Homily Based on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 13, 2014
Listen! A sower went out to sow.
Some seeds fell on the path and were eaten by birds. Some fell on rocky ground and they never took root. Some were choked by thorns. And some, some fell on good soil, and brought forth more grain than could be imagined.
Well, I am no farmer, not even a very experienced gardener, but it sure makes me wonder about what kinda crazy sower we have here who tosses the seed to fall where it may. Most of it never makes it to harvest time. Today he might be sowing while texting.
My lack of appreciation for this story is directly related to the ears that I hear it with — city ears, privileged ears, ears that haven’t heard a lot about what it means to be a peasant Palestinian farmer in the days of Jesus.
What I have heard, I’ve learned mostly from our friend and co-conspirator, Ched Myers, who argues that these parabolic stories — stories that turn things around and upside down— are the tools of Jesus the popular educator1. The parable of the sower is a tale told to the peasant farmer, in language drawn from their own experience — of seeds, sowing and soil and hard times.
The listeners in this story are not the big land-owners on the best land.
These small farmers, are scratching out a living on the margins — and their land is tough to farm. They have been relegated to the hard soil, the dry soil without irrigation, the rocky soil.
Free casting, spreading the seed that you have on the harsh land that you have, without irrigation or tools, is the poor farmer’s style of farming.
If we only hear this story as a paternalistic lesson in agriculture that turns into an object lesson for evangelism, we miss the point of connection that Jesus is making here with the hard core reality of the peasant community that he is addressing. Listen — if you have ears to hear — listen with the ears that you have — this is for you.
Ched spends a bit of time considering the math of the seeds themselves. In this economy, the farmers don’t order their seeds from the catalogue — or the multinationals — they sow the seed that they save from last year’s crop. So that’s the first lot that gets put away. And then they keep some to barter for supplies, some to feed the family, some to pay the taxes, some to pay the tithes. This math will be familiar to anyone who makes the same kind of choices today — pay the rent, feed your kids, pay the bills, coats and shoes, medicine? saving for a rainy day?—where’s that going to come from?
These farmers know what Jesus means about the amount of work it takes—how much seed you have to sow — to still be just scraping by. And they know what happens when the yield is poor — debts build, land is lost, labour is sold, or worse.
It’s into this story, where a really good yield might be 5 fold, that Jesus springs the punchline of the miraculous harvest. But he’s not talking 5 fold, which could still be in the realm of their experience. For the one who hears the word and understands it — they will realize a miraculous harvest — 30, 60, 100 fold yield. This kind of good news would feed the village.
So what’s Jesus doing here — promising the bumper crop of all bumper crops? How’s he going to deliver on that?
Luckily for us, the parables are not like political campaign promises that all too often come up empty. According to Ched, Jesus is enacting in his own time, the age old stories of God’s economy that are rooted in the practice of Sabbath, described in the Jubilee teachings in Leviticus. This is the word to hear and understand. How do we get to the experience of the abundance of God’s vision for creation? It’s not the path of inherited wealth that leads us there. It’s reaching towards the common good, rooted in the belief that the land belongs to God and that there is enough bounty for all when it is distributed fairly.
The land based teachings of Jubilee express God’s vision of sabbath economy — offering first fruits of the harvest to God, leaving unharvested grain in fields for the poor, caring for the vulnerable in memory of one’s own vulnerability, letting the land lie fallow. Jesus didn’t make this stuff up himself, he is re-enacting the old stories — with farmers from their fields, with fishers and their nets, with those who have ears to hear. He is renewing these stories in community, re-envisioning sabbath economics, breaking bread in the wilderness, remembering that there is enough.
No doubt this story sounded to good to be true to those farmers. Can it be true that the earth is really God’s gift and that there is really enough if only we shared in it faithfully? How do we connect to this story today and what does it mean in this place?
Stories of the land, are not my first language —I’ve been an urban dweller my whole life. I can try to appreciate point of view, and maybe apply it to my little bitty garden where I grow my own tomatoes —but I’m really missing the significance of the message if I can’t connect it to a bigger story.
I want to acknowledge that locating ourselves in any genuine theology of the land in Canada begins with an account of colonization the truth and reconciliation process that is only beginning— I’m going to leave that for Jennifer and Monica to preach another day, as it is a full story in itself.
For today, I want to consider a couple of ways that this parable of the sower might be enacted into in this big city of ours, the land on which we stand. What do we hear with our urban ears?
Right away I hear the call to the folks on the margins—the dry and rocky ground of city streets where many make their home, in the jails, or the unsafe or unfit housing where so many find themselves.
The parable of the sower, grounded in the vision of sabbath economics, sows the seeds that resist what we have come to see as an inevitable disparity in the make up of our city. God’s economy of enough, of abundance even, that would feed the whole village, offers a direct challenge to the language of austerity that has permeated the soil of our political landscape.
We hear the austerity message in the loud-mouth goofs, guffawing about taxpayers and gravy. More seriously, we hear it in the mouth of the current Minister of Immigration perpetuating stereotypes of refugees ripping off the health-care system as he distinguishes the difference between the entitlements of Canadians and “bonafide” refugees with those “fraudulent” ones that his government is “protecting us” from. Well, he’s right about one thing, there is a matter of integrity at stake here, but it is his and his government’s. But today we hear the austerity message across every party,feeding the myth of scarcity— breaking the hearts of some of us on the left, cutting to the quick of the core values of the welfare state. Jan and I went to hear John Ralston Saul recently at the Redeemer and he spoke of how tired he is of being addressed as a taxpayer, rather than a citizen. The language of austerity has reduced us to taxpayers and obscures our obligations as citizens towards the greater good.
This week, with the news of Chris’s death we can’t help but connect the vision of sabbath economics with the language that he worked hard to envision — that is, of a moral economy. He knew that where you were situated on the land, mattered to how you heard the story. He countered the austerity tune saying quote: “Every budget, no matter how small, has room for the common good”. I was interested to read on his blog that he learned this lesson from his father. He wrote: “Every week my father attended church and made his financial contribution. This was in addition to other charities he supported regularly. We received our allowance on Saturday but on Sunday we were expected to donate a portion to the church. These days we are all encouraged to set up an RRSP and “pay yourself first”. This was not my father’s view. His view was that first of all, we need each other in order to survive. Therefore, investment in community is a necessary expense and every budget, no matter how small, has room for the common good.”2 Sounds like sabbath economy to me.
As for being a taxpayer, Chris upset the apple cart on that matter as well:
“I do want taxes raised. From my point of view we should all pay for this together because we’re all in this together.”3
So our first enactment is to listen for the austerity message that is all around us in this city and resist it in favour of the common good—our own sabbath economics.
Resisting the austerity spiral is significant in the city but it is not particularly urban. Listening from the location of the city must also take into account that the soil is deeply enriched by diversity. This is not the only diverse place in Canada — I grew up in the north end of Winnipeg, which was and continues to be culturally diverse. But the breadth of cultural diversity here is on a different scale — there are more than 140 languages spoken in our city.
I love it that in our neighbourhood the most popular name is the Tibetan name Tenzin — it means upholder of teachings. Perhaps our most notable example of diversity of our city evident in the list to locate the bar that is cheering for your particular team in the World Cup. Which is great, unless you want to drive through that neighbourhood during a game.
A more significant example for me recently was the Inter-faith Pride fair, hosted by our neighbours at Metropolitan United a few weeks ago. Communities from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian and indigenous two-spirited and non-denominational folk came together to witness to the place of faith in the lives of queer people and to resist the faith-based persecution of queer people around the world and in our own city. Olivia Chow reminded us that Brent Hawkes wore his bullet proof vest to preside at their first same sex wedding not so long ago. Gary Paterson apologized for the Christian abuses of theology that have harmed lgbt people. A queer leader from Unity Mosque talked about how Allah is closer to her than her jugular vein. In the evenings people sang tributes to Nelson Mandela and told coming out stories. We closed the night with a beautiful Havdallah ceremony marking the end of Sabbath led by Shir Libeynu shul. There are few places in the world that this kind of event could happen. It’s just a beginning, but a very good ground to stand on, fertile soil for something more. In fact we used the phrase “interfaith pride grows in Toronto” to describe these seeds being sown.
At the Interfaith fair, our sole Anglican church leader, Bishop Mark Macdonald shared a teaching about the significance of this place that comes from the Anishinaabe word saugeen, which means mouth of the river, and Misi— which means great. So the Mississaugas stand at the mouth of the great river. But this word, saugeen also means love — bible translators use it to express the “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son”. Missi-saugeen is also — BIG love. Mark suggests that it means that for a very long time, this ground on which we stand has been marked by big welcome, a huge embrace.
This church, is our small, but significant patch of the city that we hold in common. My take on our version of the sower story is for us to preach and to re-enact the hope that is embedded in the sabbath economy, resisting the austerity message, reaching toward the common good, and opening ourselves to the huge embrace of big welcome.
I learned that we have the designation of being on the Toronto Star’s list of 175 reasons to love Toronto #14 names us as “a perfect, tiny old church in the courtyard of the Eaton Centre.” Old yes, but perfect—clearly they haven’t met us.4
The first time I walked into this place —it was not as a tourist, but sometime in the 80’s, travelling from Winnipeg for a national church committee — I remember that I was struck by the old floor —it was a wrecked up, dark brown floor. It looked terrible, but I loved it. To me it said, come in, you are welcome here — don’t worry about your shoes, this space is made to be used. This is not that Anglican joke about preferring the old light bulb to the new — I like this version of the floor much better. But I want us to hold on to the inheritance of this place—that it’s primary purpose, its reason to be, is to be about using our place, as fertile ground to cultivate hope in our city.
In this community we stand in a tradition of people who have taken seriously the challenge to resist austerity, reach for the common good and make real God’s big welcome. From housing war resisters, offering hospitality to refugees, creating ground for feminist women to stand, resisting homophobic church policy, hosting the ecumenical community, welcoming Occupy — this place has been an intersection where the struggles of people’s lives with meet the living word. This is our legacy— Presenté Chris Lind— and our living mandate. This place is not ours — neither does it belong to the Diocese of Toronto, or the Historical Board, or even the people of Toronto — although we all have role to play. I don’t believe that the First Peoples here believed they owned it either. This is God’s place, it ain’t ours. To acknowledge that, leads us to resist austerity, reach toward the common good and offer big welcome. That’s at the heart of the sabbath economics version, or the moral economy version, of the parable of the sower.
I heard of a poster recently that says, “the most apostolic duty of all is to keep one another’s courage up”. That’s what Jesus was doing with the sower story. These are the seeds that live with us still.
1Myers, Ched. “Say to this Mountain” Mark’s Story of Discipleship. New York: Orbis, 1997.