Listen to my entire sermon:
If you happened to find yourself on the banks of the Ohio River on a particular afternoon in the spring of 1806—somewhere just to the north of Wheeling, West Virginia, say—you would probably have noticed a strange makeshift craft drifting lazily down the river…[It] consisted of a pair of hollowed-out logs that had been lashed together to form a rough catamaran, a sort of canoe plus sidecar. In one of the dugouts lounged the figure of a skinny man of about thirty, who may or may not have been wearing a burlap coffee sack for a shirt and a tin pot for a hat…The fellow in the canoe appeared to be snoozing without a care in the world, evidently trusting in the river to take him wherever it was he wanted to go. The other hull, his sidecar, was riding low in the water under the weight of a small mountain of seeds that had been carefully blanketed with moss and mud to keep them from drying out in the sun.[i]
These are the opening words of The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan, and the man they describe is none other than Johnny Appleseed.
Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman lived from 1774-1845. He was a nurseryman who left his native Boston and travelled west to plant orchards of apple trees in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Chapman was not only a conservationist, but he was also a missionary for the New Church, otherwise known as the Swedenborgian Church. There are many tales of Johnny Appleseed receiving the generous hospitality of local folks and entertaining children and adults alike around over evening candlelight or campfires with lively stories of the gospel.
Johnny Appleseed became a familiar folk legend in Northeast Ohio. In fact, Cleveland’s own Victor Schreckengost was commissioned to create a terra cotta design for the Lakewood Civic Auditorium designed to honor early settlers. The character he chose was Johnny Appleseed. But as the story goes, the 1950’s Lakewood Board of Education determined that Appleseed was too eccentric for the building, and they re-named the sculpture in honor of another early settler, Dr. Jared Potter Kirtland.
That’s the problem with evangelists; they are often considered eccentric and weird. Think about Elijah, John the Baptist, the apostle Paul, beloved St. Francis. Today’s sermon is dedicated to all those eccentric and weird evangelists, without whom the good news of God’s justice, love and mercy for all creation might never be heard.
This morning’s gospel text is the parable of the sower, the seeds and the soil. In order to fully appreciate this story, one has to understand both its original context and audience. This parable, found in the 13th chapter of Matthew (1-23) is located between stories of rejection and opposition. It wrestles with the question: where does the Gospel find a hospitable environment for acceptance and growth?
The parable involves a sower of seeds, a farmer who according to modern agricultural standards would not be considered very wise in his planting style. But to Jesus’ listening audience, it all made sense. Whereas modern farmers and gardeners spend a lot of time and energy preparing the soil for planting, first century Palestinian farmers scattered their seeds and then plowed the ground, sometimes hitting rocks, bad dirt and dormant thorns.
It reminds me of my early attempts at gardening. In my first garden, I dug up the soil only to find a buried patio; in my second garden, I discovered nothing but clay; and in my third garden, I found a collection of rusty bottle caps. I presume that itinerant sowers like Johnny Appleseed also did not know in advance what was beneath the soil when they planted. As Jesus explained to his listeners, there were four kinds of soil – hard, shallow, thorny and good – each yielding a different response to the sowing.
The parable also reminds us of the necessary conditions for growth. Both Jesus and the evangelist Matthew understood the difficulties and obstacles in growth. They knew about persecution (troubles without) and temptation (troubles within). In his hometown rejection, Jesus himself had experienced hard ground. When his disciples lost faith in a storm at sea or doubted the validity of his words, Jesus encountered shallow ground. Jesus ran into thorns when the religious authorities tried to trap him and choke out his message. And yes, his seeds of wisdom often found good and fertile soil, ripe for planting, growing and harvesting.
You and I also know about sowing seeds and bearing both the joy of success and the heartaches of failure. Parents are ecstatic when children actually hear and follow what they have to say, and they get frustrated when speaking to deaf ears and meeting walls of resistance. The owner of the local hardware store or the independent book seller values customer loyalty and personalized service and knows the pain of being choked out of business by big box discounters and internet sales. Good and faithful politicians are thrilled with the passing legislation that matters and frustrated by partisan-deadlocked legislative assemblies. Teachers are deeply satisfied by students actually learning and succeeding, but they also know the frustration of trying to teach in impossible working conditions. Farmers have watched their well-tended fields destroyed by natural disaster, and homeowners have witnessed their neighborhoods devastated by economic disaster. And as we in the rustbelt know all too well, once fertile grounds have over the course of centuries of abuse and neglect become brown fields.
The second half of the parable, which directs its attention, not to the soil but to the sower, reminds us to keep our focus and keep going. As Johnny Appleseed learned, one cannot ensure the future of one’s garden. Sometimes, as St. Paul suggested, one person plants, another waters, and God gives the growth. (1 Cor 3:6). But sometimes, one plants and nothing grows – at least in the time being.
While many of us might be uncomfortable with groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons when they ring our doorbells to share with us the good news, as they understand it, we can learn from them. Following this parable, they don’t spend a lot of time looking for growth in inhospitable places or worrying about seeds that don’t take root, but they do spread the seed everywhere.
As a cathedral dean and pastor of transient urban congregation, this has been a difficult, but important lesson for me. Sometimes, in the words of St. Paul, we prepare the soil, plant, water, and pull weeds, but the growth, blossoms and even harvest might happen somewhere else. And that’s frustrating and sometimes downright painful. On the other hand, we are sometimes surprised and delighted by the unexpected flower that appears in our garden, carried by a bird or even the wind (aka, the spirit).
And then, at the end of the parable is the good news – a miraculous yield. According to most commentators, in first century Palestine, a seven-fold yield would be good year for a peasant farmer; ten-fold would mean true abundance; thirty-fold would feed a village for a year; and one hundred-fold would allow a farmer to retire.
The good news of the Gospel in this story are bushels of abundance, reminding us that all growth does come from God. The opposition might eliminate the majority of the seed, but out of seeming scarcity emerges remarkable abundance. Thus, God calls us to be trusting (and to some, reckless) planters of life and love. The Gospel is not about good business or good agriculture. The gospel is about God’s vision being found and nurtured in unexpected, broken and even desperate places.
This morning’s parable reminds me of our experience with A Place at the Table, our Sunday lunch ministry. After twenty-seven years, the cathedral’s leadership carefully evaluated that ministry, and decided for a variety of good reasons, to close it and focus our efforts to address hunger in a different direction by feeding hungry neighborhood children on the weekends.
As the closing date approached, we made all the necessary preparations for this transition. And then it happened. President Obama came to town on Sunday and held a huge campaign rally across the street from Trinity Cathedral. Knowing that it would be impossible for people to get here and park, we consolidated our worship services into one at 8 a.m. But realizing that the hungry and homeless would still show up for what might be their only hot meal of the day, the cathedral staff and a skeleton volunteer crew agreed to cook and serve Sunday lunch. As I handed out plates to some one hundred hungry people, I was greeted with smiles and thank you’s from every single person. And, a number of individuals said to me, “I don’t know where I will eat on Sundays if you close this program.” By the end of the meal, I realized that I was serving lunch to the Risen Christ.
That afternoon, I made a series of phone calls and learned that all of the downtown Sunday hot meal programs had closed and we were only one still standing. I didn’t sleep that night. And the following morning, I made life complicated for the staff and volunteer leadership of this cathedral when I said, we can’t close A Place at the Table. Even if we start a new weekend hunger program for elementary school children in our neighborhood, we still must continue to feed to hungry at our door on Sunday mornings.
So, we didn’t close A Place at the Table; and in January, we started Blessings in a Backpack. People came out of the woodwork with generous offerings of food, time, and money. And then, just a few weeks ago, we received out of the blue, a gift of $52,000 for our hunger programs.[ii] We didn’t ask for it. We were totally surprised. It was a miraculous hundred-fold blessing in return.
So what’s the lesson to be learned? Spread the seed extravagantly, recognizing that everyplace and everyone is potentially good soil. Learn how to deal with opposition and temptations. Don’t worry too much about the results. Don’t waste your energy in places of resistance; move on and kick the dust off your shoes. Realize that some will prepare the soil, some plant the seeds, some will weed, some will water, and others will harvest. But God also gives the growth, and we are called to give thanks to God for the bountiful harvests of our lives.Oh the Lord is good to me And so I thank the Lord For giving me the things I need The sun and the rain and the apple seed The Lord is good to me Amen! Amen! Amen!
[i] Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, 2002, Random House, p. 1)
[ii] Trinity Cathedral’s hunger programs received a $52,000 check from the Northeast Ohio law firm Dworken & Bernstein Co. LPA. Representatives Howard Rabb and Patrick Perotti from the law firm presented the check to The Very Rev. Tracey Lind at WKYC-TV 3 in Cleveland on June 23. The funds were part of more than $2 million dollars distributed today to numerous charities and nonprofits through the Ohio Lawyers Give Back initiative. The donation will be used for both A Place at the Table and Blessings in a Backpack. Read the press release here.