6th Sunday after Pentecost
July 16 2017
Isaiah 55.10-13; Psalm 65; Romans 8.1-11; Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23
Rev Kate McDonald, Scottish Episcopal Church
Week before last, I spent much of Monday and Tuesday sitting out in nearly unbearable heat watching landscaping work be done to the large side garden of the Scots Hotel in Tiberias. Underneath the earth lie graves, so every stone that was placed, every load of soil that was moved had to be carefully supervised by a religious representative, the antiquities authorities, the manager of the hotel, and me from the church.
After we had terraced the land and flattened a space which will eventually be home to a labyrinth, top soil was brought in for the slopes.
The next step will be to plant herbs and fruit trees native to the Galilee, but this takes planning. Plants are expensive, the hotel gardener told us. We have to think carefully about what will be happy where; we need to ensure there aren’t rocks underneath that will hinder the growth; and we need to get the irrigation right. We need to consider who will be caring for the garden. Where will the compost go? How easy will it be to access some of the plants and pull out the weeds? We don’t want to be wasteful in our haste to see the garden develop.
We were all aware during this discussion that we want to be good stewards … both of the resources we have … and of the land we care for.
Of course, when we turn to the parable today’s gospel, the sower apparently has no such qualms. In fact, this sower seems to be a rather poor steward as, with reckless abandon, he – or she – scatters seed everywhere: on the path, on rocky ground, amongst thorns. It seems almost by chance that any seeds at all land on good soil.
Now the thing with parables is that we listen to them and rush ahead to try to work out who’s who and what’s what. And having the explanation included in today’s text actually seems to encourage this.
If we paid attention in our Sunday School classes as children, we hear this parable and are pretty certain that God/Jesus is the sower, right? Which means we and our neighbours must be the ground on which the seeds fall.
And so, before Jesus has even finished telling the story, we’re questioning ourselves: “What kind of soil am I?” Or, maybe today we’re feeling a bit anxious and insecure and we can’t quite face asking the question of ourselves, so we turn to look at the person sitting near us and ask instead, “What kind of soil is she?”
The thing is, we hear this story and we think it’s about us. We hear this story and we understand it to be about our shortfalls or need for self-improvement – or if we’re feeling judgy – the shortfalls and self-improvement required by our neighbour in order for the kingdom to flourish.
And there’s a sense in which that’s not an entirely incorrect interpretation. How many times have we heard and studied the word and failed to understand it? How many times have we heard the word proclaimed with such power, we’ve been filled with joy and conviction, only to forget when life calls us to stand in solidarity with those who suffer? How many times have we felt love for the word of God planted deep within us, and then become distracted by the whims and temptations of this world?
How many times have we turned to our neighbour and seen evidence of the same behaviour in them?
But what we have before us in our reading is the gospel, the good news. And where is the good news in the introspection and judgement that comes when the sole focus of our gaze is on the state of the soil of our hearts and others? And this is a parable, and we should know by now that parables don’t lend themselves to such tidy explanations. What’s more, this is referred to by Jesus himself as the parable of the sower, not the parable of the different kinds of soil.
For the original audience, the crowds listening without the benefit of explanation, their attention would have been drawn to the crazy extravagance of the sower who seems to be a terrible steward of his precious resources, who doesn’t seem to take much care in his sowing.
The state of the soil in the parable is true and real and a reflection of all the many the struggles of being human. But in the parable of the sower, this common imperfect life becomes holy ground when God is present. Because where God is, nothing is lost. As Isaiah reminds us, God is a God of joy and abundance and growth.
As Jesus, the Word made flesh, himself demonstrates with his life and ministry and death and resurrection, the seeds of the kingdom simply need to be sown, regardless of the ground on which they fall.
Grace, love, compassion, forgiveness, friendship, truth, peace, healing, mercy … all seeds of the kingdom … Jesus pours them in equal measure upon all kinds of soil. They fall on the hearts of prostitutes and Pharisees, tax collectors and temple authorities, disciples and demoniacs.
Jesus, in explaining the parable to his disciples isn’t asking them to evaluate the ground of their hearts or the hearts of others, but is instead inviting them to participate in the wild, exuberant, joyful sowing of the sower. He is explaining to them that good stewardship of the word doesn’t mean sowing its seeds only in the obvious places. It doesn’t require careful preparation. The garden of the word doesn’t need meticulous planning.
He is calling them – and by extension us – to sow seeds in unlikely hearts against the odds, spreading fistfuls against the despair, aching for grace to spring up and for new growth to come from inhospitable or depleted ground.
Because where God is, there is always hope.
Who among us doesn’t hope that the seeds picked up by the birds may, through the cycle of nature, find life elsewhere? Or that with a bit of rain later in the year, that withered plant amongst the rocks may flourish? Or that those tiny shoots surrounded by the thorns may bear even a little fruit?
But us? We need simply sow. Wastefully, with joyful abandon. Knowing that wherever the seeds will fall, it will be holy ground. Because God is present there.