13 June, 2021- Third Sunday in Pentecost, Proper 6B – Sowing the seeds of…
Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
A hundred years ago, the largest public swimming pool in the US was the Fairground Park pool in Saint Louis, MO. It had a sandy beach, elaborate diving boards and a reported capacity of 10,000 swimmers. [source]
It was just one of the thousands upon thousands of pools that were built across the country during the 1920s and 30s. And like virtually all of them it was for whites only.
Then in 1949, the parks policy changed and allowed Black swimmers. On the day of the first integrated swim, some 30 Black swimmers were met by a white mob that grew from 200 to over 5,000. They were armed with bats and clubs, and they attacked not only the swimmers, but every Black person in the area, whether they had bravely come to swim or not. The city immediately reversed its integration policy citing public safety. A lawsuit followed; desegregation was ordered, and the next year, 1950, when the pool opened to integrated swimming, seven brave white swimmers and three courageous black swimmers shared this immense pool while protestors yelled from the sides.
A pool that was used to logging over 300,000 swims a season, had just 10,000 in the summer of 1950; a decline that continued, until six years later when the city drained and closed one of the most prized public pools in the world.
Over and over again, in city after city and town after town, all across the country…north, south, east, west…a similar pattern played out…A court order would force a public pool to desegregate…attendance would plummet and the pool would be closed. Swimming didn’t become less popular, but throughout the 50s, and 60s the people who could afford it (mostly white Americans) began paying for something that they had previously done for free. Private clubs and backyard pools appeared as towns stopped building public pools, and filled in the once grand municipal pools. [source] In Washington D.C 125 new private swim clubs were opened in the decade following desegregation in 1953. [source]
This is some of what I’m learning from reading one of the books the Courageous Conversations team has chosen for the summer read this year. The book is The Sum of Us, How Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee. Destroying public parks and filling in municipal pools rather than share them with a certain segment of the population is her defining metaphor for what she calls zero-sum thinking…the idea that we are somehow on opposite teams…and that progress for one group must come at the expense of another group. What her research and her argument in the book points out is that, in fact, the opposite is true…what harms one group harms everyone (draining pools and closing parks wasn’t good for anybody)…whereas the things that benefit everyone (actual universal, affordable healthcare, and a public health system that can effectively handle pandemics, reliable modern infrastructure, well-funded schools in every neighborhood, a truly representative democracy [source]) those things actually benefit everyone. She calls it zero-sum thinking…I see it as “The Parable of the Pool.”
What does this parable of the pool have to do with today’s parable of growing wheat, and mustard seeds?
Jesus loves hyperbole…and he highlights the miraculous growth…the stunning exponential growth…from a tiny seed to “the greatest of all shrubs! Birds nest in it!” And he points out that this is God’s work alone. We don’t really have a role in that…the earth produces of itself…these seeds just grow!…under God’s loving care. But humans do have a key role to play…but it’s harder to see under the hyperbole of that immense shrub.
What role do we have? What is our job? “The reign of God is as if someone would scatter seed upon the ground.” Who is that someone? You might think that it’s Jesus, but this parable comes right on the heels of the parable of the sower, which simply begins: “A sower went out to sow.” Someone scattered seed…Jesus never says who the sower is…he is clear that the seeds are the word of God…but the sower is just…someone…anyone…you…me… We are the sowers…We sow the seeds…
And like the sower in the parable we are to sow seeds EVERYWHERE…with no concern for what kind of ground it lands on. The reign of God is NOT like a farmer who carefully boundaries his land so that seed is only sown on good, fertile soil…that might be good agricultural practice but it is NOT what sowing the word of God is about. The word of God…those seeds go everywhere…some of it grows…and some of it doesn’t. Some of it produces a hundred fold, and some barely sprouts before withering…that’s not up to us…God is in charge of that. We are just supposed to sow those seeds…in words and in actions…everywhere…
We are the sowers…and so we have to ask…what kind of seeds are we sowing? Seeds of love, seeds of justice, seeds of generosity, and grace…or seeds of fear, retribution, scarcity, and doubt?
The parable of the pool didn’t have to go like it did…and it doesn’t have to repeat itself. As it is it’s more like an old testament prophesy…”this is how things went wrong”…But it could have been different…it can be different. Instead of showing up with fear and violence, more people could have shown up with courage and compassion. Instead of staying away and then drifting away to private clubs, more people could have committed the money spent on private clubs to public goods. What seeds do you have? What power…what agency do you have to be a sower of good seeds?
If the story I started with is a prophetic story of how things went wrong…maybe we can write a different story…a new Parable of the Pool…a parable we can sow and tell and work together to bring about (with God’s help)…
With what can we compare the reign of God; what parable will we use for it? It is like a great municipal pool with sandy beaches, and elaborate diving boards and space for multitudes; people from every tribe, and language and nation, Black, brown, white, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities and the able bodied, trans and cis-gendered…all will come to swim in its waters, which are the waters of life that flow from the heart of God. All will be welcome…All will be transformed…the old fears and divisions will pass away everyone and that enters the waters will become a new creation. It can happen…if we but keep sowing the seeds, casting them everywhere, every day, in all of our words and actions, God will give the growth.