Today’s Gospel reading contains an extended metaphor known as The Parable of the Sower. It’s one of the few parables in Matthew’s gospel which Jesus explicitly explains — and yet, as with so much of the Gospel, there is more to understanding it than meets the eye.
The English term parable comes from the Greek word paraboles. It’s literal meaning is to place besides. This definition describes well the function of a parable. By taking something known and putting it next to something unknown, the thing which is better known illuminates understanding of the unknown. In this case, then-common knowledge about how to get a better agricultural yield led to a better understanding of the nature of faith.
Had I preached on this parable even seven months ago, my focus would have been quite different from the sermon I found myself writing this week. Seven months ago, my focus would have been two-pronged. First, I would discuss how we all, at one time or another, find ourselves in all the soil types described. Second, I would discuss how our response to the soil in which we find ourselves shapes the next stage of our journey. In the midst of a pandemic, however, I read this parable differently. The first thing which caught my attention was the action of the sower in contrast to the inaction of the seeds. The sower tosses the seeds without regard to where they land. The seeds have no say in the process. They land where they land. What is done to them is done, without regard for the seed’s potential or dreams of growth. Life is done to the seeds, rather than the seeds doing life.
I don’t know about you, but in the midst of this pandemic, I feel like life is being done to me. Before March, my choices were largely uninfluenced by the actions of others. Things are quite different now. While I still come into the church office during the week, things are much quieter. Our beloved retirees no longer stop by with the sole purpose of saying “hello.” It is good that you stay home, for this is the best way to protect yourself from a disease even doctors do not fully understand. Even so — I miss you! This pandemic has taken away the option of safely dropping in for the sake of social connection, in this and other contexts. In my personal life, after watching the daily numbers of new infections climb from less than a hundred to nearly two thousand, and seeing how few people at the grocery store wore a mask, I made the decision to stop going to the store. Even though it has been only a few weeks, I miss it. I love wandering around, seeing what is offered, comparing sales and prices, and perhaps picking out something new and different to try. In the store with a mask or with delivery, even the simple connection of a friendly smile for other customers is taken by the pandemic. As you might imagine, Sundays are particularly strange. Though I have gotten used to standing before an empty sanctuary on Sunday mornings — and leaving it to walk into a hollow nave — it is still demoralizing. Though I do support the Bishop’s decision to keep Episcopal Churches across the Upstate closed, it is so hard not to see you face-to-face. I miss you — and I know Mike does, too — very much! The pandemic has taken away our ability to gather as a community.
The pandemic has taken so much!
For me, the most difficult part of all these changes is not knowing how long they will continue. This difficulty is compounded by the frustration brought on by the indifference of others. The pandemic has laid bare American society’s attitudes towards the aged and the disabled. We have been here before, but not since the generation of my great-grandparents. America’s memory is very short, particularly when we are asked to do things which inconvenience us. People who dedicate their lives to the study of infectious diseases like COVID-19 have warned, repeatedly, of the danger. The CDC reports that eight out of ten deaths caused by COVID-19 takes the precious life of someone sixty-five or older. Yet America returned to its routines uninhibited and maskless, insistent that it is more important than protecting our vulnerable neighbors.
So what are we to make of this parable, this story of seeds being tossed about, when we place it besides our own lives in this time and place? Can we expect the rest of our lives to be like this — to be tossed about by circumstance, helpless and without hope?
This question brings me back to how I would have preached this parable before the pandemic started. I still believe it is true that we will all, at one time or another, find ourselves in all the soil types described. Sometimes our choices will place us there and sometimes life will place us there. And though we are not always able to choose the type of soil in which we find ourselves, there is always hope. There is always hope for rebirth and renewal, even in the darkest point in our lives. Like the scrawny pine clinging to the side of the mountain, we hang on. We produce seed which becomes something greater than what we are, something greater than we ever imagined. We may not see it reach full fruition in our lifetime. Even so, God works in and through us regardless of the type of soil in which we find ourselves.
This promise is remembered in the words of God as spoken to the prophet Isaiah:
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,
giving 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.
God is with us in all types of soil, in all types of weather and in all circumstances. God is with us when we choose well, when we choose poorly, and when life happens in ways beyond our control. God is with us everywhere and always, working in and through us, with purposes greater than we could ever ask or imagine.