Ordinary 15A — July 14, 2014

“A Parable Universe”

“The Sower” Fr. Nunilon Bancaso

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he 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, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.  Let anyone with ears listen!”
“Hear then the parable of the sower.  When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 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. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 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, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Listen!  The kingdom of heaven is like this — a sower went out to sow.  

And thus we begin a series of parables from the Gospel of Matthew.  Over the next three weeks, we will be considering a series of parables in the 13th chapter of Matthew. They’ll be coming at us thick and fast, which is appropriate because that’s what parables tend to do.  In fact, the literal meaning of “parable” is something that is thrown along side.  Boom – parables drop in without warning.  So parables it is for us for a couple of weeks. 
Parables are tricky business, I think, despite the fact that many of us have heard most of these parables more than once.  That could be why they are tricky.  We know them too well.  And maybe many of you think you’ve got a handle on why Jesus spoke in this parabolic way and what Jesus meant, especially when he told stories like this about farming and planting and seeds.
I am not one of those people, I fear, although that hasn’t stopped me from loving the parable of the sower. The problem, at least for me, is that I am terrible at gardening.  Although I come from a long line of earnest farmers, and spent a lot of time as a kid pulling weeds and picking vegetables, I am known in my family as Susan, The Plant Killer. I have never had much success deliberately growing anything beyond a few pots of herbs.  Except for that one late summer day I scooped up a drooping Black Eyed Susan plant at 75% off from Home Depot, stuck it in the front yard, and have watched it blossom like crazy every July for the past 10 years. But the truth is, beyond that miraculous Black Eyed Susan, I have had little or nothing to do with their blooming.  Every time I’ve touched anything in my garden, it’s been a disaster. 
So it helps me to remember that Jesus was a city boy, not a farmer.  He grew up with a father who was carpenter, yet not one of Jesus’ parables begins with: “The kingdom of heaven is like a Black and Decker sander on an rough piece of wood…”  Jesus may not have been an experienced farmer, but Jesus moved around a lot in the gospels, and everywhere he went, he was always a deep and observant listener.  Jesus might not have been a farmer, or a fisherman, or a woman baking bread or a bridesmaid getting ready for a wedding.  But he listened to all kinds of people, and used their language so they could see the strange logic of the Kingdom of God – or, as it is referred to in Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven.  And Jesus’ intention in telling these parables is always the same, I believe.  It’s to encourage those who have ears to hear to seek the kingdom of heaven in the every day world.  It is possible – in fact it’s our job – to look for the kingdom that is always breaking open among us.   And Jesus helps us to do that.  Parable, by parable. 
Anna Carter Florence, a homiletics professor at Columbia Theological Seminary has suggested that Christians live not in a parallel universe, but a “a parable universe.” Which is to say that parables that reveal the kingdom of heaven are not only in the Bible, but also everywhere, coming along side us like asteroids. Parables are everywhere, all the time if we have ears to hear and imaginations open to the possibilities.  

Here is part of a lecture Dr. Carter-Florence gave in May about how Jesus models a “parable universe” in the gospels.[1]
(Recording of Anna Carter Florence lecture: 26:41 – 33:15)
The kingdom of heaven is like this.  A sower went out to sow.  You don’t have to know much about farming to know that seed should be planted in good soil.  That’s apparent even to a plant killer like me.  But this isn’t a story about a prudent sower who keeps track of every seed.  In fact, this sower doesn’t seem worried about where the seeds are landing at all. This is a sower who sows everywhere.  On hard, dry ground.  On rocky soil.  Among thorns.  And on good soil.  Everywhere.   Everything about this sower seems ridiculous until you remember that this isn’t a story about horticulture or crop yields, but about the kingdom of heaven.  It’s about grace. 
The Kingdom of heaven is like seed that lands on dry ground and is almost immediately eaten by birds.  Is that really the end for the seed?  The seed is still the seed.  The Word is still the Word.  Its power is not any less because it’s been taken away by – the bird, the devil?  The seed will end up somewhere, courtesy of the bird’s digestive system.   Have you ever had the experience of a plant you had nothing to do with coming up in a place you never expected?   God’s purpose will be fulfilled even when the Word lands somewhere unexpected.
The kingdom of heaven is like this:  seeds fell on rocky ground, where they sprang up quickly. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
The seed springs up, but the plant dies quickly.  Again, is this the end of the seed’s story?   But even in the plant’s death, new life happens.  The Word doesn’t depend on the length of the plant’s life in order to bear the fruit it needs to bear.  We like plants to last a long time.  We like our perennials to keep blooming year after year.  And sometimes they do.  But God’s purposes can be fulfilled in even the shortest season. 
And every once in a while the seed lands on good, fertile soil.  And something grows with deep roots and beautiful blossoms and a tremendous yield of fruit.  A bumper crop, more tomatoes than any of us could eat in a thousand summers.  Everyone can have some, even those with the hardest hearts.  It’s like the zucchini you drop at the neighbor’s front porch when you have run out of ways to cook it.
But you know what? Even that fruitful plant will come to the end of its life.  But like the seed that hit the ground, the seed choked by the thorns or the rocks – the Word of God does not end when the plant dies.  As it was in the beginning, it will be forever. 
This is not a story about what good soil we are.  It’s a story of what God is doing, every single day, in staggering numbers.  In the smallest seeds, hidden in the most unlikely places.  Good soil, bad soil, rocks and thorns and sand.  The Word does not fail. The worst we can do is get in its way on occasion.  But even then, all we do is delay the harvest.  Not prevent it.
So in the meantime, we pay attention.  We pay attention to this parable universe that Jesus is showing us.  Our job as disciples of Jesus is actually pretty simple, really.  To pay attention to where the seeds are falling.  To bear witness to the fruit that is flourishing.  To shout about the goodness we see.
I have to admit that I have fallen a bit in love with this idea that we live in a parable universe.  And I hate to break it to you.  Once you start really paying attention and begin looking for parables about the kingdom of heaven, you realize that they happen ALL THE TIME.  They are everywhere. 
Here’s one that happened to me just this week.
The kingdom of heaven is like this.  A awkward, shy 13 year old boy is invited to a birthday party.  For the first time in 4 years.  His mother tries to talk him out of going because she’s not sure she can take the pain of seeing her beloved boy get rejected…again…by the mean kids who will be there.  She worries about many things.  No, she is stressed out beyond belief by many things.  It’s a pool party – will he be dunked?  Will he be left out …again…forced to sit by the melting ice cream cake on the picnic table while all the other kids play Marco Polo?  She tries to talk her son out of going, even tries to bribe him with an alternative plan for the evening. 

How about a movie? 

No, thank you Mom. 

How about going out to dinner?
Mom, stop it. 

So he goes to the birthday party. 
Later, when the 13 year old comes home (with his dad because his mother is a big chicken) his mother is surprised.  No, she is astonished when the 13 year old happily bounces into the house.  There were only seven kids at the party.  All of them the class outcasts.  They bonded while playing Marco Polo in the pool.  They laughed over pizza and birthday cake.  There’s even a rumor afloat that the little girl who invited him to the party might have a teeny little crush on the 13 year old but he doesn’t want to talk about it, MOOOOOOOM. 
The kingdom of heaven is like this.  A little bit of kindness and heavenly hope dropping unexpectedly into the life of a 13 year old who has been waiting a long time to be invited to a party.  Now, can you tell me where the heck that seed come from? 
Next week, we’ll begin our sermon time with a space for you to testify where you’ve seen the kingdom of heaven break into your ordinary week.  We’ll share our parables beginning:
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like this.”

Let those who have ears, listen!  Thanks be to God.  Amen

[1] Anna Carter Florence, Festival of Homiletics, May 20, 2014.