I gave this sermon at Centre Place’s Beyond the Walls online worship service on July 12, 2020. Centre Place is the home of the Toronto congregation of Community of Christ. The video recording of the live stream is at the end of the post.
At the end of the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9), Jesus asks his audience “Are you listening to this? Really listening?” I see the text of this story offering different meanings and interpretations to readers throughout time, readers were hearing different messages in this parable, who were responding to the needs and demands of their own context.
There are many medieval illustrations of the sower, which would have resonated with people whose lives and livelihoods revolved around the growing of food and the seasons of the year. In medieval Europe, the twelve months were each associated with a different agricultural activity, and the whole program was referred to as the Labors of the Months, with regional variations. The Labors of the Months were a standard program of decoration for churches and cathedrals. Planting was the labor of the month associated with April and spring and also the winter planting, in mild climates, of October. Representing this labor in Christian art was part of marking the passing of time and the seasonal cycles of the year.
During the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, many French painters celebrated the rural simplicity of the sower in contrast to a world that was becoming increasingly mechanized and capitalist. For them, the sower had a deeply spiritual connection to the land he worked. French Realists like Jean-François Millet through to Post Impressionists like Vincent Van Gogh idealized the sower’s peasant class, humility, and faith as he performed tasks in the appropriate season, as farmers had done for thousands of years.
What does this parable mean to us today and right now, in the middle of a global pandemic and global conversations about race and racism? What are we hearing?
I have sat through many lessons and settings where we got bogged down in the details of the story and in its interpretation. These days I tend to ask “Who am I in this story? And where is the Divine?” I’m not sure that the text offers easy answers.
Are we the sower? I feel like biblical commentaries don’t do enough to critique a farmer who throws his valuable seeds into the gravel and rocks and hopes for things to work out. This carelessness makes it hard for me to read the sower as God, but it does remind me of the time my toddler threw a handful of seeds into the garden bed. But that is the parable of the Unexpected Radishes, a story for another time.
Are we the seeds? Or are the seeds related to faith, as in the parable of the mustard seed that follows this one? Is God a seed?
Are we the ground? Or does the ground symbolize our willingness to embrace faith? Or something about our circumstances or attitude? It is hard to see the rocks and gravel as symbols of the Divine.
And ultimately, what I really want to know is who is the bad guy in this story and how do I hold myself at a distance from them and their sinful ways? Whether that villain is represented is the sower, the seeds, or the different types of ground, I’m against them and happy to declare my opposition to their ways in a public statement.
There are a lot of symbols and elements at work in this story and I’m struggling to pick out a meaningful alignment of interpretations. I’m not sure that I’m any closer to locating the divine or myself here. Nor am I sure what this parable has to say about building Zion in our present context. So I’m going to let it go for a bit and tell you a more pressing story in my life about gardening, where I have a little more clarity of interpretation.
When my husband and I were graduate students in the UK, we got hooked on an English TV show about country life and were eager to try it out. When we moved to Southern Utah years ago, we lived in the country and had a large garden and orchard, where my husband planted 30 fruit and nut trees and built eight large garden beds. We raised chickens and kept bees. I learned to can vegetables, manage watering schedules, and keep back the towering and thorny desert weeds. My husband learned to build chicken coops and collect wild bees that swarmed in the neighbor’s yard. My girls spent their early childhoods years collecting eggs and eating peas out of the pod, hot from the desert sun.
A few years ago we moved from that house, garden, and orchard, to a house closer to our workplace and schools. We were fortunate to get a house with a backyard. My husband built a long garden bed so that we could continue to grow a few things, though I was not sad to give up canning or weeding.
At this moment, we have four tomato plants and this is where our contemporary parable begins. The tomato plants are all varieties that we’ve planted before, ones that grow well in our desert climate. The seedlings were all the same size when we put them into the ground and set up our watering hoses, but today that is not the case.
At one end of the bed is our cherry tomato plant and I cannot say enough good things about this one. It has grown so much that it has spilled over the side of the garden bed and is overtaking a rose bush. It is perhaps five or six feet in diameter. Its vines hold a hundred tiny yellow flowers and many developing tomatoes in shades of green, orange, and red. Every day for the last week or so, it has produced enough cherry tomatoes to fill a large bowl. The fruit has a full tomato flavor and is sweet like ripe berries. They are at their peak right now and couldn’t be any more delicious. We’ve eaten them on salads, with pasta, and hot off the vine. This plant produces exactly the kinds of tomatoes that you long for in the winter months. They are divine.
In the middle of the garden bed are two tomato plants of a similar size. They aren’t thriving in the way that the first plant is thriving, but they are producing full size tomatoes that have a richer, less sweet flavor. The plants are healthy and bushy with large green leaves. We will have fewer tomatoes from these plants, but still many rounds of sliced tomatoes for sandwiches and plenty for homemade pasta sauces and salsa.
The final plant has not done nearly as well as the other three. There are only a few tomatoes developing on this plant and they are all small – undersized for their variety. The plant is struggling and straggly. It is not bushy and does not currently show much promise.
My husband and I spent weeks watching these four plants grow: the over-productive cherry tomato plant, the thriving plants in the middle, and the struggling plant at the end. While the plants were growing, we could see the differences in their growth patterns, but ultimately, the problem did not become clear until the three plants reached full size and started producing fruit. The one on the end just didn’t live up to expectations and we couldn’t figure out why.
In the last few days, we’ve observed the garden bed closely and worked it out. The over-productive cherry tomato plant is right next to the garden spout. Even though we tried to rinse out last year’s soaker hoses to use them this year, the plant next to the spout was getting the most water and the hoses were too clogged to distribute water to all four plants evenly. The two plants in the middle were getting enough water, enough resources, but the plant on the end was not. It was struggling to survive on not enough.
So now that we know where the problem is, we have some ideas about how to fix it. I don’t think we will get around to replacing the soaker hose this year, but next year we will. In the meantime, our growing season is long – I routinely pick tomatoes into November. This under-resourced plant needs extra attention and water. It also needs some fertilizer so that it can catch up.
I can’t help but think that the pandemic and the global protests for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder also have something to do with this gardening story, with the racial justice conversations we are having in many places at the moment.
As I am thinking about our context, here is what I am hearing and taking away from this story. It is easy to identify myself in this one – I am literally the gardener – but in seeing this story as a metaphor or a parable, I think I’m like the thriving tomato plant. Plenty of education, resources, access to good healthcare, jobs, and opportunity were part of my growth and development and now I have more than enough for what I need. This doesn’t mean my life is perfect, but I am thriving. I have received plenty of water from a hose – a system – that favored me.
I look around in my community, and like the tomato plants in the middle, there are many people who are also doing well and succeeding in life, living in homes and apartments, with access to jobs, education, resources, and healthcare. They have received the water that is needed for growth and development.
There are also folks at the fringes of my community that people prefer to ignore, seeing only the people who are doing well and refusing to see those who are not. My community has many stories that it has told itself about the people who are not thriving, who do not have enough access to jobs, resources, opportunities, education, and healthcare. There are stories about individual poor choices, about not pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, about not doing things the way other, more successful groups, do things.
We tend not to question these stories and instead accept them as truth, refusing to hear, as Jesus calls us to do, from those who are disadvantaged by our systems. There is little awareness or attention to the defective hose that does not deliver the needed water or resources and a general resistance in our stories to identify this problem as a systemic one. We prefer the narrative of individual failings, which allow us to blame those who are not thriving and hold them at a distance from ourselves.
There is little awareness of additional barriers or problems that folks on the margins of my community face, from being harassed by police officers to the daily indignities of discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, poverty, disability, and immigration status. I cannot say that all my tomato plants matter to me while ignoring the needs of this tomato plant. I cannot say that I uphold the Worth of All People and declare that All Are Called while ignoring the gifts, talents, insights, and humanity of those on the margins. My words would be hollow, like the hose that is supposed to deliver life-giving water, but doesn’t. I must work to fix this system if I wish to be a person of integrity, as my expressions of caring matter little on their own.
As a theologian-in-training, I am compelled by ideas of social justice from feminist and liberation theologians. Feminist theologians ask us to hear the lived experiences of those on the margins and to advocate for flourishing life in these spaces. Liberation theologians ask us to consider that the Eurocentric ideas and models of justice that formed us also upheld white supremacy, class privilege, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. For white folks like me, our ideas of justice and fairness are bound up with these forms of oppression, which do not support justice for all. Liberation theologians ask us to see God on the side of those at the margins, to stand in solidarity with these folks, and follow their lead as we hear God’s call to undo oppressive systems, which will end oppression and free us from the sins associated with it.
At the end of the Parable of the Sower, Jesus asks “Are you listening to this? Really listening?” And after considering my tomato plants, I feel like maybe there are some messages in Jesus’ parable that I am now hearing. I see God in the figure of the sower, inviting us to exercise seeds of faith in a Zion community, with mixed results.
Doctrine & Covenants 164:9b tells us “When your willingness to live in sacred community as Christ’s new creation exceeds your natural fear of spiritual and relational transformation, you will become who you are called to be. The rise of Zion the beautiful, the peaceful reign of Christ, awaits your whole-hearted response to the call to make and steadfastly hold to God’s covenant of peace in Jesus Christ.”
This verse holds compelling imagery, inviting us into transformation, which sounds both beautiful and challenging. I want to imagine that being transformed by God’s covenant of peace looks like having a picturesque but powerful moment of spiritual awakening as I release a dove in a forest. Instead, I wonder if God is actually inviting us to wrestle with our complicity in systems of oppression and then work to undo them to build something better. Easy gestures that point to peace and justice are not what God is calling us to, but real transformation where we understand new things about ourselves and our communities, making new kinds of choices. It does seem as though that invitation is the one in front of us today. Will we be like the rocks and the gravel, unable to let peace and justice take root in our hearts and actions, or will we be fertile ground for growing peace and justice in ourselves and in our communities?
Pray with me.
God, help us to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to the truths of our communities today. Guide our hands and feet as we seek to build a just and peaceful Zion. Amen.