July 16, 2017 – Sower, seed, soil

Pentecost 6   July 16, 2017   Psalm 126, Matthew 13:1-23 Sower, seed, soil

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This parable used to sound rather simple to me. I garden; so I understand – the soil seeds are planted in has a lot to do with how well seeds are going to grow, and what kind of harvest we’ll end up with…

So I’ve sometimes puzzled over why this parable is so often called “The Parable of the Sower” – given that the main point seems to be about soil. After three types of crop failure due to seed falling on the wrong types of soil are described, we finally get to good dirt that yields a good harvest. All the sower seems to do is toss seed everywhere – even where no farmer or gardener I know would expect it to do any growing. And the seed doesn’t get much attention – though it does its part – growing best it can, wherever planted. But even the best of seed… is only going to grow well when planted in good soil.

But this parable of course isn’t really about gardening. Except that the word parable means, in the original language, putting two things next to each other, side-by-side, in comparison. Comparing two things – one very familiar, usually, and the other less familiar. People in Jesus’ day knew parables. There’s many parables in the old testament– and they’d quickly recognize this story isn’t really about soil conditions. Stuff they already knew well.

But even Jesus’ top twelve disciples apparently don’t understand what the point really is… So later, back in camp, Jesus explains… Telling his disciples – and all of us who can hear him – that his message is all about the dirt in human hearts – some hearts with dirt-packed-hard-as-stone – other hearts full-of-stone-just-beneath-the-surface – and even a good heart, full of all the right fertilizers… still won’t actually do any better than a heart of stone… when it’s choked with cares and pleasures that keep us from seeking first the kingdom. And it’s only the heart that’s like good soil, rich in nutrients, well-cultivated… where the word of God’s kingdom is truly able to grow…

And I can still get a little lost here, even reading over the parable and it’s explanation many times this week… When I notice how, in the parable itself (in our first reading), not even a word is actually said about what the seed represents. Nor are any clues given as to what the parable is about…

It’s only when we get to Jesus’ later-that-same-day explanation of the parable for disciples (in our last reading) that we hear the seed is the word of God about the kingdom of God. As Jesus says, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it…the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in the heart…”

Which actually only makes the parable harder to hear for me. Because now the poor birds of this parable wind up looking like demonic vultures scarfing up good seed that happens to fall on the sidewalk…(Quite a bummer of an image for bird-lovers!) And seed that falls on the garden path, hard-pan soil, stands for those who get excited about Jesus till things get tougher. But when prayers seem to go unanswered, when their ship doesn’t arrive on time, when life doesn’t seem to be working out in ways they’ve pictured, they give up on God…Then we get to people with decent hearts, capable of understanding what Jesus says – who can’t quite seem to stop letting the cares and pleasures of the world crowd out the word of God. (Notice – both cares and pleasures work equally well–meaning not well– at crowding out the message of the kingdom of God, like thorns choking crops.) And all these crop failures make one big tragic pile of situations… (Though for anyone who tries to sow the gospel, what Jesus says here is a kind word of pastoral care – a way of letting us know – we can’t save everyone, and we shouldn’t blame ourselves to excess when we try, but fail.) Still, even so, this can feel like a hard teaching.

Fortunately, Jesus concludes on a much more positive note… Talking about the one who hears the word and understands it and brings forth good harvests – a hundredfold, sixty-fold or thirty-fold. Now the parable finally sounds like good news. Though applications still seem elusive…As real-life gardening experience reminds me – even Jesus’ explanation leaves us with a lot of mystery.

And at the risk of trying to over-explain what Jesus explains only a little… I’m reminded of how the soil in our neighborhood Valley Farms Community Garden is all pretty good soil. But not everything in my garden or my neighbor’s gardens is producing all of it’s intended vegetables. Most of what I have planted is up and growing; but the harvest is a mix of apparent success and obvious failure…

And I’m not saying Jesus tells his own parable wrong, but – I do think he wants us to notice – his parables are not meant to be neat, tidy allegories – where every piece of information has equal measure of eternal meaning. Jesus’s parables and parabolic stories are full of deep insight into God’s nature and human nature. But parables are parables. Not answers to Frequently Asked Questions. (Though maybe the parables are a bit like Jesus-Answers-to-Questions-He’d-Like-Us-to-Ask?) And in any Jesus parable we should be aware of the possibility of hyperbole – a little raising of the voice for the sake of the hard-of-hearing….

Meanwhile back in my garden, I’ve noticed how maybe the wild and reckless sower who tosses seed everywhere… may be on to something… I’ve noticed our compost heap chock full of plant life from unplanted volunteer seeds – cucumber, squash, potatoes, even tropical papayas growing like topsy. (I’ve transplanted some to the garden where they’re doing fine.) And sunflowers we never planted are growing tall in our little home garden – just a few feet below where our sunflower-seed-filled bird feeder hung all winter…

I’ve also noticed how some plants figure out ways not to grow – even after several re-seedings in what seems to be good soil, free of weeds… A reminder this parable is not exactly a scientific soil test that lets us know the exact inner condition of anyone’s heart…

And I haven’t noticed thorns in our garden, but we have weeds in abundance, along with occasionally alarming quantities of bugs and slugs. (How could Jesus forget to mention them?) Yet even with all these and many of the other problems gardeners often experience…Still my little garden is somehow producing… I’ve been harvesting lots of greens, and now beans – with squash, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, even a little okra on the way… My harvest yields are probably going to be down in the lower-thirty-fold-yield-category Jesus speaks about, but – the garden is bearing good fruit (vegetables more literally) – in spite of my limited gardening skills.

And I can’t help noticing – even seeds birds eat off the path…sometimes turn out to not-yet be done producing… As seeds enriched by all-natural organic compost sometimes have a way of dropping out of the sky. (If we’re lucky, not hitting us on the head)…Landing in fertile soil, where they get back to doing what good seed does… (Which I hope is also a parable…)

Today we’re hearing Jesus’ lead-off parable in a whole chapter full of  parables… All of them about the open secret Jesus is trying hard to make known. The secret of the kingdom of heaven. The one thing we need to understand above all else.

And here, in the middle of the gospel journey, Jesus says he needs now to be speaking mostly in parables. He doesn’t quite say why, but reviewing all he’s been through in recent chapters, some bible scholars guess he’s getting rather tired of people wanting everything under the sun from him, except the kingdom. Some guess Jesus is getting tired of so many people eager for personal healing and salvation… But not so eager to be helping with the gospel harvest… Some Jesus-watchers see him now getting tired of dodging the poisonous intentions of the orthodox church leaders of his day, who (like in our Thought for the Day quote from Anne LaMott) are very sure they know exactly what God’s chosen Messiah looks like – and Jesus obviously (in their opinion), has not been sent by the God they believe in – the God who hates all the same people they hate…

So – perhaps getting tired of people not being willing to take the time and trouble to understand who he really is, and what his kingdom of God message is really all about…Jesus says ‘from now on I’ll be talking in parables. And if people don’t get it – I’ll tell another parable…. And if they still don’t get it, I’ll tell yet another parable… But from here on, don’t  expect explanations…

And yet Jesus does give disciples – all those willing to stay with him and listen – many a clue. When disciples ask “Why do you speak in parables?” Jesus quotes Isaiah (chapter 6) where God speaks of Israel of old, listening but never understanding, looking, but never seeing – Because hearts have grown dull, ears grown hard of hearing, and people won’t look and see, or listen and hear, or turn and be healed…

A good study bible will point out –This is the standard message of all the prophets of Israel who warn of impending disaster… Disaster God’s always hoping can be avoided. And God intends (of course) these words to provoke us to repentance.  And when Jesus says ‘to those who have, more will be given’, and ‘to those who have nothing, even what they think they have will be taken away’… He’s simply telling the truth about what happens to those who take time to learn from Jesus, and thus have spiritual abundance, as learning leads to more learning –  While those who refuse to listen and learn, lose even the little knowledge they think they have, by refusing to do what they ought to know by now needs doing.

And again I’m reminded – I’ve gardened in different places with different types of soil – and even the best soil always seems to have rocky or thorny patches…While even the rockiest thorniest soil usually seems to have pockets of fertile soil here and there, where some good things can grow…

And again I’m, reminded to look deeper into my own dirty heart first. And remember –Jesus is able – always able – to turn even the rockiest, most-thorn-infested, hardest-of-hardpan-soils into good dirt.

So as we hear his word, may we ask his help – with breaking up the hardness of our hearts – spading under the manure of our lives – seeking his help with uprooting all the thorns of whatever keeps us from his kingdom… Asking Jesus the Master Gardener to enrich our soil and save our souls…Plant us, dear God, where you like – make us bloom and bear good fruit for your kingdom. May this be our fervent prayer. In Jesus’ name.

Thanks be to God. Amen.