September 14, 2014

Finding the Right Soil


Text: Matthew 5:37: “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no’:  anything more than this comes from the Evil One.”

One of the great things about growing up near a land-grant college was the amazing amount of free advice you could get when it came to business of growing things. Whether you were farming hundreds or thousands of acres to make a living, or tending a backyard garden to put up a few quarts of tomatoes, you could always learn about how to do what you were doing by hanging around the agricultural extension office at Michigan State. There were seminars, and lots of leaflets about different kinds of seeds and different kinds of vegetables, and even a lab separated from the lobby by a giant window so you could see the scientists at work at their benches.

One of the things we did every year was to take four samples from four different places in our quarter-acre garden, each one about the size of a jam jar, to the lab. In about a week you would get back an incredibly detailed report on the composition of the samples you had brought in. You numbered each one of them, and you plotted out where each sample had come from, and you would find out that even though it all looked like dirt, it was actually pretty different from place to place.

The report would give you recommendations about the kind of fertilizer you could use to balance the soil, and the kinds of things that would do well, or maybe not so well, in the soil you had. And then we would go to the farm and fleet store, and buy an enormous bag of the recommended balance, and spread it around the dirt.

I think of all that when I reflect on this morning’s Gospel lesson. If you look it up in your bible at home, there’s a pretty good chance that you will see that this section of Matthew has a subtitle, which is, of course, “The Parable of the Sower.” In fact, pretty much all of the thirteenth chapter of Matthew is taken up with various parables, or metaphors, with an agricultural theme; the sower, the weeds among the wheat, the mustard seed, all appear here.

But there’s a little irony here that bears just a brief mention, and perhaps some not-so-brief reflection. It’s simply that the Parable of the Sower is not really about the sower. It’s not even about the seed; all of the seed is really the same.

The parable of the sower is really about the soil. It’s about the variety of outcomes realized by exactly the same seed, depending entirely on the conditions in which the seed falls. It really should be called the Parable of the Dirt, or the Parable of the Agricultural Extension Agent.

That would be only mildly interesting if the Jesus’s point were to teach us something about farming. But that isn’t the point of the story. The point of the story is to teach us something about the life of faith, and especially about growing the community of faith.

Remember the old warning: parables are not parallels. There is no magic code, no one-for-one substitution here for understanding the story.

Instead the story is meant to give us a better sense of our own circumstances, in just the way that it was meant to speak in familiar and intelligible terms to a group of people who worked the fields of ancient Israel.

There are three messages here for us to consider. They are about discernment, about patience, and about endurance.

The different outcomes in the story don’t have anything to do with the sower; they have to do with the varying conditions of the soil. Jesus even describes what shapes those conditions. Too close to the path, where seeds will be exposed instead of covered by soil. Too rocky, not enough depth for roots. Too untended, choked with weeds.

Each of those immediately brings images to mind. We get it that there are some places that are good to plant and other places, maybe most places, that don’t work so well. But think about this: It doesn’t seem to be up to the sower what the outcome is.

The parable of the sower is not a manual about how to build the church. It’s a forecast to how our work will turn out. The seed we plant is the same. But the outcome of our work will vary.

That seems a little hard to grasp, because after all we want to believe that everyone who hears what we have to offer, everyone who comes church-shopping just once, will get it and come to stay. We feel a little downhearted when it seems that so few people seem interested in the message we have to offer—a message of faithfulness grounded in an openness to inquiry and challenge, a message of acceptance and tolerance in a world increasingly seduced by polarization and the self-vindication of judgment.

But all hearts are the same, and not all people are the same; and that is why we have moved from a covenant of rules under which we were justified by law to a relationship of grace in which we are justified by faith. There simply will be different outcomes. Some won’t get it, or won’t have chance to understand; some will have the chance and not take it; some will respond with great enthusiasm and fervor and yield a faith that is really much more about their needs than about God’s hopes. And some—who knows how many or how few—set down roots and bloom year by year.

Dealing with those different outcomes demands a lot of us. At the very least it demands a great deal of patience. We so want to make change quickly, to see dramatic reversals of fortune—sort of like that monk who won the Powerball lottery. Somehow the more sudden and large the change, the more we are convinced by it. We love the theatrical.

But the first requirement of being a farmer is patience. People who tend the soil understand that progress is incremental and success is not an overnight phenomenon. Weeds grow quickly. Crops do not. They take more energy, and more time, because they are focusing their energies on creating something of value, and not just reaching for the sun.

Finally, consider, if you will, that sower. Even though the outcome is so different in each case, the sower does not change tactics. The agricultural extension agent would have a lot to say about that sower. He is wasting his time and his investment by putting seed where it almost certainly will not grow. No good farmer plants in the rocks. No good farmer fails to clear a field of weeds before planting in it. And as my mother used to observe, every farmer expects to lose the crops that grow up near the edge of the road.

But this is a parable, not a parallel. It’s not a teaching about how to grow crops; it’s a teaching about how God chooses, through us, to grow the church.

You can listen to this story as the soil, and wonder what kind of soil will be found in your heart for the seed of this small, radical, profound message of love. You can wonder whether your heart is made of the stone of indifference, or choked with the weeds of hate and resentment, or prepared to be a place where roots will sink deeply and fruits worthy of an awareness of God’s gifts will grow.

Or, you can listen to this story as the sower, and reflect on what it means for how we do the work of the church. Yes, we could be more efficient in our efforts to spread our message. We could do targeted marketing, or a specific kind of social-media campaign, or even a survey of Newton households.

But there is a message of radical hospitality here, of profligate inclusion, that we can’t ignore. There is an echo of this all the way at the end of Matthew, when Jesus teaches his apostles to go and spread the news to all nations.

What makes the Christian message so radically different from practically all other religions of the world is at least this: From the beginning it has not been a means of defining identity, but a hope for uniting human hearts. Christianity is not a faith of chosen people. Christianity is, or at least is meant to be, a faith of grateful people, people so grateful that they cannot wait to share what has been given to them.

It is not our task to find the good soil. It is our task to prepare the earth within us, to be the good soil that will yield a harvest. It is not our task to plant in good soil; it is our task to plant everywhere, trusting that somewhere the crop will flourish.  Amen.

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