Saturday, September 6, 2008

Ninth after Pentecost, 2008

The Sower, Jean-Francois Millet, 1850

July 13, 2008 IX Pentecost (RCL Proper 10A) Matthew 13

This 13th chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel is sometimes called “The Sermon by the Shore”—I guess alongside “The Sermon on the Mount,” back in the 5th chapter. But in many ways this is really a different genre. If the Sermon on the Mount is an extensive, thematic, discursive theological and ethical essay, this Sermon by the Shore is more like poetry, an anthology of parables, some more extensively developed, as the one we have this morning, and others just an image, a sentence or two, but in any case a kind of verbal provocation for the imagination.

What is God like? What was in his mind when he created us? What’s our future? What does the big picture look like? And again, no direct answers: but here, the Sower, the Wheat and the Tares, the Grain of Mustard Seed, the Parable of the Leaven, the Treasure in the Field, the Pearl of Great Price, the Dragnet, and the Householder . The idea not so much to tell us what to think, as to lead us into a creative process of thinking for ourselves, of shifting our own deeper perspectives. Not so much about information, as about transformation. Of our minds, our hearts. A new awareness. Drawing us into a moment of encounter and breakthrough. It’s a powerful section right here in the middle of Matthew’s gospel, and an invitation really to engage, thoughtfully, imaginatively, creatively.

If we would say, “tell us the answer, Jesus. Fill in the blanks. Give us the step-by-step.” He replies: “let me tell you a story; let me paint you a picture. Then you tell me where you go with that. You figure out what needs to happen next.” Again, not so much that the point is to get the right answer, as to enter into the process ourselves of wondering, imagining, creating.

So I begin this morning, and then my good friends and colleagues George Werner and Carol Henley will take on rest of the chapter in the next two weeks. Stay tuned, as they are certainly two interesting and creative thinkers, and I know they’ll carry this along in fascinating directions.

But for this morning, my part of the chapter, and the Parable of the Sower. When Jesus throws up his hands in exasperation and unpacks this image for our friends the Clueless Disciples, he ends up going through the list of soils, in such a way that some folks have even thought about renaming this passage “The Parable of the Soils.” But honestly, that doesn’t make so much sense to me--or at least to say that when I come back to this passage, as I have and as we all have again and again over so many years of our lives, it’s not the soil that stays in my mind, that captures my imagination, but this amazing, strange, even slightly disturbing image of the Sower.

I mean--it is strange. Who is this guy? What is he about? Let’s say you owned the farm, and you were going over your books and inventories, and you scratch your head a bit and then call in the foreman and you say, “what’s the deal with the seed corn? I mean, we had done our projections and planning pretty well, I thought. But something seems to be going wrong. Why are we running short?” And then the foreman: “well, we’ve got this one guy, and he just seems to go crazy out there. He wanders all over the place, reaching deep into his bag and taking these huge handfuls of seed and then he just hurls it all up into the wind, all over the place, and over and over and over again. I mean, ot just in the field, but everywhere, the road, the gutters, into the trees and bushes and hedges and out in the hot desert sun. Everywhere. I keep telling him to get back on the line, to plant in the plowed areas, but he just keeps wandering off and scattering all the seed until the bag is empty, and then he goes back for more. I’ve given him lots of chances, explained that the seed is valuable, that we only have so much, that the planting needs to follow the plan, but he just won’t listen. I think if we don’t let him go, we’ll run out of seed before half the fields are planted.”

In any case: what is this guy doing? What is Jesus getting at? The Parable of the Prodigal Sower, the Profligate Sower, the Wastral, the “Wild and Crazy” Sower. I mean, probably it’s the case that some of those who were listening to Jesus out there by the shore of the lake had spent every spring of their lives planting fields, and they know for sure that there’s something wrong here. This just isn’t the way it’s done. It’s a puzzle, an odd image. In what way exactly, Jesus, is this a clue about the Kingdom, something that is supposed to help us catch an image about who God is, about what he has in mind for us?

I mean, I guess I always think of God as someone who would be . . . more careful. More cautious. Measured. Controlled. Thinking of this wide world of ours as a vast and complicated machine, requiring the services of a gifted, extremely talented engineer. And all of a sudden we’ve got . . . what? The universe and all our lives as some kind of vast empty canvas, and God as some kind of Jackson Pollock? Taking great buckets of paint and just dumping them out, letting the colors fall in huge uncontrollable splashes, gathering haphazardly in pools, running off the edges. An odd image, for God. Unexpected. A little weird. Maybe even a little disturbing. I guess I always thought that God would be more organized . . . .

I mean, as the first child and only son of a man who grew up with a widowed mother in the midst of the Great Depression, It’s deep in my DNA that what the world is all about and what life is all about is a battle for survival in the midst of scarcity. About control, and judgment. About caution, prudence, watchfulness, good management, careful discernment. Planning. Responsibility. So that you’re not swept away. The universe may not be exactly hostile, I think my dad would have said, but if you think it’s going to do you any favors, you’d better think again. It takes work. You’re always leaning into a headwind. Diligence. Prudence. Good planning. Otherwise when the floods come rolling in, you’ll just be swept away.

An undercurrent of fear in all of that, of course, which is what all these “control issues” are all about. (And you may not have noticed that about me, but I do have some control issues!) And if there’s anything to say about the Sower, as we watch him wandering out through the countryside, it is that he does seem fearless. He’s just not worried. Not anxious. And if the Seed of the Kingdom is love and peace and forgiveness and healing and blessing and power, he just doesn’t seem to think that the supply is ever going to run out, or that there is anyplace in all creation where he might not just give it a try. Highway and hedgerow, doesn’t matter. Throw the seed from the rooftops, scatter it by airplane for that matter. There are no limits. No limits. No place where the Seed of the Kingdom doesn’t belong, no rule about how much is enough or too much: the abundance of abundance.

O Love, how deep, how broad, how high. Just to catch a glimpse of this, a glimpse of the Kingdom. Pushing back against our assumptions and judgments and prejudices, even against common sense. How generous can you be, Lord Jesus? How much love is there? What are the market forces, the interplay of limited supply and unlimited demand? How much forgiveness? How much grace?

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Bruce Robison

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