Nothing like the Parable of the Sower to stir up a little good old-fashioned Lutheran Guilt. We are a denomination rooted in immigrants from Germany and from Scandinavia, immigrants who found in the new world a land and a soil that reminded them of the homes they had left, and who responded by planting and farming, by sowing and reaping. And so for a lot of us, when we hear about seed landing on good soil, on rocky soil, among thorns, and on paths, our collective first thought tends to be: Uffda! I should have been more careful about wasting those seeds then.
And that reflexive guilt can help us to overlook a vital point, a point that the other readings for the day are guiding us to hear. From the prophet Isaiah: For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, bringing seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
And from the psalm: You visit the earth and water it abundantly; you make it very plenteous; the river of God is full of water. You prepare the grain, for so you provide for the earth. You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase. You crown the year with your goodness, and your paths overflow with mercy.
From Paul’s letter to the Romans: To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace…. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
Across the centuries, the Scriptures are reminding us that we go about our work with the help and guidance of the Creator. In telling this parable, Jesus does not say: Well, you’re going to waste three-quarters of my Word anyway, so you might as well not bother. He reminds the people who are hearing him that theirs is the invitation to share the good news that the kingdom of heaven is near. And he reminds them that the results are in the hands of God.
The Talmud is a collection of centuries of commentary and debate on Jewish scripture. A lot of it is what scholars call pilpul, hair-splitting debates just for the purpose of splitting hair; sharpening debate skills. But it also includes reminders that can help you and me in our realities of the moment.
You are not obligated to complete the work, the Talmud says. Neither are you free to abandon it.
That’s a huge relief whenever we get to feeling as though we have to save the world, all by ourselves, and forget who’s really steering the bus. And it’s a huge relief when current events leave us feeling stressed, anxious, and forgetting about the promises of hope.
Promises that today’s readings reinforce. My word … shall accomplish that which I purpose…. You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace. [God] crown[s] the year with [his] goodness, and [his] paths overflow with plenty.
And when Jesus tells the parable and explains it, his emphasis is on what happens to people who hear the word of the kingdom. Not a word of blame for the one who sows the seeds all over the place. In truth, just the opposite.
Plant anyway, he says.
July and August can be a time of great uncertainty for those who sow and tend and harvest. They have done all that they can with what they have – and so much of what happens next depends entirely on forces of nature beyond their control.
And yet instead of inducing that good old Lutheran Guilt, the Parable of the Sower has a message of good news for you and for me, good news that we can also hear in the Talmud. You are not obligated to complete the work. Neither are you free to abandon it.
Plant anyway! And trust in God for how the good news of the kingdom takes root within every human heart.
Farmers sow their seed, planting the crops and praying that the weather, and the bugs, and all the myriad conditions that are needed, will fall in line and return an abundant harvest. And the farmer remembers years past, when inexperience led to a paltry harvest, or when cruel infestations destroyed what was begun in such hope. And yet he plants anyway, in faith and in hope that this year, this season, will yield the harvest of his dreams.
You and I have certainly experienced sharing the good news of the kingdom and feeling like a failure because the seeds appeared to land unproductively. But I say to you: plant anyway.
The good news of the kingdom is a power as well as a process. It’s curative. It’s creative. Sowing those seeds softens us and the ones we encounter. It opens a channel between us. It invites responses that close the distance. Knowing that you and I bear the seeds of the kingdom can give us the courage we need to do the work even when we are tired and discouraged. The words of Jesus support us to keep planting, and we can support others as they sow their allotment of seeds.
Plant anyway. Even if the seeds fall on unsuitable ground, how they sprout – when they sprout – is the work of God the Creator. That we might, in our own hearts, turn around the wisdom of the Talmud. You are not free to abandon the work. Neither are you obligated to complete it. The increase, the yield, the green shoots will sprout from the Earth under the dominion of the God who has put the good news into every human heart.