Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Good Soil

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
July 10, 2011

Year A: Proper 9, The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 25:19-34
Psalm 119:105-112
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The Good Soil

Back when I was a teacher it was a never-ending challenge to find methods and approaches that would get my subject – in my case history – across to my students. Some students did best with the old-fashioned chalk and talk method while others preferred to read on their own and come to class eager to discuss or debate. Others were visual learners – doing best with photographs, charts and films.

It was tough to find the right approach – and like all teachers sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes not so much.

Jesus is often held up as the greatest of all teachers because he was able to teach about the most important of subjects – the kingdom of God – in ways that still inspire and challenge us all these many centuries later.

Jesus taught by using parables – very short stories with double meanings – to give his first followers and to give us today an inkling of what God is like and what life is like in God’s kingdom.

And from the Gospel of Matthew we just heard one of the best known of Jesus’ parables – and one he probably retold many times to many different audiences: the parable of the sower.

It’s called the parable of the sower although most of the parable is about how the seeds interact with the different types of soil they land on.

Obviously agriculture in First Century Palestine was much less sophisticated than what we’re capable of today. Sowing seeds was imprecise and very risky – even under the best conditions the return was not good – and a failed crop was a matter of life and death.

So Jesus’ first audiences must have been shocked by the fact that the sower in the parable is amazingly indiscriminate – the sower tosses seeds on the path where birds can get at them, on rocky soil where they grow too fast and are scorched by the sun and among choking thorns – the sower tosses seed everywhere.

No surprise that most of the seeds are never able to take root and grow.

Yet, where the seeds do take root in the good soil, the return is astonishing – Jesus says, “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

Most scholars believe that the explanation of the parable that we heard in the second part of the lesson comes not from Jesus himself but from the early Church as it reflected on and struggled with the meaning of this and Jesus’ other parables.

Whatever its source, from an early date there’s been an understanding that the different types of soil are a metaphor for how we receive Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God.

So, who are we in this parable?

Are we the ones who hear Jesus’ teaching, but since we don’t understand it the evil one is able to snatch it right out of our hearts?

Or are we the ones who first receive Jesus’ teaching with great joy but since we don’t nurture it, we fall away during times of trouble?

Or are we the ones who hear Jesus’ teaching but we’re so concerned about our lives and our material possessions that the Good News gets choked in our hearts?

Or are we the ones in whom the teachings of Jesus take root and bear abundant fruit that is a blessing to many?

A clergy colleague suggested that at different points in our lives we provide all of these different types of soil for the Good News of Jesus Christ.

That seems about right to me.

Sometimes we feel so distant from God – our faith seems like just a cruel pipedream – that we can’t see all the many ways that God is at work around us – all the ways that God is planting seeds even in the most inhospitable soil.

Sometimes we come to church and get so inspired by the service, the music and the fellowship, that it feels like we go flying back out into the world. But then during the week we do nothing to nurture our faith. We don’t set aside time for prayer or reflection. We quickly get caught up in the cares and occupations of our lives and the experience of worship becomes a faint memory.

And then sometimes we feel so close to God. We can feel God’s love and presence. We can recognize God at work even in the most ordinary experiences of our lives. And sometimes we can even feel God using us to plant even more seeds, to spread the Good News of the kingdom.

Yes, for many of us, over the course of our lives it’s all of the above.

Fortunately, God doesn’t have just one planting season. Unlike us, God doesn’t get discouraged. Instead, God the persistent farmer is constantly at work - pouring an overflowing abundance of seeds into all of us.

Despite our failings and flaws if we’re open just a little, God can find the good soil that’s been inside of us all along.

Throughout the Bible there are examples of God finding the good soil in people with very big failings and flaws.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we heard about the birth of the twins Esau and Jacob. In some ways it’s a familiar story of sibling rivalry – a rivalry that seems to already exist in the womb as we’re told Jacob is born grasping on to his slightly older twin’s heel.

In fact, the name “Jacob” means “heel-grabber” or “supplanter.”

We’re told that, although they are twins, Esau and Jacob are very different. Esau is “a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents.”

In my previous parish the last time I preached about Jacob people laughed when I referred to him as a fink – but often that’s what he was. In these early stories he’s a trickster and certainly not a very appealing or honorable character. In today’s lesson we heard the story of Jacob bartering a bowl of stew in exchange for his older brother’s birthright.

And later, Jacob (helped by his mother Rebekah) will trick blind old Isaac into giving his blessing to him instead of Esau.

This is all pretty unpleasant business. Jacob does not distinguish himself as an honorable person.

Yet, eventually God is able to find the good soil in Jacob - gradually transforming this fink, this trickster, into a blessing.

God is able to find the good soil in Jacob, transforming this deceiving younger brother into the good father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

If God can find the good soil in Jacob, then God can definitely find the good soil in each of us.

All we need to do is give God a little space, just a small opening.

We give God a little space by being here each week, hearing God’s Word, taking Christ’s Body and Blood into our bodies and hearts, and by sharing God’s love with each other.

We give God a little space each week by setting aside a little time – even just a minute or two – for prayer and reflection – even maybe just a plea for help or a cry of thanks for being alive.

We give God a little space when we give of ourselves however and whenever we can – maybe by sharing our plenty, maybe by listening to a friend in distress, or maybe by just giving a shoulder to cry on.

And when we give God a little space, eventually God the persistent farmer will find the good soil that’s been in us all along.

Thanks be to God!