Psalm 65:1-2, 8-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
My father was a pastor, my mother was a trained Christian educator and taught religion in elementary schools. On my father’s paternal side there is a line of pastors going all the way back to the Reformation century, zig-zagging across the family tree in the generational succession. I have two sisters. We were all raised in the same house, exposed in the same manner to faith, faith practices, church, the same dinner conversations, etc. Only I became a pastor, and none of my sisters are actively involved in a congregation.
You are maybe one of several siblings, or have children. You raised them in the same manner, with the same values, the same faith practices that mean so much to you. Were you successful in passing on the faith? Did what you sowed equally fall on good, receptive soil?
There are a good number of people who grew to be faithful Christians, theologians, even martyrs who were not raised in the Christian faith, even in outright anti-religious homes.
As you know, we have no explanation for these outcomes. But as people rooted in our own faith, we know that God’s word, this key ingredient to who we are and what we do, works in subtle, unobservable ways; and then sometimes yields this ridiculously large, unimaginable abundance that leaves no doubt that God’s salvation and reign is real, and in fact active and productive in our midst and in the world. 100-fold, 60-fold and 30-fold. 190-fold? I think yes.
Today’s scripture, God’s word, is a challenging word in challenging times. Isaiah seems easy – it is a brimming witness of God’s indwelling with God’s people anticipating their return home from exile, God’s word finding good soil, yielding harvest, faith and hope and love, all creation participating in the joyful parade, all are one and well in God’s presence.
In faith and with hope we like to see our own life experience headed toward such culmination of God’s reign. We yearn for God’s word to be heard, and understood, followed, and yield peace and harmony, love, justice and health. Especially when we may feel ourselves in some form of exile, be it COVID, be it alienation in this difficult political climate, or something as abstract as general human separation from God through utter sinfulness.
But, – are we good soil? How do we know? Everyone claims to be good soil, even if granting there is room to grow, improve, become better soil.
Jesus’ parable of the sower indeed contains a little bit of exhortation; encouragement to step up, improve from rocky soil, avoid the company of thorny growth, be good soil. We should be able to improve, since Jesus privately has told his disciples that they are the insiders, they actually know the mysteries of the kingdom of God and do not really need to be taught in parables.
But more than loving admonition to improve one’s soil quality with a bit of manure and Miracle Grow, Jesus’ parable is an explanation why the majority of the people of this age reject God’s word, and with that reject God’s intention for this world, for creation, reject God’s desire for human life to thrive and be whole and well; especially human life that we have disregarded and discounted. I refer to the blatant disregard and cold hearts of elected officials for over 133,000 lives perished in this country from COVID in only five months, and the refusal to acknowledge the lasting dangers this virus poses for our health. And I refer to four centuries of racism and oppression of God’s beloved humanity who happens to be born with a skin color darker than ours.
Jesus articulated and Matthew grappled, like all early Christians did, with the rejection of Jesus’ message, the rejection of Jesus the Messiah, of the proclamation that the kingdom of heaven is here, has begun, not fulfilled, but here; tangible, touchable, real, sustaining, nourishing, uplifting, life-giving; – new life, new creation where none could have reasonably been expected.
God’s word falls on different kinds of soil and not all get it. The fault lies not with the crazy sower – who would scatter seed in the driveway and not the flowerbed, on the path and not the prepared furrows in the field. There is no fault. It just is so – God’s word falls on different kinds of soil, some receptive, some not at all. None of my sisters is at fault for not living out their baptismal call in an active church life. Nor am I any better, is my soil richer than theirs.
So, God’s precious, cross shaped, life giving gift falls on different ground –no guarantee or causal logic to who will receive it and how it is received.
There is/was no guarantee that Israel would return home from their exile in 538 BCE, that they would ever be the recipient again of God’s favor and peace and promise. There is no Hollywood storyline running through God’s story with God’s beloved people, that, while improbable, in the end all will turn out good and reconciled and happy ever after. The wild, ridiculously large, abundant gift of God’s favor in word and deed is just that – God’s inexplicable gift, rooted in God’s love and faithfulness.
So, what now? Jesus’ parable leaves us frustrated. I hold on tight to the promise and hope of Isaiah’s proclamation. But as you can maybe tell, the challenge presented by the parable of the four soils intensifies my own frustrations and fears during this challenging time.
This week teachers and universities woke up to new orders from the President that schools, colleges and universities must reopen with in-person classes this fall, that is in about six weeks, lest they forfeit federal funding. And since the government cannot tell private schools what to do, visa denials for international students are the means to the end – because the schools will be hurt by missing out on those students’ tuition.
With that, the dangers of the Coronavirus continue to be downplayed, the lives of children, teachers, families, wide swaths of the population put on the line, – for what, one wonders?!
I have two reasons to bring this issue up in the pulpit today. One is that a surprise order from the top of the executive branch interfering in the instruction decisions of schools and universities, is a totalitarian style of government that stands in direct opposition to the principles of this democracy.
The other is the fact that our institutions of learning are at the core institutions of the Word, institutions whose entire reason for being is teaching, cultivating, using the word, our uniquely human ability to speak. Without words no love can thrive, no understanding grow, no research accomplished, no pain or anguish or disagreement expressed.
And so, interfering with the safety of our teachers, children and students forcing to reopen in-person classes, strikes at the heart of what we are about this Sunday – the Word, the scripture word, our words, God’s word.
Jesus is the Messiah who died on the cross. We know that very clearly. The fear and frustration in my heart in this time are real. The dangers are real.
And yet, when I wonder why we don’t come all together in overcoming the challenges that we face, – under the patient gaze of Jesus and Matthew, I take a deep breath and try to listen. Remember, God’s word works in subtle, unobservable ways, mysteriously, out of nowhere yielding astonishing, abundant results. That is when all creation breaks out in song, clapping their hands. The word that falls on good soil does bear fruit and yields, 100, 60 and 30-fold. How much is that again altogether?
Sisters and brothers, we live in the Age of Undoing as someone has coined it. The 21st century has already undone a lot that we have cherished and is familiar. We grieve those losses. The undoing though – we are learning – is not all bad. Lots of energy and creativity has been unleashed by scientists in coming up with solutions for the pandemic. Medication and vaccine development can be done much quicker than we ever thought without sacrificing safety or scientific methods. It is just a matter of whether we are willing to take the pandemic seriously and invest dollars into solutions.
Another positive yield I detect in this age of undoing is the decisive will to finally break the oppression of racism and rule of white privilege. I am so hopeful that we will be able to really change the system, unlearn in cross-shaped humility our ways of hurt, hatred, and violence; in loving patience listen to uncomfortable truths about ourselves; and together be ready to receive God’s word, bearing 190 fold seed, yielding unimaginable, overwhelming amount of fruit that lets humanity and all creation be reconciled, whole and well.
Take a deep breath and join me singing and praying, God in heaven, Abba, dear parent, your kingdom come, undo hatred, fear, violence – come, cast your seed on good soil.