My hunch is that the relatively few hands that went up are a symbol of the age-old divide between mainline Protestants and Evangelical Christians, because – in the Evangelical world – Rob Bell is a hot name right now.
A graduate of Wheaton College, just west of Chicago, Rob Bell is the founder and pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan and the author of a book that has people talking, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” A simplified synopsis of his book is that Bell posits the belief that God is saving everyone, not just some of us, and that there may not be a fiery hell waiting for anyone.
From what I’ve read, Pastor Bell doesn’t come right out and say that that’s the way it is, he simply raises some questions about the nature and character of God, like: How do we reconcile the idea of a God who created the world and looked at it and called it good with the idea of a God who would condemn two-thirds of the world’s population to some kind of eternal torment for not making a public profession of faith in that God while they were alive on terms that would satisfy the other third?
I think it’s a reasonable question. I think it’s a pretty common one, in fact, and one that most Christians have entertained at some point or another. Why are our scriptures so full of talk about salvation? If God is so good and so powerful, why isn’t everyone saved? What are we talking about when we even say, “saved?” What are we being saved from? What are we being saved for?
We are anxious creatures, we humans, aren’t we? I almost wonder if it isn’t hard wired into us. We’ve got these complicated nervous and endocrine systems set up perfectly to flood us with adrenaline at the first sign of danger, and our basic response to danger is fight or flight. Our bodies are rigged to be on the look out for the first signs of danger. It’s a survival response, it’s what kept our species alive long enough for these overdeveloped frontal cortexes to become useful.
And so, when we hear a story like the one Jesus tells in this morning’s gospel reading, we quickly set our minds to scouring it for signs of danger. Look out! Seeds on the path will get eaten by birds! Look out! Seeds on the rocks will scorch and wither. Look out! Seeds among thorns will be choked to death! Let anyone with ears listen!
It seems like a perilous story, the parable of the sower. Heard through those ears, it’s enough to leave me anxious. Am I good soil? Will the seed take root in me? Or will it be snatched up, scorched through, or choked out?
These anxious tones remind me of Paul’s letter to the Romans, “for those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh…” When life is lived in a constantly defensive posture, then it’s difficult not to interpret everything as a possible attack. When life is lived as a game with one winner, then it’s difficult not to always be on the lookout for the rules. When life is lived as if the way it’s always been is the way it will always be, then it’s hard to see a new thing as it’s happening.
But that is what’s going on in this story. A new thing is happening, because this is not a story about snatched or scorched or smothered seeds – this is a story about a profligate sower.
Imagine yourself as a farmer living in the time of Jesus. Seed wasn’t purchased by the ton from big agribusiness. It was gathered and set aside as a part of each harvest. It was precious and limited. A good farmer didn’t waste precious seed by tossing it on the path where people walked, or among the rocks, or into the thorns. A good farmer would carefully prepare the ground, would turn it and irrigate it and clear it of roots and stumps. A good farmer would carefully ration out the seed, and plant it where it had the best chance at producing a good yield, not waste it on useless terrain. What kind of foolish farmer was Jesus describing to the crowd, who would have known better?
Perhaps God is a foolish farmer.
The passage from Romans begins with a promise, not a condemnation, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” Our danger seeking minds are already looking for ways to find the threat in these few words, aren’t they? No condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ? What about those who aren’t? Is there condemnation for them? Why do we do this? Our fear of death must be so strong, to be able to take a word of promise and freedom and turn it into a threat.
Peter Marty, a Lutheran pastor in Davenport, Iowa, wrote a review of Rob Bell’s book for The Christian Century about a month ago that dug into these issues of how Christians experience religious language about sin and salvation. He writes,
“For the theologically suspicious worshipers checking out our church, nothing has made them more apprehensive than their personal experience with expressions of faith that claim absolute certainty about the destiny of others. Why is it that a select group of Christians get to spend eternity in the bliss of heaven, while two-thirds of the world’s population will writhe in the torment and punishment of hell? Are we to believe that God happily created billions of people only to turn around at the time of their death and eternally condemn them for not professing Jesus as Lord? Why is it that those who tout this divide with such certainty always seem to be speaking as members of the ‘in’ or ‘saved’ group and never consider that they themselves might be on the outside? These are the questions of people who are rightfully nervous about arrogant certainty in the church.” [Christian Century; May 3, 2011]
That’s a pretty good description about how we humans tend to handle our insecurities. It’s pretty unbearable, wondering whether or not we’re good enough – good enough for God, or our parents, or our spouses, or our children, or our friends, or our neighbors, or the people we go to church with. That kind of insecurity breeds fear, and scared people quickly become angry people, and angry people have trouble treating each other well.
You don’t even have to look at this on the grand scale of heavenly salvation. You can see how our concerns about salvation get played out in our everyday lives. We worry that we won’t be able to pay our bills, and we get angry or resentful of people who seem to have it easier than we do. We worry that we’ll never get pregnant, and we burn when we hear of friends who are expecting. We worry that we’ll spend our lives alone, and we chafe at stories of a co-worker’s new relationship. Somehow fears about ourselves are always getting tangled up with our feelings about others.
If you were to take a moment now, and look at the negative thoughts and feelings you harbor toward your friends or neighbors or family members, what would you find? What fears linger in the soil of your heart, just under the surface?
It’s hard, when your heart is hard, to allow anything new to be planted there. It’s unlikely that anything new will take root and thrive if you’re carrying rocks around in your spirit to hurl at those who remind you of your anxieties. It’s difficult for new life to become visible in you when the sharp points of all your past pains are always surrounding you.
Thank God then, truly, that the God who made heaven and earth and called it good is such a foolish farmer!
Isaiah delivers God’s promise once again in agricultural terms, speaking with God’s voice where it says,
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. [Isa. 55:10-11]
The question isn’t what kind of soil we are, it’s what kind of farmer is caring for us. The law of limited resources, the law of fight or flight, the law of sin and death do not rule our farmer’s land. Instead, we can imagine that we are in a garden growing wild with every kind of plant you’ve ever seen, and even more that you haven’t. In this garden, the seed just continues to fall, when you’re feeling rocky, when you’re feeling dry, when you’re feeling prickly – the seed just keeps falling, and new life keeps popping up with more than enough food and freedom and forgiveness to take care of the whole creation.
Paul’s passage to the Romans ends with this assurance, “if the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, God who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the Spirit that dwells in you.” [Rom. 8:11]
I wonder what the spirit of life, and freedom from all the self-doubts and insecurities, alive in our mortal bodies means? It doesn’t seem very preoccupied with heaven, it seems more concerned with earth, with here and now, with mortality – not immortality.
I wonder what the spirit of life, and freedom from all the self-doubts and insecurities would look like, as it took root in the world. I suspect it would look very much like you and me, testing out new ways of opening our community to strangers and outcasts, deepening our relationships with one another and to our tradition, healing the old hurts so that our new life can be more easily seen. Breaking open the ground, taking root in the soil, clearing away the thorns. In our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our world.
It seems unavoidable, that we will keep moving toward new life. Even if we didn’t want to, the seed just keeps on falling, and our lives just keep cracking open to let it in. There is an alternate vision for the world than the one that rules our hearts and minds, it is the foolish farmer’s vision, a garden filled with promise, not threat, that we
shall go out with joy, and be led back in peace… instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the briar shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. (Isa. 55:12-13)
Or, as Rob Bell puts it: Love Wins.