The Sower’s Parable
Rev. Douglas Taylor
In the famous parable Jesus shared with his disciples, a Sower went out and scattered seeds on the ground. The parable goes on to describe various outcomes for those seeds, most of which end in the seeds not growing into plants. They are choked by weeds, unable to take root due to rocks, or eaten by birds. But the few seeds that do take root and survive grow to produce a hundredfold return.
In the Gospels, the sower is Jesus, the seeds are the truth and wisdom he shares with people, and the various outcomes are parallel to the various ways Jesus’ truth and wisdom is received by people. We, the people, are the soil, the receptacles in which wisdom and truth grow. Or at least that is one interpretation.
My title today, of course, tugs on that old parable but is mostly a reference to an Octavia Butler book Parable of the Sower from 1993. Fiction is a remarkable vehicle for our common conversation about humanity and truth and what it means to be human. Joseph Campbell made the point that myths, or in this case, powerful stories with deeply mythic themes, tell us something of what it means to be human. Fiction and myth can serve to help us understand problems and explore solutions. They can tell us truths through their fiction about who we are and what matters in life.
Butler’s Parable of the Sower is a near-future dystopian novel. It is part coming-of-age narrative, part adventure story, and part social critique. Part of why I like it is that the protagonist, like the author, is a black woman – a rare demographic is science fiction.
Another reason I’m draw to speak about this today is this: there are several Unitarian Universalist minister’s study groups around the country. They are annual opportunities for UU clergy to get together around a topic of importance. I was surprised recently to learn that one group had selected the works of Octavia Butler as their focus topic. This Sci-fi/fantasy author was being read by UU clergy in an intentional learning circle.
Adrienne Maree Brown, author of Emergent Strategy wrote about Octavia Butler’s books saying, “Woven throughout her work are two things: 1) a coherent visionary exploration of humanity and 2) emergent strategies for being better humans.” (p17)
And all of that caught my attention and led me to this morning. But what really hooked me and excited me enough about Octavia Butler’s work and this book in particular that I decided to use it as the root for a sermon is something altogether different. In the midst of the chaos and devastation, the main character, Lauren Olamina creates a new religion.
Briefly, because I don’t want to dwell on the book itself so much as a few ideas that arise from the story, …
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler is set in California and covers a period of three years, from 2024 to 2027. It is a grim near-future novel that exaggerates trends in American life that were apparent in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, such as fear of crime, the rise of gated communities, illiteracy, designer drugs and drug addiction, and a growing gap between rich and poor. Climate changes brought about by global warming are also central to the novel. (from A Study Guide for Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”, Creative media, 2005)
It is written as diary entries by Lauren Olamina as she navigates life in her enclave and later out in the wilds of California. Like many dystopian novels, religion plays a significant role. In most dystopian novels, religion becomes a corrupted tool of oppression. In Butler’s novel, the protagonist creates a new religion. Part of the story is seeing Lauren Olamina become the founder of a new religion.
But let me tell you a little about this religion, because it is different. Lauren looks around for the most powerful force she can detect in the world; something infinite, inexorable, and irresistible. The answer she comes to is Change. Change is the most powerful force in the universe, it is infinite and irresistible. Therefore, she concludes, God is Change.
Lauren writes a series of verses about her ideas. She collects them into a book called Earthseed. The very first entry, the first verse is the one we had as one of our readings:
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
In her diary, Lauren struggles to understand God. She writes,
A lot of people seem to believe in a big-daddy-God or a big-cop-God or a big-king-God. They believe in a kind of super-person. A few believe God is another word for nature. And nature turns out to mean just about anything they happen not to understand or feel in control of.
Some say God is a spirit, a force, an ultimate reality. Ask seven people what all of that means and you’ll get seven different answers. So what is God? Just another name for whatever makes you feel special and protected? (p15)
She concludes that passage in her diary asking “What if all that is wrong? What if God is something else altogether?” A little later, she reveals her big idea that God is Change. She explains that God is not a person. God does not love or hate anyone, doesn’t watch over people or protect people. God just is. God is change.
An astute hearer of my sermons will of course recognize that I am excited by this idea because it is a version of Process Theology, which I find very exciting and very helpful in describing the God I know and love. My understanding of Process Theology does have some elements missing from what is described in Octavia Butler’s book, but before I go further with that, let me linger for a moment on the topic of Change.
Everything changes. In the book, Lauren is experiencing the slow unraveling of society, the descent of civilization. The change feels dramatic as other characters in the book cling to the past, hoping to survive the chaotic changes around them. Lauren tries, instead, to pragmatically plan for to the next terrible thing while holding a vision of a new community that can be. She becomes a sower, casting her seeds as the world falls apart.
About a year ago I preached a sermon about “The Excitement of Change” https://douglastaylor.org/2017/04/09/excitement-of-change/ in which I highlighted the twin virtues of Letting Go and Holding On. When facing change, it is important to face the reality change brings and be willing to let go of what is no longer – even if it be precious. Change is loss. That is a fact. When change comes, what happens is we lose something. Learning to let go of what is gone – as a religious or spiritual tenet – allows us to respond healthfully to the change even if we do not see it as a good change. Every new day or New Year is also the ending of an old day, an old year.
In the face of that reality, it is also important to hold on to the essential pieces as you experience changes. Your values and your vision of where we are headed together can adjust in response to change, but ultimately there is something in your values and vision that remains sure throughout it all. Hold on to that to stay centered amidst the chaos of change.
“Knowing what you hold on to will help you weather the changes, help you stay grounded and headed in your chosen direction through the changes – even the changes you do not choose and cannot control. Let go, that you may be open. Hold on, that you may stay true.” (from “Excitement of Change”)
This pairing of holding on and letting go is part of the concept Butler put into her character’s version of God. In Butler’s book Parable of the Sower, the first tenet of Earthseed is that God is Change. She means that as something literally true – not as a metaphor or a poetic little something. God is change.
But here is where it gets interesting, and how it connects back to the twin concepts of holding on and letting go. In her fourth verse of Earthseed, Lauren tells the reader “We shape God.”
We do not worship God.
We perceive and attend God.
We learn from God.
With forethought and work,
We shape God.
In the end, we yield to God.
We adapt and endure,
For we are Earthseed
And God is Change.
‘Shaping God’ is a compelling idea. I could spend considerable time talking about other themes in the book such as Freedom, Community Building, Resilience, and Emergence … but for this morning I will limit myself to the themes of Change and this idea of Shaping God.
For Lauren, God shapes us and is shaped by us. As with most understandings of Process Theology, God is not the static, traditional, immutable creator of all things. Instead, God is a dynamic force at play in the existing universe. We all participate with God in co-creating our lives.
In my understanding of Process Theology and God, I can respond to the lure of God’s love and align myself with the good. The Taoist concept of flow is a close encapsulation of this more western concept. Pagans practice magic, which is also very similar. Some forms of Christian prayer, again, come close.
Remember, I’m talking about a fictional religion here – like “The Force” from Star Wars. But like, The Force, Earthseed with it’s practice of ‘Shaping God,’ carries echoes of practices and beliefs from older, traditional traditions and beliefs. That’s why these fictional religions resonate.
For Lauren, “Shaping God” is like what I might recognize as flow or magic or pray, but it is slightly different but in the same category because we are talking about how people have an agency, a way to participate in the holy power. Because change is the one constant, we can either accept change and work with it for our betterment and the betterment of others, or we can resist it in the vain hope that things will return to how they had been before.
If we choose to work with the changes that happen, we get to have a say in what happens next. We can shape the change. Or as Lauren says in the book, we Shape God.
I am intrigued by this concept because I think I do this. I bet you do to. Think about gardening. I’m sure I’ve told this chestnut before: The town vicar is walking past a man working in his garden and stops to admire the beauty. “Ah, Mr. O’Malley, you and God are doing some fine work together in this garden.” To which Mr. O’Malley replies, “Thank you, truly, vicar. But between you and me, you should have seen the place when God had it alone.”
With very little help or guidance from us, our gardens and our lives will bloom and blossom in a riot of color and scent. Beauty abounds. And … it is good to take a hand in shaping what grows in our gardens.
This is what ministry is like for me. I am not creating the energy of this community. I am not making all these amazing things happen around here. We are. Or perhaps we could say it is what naturally happens in a community.
I remember when I first arrived at this congregation over 15 years ago. I showed up in the summer when not much was going on. I looked around and made a list of the things I thought should happen, things I thought could change or improve. Then, just before the start of the church year in September, I lost that list. About a year later I stumbled onto that list again and was surprised to notice that about 80% of what I’d had there had happened; and most of it not because I made it happen but simply from the work of all of us.
The shaping or gardening I offer as my ministry is in this sense – shaping change instead of just tripping along reacting to it. ‘Shaping God’ as the protagonist from the book says. Participating in the nurture of the good energy.
This is the lesson I draw from this Parable of the Sower today. We are the sowers, we nourish the seeds and the soil and participate in the growth. We are not casual observes, separate from the spirit. Take up the role, share in the task of creating the world we long to live in.
I’ll close with one more passage from Lauren Olamina’s Earthseed collection.
God is Change.
God is Infinite,
God is Trickster,
God is Change.
God exists to shape
And to be shaped.
In a world without end,
May it be so.