by Daniel Harrell
This is a depiction of Jesus’ parable of the sower. Many of you will recognize it from the St John’s Bible. The sower looks like classic renditions of Jesus from museums and movies—the give away being the glow around his head. Here he’s in blue jeans. All four soils show up a the bottom, with the amber wave of grain stretching its ears to listen. The sower himself is already moving on and out of the picture frame to sow some more. He knows no boundaries. Seeds hang suspended in air on the gospel page—anticipating more growth in those with ears to listen.
The seeds are painted gold—the color used by St John’s Bible artists to depict God. Gold shines like glory, but also reflects its light so we can see ourselves in it as made in God’s image. Gold is a precious metal—rare and resistant to corrosion. The same with the ink. Calligraphers hand-wrote the entire text using ink derived from three non-degradable elements: candle soot, egg whites and honey. Combined, these three elements create an ink that will outlast the building in which the Bible is housed. Like the prophet declares, “the grass withers and flowers fade—concrete crumbles and glass breaks—but the word of our God endures forever.”
I saw the originals at St John’s University a few weeks ago with Jessica Krueger and Angie Peterson. We represented Colonial Church as one of 14 churches from across the country, each awarded $30K grants from the Lily Foundation to develop projects on vocation and calling. Historically, vocation was a term reserved for religious vocations—those called to be preachers and pastors and priests. But thanks to the Lutherans—Martin in particular—vocation has stretched beyond the confines of the collar to encompass the widespread call to follow Jesus (the priesthood of all believers), but also the particular ways we’re each called to participate in God’s creative work in the world, with our passions and talents and training, whether its paid work or simply the joy of service.
Last Sunday we read the story of Zacchaeus, a shady tax-collector who’d made his riches through exploitation and extortion. Up a tree, Jesus called Zacchaeus down to the ground to turn over a new leaf. For all we know, Zacchaeus remained a tax-collector, except now he was a good one, honest and ethical, responsive to the divine call to do justice, love others and better his community for Christ’s sake.
For Martin Luther and the other Reformers, there was no sacred and secular divide, no supernatural versus natural, no church versus the world because Christ is everything and fills everything up. The word in us beckons, calling us to reflect our Creator and shine the likeness of Christ in every aspect of life, using our gifts and talents as unto the Lord. We ministers serve our role, but we do so alongside lawyers and farmers and engineers and technicians and teachers and accountants and artists and baristas, each doing our part. As calling, our work is instilled with an inherent integrity and worth beyond paychecks or resume fodder. Done unto the Lord, our work is a kind of worship, serving to enhance human life, steward creation and glorify our Creator. As done unto the Lord, our work solicits from us all the skill and care we have to offer, without the work itself becoming our idol since it is Jesus we serve.
This applies to our work as individual Christians, but also to our work as a church. We applied for the grant in part to explore more deeply the question we’ve been asking all year; namely, “What is God calling us to next?” Having spent over a year in prayer and intentional listening, in conversation and retreat, we’ve unearthed five core values—printed in your bulletin and on the nifty banner to my left (albeit not with candle soot, egg whites and honey). Your preachers have now preached ten sermons on our five core values—sermons about the Good Samaritan who welcomes, about Naomi and Ruth who risk together the messy path of faith, about a post-Pentecost Peter who wrestles with the tensions in God’s world and world, about a post-Passover Moses and the Israelites who immerse in sacred spaces and rhythms of remembrance, and about Zacchaeus whom Jesus confronts and completely transforms.
However, ten sermons and phrases printed on banners are not enough. True transformation takes time and as much as a lifetime, and even then there’s no guarantee we will change. Most times some kind of death is required—losing our life to find it, Jesus said. Change entails loss, which is why the word always insists the cross as our highest calling—“an obstacle to some and foolishness to others,” the apostle Paul admits, “but to those who are called, the cross is the power and wisdom of God.” OFF
While praying with the Benedictine monks at St John’s University, we marveled at their persistence at prayer and contentment with their calling despite the challenges of change. Their secret? “We do death really well,” bragged one brother. Death is the one way we will all be like Jesus without even trying. The apostle Paul goes so far as to say we’ve been crucified already, that as far as God goes we’re as good as dead now. St. Paul also insists we’re raised already too, our seat saved in glory. Secured by Christ, our future is so certain it’s like we’ve died and gone to heaven already. Lose your life and you find it. The cross is the power and wisdom of God to those who are called.
We tend to think of calling as coming from outside, but the word does its work from within, planted in our souls—or in our soils I should say. Given its length and location in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the three gospels with parables (John doesn’t do parables), and the rare fact that Jesus interprets it, many consider the Sower to be the premier parable, the one that explains the purpose of all others. We looked at it a couple years back. “A sower went out to sow seed,” but he’s either a lousy throw or needs glasses. The sower slings seed everywhere, on roadsides and sidewalks and in the bushes, inside the picture frame and out. Had Jesus told this tale at the Garden Club they’d have laughed him off the stage.
Jesus’ handlers, anxious that their guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, pull him aside and ask why he’s speaking agricultural parables. Dude, stick to carpentry. Jesus answers by tossing out a few Scripture verses and pronouns as randomly as his sower threw seeds. His explanation as to why parables—which had to do with true calling—only further confused and even offended, excluded and hurt people’s feelings. Jesus accused people of having hard hearts and closed ears, eyes that cannot see and minds that will not comprehend. Dumb as dirt, you might say. The he proceeded to interpret the parable, one of the few Jesus ever explains, in part, perhaps, so his disciples would realize Jesus did know about human nature.
You have the soil type who “hears the word of the kingdom but doesn’t understand;” roadside dirt from whom the word gets snatched away by the birds. Jesus ties the birds to the devil, which while being tough on the birds, at least confirms how demons believe God’s word is good enough to consume. There’s the rocky soil types, happy but rootless—the campfire conversion that can’t take real heat and withers away once reality strikes. The thorny soil types who worry too much—about money and material—they don’t give a shoot about God (you know, a shoot like a sprout of a plant). Growth only happens in good soil—dirt that hears the and gets it and then yields a bigger harvest than anyone could ever eat—a thirty, sixty, or even a hundredfold return.
In first century Galilee, the highest return one could ever expect from a seed was a seven to tenfold yield. Jesus sounds like an overpromising prosperity preacher; one who only tells people what they want to hear. You may remember how my brother, while not a regular church-goer, told me a while back he’d started listening in his truck to prosperity preaching, specifically Joel Osteen, the toothy televangelist and pastor of the largest church in America, his sermons watched, downloaded and read by millions each week. Not that I’m envious. Joel Osteen preaches such bromides as, “God wants us to prosper financially; to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us.” “Focus on being a blessing to others and God will make sure you are always blessed in abundance.” “You were created to be successful, to accomplish your goals, to leave your mark on this generation.” My brother likes sermons that make him feel good. Life’s too short to be negative. I told him he’d better not download my sermons then. He said he never had.
Jesus preaches prosperity with a twist: “to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” What Jesus meant was not money, but insight that money can’t buy. “You have been given to know the secrets of God,” Jesus told his disciples, “but it has not been given to them.” Seeds only grow in good dirt.
But lest you get confident in your dirtiness, remember that the best soil is always laced with layers of decaying compost and cow poo. The very best dirt is full of crap. (How’s that for a parable?) Good dirt is still only good as dirt. Quaker mystic Parker Palmer, who’s written extensively on vocation and calling, writes how he had “always imagined God to be in the same general direction of everything else that I valued: up. But the way to God is down and not up. Years ago, someone told me that humility is central to the spiritual life. This made sense to me: I was proud to think of myself as humble! But this person did not tell me the path to humility, for some of us at least, goes through humiliation, where we are brought low and see ourselves not as set apart or special or superior, but a common mix of good and evil, darkness and light, a place where we can finally embrace the humanity—the humus—we share with others. We are brought down to the ground where it is safe to stand and to fall, and regrow our lives from the ground up.”
Good dirt is only good as dirt. The power is in the seed. God speaks and everything happens: time and space, stars and planets, light and life, dirt itself and human beings out of it. Unlike people whose words lie and deceive and misrepresent, God’s word is his word, so much so that there’s no distinction between what God says and does and who God is. Open John’s gospel and the first paragraph gives it to you straight: “in the beginning was the word and the word was God.” Not only that, but the “word became flesh and lived among us,” meaning Jesus, a reality we celebrate every Christmas. Jesus says the seed is the word—he sows himself in our souls.
He’s not such a lousy shot after all. Christ sows himself everywhere, in every type of soil and in every piece of dirt, even when unrecognized or misunderstood, the crappier the better. As seed himself, Christ’s best work is done underground, after he’s dead and buried. In the closest Jesus ever came to a parable in John’s gospel, he said, “unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it cannot bear fruit.” Jump down a few verses here in Matthew, and the seed sown is small, confirming how God’s best work operates in disproportion to expectations. And not just any small seed, Jesus goes on about mustard seeds, confirming that Jesus also cares about flavor. Most importantly, the seed does its work despite the dirt. In this parable, it sprouts every time. Even when eaten by the devilish birds, those foul fowl who gobble up the word and poop it out, they can’t put an end to God’s power. We know bird poop only expands a seed’s reach. God redeems even the worst evil the devil can do.
Let the word do its dirty work and you will bloom with the beauty and flavor of grace. Your abundant yield will be spiritual fruit of your fully grounded, true self— not some bunch of fake flowers manufactured by your self-absorbed effort. Your blooms will be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control— fruits of the spirit and the best human traits. Biblical abundance is not about money. Spiritual fruit flourishes as deeply relational community; Christ’s hundredfold promise pays out in human capital now: in sisters and brothers and mothers and others—look around—he means the people sitting beside you and surrounding you now with whom we hear and heed the word of God, welcoming, risking, wrestling, immersing and doing good for Christ’s sake.
Our yearlong Reforming work distilled our values into a one sentence “strategic priority,” an emerging sense of what God is calling us to next together as church: “Cultivate a deeper relational community and cross the gaps that divide.” Already it’s informed decisions around worship and ministry and mission. To cultivate taps into the Hebrew word meaning to till, serve, work or worship. “A deeply relational community” is the good soil where love, kindness, honesty, forgiveness and grace get practiced. The word cross works as both the noun and the verb. As the noun, the cross plants at the center of our faith—more than the manger and even the empty tomb. The cross signifies both the costly love of Christ and the cost of following Christ. As the verb, to cross implies the movement we must make in order to engage and embrace, to confront and speak truth, to love and to reconcile the gaps that divide all around us as well as within—personal gaps between who we are and who we’re called to be, rifts in relationships dividing marriages and families and friendships; societal gaps over politics and personal taste and purpose, theological gaps about who believe God to be, economic gaps between rich and poor, racial gaps and even the climatological divide between ourselves and the earth we inhabit.
Hear the word of the Lord: “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it cannot bear fruit.” “We have been crucified with Christ and no longer live, but Christ lives in us.” “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has called us to the work of reconciliation.”
It is a high and hard calling, beautiful and daunting, and we’re not quite sure where or how it will lead us—we may have to go down to rise to it. But together as a community of calling, with the Spirit as the seed and each other as dirt, we can be fertile ground for all the good growth Jesus promises.