“Out of the Ordinary” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! It is wonderful to be with you in this beautiful place on a late summer day. I would guess that many of you have your own ways of tracking the progression of the season, beside the days on the calendar. The transition from summer to fall is one which I always anticipate, because I love fall temperatures, colors, and food. I know I have shared with you previously how there are certain trees which I watch for on my way to or from the church, and a few, like the maple tree east of the building that I track when its leaves turn. Before the leaves even begin to turn, I’m aware that it’s no longer light outside when my alarm clock goes off in the morning, and that it’s dark by 8:00 in the evening. My husband Tim drives to work through the country and tracks the progress of the corn fields in the spring — have they been opened? Are they planted? Has the corn sprouted yet? This time of year, he watches the soybeans for the first signs of yellow leaves, and then within a week or so when they are more gold than green. Even if you didn’t grow up on a farm or work on a farm, these agricultural rhythms are part of the world around us — a way of marking time and seasons.
This would have been true for the audience for Jesus’ parables — probably even more true than it is for us. 1st Century Palestine was a rural culture, based on agriculture and raising goats and sheep. People would have spent a lot of time outdoors and out of necessity would be tuned into changes in conditions and the natural world. This would be the case for any ancient culture, including the 7th and 8th Century Celtic Christians which Tim and I studied and learned about while we were in Scotland. You don’t have to be a farmer to understand the parable which Jesus teaches the crowd beside the sea. I had Betty read this parable from the gospel of Mark, but it’s also found in Matthew, Luke, and the extra-canonical Gospel of Thomas.
It isn’t great agricultural practice to just throw seed around, willy-nilly, on rocky ground, on parched ground, among thorns. Even Jesus’ listeners knew that, and probably understood it as the metaphor Jesus intended. But just to be sure, Jesus explains it to the disciples in verses 13-20: the seed is the word of God, and the different kinds of soil are the situations and dispositions of the people who hear it. Only in the good soil of people who her and accept the good news of the kingdom of God does the word take root and bear fruit. You knew that, right? My goodness those disciples were slow on the uptake.
What I want to focus on this morning, is the part of the parable that Jesus doesn’t explain to his disciples. That is, Who is the Sower? Think about that for a few moments, and while you are, I want to share this image from the St. John’s Bible. [Slide] This is from the hand-lettered and illuminated Bible which was commissioned by St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. This is the illustration for the Parable of the Sower from Mark’s gospel.
This is certainly a less complex image than the one we saw last week which included the Twin Towers as an illustration of forgiveness. But just because this is visually simpler, does not mean it is not theologically less complex. One of the aims of the St. John’s Bible was to have illumination which opened a space for reflection and further conversation on the text, rather than illustration which was a picture of what is happening in the text. This image presented a challenge for the lead artist, Donald Jackson. He asked the Committee on Illumination and Text (oh yeah, there was a church committee in charge of this project — something which should give any artist cause for concern) Jackson asked the committee the same question I just asked you: Who is the Sower? I get the whole thing about the different kinds of soil, but if Christ is the Word of God, isn’t he both the Sower and the Seed?
Here is the solution the committee and the artist arrived at. It is not visually complex, but there are some things here which I did not notice right away, but that I’d like to call to your attention. This figure was written by iconographer Aidan Hart. Let me unpack some of that last sentence: in the Eastern Orthodox Church tradition, icons, or faces of Christ or the prophets, are described as written, and the viewer reads them. This style of illustration tells us that we are seeing a figure of divine significance, and we need to read the significance which the artist has put there. The golden circle around the figure’s head includes a cross — the bottom of the cross is behind the head of the man — and this cross is a sign to ‘readers’ that they are reading a representation of Christ. This is not just some guy throwing seed around in kind of a careless way, this is Jesus Christ, and what he told us he is doing has particular significance for our lives.
Here’s what I love about this image, and what opened up a new understanding of this passage for me. Look at what the figure of Jesus is wearing. It isn’t a shining white robe with a blue sash and sandals, he isn’t floating above the ground, he doesn’t look holier-than-thou: this guy has on work clothes: jeans, maybe, and a baggy shirt. I can imagine mud on his shoes and dirt under his fingernails — I don’t know about Jesus, but that’s what happens to me literally when I am out picking tomatoes or pulling weeds. That’s also what happens to me metaphorically when I’m visiting folks, writing sermons, or trying to send messages on our One Call Now system. Let me tell you, ministry can be a messy process. When you interact with people, even in ministry and service, even with fine intentions, even doing the best you can, things get messy. People are messy, relationships and dynamics are messy. This is not because of a flaw in the kingdom of God — this is the character of the kingdom of God. In computer programming terms, this is not a bug, it’s a feature. Messiness is an integral part of ministry.
If you are looking for an organization with perfect communication, where there is never tension, and people know what you need without you having to say anything — if that’s what you’re looking for, the church is not the place for you. Not just this church, any church. It isn’t for lack of trying, or because those things aren’t valued. It’s simply that everybody being happy all the time is a pretty high bar. It’s why forgiveness, which I talked about last week, is such an important part of living with other people. Where we get tripped up is when we get mud — or something worse, frankly — on our shoes, we think there’s something out of the ordinary going on, instead of acknowledging that if we are working out in the field, our feet are going to get dirty. The reality is, scraping the mud off our shoes is part of our work. It’s when we try and act like it isn’t there and track it all over the house that it becomes a problem. Blaming your . . . mud on other people does not make it go away. I think I’ve beaten that metaphor to death, but I hope you understand what I’m talking about.
I want to say a bit more about the Word which has been entrusted to us. In this image from the St. John’s Bible, the ‘seeds’ of the word are rendered in gold leaf. Gold is used through the St. John’s Bible as sign of the divine presence — images or symbols which represent the Divine, which we can never fully picture or understand. Gold is also the only metal used in illumination which will not tarnish or change. The Word which we have been given is the text of the Bible, God’s Word. If you look at the full page image of this parable here on the chancel, the seeds are scattered across the text of Mark’s gospel. There’s also a scribal error, which is an unintentional illustration of the need for us to forgive each other. Of course the seeds are God’s word, the printed words of the Bible, but God’s Word was also made flesh in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Whatever material we use to write the Bible on, or whatever we write it with, God’s Word in Christ is eternal and unchanging.
Jesus Christ, was — of course — out of the ordinary. He was and is God’s Son, the Word made flesh. No one else has been that before or since. But I love the way this image portrays the work of the sower as the work of ordinary people. Jerry Snyder may not agree with me, but farming is not a particularly glamorous profession. You have to work hard, for sure. It helps if you know what you’re doing, or if you can work alongside and learn from someone who does, but getting in the dirt is part of the job. Getting to know the soil you’re working with is part of the job. Is this amazing and life-changing? It might be, but if you’re a farmer, it’s also what you do. It’s an ordinary part of your life.
I believe that we are, each one of, called out of the ordinary. God comes to us in the midst of our ordinary lives. The challenge of Christianity is not to show up every day and be amazing, it’s to show up every day. Period. Come in your church clothes, come in your farming clothes, come as you are. Come because Jesus was someone out of the ordinary: the Son of God who was also fully human, and wasn’t afraid to walk out in the field. We should be honored that we can read this parable and know that we have been entrusted with the gospel, the word of God to be cherished and shared with other people. We should also be humble, because it’s pretty clear from this parable that we are soil — some pretty good, and some . . . not so good. I’m not saying that you’re older than dirt, just that you might have more in common than you think. Having to deal with dirt is not out of the ordinary; dirt is who we are because it is what God formed us from.
I am so grateful for this image of the Sower and the space for reflection which it has opened up for me. I invite you to look at the volume of the St. John’s Bible on the chancel this morning if you have a chance, and let me know if this image speaks differently to you. Next week will be my final sermon — at least for now — using illumination from the St. John’s Bible. The text for next week is from Genesis, and the theme will be Creation. That image is so detailed and rich that I plan to send it to you — if you have email — by mid-week, so that you have time to consider it, if you wish, before we gather again for worship next Sunday.
Thank you for being hearers, readers, and do-ers of God’s Word this morning. God bless you. Amen.
 Susan Sink, St. John’s Bible: The Complete Reader’s Guide, Liturgical Press 2013, p 230.