Matthew 13:3-9 (NRSV)
3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!”
In 1990, Jamie Rickert – self-identified wandering ministral, singer, songwriter, storyteller, juggler, clown, magician and fool for Christ – forever changed the way I hear this parable. He was part of the team leading the Phoenix Power and Light Co’s Performing Arts Conference. I was a clown-in-training soaking in all the techniques he and the other leaders offered as my alter-ego, Valentine, came to life.
After a long day of trying to learn how to juggle, balance on a tight rope, and breathe fire, the lot of us gathered in a small room crammed with oversized couches arranged in a oblong fashion, for liturgy. As the lights dimmed, Jamie joined us. His whiteface was gone and the once mime man began to play his guitar. He invited Karen, another team member, to panomime the story as he began to sing.
As the lyrics described the sower sowing, Karen gestured the spreading of seeds. As they turned to birds eating up the seed, Karen stretched her arms like a crow in flight gliding for a landing, then she settled on to the ground and seemingly pecked at the seeds in front of me. Anticipating the next stanza’s description of the seed that fell on poor soil, Karen twisted her feet on the floor as if they were roots extending into the dirt. Simultaniously, she reached her arms far above her head showing how she was soaking in the sun. then she fell in a twisted mass as if scorched and dying on the floor.
This is when it happend. Jamie threw a new twist into the ancient tale. Like an old phonograph that repeats the same phrase over and over when the needle is stuck in a vinyl groove, Jamie sang about the poor soil again and again… and Karen planted, reached, and fell scorched and twisted over and over….
In Jamie’s version, the sower kept throwing seed on the poor earth. In fact, the steadfast sower did not stop his pattern of scattering the grain everywhere. In the process, the plants that had grown and died begain to pile up and decay. They transformed the poor soil into good soil. After what seemed like an eternity, Jamie sang about new growth and the results that can come from persistance…. and Karen stopped falling, took root, and blossomed.
Jesus always embedded some form of twist or surprise in the stories we now name parables. When he shared them, he shared the same context as their first hearers and he knew how to weave a tale that would make his audience think twice. Too often today’s Christian commuities – removed from the story’s context – miss Jesus’ embedded challenge. The words are familiar and we miss the surprising conclusion.
Jamie changed that for me. His telling invited me hear the Parable of the Sower with new ears and Karen’s re-inactment enabled me to see with new eyes. While there are likely many appropriate times to discontinue our efforts, the great sower persevers, and we with him.
What can we do to ensure that our blinders will be lifted when planting churches and growing ministries? How can we help one another stretch our visions of church and being church?