Jesus went out to the sea, and landed in a boat. It wasn’t where he was aiming to go. Matthew suggests he was aiming for the shore. Instead he lands in a boat surrounded by a crowd. And from the perch of a boat, he says, A sower went out to sow. It has the ring of an old bar joke, like saying a man walked into a bar. Hear those words and you know something’s going to happen. Something unexpected. One version tells it this way: a rabbi, a minister, and a priest walk into a bar, and the barman says, Is this a joke?
I’m guessing when Jesus said, A sower went out to sow, the crowd responded, Is this a parable?
Most of you have walked into a bar, and likely few of you have gone outside to sow seed like the sower in this parable. We’re dealing with a broadcast sower. No Dixie cups with carefully planted seedlings. Here, whole handfuls of seed are slung into air. Here, you have to walk the ground you sow.
Fortunately, it’s an ancient crowd in our gospel. They know how to sow. When they hear this story, they feel the weight of a grain bag on their shoulders, the swing of an arm over the earth, the clutch of seed in their hands, the flick of fingers releasing their hold.
It’s muscle memory we no longer have. They know about seeds falling on the hard path, on the shallow ground, into the thorns. They know that’s how it goes: no need to fret about it. Just keep sowing the seeds, and something good will come of it because you’re a broadcast sower, after all, one who throws handfuls of seed into the wind.
The poet Wendell Berry says the Bible is an Outdoor Book, written about people who know about being out of doors, about working out of doors — outside the Church. In our day and time, broadcasting is mostly the work of words sent out over airwaves. But broadcasting has an older meaning. In the ancient world of our parable, the sower is a broadcaster who throws seed into actual air.
Writing about the work of the Sower, Alfred Sensier had this to say, ‘When a man puts on the grain bag, [he puts on] the hope of the coming year, [and that man performs] a sacred ministry. 
The sweep of the Sower’s hand may be the oldest pastoral gesture we have: a blessing of hope thrown out ahead of us. Vincent Van Gogh felt this, too. You could say the Sower came as Christ to him. You see, Van Gogh had wanted to be a minister of the Church but was turned down by church authorities.
He felt his hope had come to nothing. He’d studied to become a preacher and a pastor. Said he could feel the force of the gospel burning in him. Like something sewn into his heart. The good news is this: when the Church denied him a parochial assignment, he turned his attention toward the World.
In the Sower, Van Gogh saw the work of Christ made known in the “ordinary” work of the world, the work of Christ made known in what he felt was the ordinary work of his own life. He went on to paint the figure of the Sower several times, each time making it more his own, until finally he painted the Sower in a field with a vibrant sun hanging like a halo behind his head.
It was Van Gogh’s way of saying, Mark this, you high holy ones: the ordinary work of the world is holy work.
The Church. The World. The Sacred and the Secular. We so often separate them, as if they occupied separate soil: the World over here with its “secular” vocations and the Church over there with its “holy” workers, as if God only tends the hope of the Church. Fortunately for all of us, Van Gogh made the world his parish. He saw the earth lit up with the hope of Christ in actual seed thrown into wind.
You come to church to remember the hope of Christ burning in your hearts. You leave church to go out into the world to sow love enough for a yield you may never see; to sow blessings enough for a tomorrow you can only hope for as an act of faith.
Seed lands where it will, as our parable tells it. But if you know anything about seeds, you know how even landing among thorns today, a good rain can wash them toward the good earth tomorrow or even a hundred years later. Their holy force is a hopeful gift even among thorns. Seeds are patient that way. They find a way to be what God means them to be.
Many years ago, landing in my own hard thorny spot, I began walking my neighborhood every morning. Nothing beats walking to break up the hard ground underfoot. I did it for years, and came to know all the trees on sight. I knew their leaves in spring and their branches in winter. They were my friends. And they blessed me.
I came to think of them as a priesthood of trees. They were as Christ to me: present, generous, patient. What I remember today though is how most of them were planted before I moved into the neighborhood and many of them before I was born. The people who planted them in some way threw their hope and labor out ahead of them. They planted for those who came after them.
You are the heirs of a people who put on the hope of Christ and threw it out ahead of them. You are the yield of the saints: a numberless fold leaning into eternity. The hope of God’s eternal love is a sustaining gift beyond your reckoning. And yet it falls to you to believe in it. The outcome is in God’s hands, the sharing of it in yours.
And all of that is true because one day Jesus climbed into a boat to bless you.
Be a sower: Present, Generous, Patient. Put on the hope of Christ for the coming year, and share the sacred gift of your life and labor with the World. Be the man, be the woman, be the child God means you to be.
- Judy Sands, “The Sower and the Sheaf: Biblical Metaphor in the Art of Vincent Van Gogh,” The Art Bulletin, LXX, no. 4, 1988, 665.
- Ibid, 663.