Looking for toads…sermon for Adel Parish church, 5th Sunday after Trinity, 2020
Matthew 13: 1 – 9, 18 – 23
I’ve always loved reading stories. I remember as a young child coming across a book of Aesop’s fables at my grandparents’ house. These are a collection of stories supposedly by an Ancient Greek – Aesop; you’re probably familiar with ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’ and ‘The Boy who cried wolf’.
At first, I rather liked them. I was transported into the strange world of talking animals and my imagination got busy. But I soon became irritated by the way each ends with a fairly trite moral, which the story apparently illustrates…’be content with what you have’…’a kindness is never wasted’…they made the stories narrower and less exciting.
Today’s gospel story contains perhaps the biblical version of Aesop’s fables…a parable. In my bible it’s called ‘the parable of the sower’. A sower sows his seed – but it falls on lots of different types of ground. Only one type is ‘good ground’ and there the seed gives a fantastic yield.
If you look for a definition of a parable, you find this sort of thing…’a parable is a simple story that teaches or explains a moral or religious idea.’ To me that’s a rather sad little summary of something far, far richer. But it’s very typical of our age…we like things pinned down, categorized…explained.
We suggest that Jesus used parables to help simple people understand…so we look for a simple message. We assume each parable has one meaning, and our job is to work out what it is, to link each part of the story to what it represents.
In fact, in today’s reading the puzzled disciples ask Jesus to explain – and he obligingly tells exactly what kind of person each type of soil in the story represents.
However…if we look at where the reading comes from, we find a chunk is missing. A chunk where the disciples rather exasperatedly ask Jesus why he speaks in parables. Clearly, they don’t find them simple…and they want to know why he doesn’t just tell them the meaning in the first place.
Jesus’ reply is no simpler…but he seems to be saying, “I speak in parables because I want people to listen, to think, to discover for themselves.” I think parables are not meant to be simple, they’re meant to challenge us, to suck us into the story…to spark our imagination.
But the disciples still struggle…I can almost hear Jesus, in despair, saying ‘Ok, if you must have a simple explanation…you could understand it this way…’ And we, who like things cut and dried, often stick with that.
Today I’d like to offer another definition of parables…’parables are imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’ They’re fiction, they’re completely made up…but hopping around inside them is truth…real stuff. And because it’s in a strange, imaginary world it disrupts, it forces us to look at it differently.
So, for a moment let’s forget the four sorts of people represented by the four soils…and our expectation for Jesus to end…’and the moral of the story is…be good soil.’
Let’s go back into that imaginary garden and let the real toads surprise us.
Jesus said…’a sower went out to sow’.
Is this then, a story of a sower? If so, he’s an odd sort of sower. No prepared soil, neatly ploughed, for him. No careful use of precious seed…keeping it away from the path, the rocky ground and the hedgerow…where it’s less likely to grow.
So let’s wonder about a sower who seems to waste resources so foolishly, who seems happy to fling seed just anywhere. And if we think the sower might be God…what picture does that give us?
Does it suggest that ‘just anywhere’ is in fact exactly where God works? Does the casting of seed in rocky, barren, broken places suggest such places are part of God’s vision for his Kingdom?
If God is the sower, we have a picture of wasteful, profligate God. A God who knows it’s risky, foolish even, to throw seed onto poor, rocky soil, but who does so anyway. I’m reminded of Jesus who had to plant his seed again and again and again in the hearts of his closest followers; who saw them betray, deny and abandon him, but still cast his seed on them once more.
And I stop worrying about which type of soil each of us is, because I know that I’m all 4 at different times, and sometimes all at once. Often I don’t understand. All too easily I forget to spend time putting down roots, time with God, to support the rest of my life. Sometimes, however hard I try, the cares of the world get in the way.
But this is the story of the sower, who continues to throw seed at me, and you; who is willing to risk his love again and again in the hope of finding a small patch of good soil.
So, I let my mind wander in the imaginary garden of this parable. I go to the thorny edge of the field, and see, miraculously, some heads of wheat or barley growing amongst the brambles. And I recognise the ‘real toad’ of that definition…a precious truth. Because I’ve seen examples of God’s love flourishing in the most unlikely places…in the work of prison chaplains…in places of extreme poverty.
And the parable of the sower has escaped from the neat package with the moral at the end. It stays with me as I try to work out how to nurture God’s kingdom. It creeps into my decisions.
This is no more the ‘right answer’ than wondering how to be good soil. But I hope it might lead you into the imaginary garden of this parable…to be surprised by the real toad you come across.
And I pray that you do so trusting in the risky, wasteful, profligate love of our God.