The Sower, the Seeds, and the Soil

Mark 4:1-20; 26-34
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Some people call it yard work. I call it yard play. Recreation. I absolutely love gardening. Dirt under my nails, sun on my neck, sweat on my brow. Yes, I even like feeling a little sore the next day from all the back-breaking labor. Dotty Thomas recently gave me some herbs, vegetable plants and flowers, and she worried that receiving them while I had house guests, they would be a burden. Far from it, every time I looked at those plants, I saw opportunity to play in the yard, to escape the worries of every day life. I love the anticipation of a day of play in the yard, I enjoy the process of working in the yard, and I love the product. The best thing after getting to do the work is walking outside to admire the work. It’s great to watch the growth of a plant you put in. When you grow plants from seed, it is even more exciting.

Today we read three parables about the sower, the seeds, and the soil. As you hear these three parables – one long and more familiar one, about the sower scattering seed on all kind of soil, followed by two shorter ones – you may imagine yourself as a sower or you may imagine that God is using your words as seed. You may consider yourself soil and wonder whether you are fertile ground for the seeds God plants. Good parables have multiple layers of meaning, leaving room for us to imagine and wonder and grow.

Hear now the word of the Lord from Mark. I will read very slowly, hoping to allow you time to absorb the text and the image.


Digging, planting, watering, tending, pruning. These activities soothe my soul because they are metaphors for life.

The weeds I pull out, which are crowding the good plant, making it harder for them to thrive are like the activities in my life which crowd the more important things. The weeds in the soil of my soul soak up my energy, but in the end are of little use.

The dirt I loosen reminds me of my own heart, which gets hardened by the tread marks of others, whom I kept out. It is hardened by my own unwillingness to loosen up and be open to the Spirit. The watering reminds me of my need for the refreshment of God and the renewal of life in the living waters of God’s grace, which is ours in baptism. Without that renewal, I look and feel like the withering houseplant or the dried up lawn of grass. Pruning reminds me of the danger of over-reaching, over-extending and how we have to keep attention on our roots, give them opportunity to go deep.

I often chuckle to myself, as I work in the yard, thinking how easy it is to prune an over-grown plant, while how difficult it is to prune an overgrown church leader who is crowding out those who are planted too closely and over-extending to the point of burn out.

I like to muse about how easy it is measure the growth of flowers and trees and how much more challenging to measure the growth of people, although when a person comes into full spiritual bloom, when a person clearly has deep spiritual roots, it is fairly obvious to everyone who is paying attention.

It is easy to spot weeds in a garden but even more frustrating to figure out how to help those whose spiritual lives are full of weeds and thorns. You know the closer the weed is to the plant, the harder it is to pull out the weed without also damaging the good plant. Spotting weeds in others’ gardens is like the speck in the eye of someone else and the log in mine that I don’t see. The weeds in my own spiritual garden grow up without my awareness or with my justification.

Okay, we’ve talked about our lives as soil and as plants in need of rootedness. So let’s discuss for a moment what it means to be sowers with Christ. Can we sow seeds of God’s love, or are we just fertilizer – manure – for the seeds Christ is sowing in the garden’s of people’s hearts. “Manure for the Seeds of God” That would have been a good sermon title. I could actually take that metaphor pretty far, thinking about how God takes the waste my life, my feeble attempts at mercy, peace, justice, and love and uses it to fertilize the soil of others. The Apostle Paul claims he planted seeds and that Apollos watered, but he insisted that it was God who gave the growth. Nobody else matters but God, he says. (1 Corinthians 3:6)

I like to think we’re sowing seeds when we pass out cards inviting people to be a part of this new church. And you will surely know, if you’ve been here long, I encourage a broad and fairly indiscriminate spreading of the seeds or Peace cards.

But what we all know in the bottom of our hearts is that evangelism does not work well, short of relationship, Broadcasting seed without any engagement with the soil is not very effective. If I want God’s seed of love to take root, then I need to get into the soil of someone’s garden and gently work in it, to remove rocks and loosen up the parts that have been pounded down by Christians who did not care enough to tend the soil lovingly. We need to be engaged enough with the soil to know which weeds can be removed without disrupting the soil too much.

Many would say the lesson of this parable of the seed is that we should just keep sowing, not worrying at all about where the seed lands. But isn’t that part of the problem? It’s a cop out to say, “Okay, I’ll broadcast seed, but I know it won’t take root over there, because that soil has been hard for years. No seed can grow in that.” Well, why don’t we get our hands dirty in that soil, mix up a little manure, I mean fertilizer, from our own lives, and see if in an authentic relationship we might be able to create a little more fertility.

Another problem with Christians, is that we sometimes add weed to the seed of God’s word. Richard and I had a great discussion the other night with Emily and Nicolas about the problem of Christian missionaries being imperialistic in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Missionaries have found it difficult to share the Gospel of God’s love without imposing their culture too. Just goes to show that all of us have trouble separating the wheat from the tares. The United States was founded on the separation of church and state, but we still mix it up.

So we’ve talked about the soil of our hearts and about sowing, but not about the seed itself. The seed is the Word of the Lord, according to Jesus’ explanation to the disciples, who are the only ones he seems interested in teaching. There seems to be a resignation about those who do not believe, but that also can be interpreted as trust in sovereignty of God. The seed has the power to germinate and take root and become a magnificent plant which itself then provides more seeds. Sevenfold would be the expected yield. Thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold would be outstanding. The third parable uses the example of the tiny mustard seed, which grows into a large shrub, large enough for a bird to nest in. This thought reinforces the notion of the second parable – that God is doing the amazing work of growth, even while we are unaware. It is reassuring to know that the consummation of God’s reign is not ultimately dependent on our meager but best efforts, but on the goodness of God.

God’s seed of divine love is germinating in you, such that you will produce fruit containing more seeds of love for all the world. You can be more receptive to growth, more fertile by having an open mind and a tender heart. Bitterness and a lack of gratitude make our ground of our soul hard. Distractions, sin, rebellion against God are like weeds, choking off the growth of our faith. Greedy birds of culture eat the seeds which are lying exposed. Anxiety and too much accommodation to the self-oriented values of the world are like thorns choking off good growth. A healthy plant needs the water and sunshine of regular worship, along with a little manure and healthy mixing with the congregation.

Some people are turned off to organized religion. They got tired or disillusioned by the smelly dung of other flawed human beings in the church, but I believe God uses us to fertilize the soil of our companions in the church. None of us has become what we will be. But we are refreshed by the waters of life and nourished by the word and sacrament to grow and be fruitful. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me, you can do nothing...You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” And according to Paul in Galatians 5, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. May the trees of our lives be full of those fruits.