Monday, July 11, 2011

Sermon on The Sower Parable

Matthew 13:1-9

In Amsterdam, the first thing I did when I got there was head to the Van Gogh museum.  Vincent Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists, and probably one of yours, as well.  He was Dutch, lived in the 1800s and continues to fascinate us, both because of the beauty  of his work and the tragedy of his life. 
At the museum, which was several floors filled with his work, and that of artists who influenced him, we started at the top floor, which contained his earliest work, and worked our way down, to see how his vision and art evolved through the many tortuous episodes that marked his short path.
He was a Preacher’s Kid - a PK - who early and often experienced the pain of not quite fitting in with his parents or the strict Dutch Reformed Church of his day. His earliest ambition was to become a clergyman, like his father.  But that didn’t work out.  He flunked out of one seminary, and failed the entrance exam of another school.  He took a position as a Methodist missionaries assistant.  After 6 months, he was sent home.   He entered another school for missionaries, and was assigned to a coal mining town.  There, he slept on straw in the spare room of a parishoner, and lived as the people lived.  They didn’t like it.  His superiors scolded him for tarnishing the dignity of his office, and when he didn’t turn it around, they dismissed him. 

He fell in love, several times, with the wrong woman.  Multiple marriage proposals were rejected. No. Never. Not ever. 

He learned to draw while a youth, and worked in an art gallery briefly, but he didn’t start to paint until he was in his mid to late twenties. He died at 37, and one of the amazing things about walking through the museum was to see 5 floors full of incredible paintings that were all produced during a brief, ten year career. 

Van Gogh aspired to become an artist while in God's service, stating: " try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another in a picture."

One of the images that I saw over and over, one that clearly fascinated Van Gogh, was the image of the sower.  It was not originally drawn from life, but from another work of art - a painting by Millet which is also called, “The Sower”.  In that work, the figure of the Sower takes up almost the entire canvas.  At the time, the art world was scandalized by the heroic depiction of an ordinary peasant, and thought the artist was somehow adding fuel to the fire of social unrest among the peasant class, which was threatening the land-owners and elite of that society.   But what later art historians have remarked upon is how very Biblical the painting is.  The artist was extremely devout, and the painting is actually a study of God, as God is portrayed in the parable we read this morning. 

Van Gogh took that image, with its religious theme and the parable source and worked and reworked in numerous times over the years.  In some of his paintings of the sower, the central figure dominates the picture.  Some are light and happy paintings.  Others picture the same figure as the sun is setting.  Night light, and what it did to color, was one of Van Gogh’s passions.  Think of his “Starry Night” pictures.  In other sower pictures, the figure is seen farther away and other elements of the picture come to the fore. 

As I wandered through the museum, I wondered what it was about the figure of the sower that so fascinated Van Gogh and compelled him to return to it again and again.  So this week with the scripture that inspired him has been an opportunity to think about that.  And I think I know.  Because what Jesus was dealing with in this scripture is also one of the central experiences of the artist’s life.  And part of all our lives, if we take time to notice.

Hold “Van Gogh” in the back of your minds as we turn to more wordy interpretation of the passage we read. 

We can’t understand this parable without looking at the situation in which Jesus preaches it.  It comes about mid way in Jesus life and ministry.  It comes at a point where his early popularity and success is now resulting in opposition and emnity.  The first verse of chapter 13 is tied to what came immediately before.  And chapter 12 is full off troubles and rejection. 

In verses 1-8, thePharisees now debate Jesus directly.
In verse 14, They plot his death (12:14),
In verse 24, they accuse him of being in league with Beelzebul (12:24).
Jesus responds with a few choice words of his own.
They are not bearing the good fruit because they are bad trees --
a "brood of vipers" (12:34a).
They are "an evil and adulterous generation" who ask for a sign (12:38-39).
For Christians, from Matthew’s first readers through those of us sitting in these pews this morning, one of the most puzzling and disturbing set of questions is:
Why do people not believe? What is going on here? How can God's Son meet such a fate? Is there any explanation for the fate we have arrived at by the end of Matthew 12?
What’s the answer.  Well, Jesus offers one.  The answer is: Yes. The explanation begins with simple words: "A sower went out to sow." [p. 114]

In this parable,  Jesus likens God to a sower.

Now, I think it is worth remembering that New Testament theologians tell us about parables: 
Parables don’t have a point.  They have a punch.  They are told to knock us off balance and make us reevaluate our assumptions about God and the world. What was Jesus telling us we need to reevaluate.  What assumptions might we need to re think? 
And one possibility is our assumptions about control and efficiancy vs. waste in how God works. and how we are called to live as we follow him. 
The focus on God as the sower shows God to be generous, indescriminate, bountiful.   He plants the seeds of love and grace all over the place, not making any attempt to give special attention to the most productive, nicest dirt and not neglecting the least promising parts of the field.  This is not how people farm today.  It probably isn’t even how people farmed in Jesus’ day, though they came closer. 
What is shocking is the amount of waste.  Does this point us toward some deeper understanding of God?  It fits with much of what we know about God from the Old Testament.  Including the whole concept of the Sabbath, which is CENTRAL to what our Jewish forebearers insisted was faithful living.  The sabbath is a long time to do no work. 
Sacrifice was a ritual and the whole animal was to be burned.  Brian Stoeffregen, one of my favorite fellow preachers, points out that you didn’t pull out the best steaks when they were medium rare.  What a waste! 

Jesus’ picture of this gracious, generous, incredibly abundant God squares up with Jesus’ own ministry and his own outreach to any and everyone whose path he crossed.  He ate with religious folks, and outcasts.  He greeted rich men and poor men.  He healed well connected men and isolated women-folk.  He spread out God’s love over the whole human race.  Thanks be to God for the salvation that is so freely given that we can be assured it is offered to each and every one of us.

Wasteful - this parable is followed by the feeding of the 5000, the last line of which records how many baskets of left-overs were collected after everyone was fed.  12 baskets of unnecessary food, in case you are wondering.  What a waste!

So what does that mean for us as we live out our calling to be “in the image of God” or accept the invitation to follow in Jesus’ steps?  As individual Christians and as a church, doesn’t it mean that we should also be  "recklessly throwing out the seeds of love, grace and mercy” in our lives? 

Every once in a while Google makes a terrible mistake and sends me an article about business. 
 "Be sure to generate a sufficient number of excellent mistakes." Another book, (Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers, by Robert Kriegel & David Brandt) offers these quotes:

"Says former IBM chairman Tom Watson, 'If you want to succeed, double your failure rate'" [p. 97].

And "Said one executive, 'If you aren't making mistakes you aren't doing anything worth a damn'" [p. 99].

Why is it that so many people in the church, which is to be centered on forgiveness, find it so difficult to risk making a mistake -- for the sake of the gospel? 

Examples of “efficient” uses of time and resources-
mission trips, 
Presbyterian disaster relief,
partnership with the food bank.

The effect of Jesus’ parable is to get us to quit asking, “How can we know this is going to work, or be an efficient use of time and resources?”  or at least ADD the question, “Am I, are we, acting out of the abundance and grace of a generous God, being faithful to the best of what we know about Him.” 

In my favorite of Van Gogh’s “Sowers” the figure is in the mid range of the picture, not central.  The rising sun is central and it’s bright yellow, in fact the entire sky is yellow, rays of that powerful sun.  The sky is the top 1/3 of the canvas, and the bottom third is this vast field, stubble covered and daunting, and you get a sense of the huge task that the little sower faces that day.  But I think what makes it my favorite is that at the bottom of the canvas, where the viewer stands, is a little path that leads into the field.  When you look at the painting, you feel that you are being invited into the field, into the vision, into the task of the hard working sower. 
 Those who have eyes, let them see. Those who have ears, let them hear.

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