I preached again this week at The Clare, which has been asking me to conduct small protestant services on Sunday mornings. I have been so well received and so well treated, it’s rather astounding, and it is absolutely amazing to meet such wonderful and dedicated people.
Here is a link to the readings for this day. I will paste the Isaiah reading here because it is short, sweet, and beautiful.
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
Sermon for The Clare, 7/3: Isaiah and the Parable of the Sower
There is something Godlike about a good summer rain. The sky becomes dark in the middle of the afternoon, and the dusty air rushes through windows and alleys and corridors. The trees whip around and dance, almost as if they are clapping their hands. Isaiah knows this. Isaiah knows all about the God-like quality of a summer thunderstorm, the rich rains that water the crops, the deluge that soaks the earth and saturates it with the will of God.
Here, Isaiah compares the Word of God to that deluge of rain, to the layers of snow that fall on the earth and water it in the spring melt.
We in Chicago also know a lot about rain and snow. When the summer rains come, the city cannot soak it all up. The streets flood and become washed out–the sewers choke and back up. The rain even gets in our homes, leaking into the basement through all kinds of strange, innumerable cracks in the foundation–weak concrete or strange, unexplainable pores.
We in Chicago know a lot about how the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth. Quite literally–watered every bit of our city. Using these things as a metaphor for God’s word is wonderfully appropriate both in the ancient world and in our own.
I feel that this passage from Isaiah is truly one of the most beautiful readings in the Hebrew Bible.
Here Isaiah links this frightening and yet magnificent wonder of the skies to God’s everlasting promise to us. He paints a vivid picture of a world electrified by the word of God, of a world animated by the purposes of God, and a world where all creation rejoices in God’s love for us.
These rains transform the world: The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song! and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands! When thorns are sewn, cypress trees will arise instead. When briers are sewn, myrtle trees will arise instead. You shall go out in joy, and be lead back in peace.
The deluge that is God’s word alters the world that it falls into: like watering crops, God’s word enters the world and causes things to change. God takes thorns and briars, things that would be painful, tiny annoyances to us, and through the power of the summer rain, God transforms them into everlasting signs of strength, beauty, and commitment.
Isaiah promises us, through the image of the summer storm, that God’s power to transform is absolute, everlasting, and ever-seeking us. God’s word always succeeds in the thing for which God sent it–it shall always accomplish that for which God purposes.God’s word is as reliable as the water cycle, and yet as wildly joyful as a tree clapping its hands: and the word never fails.
And how I wish I could end this sermon here.
Unfortunately, I can’t do that, because Isaiah is only our first reading today. We have another lesson, conveniently also about seeds and growing, which appears to directly contradict Isaiah’s beautiful poetry.
The Parable of the Sower, found here in Matthew, is a favorite of Biblical scholars and faithful people throughout the world.
It’s charge is simple, and it is also one of the few parables of Jesus for which we get a direct explanation.
There is a sower, God, who is constantly sending out seeds–the Word. Sometimes the seeds fall onto the road, and birds came and ate them. Evil snatches away the word when it falls on a hard surface–when the hardening of a heart makes it impossible to make sense of God’s word.
Likewise, some seeds fall onto rocky earth–God’s word goes out and falls on the hearts of some people who are very eager to hear it. They understand it and they love it, but then troubles arise and they cannot persevere. The sun scorches the seed and it dies.
Thirdly, some of God’s word is sown among thorns–sown in the hearts of people who love wealth and worldly cares. Wealth and the world choke out the word and it dies there too.
Finally, though, God sends out words that fall on the hearts of people who hear and understand it–good soil, rich, deep, and ready to receive a great deal of watering. There God’s word is successful, and the seeds grow and produce bushels upon bushels of grain.
The charge in this parable fairly clear: we must cultivate good soil within our hearts, so that God’s word does not fail when it reaches out to us. We are charged to ponder what that good soil might be, and how we might cultivate it in ourselves.
We can look to Paul’s Letter to the Romans to help us understand what it means to be good soil–to rest in the Spirit, instead of in the fleshy-ness of life.
Quite literally, that word “flesh” in the Greek has a connotation of being like meat–something to be consumed or that consumes to live.
So, we can try to be good soil by refusing to dwell in a mind that thinks only of consumption. We can try to look at the world as a world of spirit, rather than of things that ought to be eaten for survival.
But, that doesn’t really solve our dilemma. We still have one passage that tells us that God transforms the world without our help, and another passage that tells us that we must cultivate a place for God.
On the one hand, we have God’s word as a triumphant and powerful success, never thwarted, a word that makes mountains and trees dance, and a word that transforms thorns and briars simply because God so desires–and then we have God’s word as a tiny seed, needing good soil, scorched and choked, stolen and dying–completely reliant on our availability.
Which is it, Bible? Which one are we supposed to believe?
One of the things about the Bible that makes it so frustrating–indeed, one of the things about the Bible that makes it a book of God–is that it is constantly in conversation with itself. It never really agrees with itself, or has one clear rule about who God is, who we are, and how we are to interact. It is always asking us to hold things together that disagree with each other, and it is in that dissonance, and that frustrating confusion, where we can learn something about God.
So, instead of claiming that one story is more true than the other, we can look at these two stories as a conversation, and hold them together to learn more about how God holds us.
Perhaps, we might want to reconsider the purpose of our sower’s seeds. Isaiah and Matthew disagree with each other only if we consider the seeds that bear grain to be “successes” and the seeds that die to be “failures.” Then, Isaiah cannot be right about God’s word always succeeding in the purpose for which it was sent, because if our hearts are hard, or evil gets in the way, God’s word fails.
I don’t think that’s right, though. I don’t think God is quite that one-or-the-other. I wonder, instead, if the purpose of the seed isn’t just to be.
Last week, we talked about how Zechariah told the people of God that they are to be prisoners of hope–how the people of God are prisoners to their hope in God’s everlasting and eternal commitment to them. Perhaps, what we are being told here by Jesus and Isaiah, is that God too is a prisoner of hope–a prisoner to hope in us.
In both these passages, God’s word is always moving. God’s word is always going out from God and always seeking the world. The sower flings his seeds in every direction, indiscriminately and happily–these seeds being pieces of Godself, the empowered word that can make all things grow. The rains in Isaiah fall from the heavens and soak into the earth–God’s word leaves God full of power and soaks into our hearts, seeking to enliven us with the spirit of change and power.
Perhaps, the purpose of God’s word is to seek us out, not to fix us, but to transform the world by partnering with us.
And yes, we must be ready for it. But it’s purpose has already been achieved–its purpose is to seek us. If we consent to be sought, then we can be the good soil where the word grows. God goes out to meet us so that we might work together to grow, and to produce grain.
God relates to us much like we relate to an intimate friendship, a relationship with a child, the love between spouses. In these deep and close relationships, we put ourselves outside of ourselves in the hope that we can love another and be loved in return. It is an extremely vulnerable act, to put yourself outside of yourself, and God does it for us constantly.
God goes out and seeks us, hoping that these words might grow into love, might grow into intimacy and friendship, might grow into the loving relationship between parent and child. God sows God’s word everywhere, even though sometimes the birds might eat it, and sometimes it may land on rocky soil, and sometimes it may be choked out by thorns. But, the purpose of God’s word is not to accomplish a task–the Purpose of God’s word is to Hope for us, to reach out to us, and to invite us closer.
That is how God’s word can always succeed in its purpose, and yet still require good soil.
God–also a prisoner of hope–is always sending out vulnerable pieces of Godself into the world, hoping that the word will fall on good soil, always hoping that we will go out in joy, and allow ourselves to be led back in peace. God–also a prisoner of hope–is always hoping that we will choose to seek God in all that we do, choose to recognize the spirit of God that dwells in us, and choose to nurture the word that God has sent to us.
God hopes, always, yearns, always, that we might partner with the word, and grow together in order to produce a hundred-fold.