(A sermon for Proper 10A; July 10, 2011; Isaiah 55:10-13; Matthew 13:1-23.)
I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for many years, and for the first decade, I drove and walked around feeling absolute envy of anyone who had a hydrangea. I liked the bluish-purple ones, but I especially love the ones that are more tree than shrub, with their beautiful creamy-pink blossoms that are almost as beautiful when they are dried brown and rose.
I think I probably mentioned this to anyone who would listen.
And so it probably shouldn’t have been a giant surprise to receive one as a wedding present when in 2002. We planted it right beside the back steps; I wanted to be able to see it from the kitchen window, eagerly anticipating bringing the blossoms inside to enjoy the next year.
A sower went out to sow…
Here begins a long string of parables that make up chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel. In them Jesus takes familiar topics for the community and turns them into stories about God’s kingdom and our place in it. We may find them obscure, and it’s tempting to think the people around him, who knew the context, who lived it, would have understood him perfectly, but we see him having to explain what he meant to the disciples, recognizing things weren’t quite as easily understood as he perhaps hoped they would be.
In the parables, Jesus employed metaphors. They aren’t allegories, in which each character would represent an absolute and definable “other,” for instance God or Jesus himself or the listeners or readers. No, that would be too easy. These parables may be interpreted in a multitude of ways, and are intended to convey an idea to consider rather than an answer to implement.
As an English major, who enjoys metaphor and tries to employ it herself, I appreciate the parables.
But as a follower of Jesus, who wants to get it right, I sometimes find them frustrating. The Parable of the Sower, because of its complexity, may be one of the worst offenders. Is God the sower, flinging Jesus into our sometimes rocky hearts? Is Jesus the Sower, and the seed the Good News of God’s grace? Are we the sowers, called to share the Good News with others who will only listen about a quarter of the time? And wherever we find ourselves in the story, are we fated, doomed to remain in that role?
That’s the hardest question of all.
“A sower went out to sow, and as he sowed some seeds fell on the path.”
|Not my hydrangea
I went to visit the Gerrys the other day, and among other things we talked about their garden. Sue told me about the Italian zucchini seeds they’ve saved and parceled out to plant over the years, still germinating and producing the modest harvest they desire. Harvey asked if I had planted a garden this year, and I started to make some excuse about the city lot on which I live, and Sue pointed out to him that given my busy schedule, I probably didn’t want to have to tend a garden myself.
And while there is some truth to all of that, the greater truth is that I am a famous plant-killer, which is one of the reasons I’ve tended to plant only things that are Martha-proof. These include indestructible shrubs, such as forsythia and lilacs. But every now and then I take a chance on something more daring, and one year I planted one of those more bush-like hydrangeas with the blue flowers. You’ll have to forgive my lack of technical terms. I could have looked things up, but that tends to backfire on a preacher when the congregation is full of people who know how to do the thing at which she is a predictable failure. And that hydrangea surely failed. It’s one of the reasons I was extra happy about the other kind of hydrangea so lovingly planted by the back steps. It was more like a tree, and surely nothing I did could really screw it up, right?
(Here I expect to pause and look out among you to see how wrong I was as you shake your heads knowingly.)
After all, it was a wedding present; it had to thrive, right?
(And here I expect a giant eye roll from heaven, if from nowhere else.)
So, 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!” (Matthew 13:4-9, NRSV)
Let anyone with ears listen.
We all know some ground is better than other ground, even a confirmed city girl like me. We probably all know that some people are better ground than other ground, too. We trust them to be the way we think they are, put them into categories: this one I can trust, this one is wise, this one is loving but maybe not so smart, this one is smart but maybe not so nice. The parable encourages us to do that kind of categorizing. Some people will never get it! Oh, that is so easy and clean and tempting to believe. Isn’t that what the last section of the reading says?
But wait! Wait. A parable is not an allegory. The roles are not so easily defined. And scholars suggest that this parable is absolutely not an allegory so easily explained, but that the explanation of the parable, which is also found in Mark’s gospel, was an editorial addition because people so desperately want clear answers.
Yet Jesus gives us metaphors, with more of them to come.
That little hydrangea in my backyard grew as you might have expected, and in its second spring, its roots gave off a scent that attracted the attention of our young dog, who enjoyed scrabbling at them frantically, trying to get to that delicious, new smell. I imagine that wasn’t good for the hydrangea. Nor were the winters that froze it in a bent-over position, and even though we staked it, and despite the fact that it had a number of years of abundant blossoming, and received I hope appropriate pruning, there came a year when it did nothing.
It died, in a metaphorical flourish, last year.
After a not-so-bad winter, the seemingly uncompromised wedding present hydrangea, aged 7-and-a-half, simply did not put forth leaves or buds. I stood beside it downhearted, wondering what I could have done differently. How could I have saved it?
In the fall, when it became clear that my marriage would not outlast the hydrangea, friends came from all over the country to stand beside me, and in the way that people have when they want to help us, but the real problem can’t be solved, they fell to doing tasks around my house. They painted things and raked the leaves and mowed the lawn and tried to fix the icemaker and filled the freezer with lasagna portioned out into two-person-sized containers for Lucy and me. In the midst of a flurry of yard work, my friend Kathryn offered to clear out the dead tree. I agreed it was a good idea, and I turned away to consider a lilac that needed pruning, then turned back to see it was already out of the ground, like an oversized twig in her hand.
Whatever happened to my hydrangea had happened at the root.
Let’s not try too hard to assign roles in the parable of the hydrangea. It’s enough to say that it reinforced my sense that something was over. And that brings me back to our sower and his seeds. What if we just let the images wash over us instead of being in a hurry to assign parts to ourselves and to others as if they were absolutely unchangeable? Suppose we meditate for a moment on the idea that the Good News of God’s love is forever being sown in the world…scattered widely without regard for likely climates or soils, strewn wildly even in the places it is least likely to be received.
A sower went out to sow, and on any given day that least likely place might be any of our hearts.
But now and then, thankfully, we are the soil where God’s seed takes root. Now and then, thankfully, we are the seed that makes contact and grows where someone is hungry for God’s grace. Even occasionally, we are the ones to put a hand into the bag slung over our shoulders, the ones who fling the seed of Life and Love into places where it assuredly takes root.
In the place near my back door where the hydrangea stood last year, violets from the general vicinity spread themselves this spring. Instead of a dead and disappointing…oversized stick…there were shiny green leaves and lovely purple flowers. My story is not over. God is still working in my life, and even after…the hydrangea…I know there is more to come. Isaiah promises us:
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 55:13, NRSV)
Thanks be to God. Amen.