Have You Heard This One?

Paula Northwood September 8, 2019

Scripture Luke 8:4—15

I have a friend who is good at telling jokes. I once spent an entire evening listening to him tell jokes. It always started with “Have you heard this one?” To me, it didn’t matter if I had heard it or not. A good joke is worth hearing again.

Have you heard this one? So, there was this monastery and every morning the head monk chants [sings], “Good morning,” and the other monks chant back, “Good morning.” And then every evening the monk chants, “Good evening,” and the other monks chant, “Good evening.” Well, there was this one guy who came in from Europe, and he had jet lag, and he got all confused, so when the head monk chanted, “Good morning,” he chanted, “Good evening.” And the head monk started singing, “Someone chanted evening” [to the tune from South Pacific].

This fall we are doing a sermon series on the parables of Jesus. Parables are timeless treasures that hold truths that we are to uncover. Parables are stories with a punch line, a challenge, a Zen kōan, a riddle, and they are often humorous. Unfortunately, the humor is lost on us. We are the person who upon hearing a joke says, “I don’t get it.” I invite you to this series where we will listen anew to the parables, which may sound ordinary, even simple, but hidden in their words are treasures to be discovered, if we spend time with them and meditate on them with our hearts open.

In our text this morning, I imagine Jesus begins with something similar, “Listen, have you heard this one?”

The whole point of speaking in parables was that only certain people would know what Jesus was talking about—in a world where it was dangerous to challenge the empire—people with, in his words, “ears to hear.” This would be his followers and other people with a certain revolutionary leaning in religion and politics. It would likely not include Romans or people from the religious establishment or those unwilling to change.

“Listen,” says Jesus at both the beginning and ending of the parable. “Let anyone with ears, listen!” But what are we meant to hear? Can you imagine what the crowds who first heard this parable might have been thinking? Some may have come to hear a provocative preacher, or charismatic leader, or inspiring politician, or even a compelling comedian. Instead, they found a gentle teacher who spoke about seeds. I can imagine the response. Seeds? Really, that’s all you’ve got? We’re in an occupied territory, oppressed by the Romans and you want to talk about farming and seeds?

It reminds me of the first time I heard the Dalai Lama. It was on the University of Minnesota campus. I went expecting great things, pearls of wisdom. I think I had built him up in my mind, or maybe I was at a needy point in my life and I wanted to hear some answers or some wisdom that would help give my life meaning. Instead, he seemed small to me. A gentle, benevolent man, who didn’t say anything I didn’t already know: Be kind. Love one another. Choose joy.

Part of the reason this parable has lost its punch for us is that we do not fully appreciate the agricultural context. For what Jesus suggested to this peasant crowd would most likely have been considered quite silly. A sower who just threw seeds everywhere and anywhere! It most certainly would have been deemed ludicrous. I mean, Jesus proposed to these impoverished rural peasants that they squander seed. I’m not sure we can fully appreciate it since we throw away so much stuff. This parable probably would have agitated those early agrarians for the sheer waste of good seed. To then have the sower identified as God would have been even more shocking!

“Listen!” God is reckless, wasteful! But wait! Like a person who finally gets the joke—there is another way to understand this—God is extravagant, overflowing with abundance. That may have brought a smile to the audience, maybe even a laugh-out-loud response. That’s perhaps the way Jesus’ followers would have heard it.

But in our text, something else happens that does not happen with any other parable in the Bible: Jesus explains it. Scholars say that a later editor or redactor, probably whoever wrote the final version of Matthew’s gospel that Luke used as a source, added the interpretation that places the focus on the ground: fertile, fallow, rocky or thorn-choked. By the time this gospel was written, some 80 to 100 years after the death of Jesus, Christian communities were firmly established, and hierarchy and control were already being asserted and argued. This added interpretation has guided the way this parable has been taught and “heard” for centuries.

The explanation goes like this: “When anyone hears the word of the God and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit.”

The “seed” in this parable represents “the word,” the spiritual message, the vision of God that Jesus was trying to share with the world. And while the message is the same in each scenario that he describes, it is received very differently, with very different results. Just like the seed can only grow into a big healthy plant if it falls into soil that is ready to receive it, a message can only transform our lives if it falls into a heart and a consciousness that is ready to receive it. If you’re not ready, it just withers and dies.

I grew up being asked the question, “What kind of soil are you?” Maybe not a bad question, but who is going to answer anything but “good soil?” This question was also asked with a capitalist mindset. God puts seeds in our bank and we either invest them profitably or we don’t. We are either fertile soil or we aren’t. We are susceptible to the evil one or not. We’re either worth God’s word or we aren’t.

But God does not throw seeds around to see who will create a good garden and who will fail miserably as a gardener. Rather, God throws seeds extravagantly—gracefully—wastefully—lovingly—hoping and knowing that somewhere, somehow, some will take root and flourish.

“Listen!” And there it is: the mandate that we do something; the challenging suggestion that we have some control. We do make choices. The question is: Do we make them out of fear and selfishness, or do we make them in ecstatic reaction to God’s extravagant all-inclusive love? What makes you truly listen? In what context does your heart soften and open, even to someone with whom you disagree, and you really listen?

“Listen! You who have ears to hear.” Here’s another invitation. Because seedlings change things, the implication is that we will have to change our ways. Growth will not happen without moving from where we are now. Flowers sprout, blossom, close and wither. Small lichen plants have been known to split rocks. Change is inevitable but growth is optional. And maybe it is the growth that is frightening. But we ought not be afraid of change, of growth, but rather welcome it. It’s a sign that we are alive! The Bible says “Be not afraid” 366 times, more than any other phrase. Why? Because we cannot listen when we are afraid. We can only hear God and each other when we are open and relaxed, able to welcome something new and different.

We have been working on two major initiatives this year: growth and racial equity. For us to grow numerically, spiritually, financially, programmatically, we must change. We will be hearing more about this as the Growth Task Force reports on their work this fall. But the bottom line is that if we want to grow, we need to be welcoming to our neighbors in more ways than we have ever tried before. And we know from the all the work we did last year concerning issues of race and inclusion that we have been given a clear directive from our neighbors. The question is, “Have we listened?”

My friends, this is a time for deep roots. This is the time to trust that just when the work seems too difficult, a harvest will burst forth in abundance! Yes, we know about hard soil, the scorching sun, sharp thorns, but we also know about the good news of the extravagant sower. We know about trials, sorrows and challenges, and we know the surprise of a plant that grows in the crack of concrete. Here is the thing about seeds, you can trample them down in the dark earth, you can bury them and leave them for dead, but many will rise up.

God calls us to listen unafraid, to turn and face the sun, stretch a little upward, expand our roots a little deeper and grow! And what God is doing is sowing seeds of grace and love indiscriminately, extravagantly and without end. We may not always see the new life emerging from the seeds. A lot remains hidden and underground. But God even now is preparing a great harvest.

May the Parable of the Sower be a model for our church, Christ’s body in the world. We must continue our work for racial justice and equity by being bold in a world where the Empire of our time is oppressing and excluding many of God’s children. The Empire of today promotes white supremacy and white privilege. It also promotes environmental injustice and advocates for violent solutions to problems. God’s people are called to be radically hospitable in order to grow. This the gospel, the good news for today!

When seeds fall on thorny soil, we keep on planting and nourishing the soil with radical love and action. We keep on sowing seeds of love and grace, justice and mercy, even when it seems futile or a waste of time. Because in the mystery of God’s grace and providence, even if we cannot see it now, some seeds are finding good soil. And even now, they are growing into a bountiful harvest—not because of what we have done—listen—not because of us—but because of what God is doing.

This is the God that Jesus is always pointing to. This is the God that this parable calls us to trust. There is a lot of hard soil in the world, a lot of thorns, a lot of rocks. But they are no match for the extravagant grace and power of God. During this fall series on the parables, I invite you to sit, meditate and pray the parables, like a Zen kōan, with an open mind and heart. “They are not obscure spiritual puzzles but evocative words and images that will transform you. They are the gate into the never-boring world of everything you don’t already know.”[1]

Let us go forth in faith, confidently sowing seeds of love and grace like there is no tomorrow, precisely because there is a tomorrow and it belongs to God. May it be so. Amen.

[1]Rachel Boughton, “How to Practice Kōans” in Lion’s Roar Magazine, September 2019.