The parable of the seed and the sower never talked about the seeds in the compost pile. And I love composting. Coffee, fruit and veggie table scraps, egg shells, mixed with cut grass, leaves. I get religious about not adding any animal proteins, seeds, corn cobs – anything that starts to smell or takes too long to decompose or causes other things to sprout. Over the years in New York my compost bin produced compost rich enough to call it gardeners’ gold. Or so I thought.
I used it everywhere: in the front yard when planting annuals, along the side of the house where I had herbs, in the back in the small plot where I was trying to grow a few tomatoes. This past spring, before I moved, I spent more time getting things ready, knowing that I would be gone most of the time and that no one else in my family would care or have the time to garden. I used all the compost in the pile, since it wouldn’t travel with us! Last spring, hostas, azaleas, bulbs, herbs all got compost in the mulch.
And then I got busy packing and getting ready for you and for a move. And the first few times I returned home, it was already dark and I was busy. Didn’t want to spend my only time with my family weeding a garden I wouldn’t see much anyway. I actively resisted, in fact, knowing I had so many other things to do.
But after about a month and a half, I had to do a little work. I got on my old jeans, gloves, settled in with my spade – and saw these odd-looking weeds. Everywhere. They had leaves like tomato plants, their stalks were the same kind of fuzzy. They even smelled like tomato plants. Because they were tomato plants. Everywhere.
You may have seen that coming, but I hadn’t. The soil in my compost had most likely gotten mixed with the leftovers from last year’s tomato vines. I never knew where I was going to find a tomato plant – in the bushes, in the herbs.
I never knew where a tomato plant would take root– and you never know where a parable will take root, either. In fact, true to the experience of those who first heard them, parables can be hard to recognize. You may not even realize you have a seed.
That’s what a parable is; a seed of God’s kingdom that takes root and grows, often where least expected. And this parable is the parable of parables, the one that sets the stage for how parable are supposed to work… on us!
Prayer that we might be like good soil – assuming that God is the sower – and that a parable might take root. But we could be the sowers, we could be the plants themselves. Parables rarely have a one-to-one allegorical interpretation.
When you learn from a teacher who teaches in parables, when your old way of seeing and understanding breaks apart. “Listen,” the teacher says, and ordinary stories become stories of God at work in the world, growing in places you never imagined, where otherwise you would never have known a seed existed. Listen, and herb gardens grow tomatoes.
And just as herb gardens grow tomatoes, what Jesus called the kingdom, what Dr. King called the beloved community, what we know is God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven – mysteriously takes root among us.
Dr. King was pretty clear that this change required a change of souls. And King’s clarity regarding the mystery of how this community came about was that it wasn’t some otherworldly thing. The beloved community wasn’t among those people who were so heavenly-focused that they were no earthly good. The beloved community “on earth as it is in heaven” was based in our time and our places.
Dr. King didn’t necessarily speak in parables, but he had a parabolic vision, one that saw the world as it is, but within that world saw something new growing. He had a gift for taking ordinary children and describing a vision, places torn apart by racism, and having a dream for something else.
Vision that we could all use particularly as we look at the challenges that face us.
Western is an active congregation in many ways. Gets “be doers of the Word.” But where we – and many mainline Protestants – become forgetful, is that life is not just about doing good stuff. Or doing it “as usual.” As Western considers what lies ahead, we need to share a parabolic imagination, that sees ordinary people, ordinary places, even the most difficult parts of our communities, and listens for what might be growing.
Listen. Parables are happening all over, and not just the ones Jesus told. Open your ears to the mysteries of God at work in the world, and you can hear parables in all kinds of places. You can smell peace growing in the rankest violence, glimpse justice taking root, even when life as you know it has ended.
Listen… Just this week the Vice President and Speaker of the House were caught on camera, being friendly with each other during the State of the Union speech. Listen… a British citizen broke the law for the sake of another when he tried leaving a French refugee camp with a 4 year old Afghani girl, so that he could reconcile her with her family England.
Listen… not too long ago a D.C. cop was caught on video in the midst of a group of teenagers, but not with a heavy hand. She was having a dance off, meeting the kids on their own terms, for the sake of disarming a tense situation.
Disturbing things – things that push your faith – can become parables, too. Listen. A president of a Christian university recently encouraged students to have guns in their dorm rooms. Listen… Another Christian college put a professor on probation for wearing a head covering in solidarity with Muslim women.
Listen… not always to be in the right, or even clear, but for the sake of wondering what exactly God is doing in the situation.
Listen… most of all to each other. Because we need each other, the differing points of view we bring to faith and to life, if we are going to hear the parable.
I’ve been reading, mostly just listening, to the Black Lives Matter movement, to the frustration in the voices of so many, particularly at the lack of understanding from those of us who would check “white” or “Caucasian” in a box. Also to the frustration of an older generation with what for some doesn’t qualify for a civil rights struggle in the sense that their generation had to work. The movement these days doesn’t seem ordered enough or focused enough or clear enough. And that may be true in some sense.
But what we are seeing in the movement of so many, trying to put faces and stories and momentum together, is also a parable, in the sense of seeds growing in new ways, bringing life in a way that for those who have ears to hear, souls may be changed in the direction of God’s beloved community, among us.
Way of the stories of Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner can take hold of our hearts and become more than just statistics. A way that we can grow sensitive to the injustices of our criminal justice system and have our imagination changed about what is possible. I want to be careful, of course, not to belittle or make light of these injustices, but if you can find a parable, you can ask yourself what God might be doing. You can find hope!
Those who are open to the mysteries Jesus describes, who are open to a parabolic imagination, begin to see God at work in spite of our best understanding of how everything else is supposed to happen, how change happens.
My hope for us as individuals, my prayer for us as a church, is that we will have ears to listen, that listening we might hear what God is doing, and that hearing, we might join in.