The Parable of the Sower
The Rev. Jenn Geddes
In the small rural town of Ripley, Ontario one can find the Bruce Botanical Food Gardens. Ripley, like many small towns across this country, has faced economic challenges as job opportunities are sparse and younger generations are moving away. It is also a town that has this interesting mix of long time farmers, young entrepreneurs, newly retired cottagers and old order Mennonites. In 2012, members of the community from all those walks of life, founded the Bruce Botantical Food Gardens as a non-profit organization, with the mandate to address the issues of food insecurity, sustainable agriculture and the issues faced by the small family farms through tourism, education, hands on experience and cultural activity. The Bruce Garden’s main focus is not only on growing sustainable food but providing education so that people can foster self-sufficiency when it comes to growing food. Now, I know that BBFG is not the only garden of it’s kind and we have programs in the Comox Valley that have a similar mandate but to be perfectly honest I am partial to the gardens in Ripley because any time I visit the family’s cottage, not far from Ripley, a picnic at the gardens is a must. It’s not a huge space but in each patch one can find a unique kind of grain, or an interesting bean, or Ripley’s own apple variety! You might not think that a region known for it’s agriculture, needs to worry about food security but in truth between cash crops and a struggling economy, food insecurity is a very real concern- even here in Comox, the land of plenty, there is a serious issue with food insecurity. I found that between our traditional celebrations of Thanksgiving Sunday and the focus on the Parable of the Sower I was struck by thoughts of food insecurity and the importance of knowing where our food comes from, and knowing how to sustainably grow food! A funny thing happens when you think about sustainability as you read the parable of the sower.
Like last week we are going to look at this parable through a different lens. In many of Jesus’ parables there is a relationship between the natural order of things and God’s kingdom. Think of the short parables like the mustard seed or the weeds and the wheat or even comparing the kingdom of heaven like a fishing net. There is an inward affinity between the kingdom of God and the natural world in part because the natural order of things IS the kingdom of God. For example, in the parable we’re focusing on today, seeds are meant to be scattered and grow. But it is also not that simple. My professor this past summer said, “You can’t just observe a parable and get a meaning, you have to “get your hands dirty” and make decisions in order to find a meaning”. At the end of the passage, Jesus seems to imply that he speaks in parables precisely because they are hard to understand! When Jesus says “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables,” what I think he is saying is that parables contain revelation about God’s kingdom. Only in Mark is it implied that as a result, there are both insiders and outsiders to the understanding of what God is doing. It gets messy, dirty even, but we have to get our hands dirty if we want to walk away with meaning. And there is no better way to get one’s hands dirty than plunging them into dirt. Which ironically, the sower in our parable does not do!
First of all it needs to be pointed out that in most of our translations the title of this section already influences how we read this parable. In the NRSV, just as it is in this sermon title, the parable is called “The Parable of the Sower”. Automatically, rightly or wrongly, our focus is on the sower. And truthfully, if we read this parable with a heart towards food insecurity, this sower is sloppy and wasteful! As the sower is sowing his seed some falls on the path and immediately birds come and eat the seed. Now as a bird lover who likes to feed birds I don’t necessarily see those seeds going to waste. Rather they have nourished the birds. But then some seed ends up on rocky ground which produces a rapid crop but since it does not have much depth of soil these plants wither and die. And then you have seed that ends up among some pretty nasty thorns that chokes the plants and again they die. Now any of us who use green spaces in the Comox Valley know how rocky our soil can be AND how invasive thorny bushes like Himalayan black berry can be! And most of you who grow fruits and vegetables would know better than to toss seeds into or around either rocky soil or thorny bushes. Yet, as the parable teaches us, some seed does indeed fall on good soil and the yield that grows is quite large.
Back to this discussion about the title it is curious that it is traditionally called the parable of the sower when in reality the seed and growing conditions are really the stars of the story. I have also avoided Mark’s version of Jesus’ interpretation of the parable for two reasons. First, the interpretation differs in both Mark and Luke, as well as the Gospel of Thomas in which this parable also appears. Second, because as was mentioned last week parables have more than one meaning. As we studied this parable the professor turned to the class and asked, “What does this parable mean to you?” and I was amazed at the beauty and variety of interpretations. Here is some of the surprising wisdom that I learned from my fellow classmates.
One student, a priest in the United Methodist church in the Southern United States said, “God tosses us into the world but we are all subject to our own environment. Yes, we are all victims of our circumstances but there are different seeds that thrive in different soils.” Another, a single mom just starting her studies at VST replied, “this parable tells me that we all have to try and grow no matter our conditions.” And another, a former Bay street financier now studying for her Mdiv said, “Growth is experimental and we just need to throw things out there to see if they will grow.” And the professor responded, “Yes! Notice how this parable never mentions bad soil. All the seeds served a purpose.”
Perhaps this sower was being a little less wasteful than I originally thought because the act of throwing the seed is one act. Meaning the sower didn’t throw some of the path and then throw some on rocky ground, then some among thorns and finally some of good soil. Rather the sower threw it all in one fell swoop. Here is more of that surprising wisdom; in this parable everything has a measure of success and failure built in, the loss is part of the harvest, because ultimately it is a good harvest. This parable challenges our notion of success and success doesn’t always look like a fruitful harvest. Now, within the literal sense of harvest this isn’t necessarily true. This year, due to drought, floods, fires, pests, and a shortage of workers, harvests around the country are struggling. So to say that a success doesn’t always look like a fruitful harvest to a farmer is a little dismissive of real concerns. The same goes within the context of food security. It’s why gardens like the Bruce Botanical Gardens also include sustainability within their awareness programs. However, read allegorically, this parable demonstrates that being fruitful, also means, throwing things out there and risking that they may or may not grow.
I don’t know this absolutely but I am sure that when the Botanical Gardens were founded they encountered a few nay-sayers. People who said, growing a Food Garden in the heart of an agricultural region was a waste of time and nothing would come out of it but the founders had a passion and desire and failure, while always possible, would have helped their determination grow. As we continue to work within the parameters of a pandemic we have to think about our growing conditions. God has tossed us into these conditions- how are we going to grow? If growth is experimental how are we going to experiment in this time? What purpose will our seeds serve?And it’s ok if our seeds end out serving a purpose we did not expect. And most importantly be thankful for the abundant harvest God has provided for us- where opportunities for growth are unending. Amen