Fourth Sunday of Pentecost
Scripture: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
I took a drive by the sea yesterday. We went for an afternoon drive, me, my husband, and our dog; we travelled along the ocean, Dempsey’s head sticking out the window, delighted by the fresh salty air and his jowls being blown back by the wind, looking as if he’d had some serious doggy Botox.
There were spots where the deep blue of the water seemed to carry on and on forever blending in with the distant backdrop of the sky, echoing from heaven to earth and back again. The rocks on the shore accepted the crashing waves, perhaps welcoming the cascading water on their surface as relief from the scorching sun.
I figured if I were to receive the parable of the sower that Craig has just shared with us as Jesus intends, I needed to be seaside. For, the day Jesus decided to speak the parables to the disciples, he left his house and sat beside the Sea of Galilee. So many people came to be with him on the beach that he got into a boat, rowed out a fair distance from the shore, and sat looking back at the crowds that stood on the beach. He spoke a series of parables to them while floating on the skin of the ocean. Though many landscapes have changed in the past two thousand years, the ocean is not one of them. We can easily imagine the deep blue of the water surely carrying on and on behind Jesus that day until it blended in with the distant backdrop of the sky. The parables: a gift from the sea.
With a bona fide linguistic grace, Anne Morrow Lindberg did not name the particular gift of parable but others among those of the sea. In her words, the beach is where:
One is forced against one’s mind, against all tidy resolutions, back into the primeval rhythms of the seashore. Rollers on the beach, wind in the pines, the slow flapping of herons across sand dunes, drown out the hectic rhythms of city and suburb, time tables and schedules. One falls under their spell, relaxes, stretches out prone. One becomes, in fact, like the element on which one lies, flattened by the sea; bare, open, empty as the beach, erased by today’s tides of all yesterday’s scribblings.
Was Jesus hoping that those who would receive the half-dozen parables that he imparted in the direction of the seashore that day would become like the element on which they stood? Bare, open, empty as the beach? This may be the only way to receive a parable, a story drawn from nature and experience, one that teases the imagination.
As we take in the parable of the sower this morning, may we become such open vessels, captivated by the spell of the sea, held in a net of wonder as if we were gathered on the beach instead of in this sanctuary. May we be blessed with openness as if we were on the shore standing with the crowds of Galilee.
* * * *
José walked into my friend Jillian’s computer training class at the Doe Fund’s facility in Brooklyn, New York four years ago. Jillian had started her job at the Doe Fund just months before, an organization that works to train and educate homeless and formerly incarcerated men so that they can enter the work force and achieve financial self-sufficiency and personal stability.
Jose was one of the younger men at the facility, 25 years old, and came from a neighboring shelter where he went after he left his mom and 4 brothers in their Bronx apartment. One morning, before he left home he had opened his mother’s dresser drawer in her bedroom and pulled out her private diary. He turned to the most recent entry and read the words she had written expressing her heartache that her sons were going to end up in jail. She had lost control of them and didn’t know what to do. Right then and there Jose made the decision to leave so that she wouldn’t worry anymore. He’d already been arrested a few times for selling drugs and shared his mom’s fear that the path he was on led nowhere good.
After a few weeks of class, Jillian began to notice that Jose’s computer skills test scores were unusually high and she knew that this guy with a dark ponytail running down his back and tattoos all over his body was capable of so much more. She had been teaching this computer training course but she and her colleague felt a call to begin to grow a program there that would prepare men, like Jose who never finished grammar school let alone high school, to get their GEDs.
This was met with opposition by the staff of the Doe Fund because so many men already didn’t show up for class or complete requirements for the computer program. This would add a whole new layer of requirements, staffing, and funding.
But Jillian persisted, as she tends to do, and she continued to focus on Jose, reaching out to him whenever he skipped class and confiding in him that she saw something special in him; a capability that he had yet to realize.
“Energy and persistence conquer all things,” our bother Benjamin Franklin once proclaimed, and proved to be true as the organization allowed Jillian to launch a GED prep pilot program, of which Jose was her first student. After a year of prep work and tutoring, Jose was the first person to pass his GED due to training at the Doe Fund. The day after he received this news he cut off his ponytail and shaved his hair short. He told Jillian it signified a fresh start. And, it did. The Doe Fund has since advanced 18 other GED graduates and now employs Jose as a test tutor.
Jose’s story is not typical of the folks that Jillian works with at the Doe Fund. Most don’t graduate the computer training program, the vast majority never begin to express interest in getting their GED. But for every hundred people that the Doe Fund is not able to reach, for every dozen of those transient souls who come in and out of the program, who walk out never to return, who find themselves back on the streets, just one that stays is worth it.
* * * *
A sower went out to sow. And as she sowed, 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. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and chocked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
There’s a cartoon I recently came across a in the Sunday Globe in which three lily seedlings are just beginning to sprout up out of the ground and next to them is a marker indicating what kind of flowers are growing there. On the marker is a large picture of a beautiful lily in full bloom and underneath reads the Latin genus name for the lily, “Lilium Corsica.” One of the seedlings is looking at the picture and says to the other seedlings, “Growing up is stressful enough without these idealized billboards to live up to…”
I can only think that the gardener has similar thoughts to the lily’s, that growing plants from tiny seeds is stressful enough without these idealized images to live up to.
Sowing seeds, whether those in our gardens or in our lives, is hard work. It requires energy and patience, perseverance and persistence and the optimal and expected outcome is always a lot to live up to.
But, what if we are not the sower after all in Jesus’ parable. What if Jesus takes this burden off of our backs? Instead, what if we are the soil, called to cultivate healthy minerals so that others’ seeds can take root.
Or what if we are neither the sower nor the soil but the seeds. What if God, the ultimate sower, scatters us over all the place. Each one of us at one time or another has been a seed cast upon rocky or thorny ground. We have loved someone who does not love us; we have made a business venture that turned sour. Way sour. We have made life long career plans only to learn that our services are not wanted any longer. We have tried to help someone who doesn’t want help. Sometimes our seeds take root, at other times the sun scorches us and we wither away. But God always replants us.
It’s like imagining God as a high-risk, nothing ventured, nothing gained kind of master sower. She’s not interested in cautious and strategic seed sowing, throwing seed only in those places where the chances for growth are best. No, God sees all soil as potentially good – even the incarcerated and those living on the streets - even a church with an uncertain future.
It is easy to get discouraged in Jillian’s line of work. It is easy to get discouraged in any situation where you feel like the sower. But what if Jesus doesn’t expect us to be the sower? What if God is the sower and we are each seeds, wherever we land, yearning for and trying to find good soil. What if the parable of the sower is Jesus’ way of describing the kingdom of heaven? What if the kingdom is like a bountiful crop produced - some hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty - in spite of what seem to be overwhelming setbacks.
Take a drive by the ocean, sit on the beach, become as open as the element upon which you sit. Have you felt like the sower all this time? Is it time to step back and leave the sowing to God? How has God sown you? Where has God scattered you? Where is there good soil in your life or in our lives together?
 Lindberg, Anne Morrow, Gift from the Sea (Pantheon Books: New York, NY, 2005) 10
 Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, ed. By David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2011) 241