by Keith Miller
We who hold faith in Jesus are at a turning point in our generation. There is such ambivalence I see expressed among white Christians in particular during a time of deep racial pain in our country. White supremacists marched publicly and proudly weeks ago, leading to fatal violence, which was minimized. A few football players are kneeling to express the need to reform our criminal justice system, and the world is exploding at the insensitivity of their actions. What’s going on? What role might Christians have to play in all of this? We are drawn to Jesus, but do we understand the totality of the message? Does our personalized faith speak to what’s going on around us?
Jesus sits in a boat. The shore is filled with people hungering for hope. Many of them are oppressed subsistence farmers, they strain to hear every word this man says, which paints God’s reality in a way they’ve never imagined. Do we have ears to hear this story they way they did?
Jesus launches into a farming story. He speaks of hard, rocky, and thorny soil. My goodness, it seems like there are a lot of things that can stop a seed from growing. The odds are against it three to one! Is there any reason to be hopeful?
Every time I have heard this story shared, the focus is our soil. We must make sure we are fertile enough to receive the good news so that we can bear fruit. The odds are not in our favor, but if we work at it, we won’t wither. Is it possible we have missed the emphasis? Have we forgotten that this is the famous Parable of the Sower? Throughout the text there is one main subject: The farmer. The story begins with the farmer, and his action. Jesus may take time to explain the soils, but he doesn’t start his story by saying that there were four soils. He starts by telling about the sower.
Seeds don’t come easily. In ancient Israel, a portion of your previous crop was required, as well as time and energy to collect the seeds. No good farmer would waste seed. None except this one. He is reckless! We get this image of the farmer walking around just throwing seed everywhere! It seems, dare we say, wasteful and foolish. The seed is said to be “the word of God” in verse 19. That’s the same phrase that John uses to define who Jesus is. He is the Word of God.
God is the sower. Jesus is the seed. And God is in the business of sowing recklessly.
Jesus is sewn into all places throughout creation. Places that are fertile, and places that are hostile. No one is left out. Jesus comes into our humanity. He experiences life in its fullness. He goes into dark places. He is treated with glory and honor, and hatred and torture. He turns the world upside down.
God sows Jesus into the places we think God shouldn’t go. Into the people we think don’t deserve grace. God sows Jesus into every person on every side of every war. No hard path, no rocky ground, no dark crevice, no hopeless racist or overlooked refugee is exempt. God sows Jesus with reckless wasteful love that doesn’t stop to consider who deserves it. But the good news goes beyond this.
This parable isn’t just about our individual hearts. It is full of hope for a better future, even one of liberation. This story has a surprise ending. When the seeds hit fertile ground, the yield is 30, 60, and 100 times what was sown. This sower and this seed don’t simply have a good season. They change the whole system. Ched Myers, a theologian and specialist in biblical economics, says “With such a surplus, the farmer could not only eat and pay his rent, tithes and debts, but even purchase the land, and thus end his servitude.” The subsistence farmer hears Jesus say that the empire of God is liberation from oppressive and exploitative relationships. The reckless sower ends the cycle of despair.
When we gather together, let us not only think about our soils. Let us think of the sower, knowing that Jesus has come to bring liberation to people, to systems, and to anything that holds another in bondage. We are people of this liberator. How does this inspire you to imitate God’s liberating actions in our own world today? What will we do to participate in that liberation and stand with those who are being mistreated?
Last month I spent an afternoon worshipping with clergy from across faith traditions at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. We came together to weep and to pray. We came together to sit with each other. We reminded each other that love is what will change things. Hatred, violence, or apathy will never bring an end to racism. But people forming real relationships, listening to one another, and standing with each other in pain may be the start we need. I held hands with an African American brother on my right and sister on my left, singing “we shall overcome,” and I was suddenly overwhelmed with sorrow. My sorrow came because the people around me were not shocked by a show of white supremacy. They weren’t outraged. They were simply continuing the journey they’ve been on for decades, joyfully worshipping and trusting that the kingdom of God is one that doesn’t just liberate our hearts, but one that liberates our societies. I have been missing out on the joy of God’s liberating character and the richness of God’s diverse community. And I have been missing out on a chance to stand with my hurting black brothers and sisters. I am repenting. I am turning. It’s good news. I doubt I’m the only one missing the point when I think only of the state of my soil.
I have often been apathetic about these issues. In many ways, the good news of God’s liberation for all fell on my rocky, hard soil. And here’s where the soil matters. Our sower can transform the soil. Our farmer never stops tilling it. In the kingdom, soil that is hard, rocky, and full of weeds can become rich and welcoming.
And therein lies the hope. We are given an opportunity today, and each and every minute, to remember that God transforms both hearts and societies. Just as God sends his rain on the just and the unjust, God offers living water to parched soils. Receive the rain! Your own liberation is linked to the world’s.
When we welcome God’s skilled hands turning over the soil of our hearts, there will indeed be a fruitful yield. God will give us compassion and greater love for our fellow neighbors. This is the fruit of the good news. How we do this in today’s culture is not easy. There are no how-to books on working for racial justice. In fact, you may have different ideas of how that looks than someone else does. But we are the Church, and so we fix our eyes on Jesus. And we trust that as we work for dignity, equality, and reconciliation, stumbling and bumbling and messing up as we go, that Jesus will hold us together and bring fruit.
I am afraid that I often see hard heartedness and apathy surrounding issues of white privilege and systemic racism. Our black brothers and sisters are asking us to listen to them. I implore you: listen to them! God has made us a people when we were once not a people. We belong to each other, and we enter into God’s liberation when we acknowledge the pain of the oppressed around us. It’s a painful, joyful process.
America is divided among lines of color and ideology. Everyone is speaking and no one is listening. Jesus’s disciples, especially those of us who are white, have an opportunity. Where will we follow the example of the reckless sower, scattering love everywhere? What conversations can you start? What friendships can you initiate? What new voices can you listen to that could help you understand the pain of our brothers and sisters of color? There is world of justice, joy, and hope to be received and to be given. Don’t miss the opportunity to participate in it!
May God give us humility, compassion. and peace. Amen.
Keith Miller is pastor of LifePath Church in Newark, Delaware. Adapted from a sermon.