In A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes:
When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.
Dillard concludes: “The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny?”
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine is a Jewish scholar of the New Testament. Here are a few things I took away from the introduction to her book about the parables, Short Stories by Jesus. The parables of Jesus, are first of all, thoroughly Jewish. Parables are found throughout the Hebrew scriptures and in the later teachings of the rabbis. Para means “alongside” or “together with” and ballo is to throw, or cast. So parables are, literally, stories thrown alongside life. They compare one thing to another. Most often, the world of the parable is used to illuminate what Jesus called the “kingdom of God,” or, as I’ve been thinking of it, God’s new climate. A great majority of Jesus’ parables are concerned with economics. What values, what structures and systems of relationship, allow for people and creation to flourish as God hopes?
Parables are open-ended stories without any one right interpretation. We should resist the temptation to make simple allegories. There is not usually a one-to-one correspondence between the world of the parable and our world. The parables are rooted in the context of first-century Palestine. Even so, we can, and must “translate” the messages that Jesus’ first hearers would have received into our own time. In the parables, there are usually elements of humor, or absurdity. Something in the story is supposed to stretch our imagination, to break through the status quo of our habitual thinking and acting. Dr. Levine puts it this way:
What makes the parables mysterious or difficult, is that they challenge us to look into 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. (p. 3).
With all this in mind, I’ve been pondering today’s parable. The thing that stands out to me is the odd behavior of the sower. What kind of farmer just throws seeds anywhere and everywhere, wherever? As a gardener myself, I know. You don’t do that. You carefully prepare the ground, removing the weeds and stones, turning over the soil to aerate it, adding compost. You would never throw seeds in a pile of rocks or among thorns. And the seeds go on the carefully prepared soil, not the path! The path is the place to walk so that the garden bed doesn’t get compacted. Here’s the real kicker, though. I can go the store and buy seeds each spring. If I happen to spill some in the rocks, or they get dropped on the path and eaten by the birds, I can go and get more. And if my garden fails, I can go to the farmer’s market or the grocery store. Think about how precious viable seeds were in Jesus’ time. If a farmer did not methodically save seeds from the previous year’s harvest and did not carefully prepare the soil for planting, that farmer’s family was likely to starve.
The traditional interpretation of today’s parable is that the different types of ground—rocky, thorny, trampled path, and good soil—represent individual people and their responses to Jesus’ message. (See Matt 13:18–23.) However, I’m hearing a different meaning in this parable today. What if it isn’t about what kind of soil I am, or you are? What if the point is the way the seeds get thrown anywhere and everywhere, like Dillard’s “pennies cast broadside from a generous hand?” The seeds—carried on the winds and waters, eaten by the birds, then scattered again in their poop—these seeds speak to me about the process by which the kingdom of God, God’s climate of love and justice, emerges here on earth. As the scientist and mystic Hildegard knew, each of these tiny seeds contains the whole universe, holds all the wonder and beauty of the divine. These sacred seeds must be introduced into all kinds of terrain—not just what we’ve always thought was the good soil—because nobody really knows what this plant is, where it will germinate, and how it will bear fruit.
Bill McKibben is a professor at Middlebury College and the founder of the organization 350. He offered a moving and important speech this summer at the Chautauqua Institute. We’ll be showing it after church today in the parlor. I want to share a few things that really struck me from this talk. McKibben described how his organization, 350, began ten years ago. There were seven undergraduate students at the beginning. They each took a continent. People told McKibben that the environment was something only rich white people were concerned about. McKibben said he and his students found out that, although there aren’t people in all communities who would call themselves environmentalists, there are people everywhere who are concerned about women’s rights, public health, hunger, war and peace. On a coordinated day of action in October 2009, the new organization sparked 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries. CNN reported that it was the most widespread demonstration ever held across the planet. Most of the protests were led by people living in poverty, people of color, young people, and women. Thirty years ago, scientist had already agreed that climate change was real and that it was going to have catastrophic consequences. Even the scientists that worked for the fossil fuel companies knew this. And the fossil fuel companies believed them. But instead of working to transform their business models, they invested their almost unlimited money and power into lying to the public, seeking to fool us into believe that there was actually a debate over climate change among scientists. So over these last thirty years, the climate movement has recognized that it must shift from education and demonstration to confrontation, divestment and civil disobedience. We are now in a “climate moment,” McKibben says. We have very little time to change everything about everything and there is no guarantee we will succeed. However, germinating seeds of change, sparkling pennies of hope—are literally showing up everywhere. Because 1,200 people were willing to go to jail to stop the Keystone pipeline, a powerful pipeline resistance movement was born. Protesters shut down London for two weeks. After that, the English parliament passed the world’s first climate emergency declaration. The entire nation of Ireland is selling its holdings in fossil fuels, and these companies are naming divestment as a “material risk” to their business. The Green New Deal has been introduced in congress. Greta Thunberg has mobilized millions of youth to strike for the climate. And she’s calling for us all to stop on September 20—to walk away from school, work, from whatever “business as usual” we’re doing—and to make it clear that we demand action! McKibben pointed out that our spiritual and cultural traditions are full of stories about “the small but many arrayed against the mighty few.” And I thought again about the multitude of tiny seeds the sower broadcast so generously, so recklessly. The “Pacific Climate Warriors” are a network of young Pacific Islanders. Two summers ago, as rising seas threatened their homes, they came together to carve hand-made wooden canoes according to their people’s traditions. They paddled those canoes to New Castle, Australia, the biggest coal port in the world. And they used the canoes to blockade the harbor, preventing the enormous ships that carry the coal from leaving or entering the port. Incredibly, this courageous action led the city of Newport itself to divest itself of its holdings in coal, because the burning of coal was destroying the lives of their neighbors.
Jesus’ parable of the seeds thrown anywhere and everywhere upsets the traditional view of a God who is in control of the world. The God of this parable is not kneeling to place each seed gently in loamy beds. This God is not plowing the fields with a tractor, creating perfectly straight furrows. This God is not genetically engineering seeds to resist pests and diseases or increase their yield. No, God is embedded in the whole messy, unpredictable process of life and death, growth and change. God is a partner with us in creation’s emerging transformation. God is always and everywhere scattering seeds—seeds of hope, seeds of love, seeds of justice, seeds of a world renewed and restored. Thanks be to God!