Sunday, July 13, 2008

Parable of the Sower - An Alternative Interpretation

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 10)
Isaiah 55:1-5,10-13; Psalm 65:9-14; Romans 8:9-17; Matthew 13:1-9,18-23
Sunday, July 13, 2008 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

[Note: I preached this sermon as written at the 8:00 service. At the 10:00 service, per Susan’s suggestion, I moved the Ampleforth Abbey story earlier in the sermon, placing it after my discussion of the conventional interpretation of the parable and my statement that I think there are alternative meanings of the parable. As a result, much of the sermon ended up being preached without notes, but felt far better than how I originally wrote it.]

Today’s Gospel lesson is the well-known parable of the sower. It’s pretty easy to follow, because unlike a lot of his parables, Jesus lays out the parable in the first nine verses and then, in the remaining six verses, proceeds to explain to the disciples what the parable actually means. While he does not specifically say so, Matthew implies that the sower is Jesus himself. The seed that is sown is the “word of the kingdom.” In the parable, the seed is sown in four kinds of soil – on the path, on rocky ground, among thorns, and in good soil. One could argue that the parable is not so much about the sower, who is given – it is Jesus. Rather, the real emphasis is on the various types of soil and what they mean to the nurture and growth of the seed – to the nurture and growth of the “word of the kingdom.” Since allegorical interpretation emphasized the four kinds of soil and what they mean, we are left “with the implicit homiletical question ‘What kind of soil am I?’” (Boring, 303).


In plain language, this is a parable specifically designed to allow us to address our faith, our response to the word of God, represented by the seed. We are asked to determine for ourselves whether we provide the right conditions to receive, nurture, and allow the word of God to come to fruition in our lives. We are told that if we provide the right conditions, the good soil, we will bear fruit that yields as much as a hundredfold. Given the realities of agriculture in Palestine, a harvest of four to tenfold would be considered normal. A harvest of fifteen-fold would be exceptionally good. A harvest of a hundredfold would be phenomenal, fantastically surprising, even miraculous (Boring, 303). In short, this parable is not about the “evolutionary progress of the kingdom of God, but portrays the mysterious, concealed work of God, who miraculously brings the harvest” (Boring, 303).

One commentator notes that “In its present form, the interpretation represents the meaning generated by the parable in a later typical church situation, as Christian interpreters reflected on the meaning of the Christ-event and the church’s experience in bearing witness to the gospel” (Boring, 305). Does that mean there may be other interpretations to this parable? I think so. I think many of Jesus’ parables are multivalent.

As I noted previously, the parable of the sower leads us to view and analyze the parable from the perspective of the soil, to ask the question, “What kind of soil am I?” But what would happen if we looked at it from a slightly different angle, from the perspective of the seed; if we saw ourselves as the seed being cast on differing types of soil? If we shifted to this alternative perspective, we would no longer be looking at what type of conditions we provide in our hearts for the nurture of the word of God. Rather we would be looking at what type of conditions nurture us. What are the conditions we require to be nurtured, to blossom and grow, as God’s creation? I believe we would be looking at what type of community nurtures us.

In this newly formed parable of the seed, the four types of soil would represent four types of community (or not), that nurture us and allow us to grow into what we are called to be (or not). The path, which is a compacted surface with no soil at all would be that condition where there is no community all. This is the condition of the loner, or of those who are marginalized, ignored, dismissed by society. Where there is no community, where one is dismissed by society, the seed, the individual, receives no nurture, has no opportunity to grow. The opportunity for living into one’s calling is minimized, snatched away before it can be realized, snatched away before the individual even knows that he or she has a calling.

The rocky ground, which has minimal soil would represent that condition in which one’s community is shallow, offers no depth, no meaningful relationships. Such a community, while appearing to be nurturing, would be superficial at best. The community and its members, likely do not truly care about one another, at least not in a deep sense. The members could probably be characterized as acquaintances. With the lack of deep, meaningful nurture from the community, it is highly unlikely that any significant or meaningful growth will occur in the individual. Here again, the opportunity for living into one’s calling is minimized, although there is a possibility that one may catch glimpses of what that calling may be.

The community represented by thorny ground is, in some ways, similar to that represented by rocky ground. While appearing to provide nurture, in reality it only provides superficial relationship. Yet, such a community is more insidious than the “rocky ground” community because of what it appears to be. It appears to be one in which an individual is welcomed for who they are, as they are. It appears to be a community that understands the individual, perhaps the only real community he or she may really have, the only place where the individual can truly fit in and feel a part. But in actuality, such a community is not about care and nurture of the individual. It accepts the individual on false pretenses, being only concerned with what the community or it its individual members may gain from someone welcomed into it. It is a community that is only concerned with using, even abusing, the weaker members, the ones most vulnerable who are only seeking to belong, to be nurtured, to be cared for. In such a community, the individual is not likely to have the opportunity to live into his or her calling.

The good soil represents a rich community whose primary purpose is the care and nurture of its members. It is a place where, like the thorny community, all are welcomed as they are, regardless of who they are. But unlike the thorny community, the good soil community does not seek to use the individual, to gain something from him or her. This community seeks to nurture the individual, to help the individual figure out who they truly are and what they are called to be, to help them discern who God is calling them to be. And then, the community seeks to provide a safe place where each and every member can grow into the fullness of who God is calling them to be. Such a community, while it may have a specific purpose or mission, is first and foremost concerned with providing the resources necessary to allow its members to grow and blossom, to bear fruit – not just fourfold or tenfold or fifteen-fold, but a hundredfold – to bear fruit beyond our wildest imaginations.

Perhaps a story will help illustrate what I mean.

In August of 1994, I was scheduled to do a two week study tour focusing on Benedictine spirituality. Our home base for the two weeks was St. Deiniol’s residential library in Hawarden, Wales. The program was scheduled to start on a Tuesday. The plan was that I would fly to London, arriving Tuesday morning, take the train to Chester, and then take a cab the last seven miles from Chester to Hawarden. That’s what was planned. I arrived at Heathrow as planned. And that’s when it all started to unravel.

Unbeknownst to me, my father was in London, returning from a business trip to the Middle East. He had arrived a few days before, but decided to extend his stay in London to meet me at the airport. A good thing. When he greeted me outside customs, he informed me that I was temporarily stranded in London. The British rail system was on strike and there was a 24-hour shutdown of the system that had started just a few hours before my arrival. Since I had no way to get to Hawarden, I had no choice but to stay in London until the next day.

Wednesday, the trains were running again, so I took the train to Chester, and then a cab on to Hawarden, arriving mid-afternoon, where I hooked up with the rest of the tour group. I immediately felt like an outsider. I had only missed about a day of the program, but that initial 24 hours had been crucial in building community. My traveling companions already knew a lot about each other. Bonds were already starting to form. I would have to catch up, but there was no way to regain that lost time, the lost experiences they had already shared in my absence.

The next few days went along fine. I did not feel like a complete outsider, but did feel like I was a little lost, at a bit of a disadvantage, not quite part of the community. Then about five days later, we made an overnight trip to Ampleforth Abbey near York. Following evensong at the Abbey, I remained in the chapel praying. While praying, I had such a profound experience of God’s presence. Through that experience, I became aware that God was calling me to monastic life. The next morning, after breakfast, I talked to Norvene Vest, one of our leaders, and told her what I had experienced. Norvene said it sounded like I was indeed being called and maybe I needed some time to do some discernment. She said she would talk to the Abbot about me staying on at Ampleforth for awhile and that she would have my things sent from Hawarden. It sounded like a great idea. But as I thought about it for a few minutes before giving Norvene an answer, a thought came to me – one of those thoughts that is in your own head but somehow does not seem to originate there. That thought, that realization, was, “no, I must continue on with the group.”

I knew that was where I belonged – with that group of people. That was the pivotal point in the whole trip. From that moment on, I felt like I was a full member of the group. When I came to that realization, and accepted them as my community, and allowed myself to be accepted into the community, everything was different. I felt supported and nurtured in a way that I had never felt before.

When I first arrived at Hawarden, I felt like a seed that had been cast on the path. There was no way I could take root in that community. I initially felt as if there was no soil for me to establish roots. But after a little while, I felt like I had been cast on rocky ground. As I started to get to know people, I felt a little more comfortable, but knew that there was no way I would have the same deep roots in the community that they had already developed. I had missed out on too much during that first 24 hours. But given enough time, and what I firmly believe was the prompting of the Holy Spirit, I came to realize that this was a comfortable and safe community, a community that would support me and nurture me. This was a community built on good soil, and God had cast me into that good soil, where I might take root and begin to grow in my understanding of myself and of who God was calling me to be. And as I shared my story of my experience at Ampleforth Abbey with my new-found friends, I realized that they were able to provide the support I needed to help me figure out what had happened to me, to help me start to live into my calling.

That was not my first experience of struggling with my sense of call. But I realize previous experiences did not contain the necessary soil, the necessary community to allow germination to really occur. In previous experiences, I was as a seed cast on the path, or on rocky ground. But at Ampleforth and in the following days back in Hawarden, I found the good soil I needed. It would take many more years for that calling to come to fruition, but in many ways, the seeds of that calling began to sprout in the good soil provided by those 20 people I met at St. Deiniol’s. (And I should probably note that one of those 20 was a dear friend of St. Alban’s – Bishop George Barrett, who became a particularly dear friend and mentor on that journey.)

This story is perhaps somewhat anomalous, as in it, I experienced community in multiple ways, as various types of soil. Yet, I’m sure that most of us in this room have our own stories and experiences with various types of communities and how they have, or have failed to, help us to discern who we are and what our calling is, and have, or have failed to, nurture us and help us grow into that calling. The Church is, or should be, such a place – a community that provides good soil in which we are nurtured and cared for, and allowed to grow into the fullness of who God is calling each and every one of us to be – to bear fruit a hundredfold. I pray that each and every one of us experiences St. Alban’s as just such a place. If, God forbid, that is not the case, we are not doing our job as a community. After all, we all need to do our part. We need to determine what kind of soil we wish to provide for ourselves and for others, and then to do our part to make our vision a reality.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.



References
Boring, M. Euguene. “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. VIII of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

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