Sometimes, when people here around Boston learn that I grew up in Minnesota, they assume that I must be from a rural area. Once, someone at a former church even asked me what sort of farm I came from, perhaps thinking that I lived a 20th century version of Little House on the Prairie. I had to disappoint her by saying that, in fact, I grew up in the suburbs, about 20 minutes from Minneapolis. The city is called Maple Grove, not to be confused with Walnut Grove, where the real life Ingalls family of the “Little House” fame lived.
The two Groves, in fact, are about 150 miles and many more worlds apart. I did visit Walnut Grove once, in search of the famed little house, but it’s not there, having long since collapsed. All that’s left is a depression on a hill by a stream where their dugout sod house once was, with a sign saying that’s the spot. Although, like the more famous Walnut Grove, Maple Grove, where I’m from, also used to be farmland, potato farms mainly, but that was a hundred years ago. Now it’s a city of about 60,000 residents.
But even though I didn’t grow up on a farm, one of my grandmothers did. My mom’s mother: Grandma Florence. She lived quite a bit later than the famed Ingalls family, but I suspect her early life was a lot the same. Her father, Fred Krussow, the son of German immigrants, was wheat farmer. And like the earliest pioneers, he and his family moved across the country quite a bit, in search of the best land, the best soil, the best opportunity. After emigrating from Germany in 1850 or so, the Krussows landed in Minnesota. Then they moved to Oregon and farmed there, where my grandmother was born. After her mother died, they moved back to Minnesota. And eventually Grandpa Fred uprooted his family of 7 and moved to Saskatchewan, where he had successful wheat farm—until the drought, dust bowl, and depression of the 1930s.
My grandma, though, she didn’t go to Canada. Instead, she stayed behind in Minnesota to finish high school. After graduating, she moved to Minneapolis for secretarial school, then working in Pillsbury’s headquarters. But although she left the farm, farming didn’t really leave her. In her backyard she grew tomatoes, carrots, Swiss chard, green beans, zucchini, and rhubarb. Row after row marked out by stakes in ground and pieces of string strung across to organize what would go where. She didn’t believe in wasting land with grass when you could use it to produce something good. And like a good farm girl, her basement had shelf after shelf of canned goods—along with a clothesline and what at some point must have been a modern convenience called a ringer. Eventually, Grandpa Fred came back to Minnesota and moved in with her on the top floor of her house, where he lived until he died at age 90. I asked my mom yesterday when Grandpa Fred moved in, and she said he was just always there, from the start, probably since the dustbowl.
Not believing in grass, Grandma tried to get a vegetable garden going at our house in Maple Grove, too, but the soil wasn’t very good. It’s clay-like, so mostly it was just good for potatoes, like the farms there a hundred years ago, though we tried to grow carrots and tomatoes and strawberries as well. Not always with great success. Well, plus the fact that once my mom went to tend the garden and she saw a snake. She threw a rock at it and refused to go back out there again. So, we put up a swing set instead, which admittedly was a lot more fun than growing potatoes.
Obviously, Jesus’ parable of the sower, which we just heard, inspired this recollection of my farming ancestry. The search for good soil, for a place in which the seeds might take root, grow, and flourish is something that may be a little foreign to us where we live, certainly most of our lives don’t depend on it in an immediate way (though, of course we do indirectly depend on good soil for our food), but probably it is a story that would have made a lot of sense to people in ages past, or in different contexts than our urban and suburban lifestyles.
When Jesus teaches in parables, what he does is take familiar images, stories of ordinary, mundane things, like planting seeds or casting nets for fish or even sweeping a house, and through these stories he tells us something about God and about us. Usually, though, he doesn’t tell us what the stories mean. Rather, he lets the hearers—whether the original disciples or us many years later—discern what he means. Sometimes, it may even be that the stories, the parables, mean something different for us today than they first did 2,000 years ago. That’s what’s so brilliant and unusual about Jesus’ parables. They are able to speak to different people in different ways across time and space.
While I was preparing for this morning I read an interesting definition of parable by a Welsh Bible scholar named C. H. Dodd, who taught at Oxford and Cambridge for many years. He wrote: “At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving in mind sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” Isn’t that great? In using parables, Jesus doesn’t tell us what to think; he doesn’t give us “prepackaged meaning,” but instead challenges us to respond, inviting new meanings in new situations, always “teasing us into active thought.”
What’s different about today’s parable, however, is that in addition to the typical Jesus-style story, we also find an explanation, a code of sorts. The seeds thrown on the path and are eaten by the birds is really Satan stealing away belief from some, while the seeds sown on rocky ground are people whose faith never takes root. But the seeds sown on good soil are people who allow the good news of the gospel to grow in their lives. It’s very neat and tidy. But, it is also atypical for Jesus’ parables, which usually are just left hanging, with no explanation at all, just our minds teased into thought, often leaving us scratching our heads trying to figure out what he means.
It is most likely the case that the parable of the sower really was told by Jesus to his disciples. It uses language and imagery quite consistent with Jesus’ general approach and manner of speaking. The explanation, however, is probably a later addition, reflecting the concerns of the early church—trying to explain why it was that some people responded faithfully and fully to the message of the gospel, to the saving Good News of Christ, while others didn’t. For those who heard Jesus’ message and responded with faith and trust, whose hearts were filled with Christ, it was hard to understand why others were so resistant. It certainly wasn’t God’s fault—so maybe these non-responders were really just bad soil. Or, maybe Satan had prevented them from responding as they should. I suppose these hypotheses are as good as anything. After all, we still don’t really know why some people embrace lives of faith and others don’t. But like the early Christians, what we do know is that for those who do respond, for those who answer Jesus’ call to discipleship, the results, the harvest, can be very great—both in terms of what we can do, what we can sow and grow ourselves, and also in how our hearts are filled with God’s grace and love.
Whatever the explanation of the parable, whether Jesus’ or the later gospel writers’, what we also see (and I think this is just as important, or maybe even more so than the explanation given) is that God, the sower, is completely indiscriminate in terms of where the seed is thrown. Unlike my grandmother, who carefully planted her seeds individually in neat and straight rows, with stakes and strings to make sure everything grew as it should, and only planted those seeds that she knew would grow properly in her yard (for example not planting an orange tree in Minnesota), unlike that, God takes a completely different approach—sowing seed, sharing the good news of grace and love completely willy nilly, with reckless abandon, even. It’s as if there’s no limit, there’s no way that God will run out, so why not try—here, there, and everywhere—on the path, in the rocky soil, among the weeds, even among us here today, in the chance, in the hope, that some of those seeds will take root, wherever they are.
Of course, God does that because there really is no limit. There really is no limit and there is no end to God’s grace, to God’s love, and even to God’s hope—God’s hope that we will hear, God’s hope that we will respond, God’s hope that whoever we are, wherever we are, we will be among those who in whom God’s grace and love takes root, and then grows and flourishes.
So, Jesus tells us, in language and in an example that was no doubt perplexing at first, God sows seeds and casts them in every direction. God even casts them in our direction, unlikely soil as we may be. And then, like a farmer or like my grandmother in her backyard garden, God showers those seeds, God showers us, with love, waiting to see what will happen. Waiting to see how we respond. And you know what, it isn’t hard. Responding. All we have to do is allow those seeds, and the power that love, the power of God’s life, to take root in hearts and souls, until it and until we grow and bear fruit and yield—as Jesus says, thirty-fold, sixty-fold, even a hundred fold. And then we respond by sharing that yield, by sharing that love that good news with others. Sowing seeds ourselves and harvesting a yield beyond our wildest imagining. That was Jesus’ promise 2000 years ago, and I think it still is today.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.