Author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was raised in the northeast, but on a trip to north Florida in her 30s, she fell in love with the backwoods area known as Cross Creek. She bought several acres and set up a homestead there. It’s in the house on the property that she wrote several of her books, including The Yearling and Cross Creek.
Having grown up in the same county as Cross Creek, I’ve always been drawn to Rawlings’ writings. The last paragraph of her memoir Cross Creek is one of her best:
“Who owns Cross Creek? The red-birds, I think, more than I, for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages…It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed, but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers, and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time.”
“The cosmic secrecy of seed”…isn’t that a great line? It resonates with a line in the hymn we just sang: “From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” (In the Bulb There Is a Flower, by Natalie Sleeth.)
What happens inside seeds is–to most of us–a great mystery. Whether we call it Cosmos or God, something happens when seeds and earth interact. Every time one sprouts, it does kind of feel like a miracle, doesn’t it? Maybe that’s why so many people find God in their gardens.
The cosmic secrecy of seed—a miracle, yes, but after eons of agricultural progress, some things are less secret, less mysterious….like the kind of soil that produces good crops.
Today we hear Jesus’ first parable in the Gospel of Mark, the parable of the sower. It’s a story to which the rural hearers of the parable would have related.
Once upon a time, a sower sowed some seed. Some landed on the path and never took root. Some landed on rocky ground; it sprang up quickly, but, having no depth of soil in which to grow roots, it withered. Some seed landed among thorns, which choked the seed. Finally, other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain. It grew and yielded 30, 60, and 100 fold. Jesus ends the parable by saying, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
On the face of it, it’s a straightforward story. If you’re scattering seed, the seed that lands in good soil is going to have the best chance of revealing all its “cosmic secrets.” Seed that lands on the path or among rocks and thorns is–literally–going to have a hard row to hoe.
But Jesus isn’t a county agent dropping by to tell farmers how to improve crop yield. Jesus is a spiritual teacher. So, what’s the deeper meaning of the story?
When Jesus’ disciples ask him to explain the parable, here’s what he says: 14The sower sows the word. The word—Jesus’ teaching—is sown…and receives a variety of responses.
The first group are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear Jesus’ teaching, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. Basically, these are the folks who weren’t really listening in the first place. They had their earbuds in or were updating their Facebook status and just weren’t paying attention.
The next group are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. We’ve all seen that. People join the church all gung ho, then their interest wanes, and boom. They’re gone.
The third group are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 19but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. They WANT to grow deeper, really they do, but growing deeper into faith or spirituality or community isn’t yet a priority for them. So, though they WANT to grow deeper, they don’t yet want it more than they want other things.
The last group are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”
I won’t ask for a show of hands, but did any of you name names with each set of seeds? Oh, yes. That seed describes so-and-so. Mm hmm…Jesus was thinking of that person when he talked about the seeds that landed on rocky ground. And I’ve lost count of all the people who seem happily plagued with thorns! It’s okay. Sometimes I name names, too. J
The trouble with naming names, though, and maybe this is just me, but when I start identifying each seed group in the parable with individual people or groups based on my assessment of their relationship with God, I always find my own name in the last list–the seed sown in good soil. Have you ever done that? Well, of course, I’m sown in good soil! I’ve accepted the good news and look at all the fruit I’m bearing!
We might be able to hold that interpretation—the one that shows us in a good light—if it weren’t for those twelve disciples. These were the twelve people Jesus had personally called to join him, the ones who had given up jobs and homes to follow someone they felt to be a deeply spiritual teacher. If anybody made it onto the “good soil” list, it should have been those guys.
When they come and ask Jesus to explain the parable, it sounds like that’s exactly what he’s saying. “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand.” For you “good soil” folks, Jesus says, everything is clear, but to the pathway, rocky ground, and thorny folk, everything will remain a mystery.
Except…Well, this is embarrassing…The parable is still a mystery to you disciples, too, isn’t it? Even though I chose you and called you and you left your jobs and homes to follow me, even though you are committed to living the spiritual life more deeply…maybe you all aren’t the good soil I imagined. Or maybe even good soil has a few rocks and thorns…
And if the good soil has a few rocks and thorns…maybe the pathway, rocky ground, and briar patches hold some good soil. Have you ever wondered why the sower scatters seed so blindly? If the farmer knows that seeds have the best chance of revealing their “cosmic secrets” when planted in good soil, why doesn’t the sower clear out some land and plant the seeds properly in a well-tended garden? Seems like she’d save herself a lot of trouble—and seed money—if she got more organized about the enterprise.
Maybe the sower scatters the seed over all kinds of terrain because she’s not exactly sure where it might take root. Sure, the seed is most likely to take root in good soil, but that doesn’t mean good soil is the only place it’ll take root. What better way to discover other patches of good soil than to cast your seed widely? Then, when flowers and vegetables and fruit and trees begin appearing on the path, on the rocky ground, and in the thorns—you’ve got a whole new area to cultivate, a whole new patch of ground in which to sow the word.
In Erskine Caldwell’s 1933 novel, God’s Little Acre, Ty Ty Walden is a God-fearing man, who sets aside one acre of his property and promises to donate to the church any profits generated by that acre. Ty Ty also is obsessed with finding gold on his land….to the end that he spends all his time digging holes at various locations on the farm, looking for gold. Terrified, though, that gold will be found on “God’s acre,” Ty Ty keeps moving it—to back behind the house, to the front of the house, out by the barn, in the back field.
We could have a “field” day trying to identify Ty Ty with one of the seeds in today’s parable, but I invite us to do something else with it. We wouldn’t want to emulate Ty Ty’s motives, but I wonder if we might make use of this idea of moving God’s acre around.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s say the 12 disciples are God’s acre—that is, the place that contains the best soil, the place most likely to produce good fruit for God’s kin-dom. It’s a good assumption to make— they were the ones who gave up everything to follow him. They were religious folk, they spent lots of time with Jesus. And yet, they turned out to be not so productive for God’s kin-dom. They were as puzzled by the parable as everyone else. Their confusion revealed the presence of rocks and thorns in their God-ly acre.
So, maybe in telling this parable, Jesus is suggesting that God’s acre sometimes moves. Sometimes the sweetest fruit, the most productive trees, the most faithful disciples don’t grow in the designated “good soil” zone, the garden or field. Or church. Sometimes, when the word is sown, it takes root in odd places, places where there’s no logical reason for it to take root…and yet, it does.
Maybe God’s acre sometimes is home to faith leaders or faith communities…but other times to children or animals or business executives; maybe God’s acre sometimes holds churches and synagogues and mosques and seminaries….but other times bars or psychiatric hospitals or rock concerts or city buses. Maybe as we seek to grow deeper into community this summer, even as we continue cultivating and caring for God’s acre on our hill, we’ll also do well to seek God’s other acres outside these walls and down the hill.
A sower went out to sow…
The one who has ears to hear…
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2015
Scripture: Mark 4:1-20