This week marked the announcement of the nominations for The Emmy awards. Putting aside the bizarre practice of giving out awards for entertainment, I always find the Emmys and the Oscars very interesting because they are ultimately about stories. Some of the stories at the top are about advertising men and women in the earliest stages of manipulating the public interest, the deceits and chilling manipulations of fictitious politicians, a high school teacher who chooses illegal drug manufacturing to provide for his family, and an elaborate, multi-layered epic about humanity’s lust for power and ultimate frailty. In a sense these, along with many other television shows and movies, are trying to tell a story about what the writer or writers see in human beings. Funny, shallow, scary, fragile, broken, powerful, or any other of the myriad qualities people may possess, are being brought to life in a way that communicates and resonates with us; in a story.
We often think of storytelling as the job of books more than any other medium. A story that has had a remarkable impact upon countless people is that of Harry Potter, who has captured the imaginations of all ages around the world. Even if you haven’t read the books or seen any of the movies, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of Harry. While the story is about a lot of things with a lot of characters, personalities and tons of sub plots and lessons that could be learned, the overarching theme is good vs evil.
Before Harry Potter, there was Luke Skywalker and Star Wars; the epic battle of good vs evil across the galaxy and across a generation. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was a book long before the movies, is another fine example of this same theme played out in mythological and yet incredibly human settings.
Many of the stories told in books, movies, and television use metaphor. Did J K Rawling know she was writing a metaphorical story about the struggle of good against evil? Maybe. Maybe not. The Chronicles of Narnia, To Kill a Mockingbird, Planet of the Apes, The Scarlet Letter, 1984, The Wizard of Oz, Pale Rider, most Disney Movies, Batman, Spiderman and nearly every superhero story known to mankind are all stories that tell us evil is real but so is good and it really does matter what we choose to do with and in our lives.
You know, I could just say that very thing. Evil is real but so is good and it really matters what we do, matters a lot, not just to ourselves but to the people and places we love as well. Yet, no matter how many times we might hear that statement there will always be a point where we need to know what that really means. What does that look like?
That’s when we turn to stories, to give indirect illustrations of truly significant ideas. Often, we need the stories to really understand.
Jesus must have understood that need very well. He could have simply stopped with the Sermon on the Mount, “repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”, and the greatest commandment of: love the Lord with all you have and your neighbor as yourself. But he did not stop with that because he knows that at some point we all must ask: what does all that really mean? What does that look like? Those are profound and meaningful statements that seem to contain far more than their comparably brief wording. Rather than just heaping more words of explanation on top, he told stories. We call them parables.
The parables of Jesus teach us three things: something about ourselves, something about our relationship with God and something about who God is. There are other things that parables can teach us as well, but these are the big three. Stories serve different purposes, sometimes to teach us why things are the way they are or to reveal something to us about ourselves, and sometimes they are to show us what the world could be like. This is what parables do; show us how the world can be, specifically how the world can be with God. However, there are often not meant to teach us about such things as how to be a good gardener as we can see in the parable from today’s gospel reading.
Jesus has so many followers gathered in this one spot that he gets into a boat and moves out from shore a bit so that he can speak to all of them at once without being overwhelmed. He begins to tell stories. A sower went out to sow.
A woman went out into her garden to plant sunflower seeds. This woman was a different kind of gardener from most because while most people would carefully put each little seed into the ground, she would scatter seed everywhere! Seed is expensive stuff and most gardeners would have been very careful with it so as not to waste it in any place it wouldn’t do good, but the woman went out to sow and flung the seed everywhere! Putting her hand into her bag of sunflower seeds she would wave her arm around and seed would just fly all over the garden, landing all around. Over and over her hand would go back into the bag and she would sow the seeds without care.
Some of the seed ended up on the little pathway that led to the garden and before you know it, the birds came down and snapped them up. The great big crows loved those big tasty sunflower seeds the woman flung around and were quite happy to peck them up right behind her. Some of the seed fell along the rocky ground in the garden. Every good gardener knows that seeds there would spring up quickly, mostly because there wasn’t any soil to put roots into and the only way to grow is up. But it would not be long before they would be scorched and burnt up by the sun because, without roots, the plant would dry up and die.
Some of the seeds that the woman sowed ended up on actual soil. But part of that was in a section of the garden that had thorns and thistles and brambles of all kinds. Those plants were merciless when it came to competition for sunlight and soil and those little seeds were choked out before they even had time to bloom.
There were some seeds, however, that ended up in the good soil. They were far enough away from the crows, had soil into which they could stretch their roots and no competition from other plants for all the water and sunlight they needed. These plants grew into great tall sunflowers and the woman had more flowers in her garden than anyone had ever seen.
When Jesus told the parable of the sower to his disciples he did something that he does not often do in the gospels. He gives an explanation of the metaphor. The evil one snatches away those who do not understand just like the seed on the path that was gobbled down by the birds. Those who are excited about their faith and though they have a genuine belief but have no roots, no support system in their faith, they may fall away when the difficulties of being a disciple start showing up, just like the seeds on rocky ground. Then there are those who have no real opportunity to grow in their faith because of all the outside influences of the world choke it just like seeds that fell into thorns. And then there are those who hear and understand, who bear fruit from what they hear and these are like the seeds planted on good soil. A great harvest, indeed.
Jesus’ parable tells us a little bit about ourselves, a little bit about our relationship with God and a little bit about who God is. It is tempting to think of ourselves as being one kind of soil or another. Surely, we are all good soil, right? Some time ago, when we studied this text in Sunday school, one person immediately said that he could think of times in his life when he has been like all of those places where the seeds fell: the path, the rocky ground, the thorny soil and the good soil. Perhaps the garden is full of lots of different people at many different places in their lives, able to hear and receive the word of God—the seeds—differently based on both their own lives and those of others. Perhaps the garden could also be our whole life, stretched out before the great gardener and at different times in our lives we have been vulnerable to being snatched up by crows or rootless and scorched by the sun or choked out by thorns and thistles and other times we have been good, deep rich soil for the seeds to grow and bloom and bear fruit.
Whatever kind of soil we are at any given moment, wherever we are in the garden, we receive the seeds from God. Regardless of the state of growth, the garden is made by the gardener. The word of God (the seeds) comes from God and if we have a life filled with beautiful flowers it is because of God’s gracious gift. Without the gardener, the garden is just path and rock and dirt, but with the gardener, it is beautiful.
One of the interesting things to think about is how we can be good gardeners, too. The parable won’t necessarily tell us how to be a good farmer, but that is not really what the story is about. How can we spread the word of God? This is a good thing to think about and it seems that Jesus might tell us that we can imitate this gardener. After all, the parable tells us about ourselves, our relationship with God and about what God is like. Remember the way the gardener sowed their seed in the parable? They do not think the seed is so precious that it must be carefully planted in only the places that look good. They do not spend time looking for Just The Right Place. They scatter the seed everywhere.
Of course, Jesus could have just said what he meant and skipped the story. Maybe he could have said: God is gracious and generous. Or perhaps: let God’s teaching become so much a part of you that it changes who you are, making you more alive than you could ever imagine. Or maybe: there will be times in your life that it will seem like your faith is really active and sometimes it will seem like it is not, but that’s natural. Those are all great things to say, but none of it sticks as well or makes the generous grace of God and the new, alive and growing life in God more visible and within our grasp as much as the stories.
God is so generous that he tosses out his grace everywhere across the garden. Since the master gardener has been so generous with us, we, too, can be giving, loving, and sharing with people without having to wonder if they will respond in the way we wish or not. We do not have to ask ourselves whether or not this is a ‘good’ person in which we may invest our time and energy. God has not waited for us to be good soil before he gave us his Son. Instead, God gives generously to the whole garden.
Perhaps Jesus was, like many storytellers, trying to tell us a story about what he see in us. And what he knows about God.