To hear this sermon as preached, press play below…
How great is it that, on the Sunday that our community chooses to dedicate our beautiful
new Memorial Garden, the passage that is assigned by the lectionary for our consideration is Matthew’s version of the parable of the sower!
Thousands of years ago, on the other side of the planet, people were concerned, even as we are today, with the relationship between humanity and the natural order.
Jesus, the sower, you and me, and indeed all the faithful who have listened to, or read this parable in all the generations that it has been told – cannot help but be interested in one thing: the seeds.
Will they grow?
Or will they perish?
Jesus, who lived in a pre-scientific time, in an arid, desert-like environment, was part of a community that knew all about the ins-and-outs of subsistence agriculture.
The success or failure of seeds to germinate, was not a trivial matter for the people of the ancient Near East.
A crop failure might cause a family to suffer hunger, loss of income, and possibly even starvation.
So Christ knew that this parable of the sower was built on a metaphor that his people would understand – understand, not only with their minds, but, more importantly, with their bodies.
His audience was fertile ground as it were, for this lesson.
This is not surprising, really. Jesus was a skilled teacher. He knew how to use a metaphor. He knew how to connect with his people.
But as I was ruminating over this parable last week, a couple of things occurred to me.
One thing that snuck up on me, is that seeds and people are pretty different.
For one thing, if a seed doesn’t like the place where it is, it can’t get up and walk to a new place. Seeds don’t have legs.
Sure, evolution has provided seeds with many ingenious ways to get from place to place, sticking on fur, for example, or being eaten, digested and pooped out in some distant, more promising habitat.
But even if a seed can use hook and crook to hitchhike here and there – there is a difference between a seed’s movement, and our movement.
A seed’s mobility is always dependent on some other agent.
You and I can make our own decisions.
If we don’t like a place, we can decide to move, and do so using our own will.
It’s true, though, that circumstances often make it hard to get up and go – even if we may want to.
For this reason human destiny is crucially different from the destiny of a seed.
We have the freedom to make the decision to move, and the physical ability to go.
A seed just lands somewhere and has to make the best of it.
The reason I’m so concerned with these questions is because, as this parable makes abundantly clear, the germination and flourishing of a seed is determined, more than anything else, on a single factor… and that is: where the seed lands.
Jesus describes four different places where the seeds in his parable fell:
On the path
On rocky ground,
Among thorns, and
In good soil.
In each of these habitats, Jesus describes the subsequent fate of the seed:
The seeds on the path are exposed, and are immediately eaten by birds.
We now know that seeds can use birds to “fly the friendly skies” to tropical islands, but Jesus and his people weren’t ornithologists, so as far as they were concerned, these seeds were goners.
The seeds that fall on rocky ground do germinate and grow quickly, but just as quickly, they die, because the shallow soil does not allow them to grow roots.
The seeds that fall among thorns germinate and grow, and seem to be doing well, but the thorns, who are already established, do not allow them to compete for the resources necessary to survive, so they too die.
Only the seeds that fall in “good soil” achieve success. Jesus describes this success in agricultural terms – terms that a farmer would understand: the seeds, he says,
“bring forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”
If you think about it too hard, the meaning of this parable suffers from the problem I pointed out earlier.
If God is the sower, and the seeds suffer or enjoy the destinies that their habitats determine for them, are we to conclude that our fates, too, are determined for us by where God has chosen to throw us?
No… because if we don’t like it, we can move.
The value of this parable is not that it accurately defines our relationship to destiny – it does not. Its value lies, in part at least, in the metaphorical short hand it gives us for recognizing a bad context, so that we can then exert our freedom to move.
Of course, since Jesus was a spiritual teacher who knew how to use a good metaphor, it must be made clear that our discussion here, of “place” and “movement” is not limited to the physical. The “place” that is destroying our spirit, may not be a physical space – it may be an idea – and if this is so, the “moving” from it, may be the need to grow out of, or beyond that idea.
Unlike most of his other parables – which Jesus is content to tell and let us interpret – Jesus actually spoon feeds the “meaning” of this parable to his disciples. In the verses that follow our reading, Jesus tells the disciples that
the seeds that fall on the path are people who “hear but don’t understand” and are snatched away by the “evil one.”
The seed that lands on the rocky soil are people who “hear the word and immediately receive it with joy” but are weak and fall away when tested.
The seed that is sown among thorns are those who “hear the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.”
As for the seeds that are sown in “good soil” little is said of them, except that they “hear the word and understand it” and so they bear fruit.
Ah “good soil.”
There is almost nothing I love more than living soil.
I love the way it feels in your hands.
I love the way it smells.
Good soil looks, feels and smells like goodness itself – that’s how I feel.
And good soil is living soil.
Did you know…
I recently learned, from a youtube Gardener who I listen to, that there are more living things in a tablespoon of good soil, than there are humans on planet earth?
If true, that strikes me as the most extraordinary of miracles!
I was skeptical, so I did some internet research and quickly found that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website verified the claim almost verbatim:
“There are more living organisms in a tablespoon of soil, it said… than there are people on Earth!”
Now I’m no soil microbiologist, but a little more research gave me some scientific words to throw around. The tablespoon of soil is teeming with bacteria, fungi, nematodes, algae, rotifers. Seeds that germinate and develop into plants, send their roots into this mass of teeming life – life that is in the act of decomposing what was there before and is now dead – creating all the more organic material. Living plants send their roots into the paths left behind by the roots of plants now gone.
Death is not an ending, but a part of the continuation of creation.
Science offers wonderful metaphors that can help us to understand our spiritual life.
Jesus wanted us to plant ourselves in good soil.
What is good soil?
Good soil is the community of the living and the dead, moving in perpetual symphony of life and death.
Here, death is no longer the “worst case scenario” as we assume it to be.
In good soil, death is crucial. Natural. Inevitable. The great gift that we can give to the ground – our organic material mixed, like so much star stuff, back into eternity.
Is there any idea more religious than that?
Good soil brings us back to eternity.
In death we become a part of the community of the living.
Good soil is where we are going, and, as the second chapter of the book of Genesis suggests – it is also where we come from.
We are good soil, filled with the breath of God, and given life.
And to this good soil we return… …
Given back to the community of life…
given back to God.