorned him, and have looked down on him. And I’m sure the disciples were really confused. I’m sure they were thinking. “We’ve heard these words and we recognize their power, their depth, and their meaning. We’ve been changed. Why isn’t everyone experiencing the same conversion, the same transformation that we are?” So Jesus tells this parable to explain a very real and present experience in the life of his disciples. People are different and some people won’t understand. Other people will grasp immediately but not deeply and they’ll wither away.   Other people will understand then be distracted by other cares and needs.   So you shouldn’t be surprised that everyone doesn’t respond the same way that you do.

Okay. So we step back and we turn our imagination loose on this passage again and see that there’s another layer of meaning to explore. I’ll wager that this is one that all of you have already spent time exploring. Jesus is describing different responses to his word comparing those responses to different kinds of soil and we start to wonder and worry what kind of soil owe are. We launch into a cycle of self-evaluation and concern about judgment. We start to wonder how it is that we can be good soil … Our imagination has brought us pretty far and maybe this is a productive place to be, but it’s not a productive place to stay, so we let our imagination keep working.

Let’s imagine that maybe Jesus isn’t judging here. Maybe he’s lamenting the state of the world as he’s experiencing it and instead of judging he’s offering us a way to be good soil. We need to work to learn and to understand so that we don’t become the rocky path where the seeds are immediately snatched away by the birds of the air. We need to continue to work to persevere even when persecutions arise, even when it gets difficult to proclaim and to live out what we are learning. And we need to recognize that there are things in life which can distract us, lure us in the wrong direction.   We need to continue to listen to grow and to allow those seeds to sprout deep within us.

So by using our imagination we have identified several layers of meaning in this parable. But we’re still not done because all three of those layers of meaning position us, you and I, as the central characters of the parable. So far we have people who are responding to Jesus’ presence and teaching at the center the story. We have people being described as as good or bad soil at the center of another layer of meaning. We have ourselves needing to learn and to behave differently in order that the seed being scattered in us might sprout and bear fruit.   But when we find ourselves at the center of a passage of scripture, when the story seems to be about us, we know we have more work to do. We can’t stop until we have come to see God at the center of the story. God needs to be the focus of the gospel. So let’s put our imagination back to work and see if we can figure out where God is in this parable.

Here’s where the parable becomes more challenging. Good teachers will use a parable, a metaphor or a simile to explain something new by relating it to something that we already know. Good teachers can help us to grasp new concepts by drawing on our experience and the things that we already understand. C. H. Dodd said that a parable is used to tease the mind into active thought by “arresting us with its vividness and strangeness…” Vividness and strangeness indeed! Jesus’ parables often seem to cloud our understanding, to confound our attempts to discern. Sometimes they don’t seem to relate to want we know at all… The Parable of the Sower is a prime example.

In an agrarian economy where people are, for the most part subsistence farmers, that seed is a precious resource. A farmer in that context would walk out into the fields having tilled the ground knowing exactly where to place that seed so that it had the greatest prospect of growing, coming to fruit, and feeding him and his family. That’s not how Jesus describes God in this parable. God is out there casting seeds in all directions irrespective of the ground that it lands on. God is casting that seed on the rocky path, on the ground amongst the stones, on the good soil and the bad. God is so generous and his sense of abundance is so great that the seed just gets cast everywhere. That’s a remarkable way to hear this story and a remarkable shift in focus if we can let our imagination take us there.

Why is it so important to let our imagination continue to work, to continue to wrestle, to continue to dig into these stories? It’s not until we get to that last a layer of meaning that we recognize the true power and beauty of this story. So having worked through the parable to the point where we have God squarely in the center we are ready to go back and reexamine the other levels of meaning we found. Jesus is talking about the people in his presence, the people that his disciples are experiencing, some of whom hear the word and respond and some of whom don’t. He’s talking about the conditions that affect the way that we hear and respond to the Good News of God in Christ. And he’s also talking about us: as individuals, as a parish community, and as a larger community here in Madison and beyond. Jesus is talking about the human condition. And, most importantly, Jesus’ is talking about God’s response to that human condition.

What kind of soil am I? Am I the good soil, the path, the rocky ground… Have I let weeds grow within me? The answer to all of these is yes! What day of the week is it? Have I had enough to eat? Have I had enough sleep? Have I just experienced some devastating loss?   Have I become ill? During the course of our lives, through the years, even within an individual day we can go from being rocky soil to good soil back to rocky soil to being the path to finding ourselves surrounded by thorns. That is the human condition and the true beauty of this story is that God is going to continue sewing those seeds in us, all of the time, regardless of the kind of soil we are at any given moment!   So I might find myself in a desert time: my soil closed, packed tight, unable to accept those seeds that God is sewing. I don’t need to worry that God is going to stop, that God is going to give up, that God is going to say, “well enough of this dry patch of earth I’m going to go plant over here in this fertile soil that’s been tilled and well-kept.” God is casting seeds everywhere all of the time in all of us!

When we dig into the story, when we allow our imagination to wrestle with the images, to view them from different perspectives, to work our way through the narrative and inhabit the different characters we find great joy and meaning. We find a God who loves us beyond measure, even beyond our ability to understand. We know that God is with us always and that no matter how dry our soil gets nothing… nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We thought this parable was about seeds and soil.   It’s really about God! And when we find God at the center of this story the story has the chance to transform our lives.

I said earlier that I have probably preached on this story four times before today and that this makes the fifth time I have visited this passage since I have been ordained. I am pretty sure that I have yet to exhaust the possibilities, that I have yet to plumb the depth of meaning in this parable. And I have to tell you that I am looking forward to revisiting it again three years from now. I hope that you all are too!

Thanks be to God!


The Binding of Isaac

This sermon, preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on June 29, 2014 is based on the Old Testament reading assigned for Proper 8 of Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find that reading here.

So it’s probably been about 8 or 9 minutes since we heard it. We said a psalm. We heard a New Testament reading and just now a gospel reading in the interim… but I’m guessing that it’s the words of today’s first reading from the book of Genesis that are still echoing in your ears this morning. The Akedah, the binding of Isaac story that is nightmarish in quality; sort of indistinct and blurry references to time, and to distance, and location; things happening that don’t quite make sense, where is Sarah when they load the donkeys and ride out of camp that morning? It is a story that is deeply disturbing in its content and its narrative. God says to Abraham take your son Isaac the one whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there on a hilltop that I will show you… How can this be?   How can God be instructing Abraham to sacrifice his son, the son whom he loves?

You would think that a story this disturbing it might just be shuttled off to the side to be read as infrequently as possible in the lectionary, to receive a little attention. But this story is one that has some real traction. It is a story that stays with us, a story that writers and theologians and philosophers and poets return to again, and again, and again. So I think it’s worth our time this morning to examine this story in its context and to see what might be happening. What makes us keep this story within reach and within view?

Terah, the father of Abraham, brings his family from Ur of the Chaldeans on his way to the land of Canaan.  He stops in Haran and instead of continuing on his journey he settles there.   It is there in Haran that God calls to Abraham. God says leave your family, your tribe, your people. Leave everything you know behind and go to the land that I will show you. No named destination, no road map, no clear way to get there. Just leave it all behind and set off into the wilderness. And Abraham does it! Along the way Abraham encounters God again. This time God tells him that he will make Abraham the father of nations, that nations will come from him, that his descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky, as impossible to count as the dust on the earth, and that his descendants will be a blessing to all people.

Years go by. Abraham is traveling through the wilderness with his wife Sarah and his family and he starts to get worried. He starts to get nervous that these promises won’t come true because Sarah still hasn’t born him a son. So he and Sarah take matters into their own hands. In an attempt to ensure the promises that God has made Sarah sends her handmaiden Hagar in to Abraham’s tent and she bears Abraham a Son named Ishmael.

Some time later three strangers visit Abraham and Sarah in the desert by the Oaks of Mamre and Abraham provides them with hospitality, providing them water to wash their feet, a place to rest and food. They promise that by the time they return the following year Sarah will have borne a child.   But by this time Abraham and Sarah are so old that the birth of a child seems impossible and Sarah laughs loud enough for the three strangers to hear her. But it happens. The promise is fulfilled.   And it’s such a remarkable thing that they name the child Isaac, which means “laughter.”

God made promises to Abraham. Abraham went into the wilderness leaving everything behind. God continued to reiterate the promises. Abraham and Sarah tried to take things into their own hands ensuring the fulfillment of the promises through the son of Hagar the handmaid. Now finally, after all these years, they have a child of their own. This child is the key. Through Isaac Abraham’s descendants will populate the world. Through Isaac Abraham will become the father of Nations and his children will be a blessing to all people.   So when God comes to Abraham and says take your son, the one whom you love, Isaac, and sacrifice him it’s an outrageous demand!   To sacrifice your own child is an awful act but there is a threat here to the promises that God has made to Abraham and around which Abraham has structured his entire life for the last 25 years.

I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like. That three-day journey with Isaac and with the servants heading for that unnamed unknown mountain must’ve been like a nightmare to Abraham, one of those nightmares that wake you up in the middle of the night shaking and sweating, unsure of who you are and where you are. Like one of those nightmares that when you finally have recovered enough to fall back asleep picks right back up where it left off.

So here’s Abraham going up the mountain.   He’s now transferred the wood from the donkey to Isaac’s back and he’s carrying the fire and his knife. Isaac speaks up, “Father?” Abraham says, “Here I am.” Isaac asks, “The fire and the wood are here but where is the Lamb for the burnt offering?” Here’s where I think the story becomes really interesting and the key for why we keep this story within reach and within view.

Scholars will tell us that when they examine the structure of the Hebrew in these verses there is a pattern. There’s a call, a response, and an address, a call, a response, and an address, a call, a response, and an address. There is a strong repeating strophic pattern in this passage. That pattern is broken by one verse, Abraham’s response to Isaac. This response falls right in the middle of the story dividing the first from the second halves and throwing the whole thing out of balance. Abraham says, “God himself will provide the Lamb for the offering my son.”

Think about the history of the relationship between God and Abraham. God has made promises. Abraham has followed God’s call but he’s wrestled back and forth.   He’s laughed. He’s tried to take things into his own hands. God continues to reiterate the promises. Abraham’s unsure whether this is really going to happen and now suddenly there’s this child. It seems like it’s all true the prophecy is about to move forward. But, given all this wrestling, all of this back and forth, God doesn’t know how Abraham will respond, in this moment, to the promises being fulfilled. That’s what it says later in the story when the Angel stays Abraham’s hand. “For now I know…” For now I know.

At this moment, as they’re going up the hill, God doesn’t know how Abraham is going to respond. But at this moment Abraham and God are in similar places because Abraham doesn’t know how God is going to respond either. Abraham’s response to Isaac, “God himself will provide the Lamb…” was surely uttered with this subtext running in Abraham’s head.   “Okay. Okay. Here I am God. I’m being faithful and doing what you asked.   But you’ve made all these promises and I trusted you.   Maybe I haven’t been perfect but I tried my best. Please figure out a way to get us both out of this mess!”

God is testing Abraham to see if Abraham will be faithful. Will Abraham trust that no matter what, in spite of it all, no matter how it looks, God will be faithful and God’s promises will come true.   Abraham is saying to God please be true, be faithful to the promises that you have made. Abraham is, in this verse at the center of the story, in this verse that breaks the symmetry of the poetry, putting God to the test. This understanding of the story is buttressed by the way that it ends.

“So Abraham called tat place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” (Genesis 22:14.)

It’s not a one-way testing that’s happening here. There is mutual accountability in this relationship, there is a mutual testing and trying, there is a push and pull, there is a wrestling with God that is echoed again and again through the Old Testament. Isaac’s grandson Jacob will wrestle with God at the river Jabok and come away limping with a mark on his hip. Marked for life by his encounter with God and the wrestling that they do.   There’s no question in my mind that both Isaac and Abraham are marked by their encounter with God in this moment, changed forever, because in this moment when Abraham is faithful and God is faithful their relationship is sealed forever.

It’s still a very dark difficult and mysterious story one from which we might be tempted to turn away. But we haven’t done that. We keep this story within reach, within view because in some ways it describes our experience of life. Our inscrutable God will demand things of us and ask us to respond.   Sometimes we’ll understand and sometimes we won’t. And sometimes we will be faithful and sometimes we won’t. The relationship that is depicted in this Scripture is the one to which we are called. We are called to wrestle with God. And in that wrestling we will find that God provides, and that God is faithful. So don’t be afraid to wrestle. Don’t be afraid of the struggle. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to push back. Start here with this story, today, wrestling with God because it is in that wrestling that we discover God’s truth and God’s faithfulness.

It is through wrestling that we finally learn that God’s promises to us are true.