I preached again at St. Ignatius of Antioch, New York City, today. A nice crowd, and lovely weather.
Proper 10A, July 10, 2011
Matthew 13:1- 9,18-23
The parable of the Sower is perhaps the one parable in the Gospels that seems to require no explanation, because Jesus himself gives us the explanation. It seems like a straightforward call for those who hear the word of God to give fruitful increase. And so it is.
But I want to play a little game with you. As you were listening to the Gospel this morning, or as you read it in the bulletin before the liturgy began, where did you find yourself in the parable? I’ll be willing to bet that some of us, perhaps most of us, identified with the seed being sown, and asked the question, Which of these situations is about my life? How fruitful am I? And, of course, that is exactly the question Jesus wants us to ask about ourselves. The point of the parable is to get us to ask, how can I be more fruitful for the Lord? The problem would seem to be the soil I’m planted in. I could accomplish so much more except for all problems I face. Or I am living in a shallow cultural environment. Or it’s for me hard to put down roots just now. Or there are so many distractions in my life. I’m sure that if I could sort these issues in the background of my life, the real fruitfulness which is surely the potential of my life will come to the fore, bloom, bear fruit, and the increase will be great. If only the circumstances of my life were better, I would be fine. The problem is essentially external to myself. In the prophetic words of Skip Wilson, The devil made me do it.
But let’s look more carefully at the text, and at Jesus’ explanation. In each case, the seed that is sown is the same. It is the soil that the seed is planted in that is different. So perhaps we are not the seed, but the soil. Perhaps this should be called the Parable of the Soils. If this is the case, then perhaps our search for blame for why we re not as fruitful as God wants us to be – assuming that none of us here is quite up to the hundredfold benchmark Jesus sets – perhaps the reason we’re not quite among the hundredfold is that our soil isn’t quite up to hundredfold standards. In other words, if we are the soils in this parable, then we will find within our own lives the reasons why the seed is not yielding as it should. Our own minds and hearts and souls are the soils where the seed of the Word of God is sown. And since Jesus delineates those reasons himself, let’s look at them.
Jesus gives three reasons why the soils are not productive: in the first, the seed is sown along a trodden path, so hard that it cannot germinate, the evil one snatches the seed away, and it never has a chance to grow; in the second, there are so many rocks that there isn’t enough soil for proper roots to grow; and in the third, worldly cares and the desire for wealth choke out an initially good growth.
We are not a culture that is comfortable, on the whole, with the idea of an evil one prowling around, snatching what he can. But I’m not entirely convinced that our skepticism is completely justified. I have seen young people and friends turn almost overnight from loving, helpful, curious and pointed to the future to being destructively self-absorbed, wanting thrills that can only be had from drugs or actions that bring harm. I have watched people become so obsessed or angry that their relationships dissolve and their work or their studies go down the tubes, or more subtly, make living and working with them so difficult that their lives and the lives of those around them wither. They grow hard, like a path that is continually pounded. How can the Word of God penetrate such a shell? It is snatched away before it is even heard. It’s enough to make you wonder, Just what is the power that causes such grief? The path needs to be turned back into soil. It needs to be plowed up, for something to break through and change it.
There are people who have a lot of rocks in their lives. It isn’t their fault, exactly, but they do. The genetic inheritance we’re born with may have problems. The family we’re born into may have problems. The community we are reared in may have problems. The world has problems. Lord knows how many troubles each of us has. And they just seem to grow as our life unfolds. I like pictures of beautiful New England – or upstate New York – fields. How do you think they got to be so beautiful? They started out rocky. How can you make a field like that good for growing something in? You can leave the rocks there and be disappointed in the yield. Or you can remove them patiently, one by one, until the plow can make it through without being deflected or broken. And every spring, more rocks come to the surface. You don’t know why. They just do. So the farmer’s job at that season of the year is to bend over patiently yet again and remove them. Is there anything more beautiful than a carefully cultivated field, with the rocks moved to the side to build a boundary wall, or used to build the farmer’s fieldstone house? But the truth is, if you have a rocky field, you have to work patiently and continually to make space for the crops to grow. And if you do, they will. And fields like that are often heart-stoppingly beautiful. As are people who patiently work at their stony lives, never giving up, season after season moving the rocky parts out of the way, making use of them as best they can, not letting them limit their fruitfulness. But those who do not patiently work at it do not have much capacity to let the Word grow in them.
And the third sort? Their soil is deep and rich and unobstructed. They are the golden boys and girls, born beautiful, their families focused as they should be, their communities supportive. In the world of high school, they are the captain of the football team, the head cheerleader, the homecoming king and queen. They are the ones who got a new car when they turned 16. They don’t know what they have. And not knowing, the cares of life overwhelm them, in part because they don’t have the practice of clearing their life field of rocks, in part because they have been sheltered from the real evils of life by the wise and responsible people in their lives. And so, when care comes, and it always does come, they aren’t ready to meet it. Having always had more than they need, they find it hard to limit their desire, and so they follow it, the false god of always wanting more. Their golden promise turns into something else. The Word is taken up with joy, as are so many new things, but nothing comes of it.
How can we become good soil? The answers are pretty clear: Face the evil that comes to us with courage, break through the hard surface it creates and give the good a chance. Address the problems of life with realism and determination and the knowledge that it is a lifelong struggle, but worth it, so worth it! Come to understand that our blessings are not ours by nature or by right, but are a foundation given to us to build what is better, for ourselves and for others.
There is one more image I would like to lift out of our parable today. The sower is indiscriminate. The seed is sown on soil of every type. The sower is not discouraged by thorns and thistles, by rocks and stones, not even by beaten paths. The sower does not consult the Good Soils Manual and then decide where his best likely profit lies and exclude the rest. He spreads the seed without regard to the probability of its growth. He is not prudent. He is prodigal. Like the father in that other parable about prudence and prodigality, he does not count the cost.
The Word of God is sown everywhere, all the time, with reckless abandon. It does not really matter to God that on the face of it we are unlikely to be fruitful, whether we are beset by problems so great they can prove the existence of evil to a doubting world, or whether our lives require continual work to clear the ground for the good, or whether we have had every blessing and messed up mightily. God plants the Word in our hearts over and over and over again, in the hope that much good will grow. So let us open the stony-paths of our hearts. Let us get on with the lifelong work of dealing with our problems. Let us wake up to the reality of our blessings and clear our lives of distraction and greed. Let our lives be good soil for the Word of God.