9 Pentecost Year A
Matthew 13:1-9; (18-23)
"That crazy gardener"
I have a confession to make. I am not much of a gardener. If you were to drive by our house, you would notice this immediately, because you would not see – -as some houses have – lots of varieties and colors of flowers all around in our front yard. I love to admire other people’s gardens, and in theory I would love to have a more beautiful garden of my own, but in practice I seem to find it hard to make the time for all of the different kinds of work that a garden entails:planting and fertilizing and pulling weeds and watering the young plants. One summer I did try to plant a few flowers on the south side of the house, but I didn’t keep an eye on them as I should have, and it got hot and well: they didn’t do very well. Probably I also didn’t choose the right plant for that particular place in the yard. However, while those flowers did not survive, there are other plants in our yard that are doing quite well – and no, I’m not talking about weeds. I’m talking about saplings, young trees. Early in the spring, we see the helicopter seeds, and it seemed this year even more of them than usual – and all of a sudden, there are saplings all over our yard, saplings on the side of the house where the flowers didn’t grow, and saplings in the midst of our peony bushes. In fact, the saplings kind of snuck up on us there, and got pretty big before I saw them. So I have been spending some hard labor this summer digging out pretty hefty saplings from among our peonies, as well as other places in the yard. It’s made me consider the whole issue of roots, among other things, because these saplings have strong and deep roots – they want to stay – as much as I don’t want them to.
However, our gospel reading today, appropriate enough for the middle of summer, is not about roots, is it? It’s about seeds, really. It’s about seeds and it’s about soil, different kinds of soil. The image in the gospel is the image of a sower sowing seeds in all kinds of soil – but sowing might be a kind word to use, really, for the sower really throws the seed around in a manner unlike any gardener, or any farmer that I have ever known. When I was more of a gardener, back in the days of my rural ministry, I sowed my carrots and my peas and my beans in neat rows, or at least as neat a row as I could possibly muster. And I sowed my cucumbers in hills, just like the directions on the package. And then I carefully marked the spots where they were planted with little sticks so that I could remember to water and to check for growth and to do all the sorts of things careful gardeners do. So when I hear the gospel story and see the image of the gardener in my mind, the first thing that comes to my mind are those saplings, planted in Good Soil, all right, but right where I don’t want them, right in the middle of my peonies, right in the middle of the lawn. That crazy gardener tosses the seeds around and doesn’t seem to care where they fall down, and that’s crazy in more ways than one.
It’s crazy, first of all, because the sower does not only sow in the"right" places. There are many types of soil, and the wise among us, might designate a specific place for our gardens. But the sower throws the seed everywhere, not just in the garden. The sower throws the seed – on the path, on the rocky ground, and among thorns, as well as in good soil. This attention to the types of soil might lead us to suspect that the point of the parable is the type of soil – and of course the interpretation of the parable also might lead us in this direction as well. But I think that the main point is to notice all of the places where the sower throws the seeds, not just in the "right" places, and not just in the "official garden" with the fence around it, but all along the countryside.
This reminds me of an image from a children’s book I read some time ago, Miss Rumphius. Miss Rumphius was told by her uncle, when she was a little girl, that she should "do something to make the world more beautiful." For a long time, she wasn’t sure what that might be. But as an older lady, when she spent one winter sick in bed, she got an idea: that she would buy seeds of lupine flowers, and walk around the countryside near her home throwing them wherever she happened to walk. The people would see her walking around and they started to call her "that crazy old lady." That is what the sower in this parable is like: like the crazy old lady, throwing seeds around all over creation.
Another reason the gardener seems crazy: what he is doing seems to be a waste of good seeds. Sure, there seem to be an abundance of helicopter seeds, more than we actually want or need, but one thing I learned from farmers is that good seed is expensive – you don’t just throw it away. Not only that: The crazy gardener doesn’t plant neatly in rows, and doesn’t mark the spots with little sticks, and even plants in the hard places and in the dangerous places and where there is no chance that the seeds will sprout and grow. That’s another reason that the gardener is crazy. Because that’s not the way we’d do it, isn’t it? We’d pick the best spot to have a garden, and only plant our seeds there. And we know the best spots, don’t we? Last summer, for the first time in a long time, I decided to plant a little garden, just a few herbs, really, in one corner of my back yard. And since I am not such a good gardener, I asked a friend, someone who IS good, who ISN’T crazy, to come and help me. She helped me to plot out the spot, and to by the right fertilizer, and then she got me going with a good shovel to turn the earth. And all of a sudden she got excited and said, "You have good dirt!" The point is, a good gardener KNOWS where the good dirt is, and where it isn’t, where you should plant, and where you should just forget it. But this crazy gardener plants in spots where seeds are not likely to take root. For some odd reason....
I remember a few years ago I went to the state legislature with a number of other pastors. One of the reasons we were there was because we were concerned about education. We talked to and visited with legislators from all over the state. And I remember in particular talking to one man from rural Minnesota somewhere. When we talked about education cuts in the inner city, he said to me, "Well, these are difficult choices, and maybe some of those kids aren’t worth it." Maybe some of those kids aren’t worth it. That's what he thought. That’s the problem, isn’t it?When we look around, we see scarce resources and we see different types of soil, and we want to be careful, and to put our resources in just the right places, and give them to just the right people. But God has a different idea of where to plant – and – most important of all, only God knows where the good soil really is. Only God knows which seeds are going to take root and sprout and grow strong and bear good fruit.
A colleague of mine was talking to one of her parish members one day, someone who rarely got a chance to come to church any more, because her husband was ill and she had to take care of him around the clock. The woman had called upon a neighbor to help her one Sunday morning so that she could go to worship. In the course of the conversation, she asked her neighbor whether he attended their community church much any more. The neighbor looked at her with disdain, and said, "They’ll let anyone in that church." To which she replied, "Yes, even you are welcome!"
"Even you are welcome," God says to us this day, as God calls to us to hear God’s words of love and forgiveness, as God calls to us to open our hands and come and eat. "Even you are welcome," God says to us whose hearts are hard, whose lives are full of temptations and distractions, who hear and sometimes turn away. "Even you are welcome," God says to us – pouring out the seeds of his love on us and on – not just us – but the whole world. It’s crazy, isn’t it? Because this crazy gardener, this crazy God, loves the world, the whole world, and not just the good places, but also the hard places: maybe even especially the hard places. This crazy gardener, this crazy God, loves the world, the whole world, and for some strange reason, wants the seeds of his love to sprout in the whole world, and not just in some special garden with a wall built around it. God wants the seeds of his love to sprout and grow – even among the peonies.
"Even you are welcome," God says to us this day and then sends us out to spread this crazy love in the good places and in the hard places, even in the places we think it will never grow. Because we don’t know. Only God knows – and shares with us – the breadth and the length and the height and the depth – of the love of God in Christ Jesus, poured out on us, poured out on the world. AMEN
In the interests of full disclosure, the story which ends "even you are welcome" is from here. I was directed to this post by a blog friend.
So I didn't preach without a manuscript today, as I had planned. I did do one section of the sermon away from the pulpit, but I'm still working on a method to get me away from my paper more. Next time...
After church we had some lively discussions about saplings, gardening (one person suggested I plant prairie flowers), farming methods in different eras, and at least one person talked to me about at-risk children.
I think they are appreciative of my small efforts to get away from the pulpit, if only for a little while -- so far.