A sermon on Mark 4
A few notes about parables before I really get started:
First, there is no one right way to interpret a parable, so please don’t expect me to tell you exactly what this or any parable means or doesn’t mean. Jesus tells us himself that understanding his parables isn’t going to be simple: “everything comes in parables, in order that they may look and not perceive, and may indeed listen but not understand, so that they may not turn and be forgiven.” If it seems like Jesus is trying to be obtuse here, I think it’s because he is. Now I don’t like that any more than you do, but Jesus seems generally unconcerned with what I like and don’t like about his way of doing things.
So just know I might give you a lot of possibilities to think about this parable, but I have no idea which one of them is RIGHT. Maybe all of them. Maybe none. Maybe being RIGHT is not what Jesus is after.
2. I generally understand the parables as descriptive not prescriptive. That is, I think Jesus is talking about the way the world and God’s kin-dom work right now, all around us. I don’t think he is trying to give us a prescription about how exactly to live, or what we need to do to get it right. Parables tell us about who God is and how God works, a lot more than they tell us about what we ought to do or not do.
3. As a final note, I should say that this sermon was heavily influenced by Robert Farrar Capon’s book on parables, which was a gift to me from Brad and Ann Widness.
Okay. Let’s see what Jesus might be doing with this parable. Listen! He says, “A sower went out to sow.” Notice Jesus doesn’t begin as he does other parables by saying “The kin-dom of God is like…” As we will hear in his explanation, this is not a parable about how the kin-dom of God works, but more about what happens when God sends God’s word into the world.
I wonder if Jesus is giving the parable he himself needs to hear as he teaches and preaches to an ever-increasing crowd. To borrow an image from John’s gospel, Jesus is the Word of God, come to root himself in the very earth we dwell on, scattered over all kinds of people and places, given equally to all no matter how prepared they are to hear what he’s saying. Perhaps this parable is a reminder to Jesus too that he will not be equally welcomed, equally fruitful in all the places he goes, and that has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the seed, the Word itself.
But what does the parable say to us as receivers of God’s word, those to whom the seed is cast? Are we to think that if we can just manage to be good soil, preparing our hearts just right, accepting all that Jesus says and is, that the harvest in our lives will be plentiful? That’s how we normally interpret this parable isn’t it? That’s what our hymns say about it, “Lord, let my heart be good soil.” And I’m not saying that’s wrong, we do want to keep our hearts open and prepared for the word of God to take root.
But I know from experience that my heart is not always good soil, and that it is not always a failure of character or my own sinfulness that chokes the word or steals it away in the sharp beak of a bird. And notice Jesus doesn’t cast any judgement on the soils that don’t bear fruit, he simply describes difficult circumstances which make listening to God near impossible. Notice also: the Word of God never fails to sprout and grow, even in the least fertile circumstances. Even when the bird snatches up the seeds from the path, you know they’re going to get pooped out later and sprout up belatedly.
It’s maybe those pooped out seeds to which I feel most akin, so I want to tell you my own parable, the Parable of the Bird Poop.
Five years ago when we moved to our house in the country, the landscaping was a disaster. The worst offender was a group of lilacs planted awkwardly in the middle of the side yard, so overgrown and choked with weeds that they hardly bloomed at all. For three years, I pruned and tended, fertilized and cared for that patch of ground.
It got no better. In fact, the weeds within the lilacs had grown into trees, one of which now was home to a drab little brown bird and its family. I resolved to cut it all down and start over at the end of the season.
Then, about August, Ollie came to the garden with a handful of raspberries in his palm. Not the red ones that grow in neatly trimmed rows in my garden, but wild ones, the black ones. He showed me that they were vining all throughout the overgrown lilacs, producing an abundance of beautiful fruit. I suddenly understood. That little drab bird had been eating black raspberries down the creek a quarter mile behind our house, then flying home with its belly full of seeds and pooping them out in the weedy heart of my lilacs. That they could not only survive the belly of the bird, but also take root and spring up amidst a choking mess of other plants is nothing short of a miracle.
The Word of God is like that, Jesus says. It looks like almost nothing when its cast out into the world, a little baby in a feeding trough. And despite the hostility of the world into which it is cast, that little Word springs up across the ground, in all kinds of soil, with an unmatched tenacity. It doesn’t last forever in every place, nor in every instance of sowing, but where it does grow, it produces fruit in astounding abundance, enough to feed the whole world.
This parable is not a judgement on the condition of your heart, dear people of God. Instead, it is a lesson in the determination of the God who scatters Their Word into the world, sure that it will spring up to change the landscape. It is reassurance that if the birds are pecking away at your life so that you feel you have nothing left, the sower will be back with more seed when the birds have gone. It is promise for those, like Jesus, who get chewed up and pooped out by the hostility of the world, that the Word grows best in shit. The cross of Christ proves that once and for all.
As God says in Isaiah: As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
That’s a promise, not to be overcome by birds or Satan or rocks or choking thorns. What God sows in the world will bear fruit, enough to feed us all.