By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Back before broadcasting referred to radio and television, it described the way seeds were planted. Handfuls of seed were scattered — broadcast — across the field. For countless generations, this was the way that farmers planted their seed.
The people who gather around Jesus to hear the stories that he tells are familiar with this broadcasting. They have seen it done, done it themselves. It’s as familiar to them as the back of their hands. Jesus takes this familiar action and uses it as a conversation starter. He’s trying to get the crowd to see the world in a new way. He’s trying to get you and me to see the world in a new way.
It’s all so familiar to the people listening to Jesus. Some seed falls on the path, the hard track that the farmer has walked time and again through the field. Some seed falls among the rocks, the rocks that are, so it seems, almost everywhere. Some seed falls where thorns will grow. They all know that this happens, that much of the seed goes to waste. Too bad. After all, that’s life.
But some seed falls in good, rich soil and grows up tall and straight and yields an abundant harvest. They know that this happens, too, but they don’t know how, and they don’t know why. It’s a mystery! Yet they’re glad, so glad, when the harvest comes. They give God thanks, and rejoice together; they’re happy to have enough to eat.
For a moment, let’s put this story to one side and hear another story. It concerns a young anthropologist named Connie who works among aboriginal people in Australia. The community where she lives has a rich tradition of storytelling. Everyone gathers at night, a story is told, and then another, and another. Connie feels extraordinarily privileged when she is asked to join in this activity.
The first story told that evening is about the animal ancestor of this community and its adventures at the beginning of time. The story overflows with detail, action, imagery.
At the end of the story, Connie is delighted. “May I ask a question?” she says. “What does it mean?”
All eyes are upon her. The elder looks at her gravely and says, “That is the one question you cannot ask.” A long time passes before she is invited again. She has asked the wrong question.
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“What does it mean?” That was the wrong question for Connie to ask about the aboriginal myth. It may also be the wrong question for us to ask about the story of the sower, or any of the stories told by Jesus. “What does it mean?” is the wrong question if we think that by having an answer, we can somehow get a handle on this story, domesticate it, make it safe. The stories Jesus tells are not subject to our control. He tells these stories so that we can be transformed. He tells these stories, not so that we can ask questions about them, but so that the stories can ask questions of us.
Today’s story of broadcasting seed, with details so familiar to the crowd who come to hear Jesus, seems to me to ask us these two questions at least: What kind of soil are you? What kind of sower are you?
What kind of soil are you? The trick is that, from moment to moment, any of us can be any of the four soils that the story describes. For the sower is ever going forth to sow, broadcasting the seed, and whenever someone’s spirit is touched and aroused, that seed has found a place to grow.
What kind of seed are you? Sometimes my mind is utterly conventional, restricted by training and habit. The crust of custom remains unbroken. I avoid the pain of a new idea, a new commitment. I forget nothing old, and learn nothing new. My fixation of mind obstructs even the good will of God. I am a path made hard and bare by many feet, where the seed falls in vain, only to be picked up by bandit birds and carried off.
What kind of seed are you? Sometimes my mind is soft, shallow, sentimental. There’s emotion, but not action. There’s indulgence, but no obligation. My mind is eager, but unstable, and so nothing grows for long. The shallow soil of sentimentality and the hard rocks of cynicism conspire together to prevent roots from reaching out. The brilliant sunlight of reality burns away my fantasies, for in me there is no depth, no place to grow.
What kind of soil are you? Sometimes my mind is preoccupied, absorbed by the medley of the world, cluttered with its trash, incapable of observation, reflection, prayer. The hectic dance of activity, the endless tumult of events, leaves me without mental seriousness, the capacity to engage in sustained thought. The deepest, finest powers of my nature are injured. The growth that could be is choked off, strangled, by weeds of a hundred species.
The conventional mind. The shallow, sentimental mind. The preoccupied mind. Mercifully there are times where I am none of these, but am instead a rich, fertile, welcoming soil that accepts the scattered seed and produces a crop — thirtyfold or sixty or a hundred.
When I am such soil, then my task is to be patient. Growth takes time. Too much digging about, too much interference with the prospering seed may delay or defeat the harvest. But at other times there’s need for introspection. Then I may well ask myself:
How can I be more than a hard-beaten path?
What are the stones in my soul that prevent me from having depth?
Where are the weeds in my life that threaten to choke whatever grows?
What kind of soil are you? Sometimes I am rich soil that brings forth bountiful grain. When this happens, then my attention can move from the soil to the seed.
That seed which sprouts may come to me through the glory of the rising the sun, the splatter of waves upon the shore, or the multitude and silence of the stars.
That seed which sprouts may come to me through some other human life, a person whose true example warms my heart and quickens my will, whose patience and good humor make me capable of the same.
That seed which sprouts may come to me through the community of faith as I respond to scripture and sacrament, participate in living tradition, and welcome the ministry that other Christians offer to me.
That seed which sprouts comes to me always through the mercy and action of God, but most readily when I open myself to God’s perfect gift of himself in Christ.
And when that seed sprouts, then I can become aware of how that seed continues to be broadcast even at times when I am not a soil where it can prosper. Divine generosity is imprudent, uncalculating, concerned with something more than outcome. Always and everywhere the sower goes out to sow, casting the seeds of new opportunity, new possibility, in every direction.
Do not hear the stories of Jesus in simply one way! He tells them in order to get conversation started. Today’s story asks us, “What kind of soil are you?” It also asks,
“What kind of sower?”
What kind of sower are you? Not only are God’s actions seeds that are scattered, but our actions done in the name of God are also scattered seeds. Each of us is meant to stride the fields of life broadcasting seed, doing actions great and small, but doing them in the name of God, with the divine harvest in mind.
It matters not whether what you do is something great in the eyes of the world, for any human deed is a frail thing. What matters is whether your action is a seed, something that, if it lands in welcoming soil, can yield a rich harvest. Then realize this — whether you put a bandaid on a child’s skinned knee or endow a college, whether you take soup to a sick neighbor or establish a food bank, you are doing what we all must do — striding through the days of your life, broadcasting the seed of God’s purpose, seed that will take root in hospitable soil and yield a rich harvest — of kindness, of justice, of new opportunity — a harvest beyond your imagining.
What kind of soil are you?
What kind of sower are you?
— Copyright for this sermon 2005, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).