In these parables—seven of them!—Jesus draws on ordinary life to teach people about the kingdom of heaven. The parable of the sower, which we just heard, is the first one. A couple more are, like our parable for this morning, very short stories. Most are more like one-liners.
Hearing all those parables in rapid succession must have been a little bewildering, especially since Jesus almost never explained the parables to the crowds and only occasionally to his disciples. Jesus just tells the parable and leaves his audience to draw their own conclusions about what he means. It is as if Jesus invites his audiences to play with the different possibilities, to think for themselves about the kingdom of heaven based on the stuff of ordinary life.
It is a powerful way to teach, in part because people can get different things out of the parables. We can keep coming back to the parables and finding new things in them.
And as we work with the parables, we gain a little bit of insight into God’s kingdom as God is inviting us to experience it even now. We look forward in hope to the day when we will know God face to face, but even now the kingdom of heaven is present in anticipation. Even now, we live as children of God’s kingdom. As we play with the parables, Jesus is teaching us things we need to know for living the Christian life right now, for growing in the knowledge and love of God right now.
In a minute, I will invite you to play with the parable of the sower for yourself. But first, I want to describe a recent occasion when I got to play with parables.
At the closing ceremony for the River of Life Pilgrimage last week, our leaders asked us to come up with our own parables for the kingdom of heaven based on the pilgrimage. Around the circle we went, with one parable after another.
Many of our parables were unexplained one-liners. One person said, “the kingdom of heaven is like a chair beside the river.” That was it. I don’t have any idea what he intended.
My parable was, “the kingdom of heaven is like a sudden storm.”
I had in mind a few things. Like a thunder storm, the kingdom of heaven can come on us suddenly. The kingdom of heaven makes a mockery of our plans. The kingdom of heaven forces us to react. The kingdom of heaven can be a little scary.
Those would work for any storm. But I was thinking about a particular storm that hit us while we were paddling. We had to get out of the river and stand on our life preservers in case lightning struck nearby. So there we were, eleven people, soaking wet, standing in a line, in the middle of a thunder storm. And, oddly, we enjoyed it. We were a community of suffering. After a few minutes, we began to joke and laugh. At the closing ceremony, one person said that rain storm was a highlight of his time on the river.
So here is a last meaning of my parable. The kingdom of heaven brings people together in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways.
You get the idea. We can play with Jesus’ parables in the same way.
A sower went out to sow. Some of his seeds didn’t produce fruit, and some did. The kingdom of heaven is like that.
Carrie and I have been working on our garden this summer, so comparing God’s kingdom to a garden speaks to us. We can play with that.
The soil in our front yard is terrible, but, despite that, our garden is coming along. So, the kingdom of heaven takes root even in poor soil, soil like us. And the kingdom of heaven may require a lot of fertilizer.
One of the things we are growing is Swiss Chard, which is a leafy green vegetable. Every few days, we harvest enough leaves for a meal. So, the kingdom of heaven nourishes us, and keeps nourishing us in an ongoing way. The kingdom of heaven doesn’t run out. (Think Eucharist.)
But, poor Nicholas doesn’t like Swiss Chard. So, the kingdom of heaven is good for us, but we may not always like it.
How about some of you? What does a garden teach you about the kingdom of heaven?
Playing with parables can be fun. Play with this one as you go through the rest of your day.
But here are two last lessons that I take from thinking of the kingdom of heaven as like a garden.
Carrie and I had a major planting done last Monday, and we were told that we needed to water the new plants aggressively for the next several days. Then, as you know, it rained all week. So, the kingdom of heaven is something that God does for us, that God makes possible. Thanks be to God for that!
But, it is not going to rain every day for the rest of the summer. Carrie and I are going to be doing some watering. We will be doing some weeding. So, the kingdom of heaven starts with God, but requires work from us as well.
That is the lesson that Jesus emphasizes in his interpretation of the sower. Jesus tells us, the different types of ground can stand for different responses to God’s word. The thorny soil stands for people whose lives are so cluttered with the concerns of the world that the seed never takes root. It is choked out. The rocky soil stands for people who receive the word with joy, but have no root and so give up when things get tough. And the good soil stands for people who hear the word of the kingdom with joy and bear rich fruit. That is what we want to be.
Jesus’ parable can help us bear good fruit. Only God can give the growth (1 Cor 3:6-7). But we have a part to play. Our task is to do what we can to make space for God in our lives, and to root ourselves in God.
I think the biggest challenge to Christianity today here in western Massachusetts is getting distracted by the cares of the world and the lure of wealth. We live in thorny soil. And as a result, a lot of us don’t take time to root ourselves in God.
I know this is an issue for me. At the end of each day, I reflect on when I felt connected to God and when I was not conscious of any connection. Busy days are the worst. On busy days, I am much more likely to forget God for much of the day. And God is my job!
The lesson is simple: we need to carve out time to do the things that keep us connected to God. The challenge and the invitation of our parable is to think about what roots each of us in God, and then to make sure that we do it, regularly and often, that we prioritize it, that we don’t let the cares and occupations of the world distract us from what matters most.
This week, take some time to sit with Jesus’ parable. Reflect and pray on what roots you in God, and on what keeps you from rooting more. And ask God to help your roots grow.
In the name of our Sower. Amen.