Pentecost 5A/Proper 10
Who's Seed, Who's Soil, Pastor Kinsey
In a May 2008 Vanity Fair article, Donald L Barlett and James B Steele, discuss the state of modern farming. Sowing seeds for planting is pretty much unrecognizable today, is the conclusion I came away with. “For centuries—millennia,” the authors say, “farmers have saved seeds from season to season. They planted in the spring, harvested in the fall, then reclaimed and cleaned the seeds over the winter for re-planting the next spring.” It’s a beautiful, prudent, self-renewing system, economically advantageous, and ecologically sound. So what’s different today? Since 1980, one giant agro-business, “Monsanto, has turned this ancient practice on its head,” say Barlett and Steele.
34 years ago, the St. Louis, MO based Monsanto, took advantage of a new law, and for the first time in history, patented a living thing, the seeds’ farmer’s plant. Now, under threat of lawsuit, every farmer, big or small, who uses Monsanto seed, must pay for all new seeds, every spring. You’re not allowed to save the seeds from the fall harvest, and prepare them for planting the following spring, because Monsanto owns them, lock, stock and barrel.
And even before releasing the seeds for the first time, Monsanto genetically engineered the seeds, so that, conveniently, they would be the only things that were immune from their own herbicide, called Roundup, recently found in laboratories to kill human cells, and is the most widely used herbicide on farms, and lawns, in the U.S. And so, what they pitch to farmers is, buy our seed and herbicide together, and you’ll be assured of a bounteous, pest-free crop. Only now, after enough years have passed, farmers increasingly don’t want them. In point of fact, the thorny weeds have learned to become immune to the Roundup, and the Monsanto mono-cropped harvests, are actually less productive even, than organic seed farms.
But if, say, you want to move now to organic, or just something moderately more diversified, and Monsanto finds just one of their seeds has sprouted on your farm, they can sue you for not paying for their seed! Ya! Even if you didn’t want their seed in your field, they can sue you for not paying for what you didn’t want in the first place! And roughly 50% of all American farms have some of Monsanto’s GMO (genetically modified organisms) seeds in their fields, even when they’ve never grown them, because, of course, no one can control the wind or the birds, who scatter and disperse seed, across every human-made boundary.
“Listen,” said Jesus! “Let anyone with ears listen!” A sower went out to sow their seed, which they had carefully collected from last year’s crop, and sowed it everywhere, scattered it liberally, and it fell on all types of soil.
It may be hard for us to imagine, coming from the city, why this simple parable would be part of Jesus’ teaching, living in this concrete jungle that we do, where no farming occurs, except for the occasional rooftop, of course. But in Galilee, in northern Israel, where Jesus sat beside the Sea of Galilee, farming was everything. In an agrarian economy, the planting of crops is central to the survival of the whole society. And so the role of the sower was an essential part of their everyday lives.
In the scriptures, the sower was popular as an image for Israel, and its covenant with God. God sowed seed within God’s people, and blessed it when they stayed within the covenant boundaries, or cursed it when they strayed away. And seed planting was restricted by Levitical Law, but only for the purpose of protecting the land – and so in the seventh year, provision was made for it to lie fallow, a practice used to this day, to give it a rest, just like humans are to rest on the 7th day, for the purpose of renewal.
And so the Parable of the Sower Jesus told, would have been immediately familiar to those who heard it. “Let anyone with ears listen,” said Jesus, to his disciples and followers – not only then, but now. Jesus continues to speak to us today. The Word of God that Jesus sows, is dynamic and alive. What do we hear? Where are we, in the Parable of the Sower? Are we the seed that falls on the path? On rocky soil? Or on the thorn infested ground? Or are we the seed that falls on good Soil, and produces 100, 60, or 30 fold?
Much can get in the way of hearing God, suggests Jesus. An old familiar path we always take, may be ground that can easily be picked clean by an enemy! Rocky ground can mean we are not rooted – we get excited about the latest new trend, and then, just as quickly lose interest. And, ground that has thorns, can choke out our good intentions, with the lure of wealth and the many distractions of the big city.
And yet, the Sower – both Jesus and us – sows the dormant, organic seed liberally, wildly, far and wide, on all types of soil, not knowing exactly where it will take hold, and who will receive it! The Sower does not control the seed once it is scattered. We hear the Word, the message of God, and receive it, or not, according to each listeners’ freedom to respond. The Sower does not control the profits of the seeds for him, or herself. The Sower does not restrict the scattering of the seed for the next planting season, and the year after that. God’s word grows where it will, organically, blown by the Spirit, across boundaries we cannot completely control.
Even the thorns, God does not poison with pesticides, at the expense of the earth, and future generations that depend on it, but God allows evil and temptation to exist in the world, to magnify the greatness of the Gospel, and its message of life, abundant life, which is all the sweeter when we finally learn to receive it as a gift of grace. And so those who listen, who finally begin to catch on to it, grow exponentially, thirty, sixty and a hundred times more! How great is that?!
The farmer and poet, activist and Christian, Wendell Barry, writes beautifully about reverence for the soil: The soil, he said, “is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise.”
There is no doubt that fertility building up out of death into promise, is something Jesus had in mind when he told the Parable of the Sower. “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.” Jesus is looking for some good soil in us, those who will listen and understand, or at least, understand enough to take a leap of faith. Not everyone’s soil is able to sustain the new birth in baptism that can produce fruitfully, every time. And ironically, lives that die, can! Because they make rich fertilizer for new life.
I wonder what Jesus would have said about Monsanto’s treatment of the soil, and farmers who plant the seeds? Would he take away their GMO seeds and ask them to start over? Would he scatter more seed their way, and see if they would take hold? Would he ask them to take a year off, a seventh year, and lie fallow, and give everyone a chance to reflect and the soil to be renewed?
The soil, “is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise.” We are called to be good soil – and to make all soil, rich for planting, that the harvest may be plentiful, for our children, and our children’s children. Come, let us eat of Christ’s body, a rich building up out of death into promise, broken and given for you.