Sowing Outside the Lines

A sermon given July 12, 2020 by the Rev. Teri Daily on Luke 15:11-32…

Around 1700, Jethro Tull (not the rock band by that name, but the agricultural pioneer) developed the first horse-drawn seed drill that planted seeds in neat rows without much waste. Initially the invention was met by many with skepticism and even hostility, since it did away with the usual method of planting – scattering seeds by hand. But the hostility didn’t last long. And now large-scale agriculture is almost completely mechanized; most large farms are designed around efficiency and production volume. Moisture sensors in the soil signal when the crop needs to be watered, saving up to 20% on water in some cases. Tractors have global positioning systems that prevent doubling back over the same land or missing areas; this allows fertilizer or pesticide or seeds to be spread more evenly – saving up to 40% on fuel costs. Modern tractors can plant individual seeds with an accuracy of up to 3 cm. Modern farms are focused on efficiency and production.

And that’s why, although today’s gospel reading may be about a sower and seeds and plants, it is NOT a lesson in efficient agricultural management. Because the sower in this parable lets the seeds fall on the path, on rocky soil, amidst thorns, as well as on the good soil – the seeds fall on all alike. Most of us would call this impractical, even unwise or wasteful as far as farming practices go. What farmer in their right mind would scatter seeds in places that seem indifferent or even hostile to their survival? Places where the likelihood that the seed will take root is slim to none? Most farmers we know would be much more selective. 

But then, this parable tells us more about the nature of God than it does about where to plant seeds. God is very much like the impractical sower in today’s parable. God doesn’t look at cost/benefit ratios, or measure out blessings in terms of efficiency or reward.  Instead, God loves the world with an excessive, abundant love that never stops to count the cost or to observe boundaries. God’s word and God’s blessings are for all.

When we are at our best, when we are like good soil and the word of God falls on us, then we, too, become like the farmer in today’s gospel. Now, as members of the Church, we do typically place ourselves in the category of those who function as well-fertilized, rich soil. But if we’re totally honest, we know that most of us have all the types of ground within us, and we produce variable results when the word of God falls on us. 

Sometimes we are like the hard ground of a pathway. We can be so frantic with all the expectations placed upon us that we can’t hear or understand what God is calling us to do or be. Or perhaps we let skepticism reign supreme in our lives, so our understanding of the world leaves no place for the gospel in it. For example, we may accept blindly the idea that those who have money control the economics of our world, either by the jobs they produce or the consumer goods they buy. That’s not an ethical statement, we tell ourselves, it’s just the way the world works. Or perhaps we are like soil on a path when we fail to recognize the gospel crying out to us in our own communities. Like when we look right past our homeless neighbors and, instead, see homelessness as a problem only big cities have. If we’re honest, we know that there are hardened pathways in all of us, places where the gospel doesn’t take root.

Sometimes we are like rocky ground; we receive the gospel with a joy and conviction that fades at the first sign of sacrifice. We may find a spiritual high in mountaintop experiences, such as church camp, Cursillo, even Sunday morning services. But when we get “back to our normal lives” and find that devotion to the gospel costs us something, our spiritual roots may not be deep enough to sustain those mountaintop experiences. For example, we know that by giving just 0.7% of our income we can together make a huge dent in world poverty. But when giving 0.7% means that we have to eat in more than we usually do, or that our car comes without leather seats, or that our vacation is shorter than we’d like, will we be able to persevere in our plans to let the gospel change our lives as well as the lives of others?

Sometimes the gospel falls on us as if we were a ground thick with thorns; the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the gospel and it yields little or nothing in us. I see this as the soil of idolatry. In all honesty, many of the cares and concerns of the world are not bad in and of themselves. It’s an issue of relative good. Putting our best efforts into our job, paying attention to the needs of our family,  and enjoying time in God’s creation through activities such as hiking, fishing, or even playing golf – these are all great things, things in and through which we experience God’s goodness. The problem comes when we make any of these things into the “supreme good” in our lives, allowing them to take first place among our loyalties, making them into idols. That’s when the thorns take over.

Yet sometimes, sometimes, we are like good soil. Amid all the complexities of our lives, the gospel takes root in us we thrive and bear fruit and yield thirty, sixty, a hundredfold.   We open ourselves to the work of God in the world. We find the courage to step outside our own selves and risk actually living the gospel. We become like the farmer; we are generous to the point of being wasteful, letting seed fall on the path, on the rocky soil, among the thorns, and on the good soil, too. We love excessively, give generously, and share God’s love without regard to labels or judgments – trusting that God’s word will not return empty, trusting in the Holy Spirit to work in ways that we may not understand or know anything about.

Today we will baptize Louis Charles Thomas Behrendt. In so doing, we celebrate the love of the farmer in today’s gospel. We celebrate that from the very beginning, since Louis was just a thought in the mind of God, God has loved Louis with an overflowing, everlasting love – a love that nothing could ever change.

In a few moments we will invite Louis to join us in sharing that love with the world. We will say: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”

We know that Louis’ life will be comprised of a mixture of the soils we find in today’s gospel reading, as are all our lives. But the grace in this gospel story lies in the fact that, amid all the varieties of soil that comprise our lives, God can take our complex lives and make from them a harvest that changes the world. Today we look forward with joy to watching how Louis and God will work together over the years, trusting that in and through Louis’ life a rich harvest has already begun.

Sowing Outside the Lines
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