Before I was old enough to know how to complain about doing anything around the house that might be construed as a chore, I would help my Dad till and seed our vegetable garden. For years, I can remember how excited my Dad would get at the prospect of planting a garden that would yield peppers, tomatoes, squash, and beans. In fact, for me, the taste of a cherry tomato from the grocery store is always disappointing compared to the taste of one plucked right off the vine in Dad’s garden. There is a family video of me helping when I was only four or five, pointing to each of the different areas where seeds had been poked down deep into the rich dark soil.
Stuck in my memory is how we would toil in the dirt all day, planting rows of seed, carefully banishing all weeds and unwanted greens so the new plants would grow high and strong. And then, at the end of the day, sitting on the back porch, sipping on lemonade, we would watch a storm roll in, blessing with water the literal fruit of our efforts. I remember thinking how those rainstorms were God’s way of telling us we had done good, and that He was going to help us take care of what we had planted.
Now that I’m grown, and hopefully beyond the years of complaining about doing anything around the house that might be construed as a chore, I miss those days of plunging my hands into the soil, calling out of God’s good creation the mouthwatering fruits of the earth; tilling the ground and planting the seed; sitting on the back porch, tired and dirty, watching the rain bless the work.
Jesus’ teaching in our gospel lesson this morning is deeply rooted in the earth. It isn’t transcendent or metaphysical. It is earthy and earthly: dirt under the nails, sweat on the brow… real! It is Jesus revealing to us a bit of the mystery of God and what it means to walk in God’s light.
This is one of the more familiar parables Jesus gives us, which raises the problem that we don’t really take the time to listen to what it is telling us. Because this story has been preached on so many times, we tend to get stuck in the rut of traditional reading; the “Sunday School” reading, I call it.
We read this parable and generally think of the seed as the Word of God, and the different types of soil as different types of people. First, there is the path, which isn’t really soil, and birds eat it up. Then there’s the rocky ground, unfit for deep roots. It also lands on soil choked by thorns and weeds, not allowing the plant to grow, and being killed off. And of course, there’s the deep, rich soil. Now, the question posed in Sunday School was always, “which type of soil do you want to be?” As if there was any answer other than “the rich soil!” Of course we want to be the good soil. We want to be the person who takes the Word and lives a good, righteous life.
But what happens when we slip? When we falter? When a weed pokes up? Or our path becomes a little rocky? Suddenly we see ourselves as not worthy of the Word; unworthy of God’s love. And that leads to problems.
See, a traditional reading of this parable is very convenient if we are the rich, fertile soil. It helps affirm us as God’s chosen people and supports our belief that other people are not. It justifies our prejudices.
The truth is though, we are all, at some point in our lives, all of these types of soil. We have all been the rich, good soil. But we have all also been the rocky soil and the thorny soil. When we take that first step and confess this, our understanding of the parable necessarily must change.
Let’s take a step back for a minute and consider the main character in the parable: the Sower. If we’re being really honest, he’s not a very good gardener. He sows seeds carelessly, aimlessly, even recklessly. He seems not to care for the waste of seed! He just tosses it around, let things fall where they may. Now, I am no expert gardener… I can barely claim amateur status! … but even I know that’s the worst way to yield crops!
Clearly, Christ is the sower in the story, and the seed is the Word. And Christ sows his word in people who are similarly rocky, thorny, seemingly unreceptive to the word- unpromising ground, in other words. And this should give us unimaginable joy!
Let’s consider this: can unproductive soil change itself? No. Rocky soil cannot remove the rocks… thorny soil cannot weed and clear itself… Yet the sower keeps sowing… and what seemed careless, aimless, even reckless… is now generous, extravagant, even in the least promising places. Jesus simply will not give up on us, despite our numerous failings. Look at the disciples. How many times do we expect Jesus to look at them, shake his head, and just walk away? Their inability to grasp what he is teaching them, their constant failures, should have yielded a different result.
But Christ is not the typical gardener. The soil WILL be made new, in spite of itself.
For this reassurance, we need to look no further than our reading from Isaiah. This chapter is the concluding chapter of the section scholars generally refer to as Second Isaiah. Here, the prophet is speaking to the exiled community to return home after the Babylonian Exile. Earlier, Isaiah used the image of thorns and briers as symbols of God’s judgment against a sinful people. Yet, God has called His people home; the time of exile is over. The images of thorns and briers have been replaced by lush, green myrtles and cypresses. God has renewed the earth and its people, and the Word will live in the land once again. This is particularly striking when we consider how brutal the Babylonian exile was. People were savagely deported from their homeland, not as a community, but individually banished to distant, different lands. Families were split apart and separated. Then the land itself was scorched and destroyed to make the land uninhabitable. The exile wasn’t just visited upon God’s people but upon God’s creation as a whole. The land was devastated.
Yet… it has been made new! It is a land reborn, reenergized, and buzzing with the expectation of life returned. There is such joy that the trees of the field are clapping their hands! The sower has been here.
This morning, we face a challenge we didn’t expect. We are called to be good soil, but also acknowledge that we will, sometimes, be rocky, thorny, and unreceptive. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that we too are being called to sow the seeds of God. Yet, too often we play it safe, sowing the Word only where we are confident it will be well received. We engage people only when it is comfortable to do so, or in an environment where we are least likely to be challenged or castigated.
Jesus gives us freedom to take risks for the sake of the gospel. We have to put our all on the line, because that is what we are called to do. We are called to return home from exile; to sow freely and plentifully that the Word may take purchase.
Sometimes our efforts will fall on unreceptive ground or be choked out by the thorns and briers of this world. But we are called to push on. To sow. And sow. And sow. Because we will always be accompanied by Christ. However many times we fall short, his promise is to “be with [us], even to the end of the age.” And he will continue to sow the seed. Amen.