I’ve heard the Parable of the Sower more times than I can count, and I’ll bet many of you have too. And I almost always hear the parable as being about me. You know, what kind of soil am I? Am I rocky? Am I shallow? Am I full of thorns? I rarely if ever imagine myself to be good soil, you know, good enough to bear fruit that will last. But regardless of the kind of soil I turn out to be on any particular day, I always hear this parable as being about me. The truth is that I often experience some performance anxiety when I hear this parable, do you know what I mean?
I did something a little different this week as I prepared for this sermon though. I actually listened to the parable. A crowd has gathered around Jesus and what’s the first thing he says to them? “Listen.” Listen. Listen. So listen, I did. I listened to someone else speak the parable. More than once. And as I listened to the parable, instead of simply hearing it or reading it, the parable opened up for me. So now you may ask, what’s the difference between hearing and listening? Think about conversation. When you hear your friend speaking to you, you may be distracted from what your friend is actually saying because you are busy planning your reply. You know what I mean? On the other hand, when you are listening to your friend speak, you are opening up to the whole person, beyond the words themselves, and taking in what’s truly being said, maybe beyond the words that are being spoken. You are not busy thinking up your reply. You are actively listening to the person, not just to the words. Do you see what I mean? It’s a skill we can all cultivate, and if we do we will be the richer for it.
In any event, as I listened to the parable and allowed it to open up to me on its own terms, I noticed a few things beyond what kind of soil I was. For one thing, I noticed Jesus’s audience. And you know what? Jesus wasn’t talking to modern professional religious folks like me. No, he was talking to a group most of whom were likely subsistence farmers in occupied Palestine some 2000 years ago. These were people who were skilled at wringing whatever the ground would yield so they could first pay their exorbitant taxes to the Emperor and to the Temple, and then feed their families with what was left over. They knew how important it was to find the right kind of soil in which to plant. So imagine their astonishment when they hear a story of a sower, meaning a farmer just like them, who scatters his precious seed everywhere, I mean, everywhere, regardless of the condition or quality of the soil. What a waste. What kind of farmer would do such a thing? Well, in my imagination, I do believe that as these good, practical farmers listened to the parable they understood that Jesus was telling them something about the nature of the seed the Sower was so profligately spreading and about the nature of the Sower himself. The Sower was spreading the seeds of abundant grace. The seeds of mercy and kindness unbounded. The seeds of justice and peace without end. The lion was lying down with the lamb. The Law and the prophets were being fulfilled. The Kingdom of God was in their midst. It was God who was the Sower and Jesus was telling them something about the very nature of the God they worshipped. Unlike a practical farmer, this God sowed the seeds of grace and justice and mercy anywhere and everywhere. Why? Because the whole of Creation, the four corners of the Universe, anywhere and everywhere, is in God’s loving care. Not just the fertile places. Not just the sweet spots. God cares for the strange and the broken and the alien and foreign places too. God’s care is anywhere and everywhere.
Of course this means that God acts in ways that may seem strange and alien and foreign and just downright inscrutable. For example, what to make of a God who tells you to love your enemies, and even beyond that, to pray for them? Love the tax collector who’s stealing from me? Love the Roman soldier who’s persecuting me? Love the hypocritical religious authorities who extort Temple taxes so they can lead lifestyles of comfort and ease? That’s a lot to ask, Lord. Yet I’ll bet some of those same farmers in that audience might also have been sitting on a hillside a few months back when Jesus spoke the words that later came to be called the Sermon on the Mount. If they were listening, actively and deeply listening, they would have experienced Jesus describing what the Kingdom of God looks like.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48
Was it hard for those farmers to imagine a God who profligately shares two of the most important farming resources, the sun and the rain, with both the good and the evil, the just and the unjust—meaning their enemies? I mean, God is supposed to punish my enemies, not reward them, right? Apparently, not. Apparently, God’s judgment is different from my judgment. I have to remind myself of that every day. God makes the sun rise on the good and the evil and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Astonishing, isn’t it? God’s justice and God’s mercy is for all of Creation, not just the ones I happen to like. My dear friends, the astonishing truth is that my enemy is as much God’s beloved as I am. Who knew, right? And Jesus then gives his listeners an action item. Love your enemies and pray for them. That’s active and not passive. That’s work I can do. Will my prayers for, let’s say, Vladimir Putin change his heart? God alone knows. But I know for certain that my prayers for Vladimir Putin will change mine.
I was the Rector of a parish in Austin on September 11, 2001. We had a number of retired military at St Alban’s, and on the evening of that terrible day as we gathered to pray and reflect and hold one another, a man named Rufus Woody rose to speak. Then in his 80’s, in his earlier life, General Rufus Woody had commanded a B-52 wing in Viet Nam. That is to say, Rufus had been a warrior. But when I knew Rufus, he was a gentle man, a kind man, a humble man, a faithful Christian, a man of prayer. So, when he rose to speak, he carried with him a special authority born out of his life experience.
“This is a horrible day,” he said, “My heart breaks for the dead and their families. I’m filled with anger and grief and I want to strike back. I want to hurt the people responsible for this just like they have hurt us. But I’m realizing that returning violence for violence, to strike back out of anger and pride, just continues the spiral of violence. So, I know that the first thing I’m called to do is to heal the violence in my own heart.” A deep silence fell over the room as Rufus sat down. Healing the violence in my own heart. In the face of the anger, grief, and fear in the days and weeks and months following 9/11, that became my prayer. If the violence in the world is ever to cease, I must first heal the violence in my own heart.
Now, let me hasten to say, that as Christians, we must always—always—stand firmly and resolutely against any and all forms of injustice and violent aggression. We must stand against acts of bigotry and hate, we must stand against acts that demonize or marginalize or malign any of God’s children. And that means anybody and everybody. And there are times when that means pushing back forcefully against evil, defending the children of God from danger and harm. Make no mistake about that. But when that sort of action comes from a place of violent aggression and a thirst for revenge, a place of “an eye for an eye,” Jesus calls us to stop, to step back, to engage our Observer Self, to pray for our enemies. Like my friend Rufus would say, to heal the violence in our own hearts.
And so it really comes back around to our hearts, yours and mine. Isn’t it in our hearts that the faithful Sower spreads so profligately the seeds of grace abundant, the seeds of justice and mercy, the seeds of compassion and healing? It’s the case that our hearts are sometimes ready to receive those seeds and nurture and grow them, but sometimes not. My own heart—yes, I know, here I am, back to my own heart again–my heart is occasionally fertile ground to grow in God’s grace, and occasionally that same heart is stony ground, not at all receptive to the seeds of grace. But you know, my heart is more often like the ground with shallow topsoil, initially ready to receive those life-giving seeds, but then, whether through distraction or laziness or the gnarly thorns of pure pride and egocentricity, the seeds of grace in my heart wither and fade. But here’s the thing. I can do something about the receptivity of the soil of my heart to receive God’s grace. Which is to say, I have agency in the matter of the fertility of my heart and so do you. In my case, it’s always a matter of the intentional, unremitting, daily practice of prayer. Sitting in silence with an open mind and an open heart, I slow down. I become available to the still, small voice of God. I’m able to listen to the Word that God is speaking to me in every moment. Not busily thinking about some kind of response, or busily asking God to do something or fix something, but instead actively listening to that Word of grace that is always being spoken. It’s what St Benedict called, “Listening with the ears of the heart.” Don’t you love that? “Listening with the ears of the heart.” And it’s in that slowing down and actively listening that my Observer Self becomes engaged, which is just another way of talking about patient perspective. Patient perspective allows me not to be so reactive to the unhealthy stimuli of daily life, not to be so reactive to the toxic sludge of the news of current events, not to be so reactive to the little wounds that are really just a normal part of human life. Do you know what I mean? It’s like what my old friend Rufus said about first healing the violence in his own heart as the key to a Christian response to violent and terrible events.
May I send you off with a little assignment for this afternoon or tomorrow or the next day? This isn’t homework and I’m not going to grade your paper, it’s just, shall we say, a strong suggestion. Find a quiet time and a quiet place. Close your eyes and summon up the face of someone you really don’t like. It could be someone you know, like a boss who’s making life hard for you or an annoying relative or a former friend who’s let you down, or it could be someone you don’t know, like a politician or a cultural or media figure who’s behaving in ways you find to be just awful. As you see that face, know that you are seeing the face of another child of God, a beloved child of God just as you are. That person has hurts and wounds same as you. And the behavior you find to be unacceptable probably comes out of those hurts and wounds. Find the compassion for your own hurts and wounds and then see if you can find the compassion for this other person’s hurts and wounds. Pray for them. Pray for you. Give thanks for the profligate Sower of the seeds of healing mercy and grace, and pray that those seeds might fall upon the one you don’t like just as they fall upon you. Give thanks that the sun rises on both of you and the rain falls on both of you. Now check out the condition of the soil of your heart. Are the rocks breaking up? Are the thorns receding? Is the soil feeling a little deeper, a little richer, a little loamier? Are you breathing a little easier? Those seeds of God’s healing mercy and grace will take root and flourish if you make room for them. Those seeds will heal the violence in your own heart. It’s then that those seeds just might begin to bear much fruit.
Listen. A Sower went out to sow.