PENTECOST 8, JULY 10, 2005
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear. (NIV)
BEING A BIT LEFT OF CENTER
Eating out in an Austin suburb recently, I noticed the waitress wore a T-shirt with the words, “Keep Georgetown Normal.” Of course, it was a not too subtle challenge to the Austin slogan, “Keep Austin Weird.” Much as some of us here in Austin enjoy playing with that slogan in our looser moments, we probably claim a relatively “centrist” position in our public and professional lives. My father always worried what “other people” might think. And my mother warned me about being regarded as too far “left of center.” What does it mean to have a “centrist” position in your public persona, and where do you think you fall on the social spectrum? Do you think people regard you as mainstream, offbeat, alternative, straight, or odd?
Searching for the nature of God
Literature plays with such descriptions and one of the characters whose life-style would find itself addressed by today’s Gospel lesson is George Eliot’s, Silas Marner. Most of us had to read this Brit-Lit classic in high school. Silas found himself betrayed by a friend and unjustly condemned by a church court. Angrily, he decided there was no God, and resettled as an unknown stranger is another town. He became a reclusive tailor and spent his nights counting his gradually accumulating gold pieces by candlelight. His name, and this picture of him counting by candlelight, has come in our English language to be synonymous with all those negative words that describe greed: parsimonious, stingy, selfish, tightfisted, niggardly, and avaricious. Although times changed for Silas Marner and the sweet charm of an adopted girl brought happiness to his transformed life, one can only wonder whether he realized how others originally perceived him. Did he know he was hardly normal or mainstream to most people? That he was decidedly offbeat in a negative, anti-social sort of way? And was that all right with him at the time? George Eliot wants to make a theological point with Marner’s character as well: Distancing ones self from God can only lead to being a skinflint, and cherishing God’s gifts can open one to a magnanimous quality of life.
There is an insight in that character which takes us to the center of today’s Gospel lesson. On the surface of it, this is a story about a farmer sowing seeds in a way that we might consider extravagantly wasteful—that is, unless we understood the method of farming in Jesus’ time—as well as today. I have seen this process myself. A farmer walks the fields and sows seeds from the bag hanging from his shoulders. Some falls on rocks, some on the path through the field, some in thorn bushes and some on fertile soil? What is the point of such wastefulness? The farmer follows this process by tilling the fertile soil with a rough plow pulled by a donkey. Tilling allows some of the seeds to fall into the ground and, ultimately, to grow. The others falling on rocks, paths and in thistles will never grow. What is the point of such agriculture? Didn’t they know any better? In some respects, the answer has to be, “that’s just how it is done.” In another sense, however, the method gives Jesus a stunning opportunity to make a point about God and about people like you and me. “He who has ears,” he says, “let him hear!”
First of all, let’s not miss Jesus’ interest in telling us, in his stories, something about the nature of God. He was addressing people who all too often thought of God as one whose primary interest was holding people accountable, pulling in the reins, expecting pious performance. The focus, of course, in such thinking is on human activity: Do you measure up to God’s expectations? Jesus, however, had another point of view. He knew that human performance, because of our self-centeredness, our niggardliness, would never match God’s expectations if we see God only as a parsimonious judge, greedily counting the ways in which his subjects measure up to his standards. Instead, therefore, his parables are filled with stories about prodigious waste, extravagant kindness, and exuberant generosity. In such a sense, the overly generous character of the embracing father in the story of the prodigal son is like the extravagant farmer who sows seed all over the place. He can do it joyfully, even gleefully, because he knows there will be some harvest from those seeds—in fact, a harvest so great that no one ever had harvests like that before!! “This is the nature of God,” Jesus wants to say. If one looks for words to describe him, says Jesus, you have to try “magnanimous, lavish, beneficent.” And what do such descriptions do for your understanding not only of God, but also of yourself? For that matter, what does it do for your understanding of whether you are mainstream or left or right of center?
Searching for God’s nature in us
Such questions take us to the heart of the parable and to the matter of different kinds of soil. Summarizing, without getting lost in the allegorical details of verses 18-23 (which some believe to be a later addition), there are two kinds of soil here: bad and good. And, to be fair, it would probably be better to say that such two kinds exist within all of us, rather than to think it possible that others might be the bad soil, and only we the good. Bad soil is, of course, unreceptive, incapable of being overwhelmed by extravagant kindness. It is the Silas Marners of the world, closed off from all the goodness around them, hurt because of some estranging experience with another’s meanness or deceit. It is the part of you and me that doesn’t want to hear how much we are loved or how many are our gifts. It is the part of us that prefers to dwell on the satisfaction we get from lust or hoarding or success. That is, we prefer to dwell on such satisfaction until, as was true with Silas, the gold is stolen… or the stock market is faithless… or the job market dips… or the real estate bubble bursts… or the lover strays, or.. or… or! Bad soil is just that. It is incapable of producing seed because it is closed to the daily graces, which can transform us. To say it in another way, no matter how good it may seem at the time, idolatry (fascination with synthetic reality) never opens us to a quality of life, which is generous, large-hearted or charitable.
Good soil on the other hand, simply produces. It produces because it is that part of us that is receptive to seed—meaning—that is open to considering the princely character of grace, the love of God which claims us as its own. This is “religious” talk, to be sure, but it makes as much sense now as it ever did. We who know that bad soil can only lead to dead ends surely also know that receptive minds and spirits can prepare us for new possibilities.
That truth was affirmed in me again this past week as I visited an old friend dying of cancer. The hospice nurse said he had 3-5 days to live. I went to remind him of all the things he had taught me in life as an artist. Once I viewed one of his works and I said, “tell me what that means.” He said, “If I tell you, that’s all you will ever see there.” I never forgot this truth and have employed it in zillions of ways over the years. What struck me as a niggardly, tight-fisted approach on his part, at first, actually became an extravagant gesture of grace, because it has encouraged a “good soil” part of me to look creatively at art, literature, music, people, ideas, etc., in open and receptive ways. There is now a part of me that regularly asks what may be seeking me there, calling me to understand, to respond. Good soil is that part of us that seeks to let God do his thing with us—affirm us and stimulate us to produce the kind of caring and generous spirits which only a prodigiously extravagant God, a God almost wasteful with his grace, can produce.
Being happy to be alternative
Think about the impact that might have in you and in our world. I think that what happened this last week is an interesting example to consider. Leaders of eight nations met on July 6 to consider some of our global challenges. In connection with this meeting, musicians from around the world are holding LIVE 8 concerts in six cities to raise money for starving people in Africa. It is a “good soil” kind of thing. Of course, the promoters are more extravagant with their language than they have a right to be. “Make Poverty History” is their slogan. “The best thing humanity has ever done,” some said. The media shouts “Can Rockers End Hunger?” Hmmmm, not likely. You see, all this has happened before. Twenty years ago to the day, in 1985, at the Live Aid concerts, there was an attempt to do something similar. In between, the idea was, for the most part, forgotten. On the other hand, numbers like this are serious business: Six cities, 100 artists, 1 million spectators, 2 billion viewing, $15 billion raised! That’s impressive potential! It is serious business, but not business as usual. It is not even mainstream. It is off the charts, alternative, and left of center. Meaning “good news.”
That’s where, increasingly, we need to find ourselves, as Christians and as citizens of a larger, world community. We need to be in the midst of settings which push things which are, alternatively, not business-as-usual. I know a young “rising star” artist here in Austin who works with paper forms, creatively massaging them, reflecting on what may be there for him/for us that was never perceived before. His name is Kevin Box and he intriguingly names his website www.outsidetheboxstudio.com—for that’s what he does all the time, thinks outside the box. It’s a nice metaphor for us as well, people who want regularly to ask ourselves where in our psyche, our persona, good and receptive soil is waiting to be massaged, coaxed, into new forms, new messages, new commitments. There is a God-loved part in each of us, which now longs to be large-hearted. Even better, there is a receptive part of you that seldom concerns itself with what other people think. It is the part that knows that “giving with both hands” tends to be left of center. Even weird by worldly standards! But it is also the part of you that knows that, here already, now already, a graced-world becomes a better world—a world made better because of your God-breathed generous touch.
Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus