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"Parable of the Sower" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - July 16, 2017

posted Jul 19, 2017, 2:18 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

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Over the last few weeks I walked my dog Duchess past a neighbor’s house, mostly to watch the progress of his garden.  My neighbor, who I only know well enough to nod at, is fixing up the house he recently bought. Fresh paint transformed it. But the work on the garden confuses me.

My neighbor planted an ambitious number of shrubs and flowers.  But he didn’t make flower beds. No turning over the grass, laboriously knocking clods of dirt loose from clumps of grass. Instead, he just dug in a flower bed edge and dumped choco-shell mulch over the grass.

It looks good for the moment, but I keep thinking the grass is going to pop up through the mulch. A weeding nightmare. Or did he discover some trick I don’t know? I can’t decide; so, Duchess and I keep watching as we walk by.

Just as I wonder about the gardening technique of my neighbor, close listeners to Jesus’ story might wonder about the sower. The sower does nothing to prepare the soil; no tilling, no fertilizing. And in fact, the sower cast seeds everywhere: on the field, among bushes, on rocky ground. This is hardly a well-thought-out approach to farming!

And indeed, it seems pointlessly wasteful; as ridiculous as one of our neighbors buying plants from the nursery and then scattering them about the yard, putting a sun-loving plant underneath a bush, leaving others to root on top of the concrete sidewalk, and digging others into the ground with some manure.

Perhaps because we’ve heard the parable so often or perhaps because we’re so removed from the practice of farming itself, the actions of the sower don’t sound ridiculous. But the disciples knew something wasn’t right about the farmer casting seed where it couldn’t grow, something as odd as if we showed off our hostas left on top of concrete.

We skipped over the part of the Gospel where the disciples express their confusion about this to Jesus. The disciples said to Jesus, “Why do you talk this way?” Clearly they thought: no one farms like this; why tell this kind of ridiculous story?

Basically, Jesus said he used parables to make people think. So, what seems ridiculous ought to give us the greatest pause and cause us to wonder why.

This morning I want to “wonder why” about three parts of this story: first, the ridiculous farmer; then, the four strange soils; and lastly, the miraculously unbelievable harvest. Each makes me wonder why.

So first, the farmer. We call the farmer “the sower.” Our Christian tradition long celebrated the sower in art. Our own sanctuary includes a stained-glass window of this parable, which Crystal reprinted on the bulletin.

But as I mentioned, the sower farms in a ludicrous way. What does it mean that the sower plants seeds almost guaranteed to fail? Seeds planted on the pathway, seeds cast on rocky ground, seeds scattered among thorns. It doesn’t make sense for a farmer to act this way. A farmer who acted so haphazardly would need to be very comfortable with failure.

We don’t often celebrate failure. People brag about success; we only talk about the seed that landed on fertile ground. And yet failures matter. Years ago, I heard Malcolm Gladwell tell the story of railroad connecting Massachusetts and New York. The track had to run through the Hoosac Mountain with a five-mile long tunnel. Everyone agreed that once they breached the shell of the mountain, they would be able to tunnel through soft rock. Engineers. Geologists. They all agreed. But once they started digging, they hit hard stone after hard stone. Costs overran, profit evaporated; a spectacular failure. The engineers and geologists who got the science wrong about the Hoosac Mountain felt like failures. But their failure - including the failure of the original railroad company - opened the way for Massachusetts factories to get their products out to the expanding western regions of our country. The failures of those involved with the railroad originally led to the tremendous economic boom of New England factories. From failure, even spectacular failure, came success.

The sower in the parable took risks and faced failures. And so I began to wonder: who does the farmer represent? Are Jesus’ disciples meant to be the sower? Or is the sower really God?

It can be deeply important for us to claim our failures and risks. But this morning I’m struck by how it can change our view of God. Our tradition often emphasizes God as all-knowing and all-powerful. But Jesus suggests God acts like a haphazard farmer, a ridiculous risk-taker doing things we know will fail. What would it mean to worship an all-failing God?

To say it that way sounds odd, I know. But think about the farmer: no matter how unlikely to succeed, the farmer kept trying. No matter how certain the failure, the farmer still hoped.

I think that’s how God works with us. God keeps trying. God still hopes. I worship a God who doesn’t fear failure; and that means a God who will never give up on us.

If God is the sower, then perhaps we’re the soil. Jesus retold the parable of the sower because the disciples didn’t understand it at first. Jesus mostly repeats what he said the first time but with the retelling he underscored four kinds of soils: the exposed and foot-trodden dirt of the path; the shallow, rocky earth; the weedy and thorn-choked patch of ground; and last, the fertile soil.

Jesus makes clear that each of the first three soils relate to problems in understanding: the foot-trodden path is like a hardened heart; the rocky ground like someone filled with the flush of initial excitement but unable to sustain it; the thorny patch like one distracted.  But success comes with the fourth soil; “But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields.”

Jesus meant for us to wonder which soil described us: are our hearts hardened, our souls shallow, our minds distracted, our lives fertile?

We ought to ask ourselves such a question. And yet, even though I don’t garden much, I know what makes for fertile soil: manure.

My brother once worked on a horse farm. He boarded more than thirty horses outside of Baltimore. Which meant he had a lot of barns and stalls to clean out.  Piles of manure.

During that same time my dad lived in Delaware, near the ocean. Sandy soil surrounded the house. It was nothing like the rich, dark soil around here. So my dad called my brother; who was soon driving out every year with a pick-up filled with manure. The flower beds looked gorgeous.

Jesus calls for us to be fertile soils. Which means manure. Can we remember that when life get difficult? Just going to make better soil. When you’re dealing with a lot of...manure, just remember: better soil.

Jesus equated manure-rich soil with a depth of understanding. More...manure, more understanding. But the reason why becomes clear when we contrast the rocky, shallow soil with the fertile, manure-rich soil. Plants can live in shallow soil; I’m amazed at how tenaciously a plant can eke out existence on some craggy spot. But such plants run the risk of drying out in the hot sun. Jesus explained about people who lived like such a plant, “yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.”

In contrast, the fertile, manure-rich soil allows plants to deeply root into the soil and the ground itself holds more moisture.

This difference points to the nature of understanding. Understanding is not the same has having the answer. One can have the answer to a problem but not understand the situation; we can know what happened but not why it happened. Spirituality isn’t about having the right answers; it’s about understanding.

We can have answers to life’s questions; but is our understanding shallow? I find that in my spiritual life I long for deeper and deeper roots. I’m less and less concerned with answers and more and more interested in understanding. To me, understanding comes from listening. Listening to God in prayer. Listening to other people. Listening to other religious traditions, cultures, and histories. And, along the way, dealing of course with a bit of… manure.

If you recognized yourself as one of the first three soils Jesus described - hardened, shallow, or distracted, then what could you do to become more fertile? How could you start listening more deeply?

Lastly, I want to think about the yield Jesus described in these parables. Often the Bible will underscore an important point by repeating it twice. And Jesus does this with the yield of the seeds. In both versions of the parable, Jesus emphasized, “[Some] seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

These yields represent miracles. As one Biblical scholar explained, “Sevenfold meant a good year for a farmer, and tenfold meant true abundance. Thirtyfold would feed a village for a year and a hundredfold would let the farmer retire to a villa by the Sea of Galilee.”

In other words, Jesus basically said, “A Sower cast seed everywhere - even where it didn’t make sense - and ended up winning the lottery.”

We normally think of this as the “parable of the sower” but I wonder if we ought to consider it the “parable of abundance.” For the parable ends, each time Jesus tells it, with amazing - unheard of, barely can be dreamed of - abundance.

Our God of failures, who knows we can only be fertile if there’s enough manure in our lives, calls us to believe in unimaginable abundance.

So often we keep our hopes practical. We dream the possible. We count on the expected. But Jesus points beyond this, to an abundance we can’t see coming from failures and manure we’d rather avoid.

But this Sunday, with this parable, Jesus challenges us to wonder: What can come of failures? What can come of manure? What would unimaginable abundance mean in your life?

Alleluia and Amen.



  • Feasting on the Word

  • Gaventa, Beverly R., “Hearing the Questions,” Christian Century, June 16-23, 1993.

  • Gladwell, Malcolm, “The Gift of Doubt,” The New Yorker