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The Reckless Farmer

January 16, 2012

A sermon preached July 10, 2011, at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Mount Pleasant, Texas

Matthew 13: 1-9; 18-23

I never was much of a farmer. I loved the idea of it – except of course, for the hard work.

I grew up out in the country, where my parents ran some cattle and raised hay each year.

During the summers, I sometimes recruited several teenage friends, and together we would help bring the hay in.

Mostly what I see now in fields along the highway are big rolls of hay. But back then, we produced rectangular bales, and my friends and I received a few cents for each one we could bring in from the field and stack in an aluminum barn in 100-degree-plus heat.

Any idle thoughts of a farming career soon ended, baked and sweated away by the Texas sun.

Like their brothers and sisters who grew up in the Depression area, my Mother and Dad kept a sizeable garden, nothing like the small, overgrown tomato plots in my backyard now. In the poverty of their youth, I suppose the garden must have been a necessity. Our well-cared-for piece of land was more like the size of my entire backyard today – or bigger. The ground was carefully prepared, and the project was so big that once I got to stay out of school a day just to work in the garden. If it was a good season, there would be jars of canned plum or tomato preserves – enough to last for years.

I cannot say I know much about planting, as you easily could tell if you took a look at my garden and the paltry crop of tomatoes produced this year. But I do know this: Before planting, my Dad cleared the garden of any obstruction. The dirt was tilled, broken up. Rocks and weeds and cantankerous mesquites were dutifully removed. The ground was made ready to receive the seed so that it would have the best chance to produce big, beautiful fruits and vegetables.

Never once did I see my Dad spreading seed all over the mesquite pasture behind our house or the gravel road leading to our mail box. Not so, the planter in Matthew 13. He seems willing to toss seed everywhere with no regard for efficiency whatsoever.

No attention is paid to where the seed might end up. It lands all over — on good ground as well as bad. And in fact, his success rate is very low: Three-fourths of his efforts end in failure with either the birds eating the seed, the sun scorching the plants because they cannot fully take root in the rocky ground, or they are choked by the thorns.

The Parable of the Sower – I like to call it the story of the Reckless Farmer – is considered by some to be the key parable among the “comparison stories” the gospel writers remembered Jesus telling. The story is long, and it is unusual in that Jesus provides an interpretation – at least to the disciples — and it is included in all three of the Synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Another well-known parable, The Prodigal Son, appears only once, in Luke. If repetition indicates importance, than we should pay special attention to the Parable of the Sower.

Much of the Bible is lost in translation to our ears. It has been suggested that perhaps even Jesus knew little about raising crops. He was after all, the son of a carpenter. Yet Jesus knew his audience, and he told stories about everyday experiences in which they could relate. We often cannot really relate to his comparisons in the way 1st Century listeners did,  so we often tend to lose the story’s edge.

For example, the tale of the Good Samaritan doesn’t have quite the same impact on us because we cannot fully grasp the meaning of Samaritan as depicting a despised outsider with whom the Jews shared centuries of hostility and mistrust. The Prodigal Son doesn’t carry quite the same bite because we cannot sense just how outrageous the actions of the Father are, even among modern listeners of this story in the Middle East. That a father would lower himself to scoop up his robes from around his feet and run to meet this conniving son — well, it’s unheard of!

We also have the disadvantage of having heard these parables over and over again. They’ve become redundant, and we have been given to believe that we understand them. I’m not so sure we do. Frequently, for example, the Parable of the Sower is used to argue that only a precious few people will make it to heaven. In our time and place, and bolstered by our selfish theologies, we have tended to make Jesus’ stories all about us, instead of God. The seed is described as the message of salvation  — and our hearts better not turn out to be rocky ground! We read this story as prescriptive instead of descriptive. We point out those who perhaps have not let seed take root. Bad soil. Perhaps we have done that for so long now that we can hardly help ourselves.

But today, let us resolve to hear this parable with new ears, keeping in mind the love of God who is always about the work of reconciliation.

In the Parable of the Reckless Farmer, Jesus is not making setting up a salvific prescription, but rather describing something that has already happened — and continuing to happen. Rather than telling people what they must do to be saved, he is describing the reality of the Kingdom, which has already entered the world and through Christ has won the victory over sin and death. We are called to participate in this joyful work. In his explanation to the disciples, Jesus repeatedly compares the seed that is spread far and wide to the word – as in, the one who hears the word and understands it.

The Greek is the logos, used hundreds of times in the New Testament – it can mean expression of a thought, reasoning expressed by words, or speaking to a conclusion. Ultimately, the writer of John uses it to describe the divine word, Christ, expressing the thoughts of the Father through the Spirit. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The seed is Christ. The farmer is God, sharing divine love recklessly with everyone, not simply those who might offer the best prospects for a good crop.

Those who understand what the sacrifice of Christ has accomplished produce much on behalf of the Kingdom – they work for justice and peace, love and reconciliation, and they perform acts of compassion. Others run into obstacles and are not as productive. It occurred to me this last week that, rather than separating us into different types of soil – many of us have experienced all of these conditions over different times in our spiritual lives: no roots, trouble or persecution, low yield.

But how can such a reckless farmer, willing to spread seed willy-nilly over all of creation, stay in business? Most of the seed seems to have been wasted, producing little or no results. But then comes the best part of the story. Despite all the obstacles, and the seemingly high failure rate, the harvest is an incredible success – producing ridiculous yields – in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” First century hearers would not have missed that these yields are absurdly high, nothing any of them would have seen.

Now, as I said, I don’t know much about farming, but I have seen what people do when they produce more fruits and vegetables than they can handle. They share them with their friends. They knock on their neighbors doors. They take their good fortune to work with them. They consume what they can, give as much away as they can, and soon all are fed by the richness of God’s creative and redeeming efforts.

The bottom line in the Parable of the Sower is this: Despite all obstacles, the harvest cannot fail. The Lord of the Harvest asks only that we share in the bounty.

This is the nature of the God who Jesus describes: not willing that any should be lost, running to meet the wayward son, recklessly sharing love with the whole world. The greatest joy of God is to see us share that love with one another.

On a July night in 1988, my mother and I came home from the hospital in the early morning hours after my father died of cancer following months of suffering. I have always remembered driving across the cattle guard at home on that dark night. The headlights shined across the fields on both sides of our gravel road, and I could see that the coastal Bermuda had just been cut, and hay was on the ground. It would soon be harvest time.

Although the baling went on that year without my Dad, the seeds that he planted in his life have taken root many times in the lives of others, including ways he never would have imagined. Because of Christ, the harvest continues again and again, until the limitless joy of the Reckless Farmer is made complete. On that day, we will all be seated together around that great banquet table, laughing, enjoying fellowship and the great bounty that has been prepared for us since the beginning of time.

Let anyone with ears listen!

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