In May of this year I began a new job at Youth Opportunities Unlimited (Y.O.U.) where I serve as the coordinator of community partnerships. On my second day on the job I was given the opportunity to start a new program called the Mayor’s Neighborhood Corps.
Overall Y.O.U. placed more than 3900 youth and young adults, between the ages of 14-24, in jobs in Cuyahoga County this summer, but the 73 youth employed to work in the Mayor’s Neighborhood Corps had a special emphasis.
The youth worked in small groups in eight different Cleveland neighborhoods but their work was about more than just the jobs and learning how to show up on time, which, as you can believe, was a continual lesson.
These jobs were about more than just earning a wage and learning the value of work.
The point of the Mayor’s Neighborhood Corps was to help those young people feel more connected to each other, to the neighborhoods in which they live, and to the leaders of their communities.
Early in the summer one of the Supervisors told me a great story. In his small group, the youth had spent a good part of a week refurbishing and repainting some raised-bed gardens.
During the process the Supervisor was teaching the youth how to transplant plants from one bed to the other. Quite a few of the youth began to ask questions about the process of growing plants from seeds and the site supervisor realized these young people had never had this experience.
So they went back to the community garden, they claimed a plot, they painstakingly cleared the brush, tilled the earth and then found the right kind of seeds.
As this was happening the other adults in the garden noticed this group of teenagers in their space. The Supervisor was a little worried because the youth were working hard, but were they were also laughing a lot, having fun and causing quite a bit of noise.
Finally, one of the men in the garden put down his shovel and walked over to the group. The Supervisor was ready to intervene and apologize for the noise, but the man waved him off.
Instead of scolding this group of teenagers, he called out one of the young men’s names. “Tyrell, is that you? I thought that was you. It is good to see you. How’s your summer.”
It turns out that this stranger in the garden was one of Tyrell’s teachers from the previous year. The group spent a good hour telling him all about what they have been doing and before they knew it, Tyrell’s teacher was working with them.
The next day, when the group came back to finish up, Tyrell’s teacher was there with a cooler of water and he spent the day with the group.
He showed up again the next week when he knew the group was going to be there. He enjoyed getting to know them as they worked together.
The site supervisor told me that story because he knew this was exactly what I had been praying would happen with these groups this summer. He knew I was hoping our youth would begin to see the adults in their communities as people who cared about them.
What he didn’t know was that I experienced church in his story. What he didn’t know was that I saw grace being shared, that I saw God at work in the garden again.
The site supervisor was busy helping the kids create the right kind of environment for their lettuce seeds to grow, but a much different kind of seed was being planted, seeds that I trust will grow and help these young people and adults see the world differently together.
Today’s parable does a similar thing.
Today we have been, in the words of Frederick Buechner, confronted by a “small story with a large point.” Through the generations the Church has tried to domesticate these small stories by interpreting them literally so they become reduced to one single meaning for all people. But this is not what “the Gospel writers intended.
In their wisdom, they left most of the parables as open narratives in order to invite us into engagement with them. This means each reader will hear a distinct message and may find that the same parable leaves multiple impressions over time .”
This is certainly the case with today’s parable.
When I was in high school, I didn’t go to church with my family. Sometimes I would attend worship and a youth group function with one of my friends. On one such occasion the group was studying this parable.
We played all kind of games in and with dirt. I remember in particular, that we played kickball and the pastor invited us to pay attention to all the dirt we kicked into the air as we ran around…
And then later after we had washed our hands and eaten dinner he asked four members of the group to come and stand in the front as he read the text.
I was one of the “lucky ones” who was singled out and asked to stand in front of the group. We were all assigned parts and told to act out our portion of the parable when it was time.
As he began my part, he stopped and said, “now for a bit of typecasting” and returned to reading: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.”
This minister then proceeded to say that people like me, the skeptical ones, would never receive the love of God because I couldn’t understand God’s Word for my life.
He boiled this parable down to one single meaning…leaving most of those young people with the belief that they could only be one kind of soil, and most of them with this deep hunger to prove that they were good soil, a hunger that fueled not by grace, but by fear that the EVIL ONE would come and snatch away God’s love for them.
It’s been 30 years and I still remember walking right out of that church thinking the pastor had missed the point.
As I have been preparing for this sermon I have been rereading this text again and again as I have been watching the news, reading the paper (and trying to avoid the comments sections online) and what I came to find was that the text was still speaking a new word into my heart.
As new details from the parable caught my attention the words of Amy-Jill Levine began to make more sense. She says that “what makes the parables mysterious, or difficult, is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge. ”
In his parables Jesus used ordinary things to help unveil the mysteries of God – seeds, yeast, nets, coins – all ordinary items present in the every day lives of those who listened to his stories. Through these household items he revealed something of the extraordinary, he revealed the greatness of God’s Reign.
So knowing this, I began to pay attention to the ordinary items of this story…seeds, birds, soil, thorns, weeds, rocks.
I am a terrible gardener. I do a great job of killing plants, but even I know that the conditions of the ground described in the parable are awful.
I serve on the Advisory board for the Presbyterian Hunger Program. A few years ago we were meeting in Louisville to award One Great Hour of Sharing grants to ministries all over the world.
After a long day of looking at spreadsheets and grant applications we needed a break and went to visit the The People’s Garden in the Shawnee neighborhood, which is run by Louisville Grows. According to the last census, 81% of all African Americans in the state of Kentucky live in the Shawnee neighborhood in Louisville and it is underserved by grocery stores.
This neighborhood was considered a food desert until The People’s Garden partnered with local Food Cooperatives to grow and sell fresh produce in the area. While there we met with Valerie, the garden’s executive director.
She was very honest about the garden’s rocky beginnings, her campaign to win over and organize the neighborhood, and the ways this garden continues to expand and connect with the residents there. But the detail that sparkled for me during this conversation was the attention she gave to the process of planting.
They carefully cultivate their seeds, and to ensure the best possible crop Louisville Grows tests the soil in each plot so they know the chemical make up and can plant the right crops in the right places.
That level of intentionality blew my mind.
And that’s when it hit me; the detail I had been overlooking. I’m not sure how I managed to do that considering this parable is called the Parable of the Sower.
It isn’t called the parable of the soil…it isn’t called the parable of the seeds. It is the parable of the SOWER.
What if this parable is not about the soil at all, what if this parable is not about us at all
but about the Sower?
What if it is not about our own successes and failures, our abundance or lack of faith. . .
but about the extravagance of a Sower who does not seem to be fazed by such concerns;
what if it is about a Sower who flings seed everywhere, who wastes it with holy abandon, who feeds the birds, whistles at the rocks, who picks Her way through the thorns, shouts hallelujah at the good soil and just keeps on sowing; what if it is about a sower who is confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty, and that when the harvest comes at last it will fill every barn in the neighborhood to the rafters?
If this is really the parable of the Sower and not the parable of the different kinds of soil, then it begins to sound quite new. The focus is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity of our maker, the prolific Sower who does not obsess about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil and bad, who is not cautious or judgmental or even very practical, but who seems willing to keep reaching into Her seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of the truth of God’s love .”
I imagine there are many who are saying, Hold on! You are talking crazy now pastor. This sounds crazy to us. Who would do it that way? If we were in charge, we would form a task force or committee to devise a more efficient operation, a neater, cleaner, more productive one that did not waste seed. And that plan would be based on data that we have collected so we could concentrate our efforts only on the good soil and what we could make it do.
That’s what the Site Supervisor did with Tyrell’s group.
But if this is the parable of the Sower, then Jesus seems to be suggesting that there is another way to go about things, a way that is less concerned with productivity than with abundance.” A way less concerned with neat rows and quiet gardens than the laughter of young people working hard together and the relief that is shared from a cold glass of water.
If we embrace God’s gracious giving, we come to recognize our very selves as lavish gifts from God, as the seeds that have been thrown out into the world. The Word sown and grown within us sends us out like water onto dry ground as living words of promise and hope.
And my friends, the earth is pretty parched these days, the earth is full of thorns and rocks and scorched earth and too many turns these things into weapons.
The earth needs us to rely on God’s grace so that we can grow and offer comfort, shade and strength to the weary souls of this world.
The world needs us to take after our creator and begin to recklessly share grace and peace with those who know very little of those things in their lives.
Our World needs us, our city needs us, our neighbors need us to plant our feet and grow in God’s justice and mercy so that we might share who we are, where ever we are, no matter the cost.
Last week John mentioned that Forest Hill is experiencing a Kairos moment, as this community discerns together how we are called to respond to God’s Spirit moving in our midst.
May we move forward in these days trusting in the Sower who casts seeds of grace and peace on the soil of our lives with reckless abandon.
May we move forward with confidence that God moves among us showering seeds of justice and discipleship in our hearts that we might continue to respond to the needs of world around us.
May we trust always in the Sower who has more than enough to share, whose abundance continues to overflow, and who calls us to reflect that abundant faith in our lives each and every day.