Sunnyside Reformed Church
A Christian Community Church Making Christ Known Through Word & Deed
The Sower, Psalm 65:1-14 & Mat 13:1-9,18-23, 7/13/14, NM
A sower went out to sow…
Thus begins one of the most important parables of the NT and the first parable I myself ever really read and payed attention to. I’ve told the story many times...so many that I tend to feel like everyone I know has heard it and must by now be tired of it! However that may be, seeing The Sower listed in the Lectionary for this Sunday I decided it might just be the right time to tell it again!
It happens to be one of the parables that appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke - and the three versions are nearly identical. This makes us confident that it has indeed come down to us from Jesus himself. All three gospels tell us that Jesus was speaking to a large crowd at the time. In fact, two of the gospel authors - Mark and Matthew - say that the crush became so great Jesus retreated to small boat - in which he stood. Apparently he was on the shore of a lake. They pushed the boat a short way off from the shoreline, so that he might preach to the crowd without fear of being injured.
One of the other things that make this particular parable stand out is that it is associated with an explanation. An explanation of the meaning and purpose of The Sower, as well as parables in general. It’s a powerful moment in the story as it must have been in the ministry itself.
Jesus had but recently delivered his magnum opus - The Sermon On the Mount - and had seemingly rejected his own family members when they’d gone to visit him in his campsite. One of the most perplexing things he did.
Mat 12:46-50 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, "Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you." But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."
What’s remembered only rarely is that a short time before that incident the gospels relate that Jesus’ family had tried to have him committed to an asylum for the insane.
Mark 3:21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, He has gone out of his mind.
In light of that, his refusal to see them does not seem so strange. The Sower is very nearly the next thing that comes up.
I first read The Sower more than twenty years ago. I was in early recovery from the disease of alcoholism and looking back it’s clear to me that I could have gone either way...forward to new life, or backward into the old life I had known for so long.
I was out of work on unemployment having lost not one, but two jobs in the space of less than six months. I had plenty of time on my hands and spent a lot of it thinking about where I’d been and where I was headed. On this particular day I was hanging out on the Columbia U. campus, which is near my home and was one of the places my brother and I went to play when we were small. It was a wonderful place back then...full of winding footpaths and little groves.
I was sitting on the main steps leading up to Lowe Library and something compelled me to dig into my knapsack and find the pocket NT that I knew lived in there. It was one of those Gideon Bibles? The little green and orange ones? I had - on those very same steps leading up to Lowe Library on the CU campus - at least a year before that - come upon a box filled with those bibles and had taken one. Dropped it into my bag and left it there until the day I’m talking about. I had never read The Bible before that. I’d once tried to, but - and this too is something I’ve told many times - I’d started at Page 1 of Genesis and after a page or two I’d given up. Like so many people who approach The Bible that way, the beginning was simply too dense for a beginner!
There was no chance of making that same mistake, because all I had in Gideon was the NT and The Psalms. I began to read. And I began with Mark, rather than Matthew because I’d read in an article someplace that Mark was the oldest - that is to say, the first written - of the Gospels, and I wanted to try and read them in order. Immediately I was caught up in the story.
In those days came John the Baptist, wandering in the wilderness of Judea...
Even today, hearing those lines makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I knew...knew... that what I was reading was no myth. That it was just regular people - no different than you or I - trying to explain and describe what had happened to them. Except that what had happened to them was beyond all expectation or explanation. All they could do was tell the story. I read right through until I got to The Sower. And there I stopped. I read it again. And I read it again…and as I read it, I cried. Because what I had read was for me! It was the story of my spiritual life until that moment. I didn’t need the explanation Jesus gave the disciples. I knew what it meant. God had been reaching out to me my entire life and I had not listened. I knew God was real and I knew something was expected of me, but I couldn’t respond. I ran from God. I raced from God. I railed at God. Why are you doing this to me? Why are you asking this of me? I am no messenger. I have no voice. I can’t I can’t I can’t.
The seeds of truth had been planted in me, but I had let them get eaten up by the crows of my fears and failures. My mind and my heart had been like rocky ground where nothing would grow. I had, at times embraced the life of the spirit but it hadn’t lasted long. You see, I was easy to distract. And the more distracted from God I became the more elaborate my justifications got.
I saw...as I sat there crying and reading...that I was in mortal danger of wasting my life...which is the most precious gift our God can give us, for even our Salvation cannot be unless we are first alive! And, I knew that it was only God’s mercy that had kept me alive and only God’s love and care that had kept a small spark of spirit at work in me.
Every part of that parable was for me...except the last part. The seed that falls on fertile ground. And then came the revelation. The revelation I never expected or even knew I wanted. It wasn’t too late for me. As long as I was alive there was a reason to hope. There was the possibility of redemption.
By the time I got settled down...had you been an observer I doubt there was any sign that something had happened. I was the same person in the same body. But I was not the same Neil who had sat down on those steps so many times before. I was a different Neil. A new Neil. A Neil who wanted to feel more. Who wanted to hear and listen to God. And all of it was triggered by the parable. No more than a few short lines. The words of a man who lived thousands of years ago...words that were probably different than those recorded. Words of power.
I’ve taken the time to tell you this story from my own journey because I believe it’s the journey we all must make at least once in our lives, but more often, many times! It doesn’t matter how good we think we are, or how pious we have been. Real understanding of the spiritual life does not come to anyone easily or quickly. There are no shortcuts or wide-open gates! You have to go the long way round. Take the local train. The one making all the stops. You have to be willing to do the hard work. Weed and water the garden. Wait for the crop to come in. And be ready to reap the harvest when the time comes.
As Jesus told the disciples, parables are one of the ways we can talk about what cannot be articulated...understand what cannot be comprehended. That’s how God is.
It’s not so different from the Zen Buddhist Koans - or teaching stories. Zen masters used them give shape to The Spirit. Because our own rationality defeats us. Our intelligence distracts us. Our self-awareness blocks out God awareness. And so we cannot understand God.
What is the sound of one hand clapping? Meditate on this night and day until you know the answer.
That’s the kind of thing Zen masters ask their students. The Sufi masters of the Arabian desert also tell stories. One such story is about a sufi who - walking in the bazaar one day happened to look up right into the face of Death. When Death saw the man, Death was visibly startled. Realizing that Death knew him, the man also realized that Death had come to take his life., and so the sufi decided to run away, for he knew from his studies that if Death could not find him, he would be spared. So he saddled his fastest horse and rode hell for leather through the night, arriving at an oasis just as the sun was rising in the east. Walking his exhausted horse through the still-sleeping village he raised his bleary eyes and who should he see walking toward him but Death! And Death said to him, Well, well, well...so here you are after all. Destiny truly is an amazing thing. When I saw you yesterday I admit I was shocked, for I knew we had an appointment at this very oasis this morning, and I could not imagine how you would ever get here in time!
I do not say that Zen and Sufi masters are Messiahs. But I do say that the life of the spirit is the life we pursue and that many have gone before us. I do say that these stories, parables, images are all about understanding God and our relationship to God.
We cannot be willful. Cannot lie or cheat, steal or betray. We must be willing to surrender our lives and make God’s purpose, our purpose.
Jesus can and will lead us to God for he is of God. He can and will take each of us buy the hand and walk with us through the narrow gate. Do you remember that?
Enter ye in by the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction and many there be who go in thereat. For narrow is the gate and constricted is the way that leads to life and few there be who find it. (Mat 7:13-14)
Keep it always in the forefront of your mind and your heart. And if you do these things. If you are sincere and true, then someday you will yourself yield a rich harvest - a hundred, a thousand, a million times greater than you ever dared hope for.
And all God’s People said...
Sunnyside Reformed Church
48-03 Skillman Avenue
Sunnyside, N.Y. 11104
A Christian Community Church Making Christ Known Through Word & Deed