Redeemer, Cairo--Matthew 13:1-9. 18-23
For me, yard work is a chore, a necessary evil. I very much dislike it. So I’m lucky that I’m married to someone who kind of enjoys it. As soon as the weather warms up, Brenda begins to devote herself to the flower beds and other areas of our hillside home in Springfield. The people who lived there before us were avid gardeners, so they left us something quite wonderful to work with, though a drought last summer and an unusually cold and icy winter have taken their toll. When we lived in California, I endured what felt like no end of complaining about the quality of the soil in our yard; it was mostly clay, very hard to work with and hard to make anything grow in. But I’ve heard loads of exuberant praise for much of the soil that Brenda is finding in the midwest. Soil quality isn’t the only factor influencing the success of a garden, but it’s certainly a major one.
On our plate today is a very familiar parable about soil. Illinois is an agricultural state—and many who aren’t farmers are gardeners—so I don’t expect most of us will have too much trouble relating to the image of scattering seeds on the ground. Of course, first-century Middle Eastern agricultural practices were a little more low-tech than they are today. Picture a Jewish Johnny Appleseed with a pouch slung over his shoulder broadcasting handfuls of seeds as he walks methodically through the field. It’s not exactly a precision operation, so some of the seeds inevitably fall on the very path where the sower is walking, which is packed down hard, so they become immediate bird food. Others happen to fall on ground that has not been very well worked over by the plow, and there’s just a thick enough layer of soil that they sprout quickly and show great promise. But they have trouble putting down roots; there’s too much gravel and clay for them to get the nutrition they need. So, after an impressive start, they wither and die. Some of the seeds fall into what looks like decent soil, but it also looks attractive to all kinds of weeds, and since it’s near the edge of the field, the farmer may not be too careful about pulling the weeds, so eventually the sprouted seeds lose out in the competition for water and sunshine and soil nutrition. Some of the seeds, though—most of them, one hopes—fall into ground that is well off the beaten path, well worked by the plow, and weed-free. The result is that they yield an abundant harvest, reproducing themselves many times over.
Like many stories Jesus tells, there are multiple layers of potential meaning here. It depends on what element of the story we choose to identify ourselves with. If we identify with the sower, the one who’s tossing the seeds around, then the “moral” of the story, so to speak, is to sow the seeds of the gospel generously and widely. A lot of them are going to land in not such good places, but a lot of them will, and the gigantic size of the harvest is going to outweigh any concern about “wasting” the seeds that get eaten by birds or choked off by weeds. Last month Brenda and I took part in a six mile hike on a footpath in southeastern England between green fields of wheat and barley and beans and canola; it was marvelous being so close to such agricultural abundance.
Now, you may be thinking, there’s only one person in the parable—the sower—so who else is left for us to choose to identify ourselves with? That’s true enough, but with a little imagination, I do think we can find other ways for us to ‘see ourselves’ in this story. In effect, there are at least four other “characters” in the narrative—namely, the four different kinds of soil that Jesus talks about. Are we hard clay? Are we sand? Soft loam? Pebbles? Some combination of the above? How receptive are we to the seeds of good news that God is scattering around and among us, hoping that they will take root?
I doubt that anybody here is truly the packed-down soil along the path on the margins of the field. You wouldn’t be here if you were! But soil changes and moves over time. Maybe you once were, or are moving that direction. How does soil gets hardened? By being walked on, trampled on, packed down until nothing can penetrate the surface. Could that perhaps describe the experience of someone you know? Life certainly has a way of making people feel walked on and packed down! The community of Cairo has certainly been walked on and packed down more than its fair share, has it not? So we develop a protective shell to keep ourselves from being hurt further. Unfortunately, our firewalls and spam filters sometimes delete a legitimate piece of email, and we miss out on something that would be refreshing and life-giving. The seeds of good news that fall on such soil have nowhere to go, so they are carried away.
What about the rocky soil? Over the course of my life, I’ve known several people who hear and receive the proclamation of the gospel of Christ and are immediately turned on, pumped up, and on fire. They remind me of the sausage connoisseur who waxes eloquent about the joys of sausage until he gets a chance to watch a batch get made—then makes a180 degree turn and never wants to look at, much less eat, sausage again. There are people who embrace the gospel with enthusiasm, and expect the Church to consistently live up to the ideals it espouses. Then they discover that the Church is full of sinners and hypocrites. They discover that Christians don’t always practice what they preach. Somebody is not there for them when they feel like they are most in need of companionship, and as a result, they fade—sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually—they fade from participation in the regular life of the church community.
What about the weed patch? What about the soil that lets the gospel take root and flourish for a while, sometimes a good while, but then weeds and thorns grow up beside it and choke it off? Some people embrace Christian faith and practice superficially, but they don’t internalize it at the core of who they are. Membership and service in the church is just one more “notch on the belt” or a “trophy in the case.” They feel like they’re doing something good and making a contribution to society. But they keep their faith compartmentalized. It’s just one more priority to be juggled, and when work or family (to say nothing of adversity)—when the stress of life ramps way up and screams loudly, they inevitably start doing triage, the way an Emergency Room nurse decides what patients get treated now and who has to wait. In most cases, religious practice gets put on ice while other seemingly more pressings concerns are taken care of.
And then there’s the good soil, soil that has been well plowed, well-worked with a shovel and a hoe, soil that is easy for the gardener to do what he or she wants to do with it. This is soil that is open to being penetrated, willing to make room. This is soil that has the capacity and resources to nourish that which has been planted in it. This, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is the kind of soil we want to be. We do not want to allow life to harden us to the gifts that God wants to share with us—as it were, biting our nose to spite our face. We want to have a realistic and patient understanding of what lies ahead on the road of discipleship—which always includes the prospect of disillusionment and disappointment. Our brothers and sisters will let us down. We want to put the practice of our faith not only first among our priorities, but at the center of our lives, letting it order everything else so nothing else takes over. And we want to bear fruit—fruit for the glory of God, fruit for our own salvation, fruit for a broken and hurting world, fruit for the redemption of the cosmos.
Here’s where the parable breaks down, though: You see, actual soil doesn’t get to choose what it’s going to be. But we do. If we show the slightest bit of receptivity, the real Master Gardener knows what soil additives we need to be made fruitful soil, yielding a rich harvest for the Kingdom of God. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.