Unexpected Fertility: A reflection on the Parable of the Sower by Valerie Showalter

Preface: Recently, I was invited to “dig” into the Parable of the Sower from Mark 4 and to share my reflections with fellow church-lovers and leaders at Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s School for Leadership training. I was asked to share, in part, because I would identify myself as a lover of the earth and a mediocre gardener. As I acknowledged when I first shared this, I recognize that much of my knowledge about gardening is the result of experience passed down through my family. Yet, the gardeners and farmers of my family have accumulated that knowledge primarily as settlers on the land of peoples systematically displaced by European conquest and occupation. So, my reflections are interwoven with my own background in brokenness, and I hold that tension within me.

The parable of the sower is familiar enough to most of us to know – without even reaching the interpretation of the parable – where the story is headed.

If there’s anything gardeners know and can agree to, it is this: that one must resist predictable explanations and expectations when it comes to seeds. In honoring that, I want to resist the traditional, flannelgraph-worthy punch line of this parable: that some people are “good” because they’re prepared for the Gospel and some people are “bad” because they squander the Gospel.

And anyone still listening to the parable with any humility is left squirming in our seats, wondering which camp we fall in.

As a gardener, I want to resist that punchline, because when I reflect where I am in this parable, which piece of ground I am most like, I see evidence that I’ve got all of these places in me: the rocky soil, fertile soil, hungry birds, and there is no shortage of thorns or weeds.

The evidence is this: I, as a whole person, long for the grace and love of God to be sown in me. There are times that I can name and others can name when that grace and love in me has borne fruit. And, there are other times when I and others can name that the results of grace and love in my life are questionable at best.

Yet, I believe that God can create growth in spaces where the most seasoned farmer or gardener wouldn’t want to waste good seed. God-the-Sower imbues seeds with the most unexpected, unexplainable potential and possibility.

We might say, “What good can come from rocky, thin soil?” It’s in rocky, thin soil where most wildflowers prefer to grow. When I cast a packet of wildflower seeds into a garden bed that last year didn’t really produce much of anything, I still had hope that if nothing else could make a way in that depleted soil, wildflowers could. And it turns out, when all the other plants had died by early winter, those wildflowers were the ones that still had little native bees visiting them, being nourished for the cold days ahead.

The invitation is to recognize that some of the Gospel seed will fall into these rocky, thin places, and that God’s imaginative gardening can produce varieties of flowers and fruits that will surely bloom wherever they are planted.

Then there are the weeds. While the source of this quote might be surprising, a character in Jim Thompson’s 1952 thriller, The Killer Inside Me, states something gardeners love to re-quote (without knowing the source). The quote is: “‘A weed is a plant out of place.’ I find a hollyhock in my cornfield, and it’s a weed. I find it in my yard, and it’s a flower.”

It seems to me that weeds have their own purpose and worth, whether retaining the soil’s moisture or reducing erosion or simply being a native part of an ecosystem we don’t totally understand. What if the invitation is to take the weeds – neither good nor bad, just in the wrong place – and move them to where they won’t choke out the fruit of the Spirit?

And those hovering, hungry birds. I can only imagine that if I were in the crowd when Jesus was mentioning these birds that come and steal the seeds, it would have occurred to me about ten minutes after Jesus had already pushed the boat off into deeper water, that there was another time when Jesus said something about the birds. Something about how they neither sow nor reap, and yet their heavenly Creator provides for them…How do I know it’s not the same birds from that example that are coming and taking the seeds in my field?

Is there not enough grace and love in these good news seeds to share with all God’s creation? The invitation here is to incite generosity: to resist our hoarding compulsions and to move instead into a spirit of jubilee – not just for humans, but for the land and creatures, too.

Another complementary passage to the Parable of the Sower is John 12:24 in which Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The use of the verb “die” catches me every time. Vegetable gardeners, by my (subjective) estimation the most practical of gardeners, may roll their eyes at Jesus here and say, “Seeds don’t die, Jesus.” Perhaps a better verb to explain poetically what a seed needs to do is “yield” or “relent” or “give in.”

For a seed to move from a state of dormancy to a state of growth, a seed has to trust that the soil is warm enough, that there is enough moisture, and that there will be enough light to grow sunward. Perhaps the invitation of this image is to allow the compelling nature of the Gospel and of God’s love to break open our tough, outer shells, to yield to the light and rain and nutrients that God promises.

Yes, some of what God plants in us will not grow because we don’t make room for it. And that is a sobering thought. But, again, as gardeners know, there are always surprises where you least expect them. That is the nature of the Gospel, and I suspect, the kin-dom of God.

And, yes, God-the-Sower uses rocky soil, rich fertile soil, and plants once thoughtlessly typecast as weeds. I am convinced, too, that there is more than enough grace to share with all Creation. My prayer for each of us is that we learn to pay attention to the Spirit, already creatively cultivating her holiness in us and all around us and that our brokenness will make way for growth.

I pray it be so.

Valerie Showalter is an MDiv student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a pastor at Shalom Mennonite Congregation in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She and partner Justin Shenk were community hosts in a United Reformed Church through Mennonite Mission Network in London, England, for three years. Valerie’s work in London and following has focused on community organizing and faith formation through facilitating theology roundtable discussions, craftivism (craft + activism), and countless cups of tea.

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