Year A; Proper 10; 7.12.2020
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
A few years ago I joined some friends on a tour through Jordan. We visited the ruins of Petra and several ancient biblical sites as well as Roman ruins. Lots Cave and the road that the Nabatean Magi took to Petra were some of the sites we saw and stories we had heard one day on the road to Aqaba and the Red Sea. We learned that we were traveling on a 5,000-year-old road!
We stopped that day in a small town to fill up the van with gas and take a stretch break. I exited the bus and stretched. The place looked as barren and desolate as any place I had seen. I looked over across the road and gazed at the rural landscape. Hard-packed ground, dusty and dry earth was all I could see. I began to imagine Jesus walking along a landscape like that. I imagined people following him who lived right in the midst of this landscape, struggling, poor and, as much as I was enamored by the Roman ruins everywhere, I did understand that entire ethnic populations suffered injustices and poverty under the Empire’s rule.
I imagined that when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, his followers understood that there was more to their lives than the Roman Empire/Kingdom. It must have been consoling to them for Jesus in Matthew’s gospel to frequently tell parables describing what HE meant by Kingdom/Empire of God. He compared it to common things turned upside-down. We might remember one of the more striking parables in Matthew’s Gospel, the parable of the vineyard wage workers.
“The Kingdom of God is like a landowner who paid the same wages for those who were hired first and those who were hired last.” No Empire goes for this kind of upside-down ethic, except for holy- ruler-God who wants us all to understand the endless abundance of his generous grace and mercy.
As I inspected the land across the road that day in Jordan, I immediately thought of the parable of the Sower, the parable from today’s Gospel. I imagined that Jesus and his listeners knew exactly the kind of soils he was describing. The first one as not being able to yield a thing; a road, parched, dusty, so packed that it seemed like rock. I imagined how hopeless that soil must have seemed to waste even one seed on it.
Then I imagined the rocky soil that couldn’t sustain much growth for any time at all, and the thorny soil that made any crop impossible to harvest for the injury the thorns caused. I wondered honestly, where the “good soil” was along that road in Jordan. Was it even realistic to do anything to that literally “god-forsaken appearing soil” for it to bear any fruit?
There is a billboard along Interstate 70 in Kansas that reads, “One Kansas farmer feeds 155 people and YOU.” Since I first saw that billboard as a teen, I understood how farmers always were learning new ways to produce better soils and better yields.
The miraculous “good soil” in Jesus’ parable makes 100-fold, sixty-fold and thirty-fold miraculous yields. Great farming!! On the surface, we might believe that “good soil” is the only soil worth dealing with. We might walk away from hearing that parable understanding that “good soil” is the only soil Jesus compares with “the Kingdom of God.”
Does that mean that three-fourths, 75% of the soil on this earth is bad and worthless? Does that translate to the followers of Jesus that we should be gardening in only the rich, highly fertilized places on earth? Are seeds being wasted on the parched, barren “souls” of the earth?
I was lamenting to my spiritual director this week about the Gospel lesson. I grumbled about the different kinds of soil and how Jesus’ disciples really didn’t understand the parable and asked for an explanation. All my life this parable of the Sower made me feel a tinge of wanting to be that “special disciple” of “good soil” and not those “others” that wasted seed. I’ve never really liked this parable because it seemed to pit good soil against bad soil.
I prefer to believe that our great “Sower God” chooses to give us all a chance, no matter what condition of faith a person is in, no matter how discouraged, no matter how “sin sick” and despairing a person’a “soil” is.
The Kingdom of God is like….a Sower, a gardener, a farmer…
is saying, YOUR CONDITION IS NOT HOPELESS!”
God surely says to us, “Others might think that I’m squandering resources on this
‘god-forsaken-soil’ person or circumstance. But I am the Lord God of abundance and generous grace. Let me not forsake even the most barren to give hope of life and light.”
Ted Wardlaw, a seminary president tells the story of visiting a juvenile detention center with other civic leaders. He describes wire-mesh gates with padlocks and razor wire on top of electrified fences. These were adolescents and children locked behind the doors. The tour guide was a young judge who described the cells, the classrooms and the courtrooms. At the end of the tour she led the contingent down a hallway where young offenders lived. Some of these kids were charged with major crimes; some were repeat offenders. Very few had had any kind of nurturing in their brief and barren lives.
Behind each door, in the small window that looks into the hallway, Ted Wardlaw describes seeing the two eyes of these children looking out. He describes hanging behind the tour and seeing one pair of eyes looking out. He leaned into the door and whispered, “You are God’s precious child.”
It seemed like an empty statement, really, and seemed to register on empty eyes. No surprise at all. Yet the words were likely to be truer for that child than for anyone in that group of civic leaders. After walking down the last hallway, one of the leaders had had enough and began to cry. The young judge stopped the tour, came to the crying person and with tears in her eyes hugged her quietly.
No place is without hope. Seeds were sown that day in that locked up, desolate place seemingly devoid of fruitfulness. The parable Jesus told that day to a crowd of eager listeners wasn’t a judgment on the state of the souls of the hearers. It was a story on the generosity of God who delivers abundance far and wide – giving a chance to the hard-packed or rocky or thorny soil in each of us and in all circumstances.
Does anyone here believe that God withholds goodness from pressing worries of ours these days? At the bedside of a dying coronavirus patient, in the midst of our poorest neighborhoods and schools, in the homes of worried parents, grandparents and teachers about how we will educate our children safely, in the center of Generation Z protests pointing out injustices to us all, at the center of police departments working for reform and in prisons and jails, the most difficult places to imagine hope.
Even our “empire” is not without hope because God’s vision of the world is itself often understood in strange and broken places.”
I wonder, what strange and broken places are we seeing God’s seed being sown?