Scripture: Matthew 13:1-9. 18-23
When I read this passage this week, I was struck by the rocky soil. Sure, most of us want to be the fertile soil in today’s parable, but I imagine more often than not we can relate to the rocky soil or the thorny soil or the well-worn soil … soil that really wishes that it was the good soil but is stuck there in the rocky realities of life, trying to do its best among the frustrations and pain and sorrows of everyday life. For me, the question of this text is what happens to this rock-filled, thorn-infested soil? What does God do with that?
Parker Palmer, a Quaker teacher and author, also wondered if God had a use for rocky soil, soil weighed down by stones of sorrow and overgrown with thorny weeds of selfishness and business. During his mid-life crisis, the answer seemed clear to Palmer: No. There was no use for this type of soil.
Parker’s own rocky life shaped his thoughts on the subject. First, after college, he had gone to seminary to become a minister. But mediocre grades and massive misery, he had quickly realized that it was not his calling. Next Parker went to school to Berkley to become a professor. Yet, after graduation, Parker became afraid of failure and picked an altogether different career of community organizing. After serving for a couple of years and becoming burnt out, Parker quit that job as well. With no other options left, Parker retreated to a small Quaker retreat center, where his failures began to take over his life: He just didn’t seem good enough, his soil just didn’t seem to measure up to the soil around it …. Everyone expected him to have fertile soil …. To succeed … to perhaps become the president of a university one day and Parker just wasn’t cut out for it. And that reality, that his soil wasn’t fertile enough sunk him into an ever deeper depression. His friends visiting him saying things like, “You’re such a good person, such a good teacher and writer, if you remember that, you will feel better. When Parker heard those comments, he thought, “One more person has been defrauded – and if people ever saw the real me, if people ever knew the boulders of shame and worry and inadequacy that I carry – they would reject me in a flash.”
We like Parker carry these same boulders of pain and frustration. We like Parker encounter situations that are prickly and difficult and don’t turn out quite how we expected. We fall short of expectations, our own and others. We yearn – so badly – to be the good perfect soil but are faced with the reality of lives filled with hurts and limitations and failure that keep us from being the type of soil we so much desire to be.
The early Jesus community, like us, also experienced boulders of hardship. They strived to be an ideal community and yet were rejected by Jew and Roman alike. As religious deviants, they were set adrift in the world, targets of humiliation, repression and persecution. They too strived to be good soil and yet were forced to navigate the brambles and boulders of real life.
So what does the Sower – or God really – do in light of this land filled with all these difficult soils? In the story, God goes ahead and plants seeds anyways! God plants seeds in the rocky soil just like God plants seeds in the fertile soil, making no judgment about the soil type but planting generously.
God’s planting flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Farmers in those days had to handpick all their seeds from the previous year’s crop. They would have regarded their seeds as precious and scarce and hard to come. And there God is scattering these beloved seeds left and right, over the rocks and paths and thorny soil!
This. This is the Kingdom of God. Generous. Abundant. Flowing over. This vision breaks us open, beyond what is rational or reasonable. It crack us open to a vision of the Kin-dom as an extravagant place that rains down love and mercy and Good News even when we are cranky and frustrated and full of brambles and boulders.
Holy seeds falling upon us. Sometimes the heaviness of the boulders and the sharpness of the brambles obscures our eyes to these seedlings. That is what happened to Parker. The depths of his depression blotted out all that was around him and yet, even there, especially there, the Holy One planted seeds of loving-kindness … every afternoon Parker’s friend Bill would stop by, sit Parker down in a chair, remove his shoes and socks and massage his feet for an hour … Bill had found the one place where Parker still experience feeling and helped Parker feel a bit more connected to the human race … another time, Parker wasn’t able to sleep and right there in the midst of his depression he heard a voice saying simply and clearly, “I love you Parker.” The words did not come audibly from without but silently from within. It was a moment of inexplicable grace and yet Parker was in such a deep depression he missed it … the seeds keep falling … after that, Parker began to see a therapist who encouraged Parker not to run from but to embrace his limitations … to begin to see his own sacred value.
And bit by bit by bit, Parker opened himself to be tilled and tended by God and those around him and until at last he arrived at a more fertile place … a place where yes there were still some stones and thorny brushes but a place where the soil was more loose so it could be tended and cared for more easily. That tilling helped Parker to arrive at a more honest place, a place not where he felt pressured to be “the good soil”, to be something that he was not – like the President of a University – but a place where he could be something that was a better fit –like a teacher and writer outside the academy – and a place where he could find peace.
Parker teaches us that God persistently plants seeds, tills the soil and patiently waits for us to open ourselves up fully, to loosen the hard packed dirt and to be receptive to the love and mercy and grace of the Kingdom.
I recall my own experience of falling seeds. I was serving as a staff person at homeless drop-in shelter in Newburgh NY. If you lived in NY, you would know the Newburgh is known for it’s high level of violence, drug use and poverty. At the drop-in center certain items like socks and coats and ramen noodles were always run out of stock. So I had to start being strict about the items, telling people no you can’t you have that, and no you already got a coat. With all the people and all the scarcity, I probably got a little cranky and maybe a little mean because – to be honest – some people kept trying to take more than their fair share of coats and frankly it’s a bit frustrating to have to tell people no so many times. So in the midst of one of those days, when I was feeling a bit stressed, one of the guests comes up to me. He is a homeless man who sleeps in the local abandoned buildings. Have you had anything to eat yet? He asks. Not yet, I reply. The man tells me he has brought fresh bread, apple juice and instant mash potatoes – his only food – to share with everyone. The guest, who often goes hungry, offered me, who has three square meals a day, every day, something to a bowl of instant potatoes and a glass of apple juice. I took it gratefully, struck by his generosity … it seemed so … reckless… just like the sower in the story today … there the guest was helping to plant seeds of the Kingdom of God, even in soil as rocky as my own.
The Kingdom of God is like this:
God sows seeds recklessly, extravagantly and with abandon. God persistently tends the soil and plants seeds until at last a great harvest sprouts up. A harvest of instant mash potatoes and apple juice, a harvest of daily foot rubs and midnight “I love yous”, of loaves and fishes, of overflowing mercy and grace, and the harvest is so large that all are astonished. Amen.