Matthew 13:1-9 “To Sow and Cultivate”
I want to start by saying, somewhere along the way, probably in seminary, I was told that no preacher preaches a sermon that she does not need to hear herself. That has always rang true for me, though I usually don’t realize it until I am literally standing and preaching that in fact what I am saying is something I need to hear. But, that is not the case today. I wrote this sermon because I need to reflect on something. My spirit has been increasingly troubled lately and I need to figure out where God is in the midst of it. And I wonder if the same could be said of you too.
These days, to say “We are living in the most polarized time in our nation’s history” has become so common that phrase is almost cliché. But, while there are plenty of historical arguments to be made about the word ‘most’ – there is really no doubt that we are living in a time when it feels like everything has become polarized. And, to be clear, what I mean by polarized is a lack of a middle ground. You either are or you aren’t. You either believe this or you don’t. You are either right or you’re wrong. You are either good or you’re bad. We have created litmus tests for how we view information. We have even created litmus tests for how we view people. Our opinions are far too often being settled almost immediately by what a person says, the signs in their yard, if they’re wearing a facemask or not, or any of a number of different criteria we have each settled on to decide if a person is good or bad. While this is certainly not a new phenomenon, it feels – to me, anyway – that it has reached a crescendo point. And I find myself wondering if we in this country are going to be able to have a civil dialogue about opposing viewpoints ever again.
On my worst days, I answer that question by saying ‘no, that is no longer possible.’ On my worst days surround myself with like-minded thinkers, scrolling past articles or Tweets or commentary that I assume I am not going to like because of an opinion I had already formed. On my worst days, I see someone not wearing a mask in a public space and assume they hate all of humanity. On my worst days I hear someone defending police in our community and take it to mean that person doesn’t think black lives matter. On my worst days I drive by a yard with signs up for political candidates I do not support, and decide the people living in that house are racist, homophobic, sexist, narcissists and are not worth my time or care. On my worst days, I am just as polarized as I have decided the rest of the country has become. And while I worry that my worst days are becoming more and more frequent, I am pleased they are not my every days.
Because on my best days, I listen. On my best days I remember that my opinion is not the only valid one. On my best days, I start with the belief that we are all created in the image of God. On my best days I remember that my fundamental understanding of what it means to be Christian is to love God and neighbor with equal fervor.
I had one of those best days a few days ago. I was sitting in the front yard of my colleague’s house with my regular group of clergy friends having our Tuesday morning discussion about this week’s scripture. Pandemic or not, we have never had missed a Tuesday. First, using Zoom, and now sitting in the front yard of one of our number – having to shout over the traffic and the kids running around in yard who are simultaneously cute and distracting. Anyway, we were discussing the scripture I read this morning and trying to figure it out.
That hour on Tuesday mornings has become one of the most important hours of my week. It is non-negotiable on my calendar and so far I have encountered nothing vital enough to miss that gathering. I learn so much and it is safe to say every single sermon I write is better because of that conversation than anything I could write without it. But, here’s the thing. None of us in that circle agree on much. While we are all friends, when it comes to some fundamental understandings of scripture, the role of church, and what it means to be a true Christian, we have very divergent viewpoints. And for clergy, these are big, important things to disagree on. Some of my colleagues have said things that if I had instead read that opinion in an article or heard some expert on the news say the same thing, it would take all of my strength to not lash out in anger and…not break my computer, or something. And, this dichotomy is not lost on me. But, as I said, that day was one of my best days, so as I headed home, I decided that group isn’t a fluke, instead it is a template.
And, believe it or not, I think the Parable of the Sower is a template as well. The thing about Jesus’ parables is, once you think you have them figured out, you consider them from a different angle, and BOOM – all of the sudden it takes on a whole new meaning. And that has happened for me this week. You see, when we hear the parables, the natural human instinct is to place yourself as a character in them. That is the most true with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but it is also true for this parable. At first hearing, one tends to think there are four options available: you can either be the path, that is trampled ground that is a feeding ground for the birds; you can be the rocky ground that can’t sustain anything; you can be the thorny ground that chokes things out; or you can be the good, fertile soil where everything grows. We then all decided that we are going to be the good soil, because, we assume, that is what Jesus wants us to do. There, parable explained, we are all good soil, let’s move on.
But, let me suggest this. What if instead of deciding which soil we are, because there appears to be only one option that is the right option, what if instead we took on the role of the sower. What if instead it is our job to figure out how to sow life around us in the many different soils we encounter, because the sower in this parable is sowing grain, and grain equals food, which equals life. And here is where we need to be careful and remember that Jesus taught that to be Christian often means standing opposed to societal forces around us. We have to be careful because we might jump to the decision that the beaten down path, or the rocky, thorny soil is not worth our time. We might be tempted to only spend our time sowing life where we decide it can only grow. But, God is so much bigger, more powerful, more life-giving than anything we can imagine.
We sometimes encounter people whose life has made them feel trampled on, which has left them hard, bitter, and unwilling to consider anything new and we decide not to bother. We sometimes encounter people who are unable to sustain any single opinion, always jumping to a new thing to be angry about or a new cause to champion, and we decide we don’t want to deal with the exhaustion, so we don’t bother. Sometimes we encounter people who bristle at every new thought, take offense at every opinion, whose thorns get in the way of anything taking root, and we don’t want to deal with the pain, so we decide not to bother. And if we aren’t careful, we can start to look around and see that person as nothing but a trampled path, or that person as only rocky soil, or that person as all thorns – and we decide not to bother. I am just going to stick with the good soil, we tell ourselves, which typically means people who already agree with us.
But, here’s the thing: if we are called by God to be sowers of love and life with everyone we encounter, then we can’t just count people out. We have to bother. We have to cultivate relationships. We have to see that there is life everywhere. We have to see that a person’s thorny exterior has nothing to do with who they are inside, or how God views them. We have to do the harder work of cultivation: which does not mean changing a person, it does not mean taking away that which we don’t agree with. But cultivate the relationship, cultivate the hope of dialogue. Cultivate a shared recognition of humanity and beloved-ness of God. Because, that person we see as thorny, may see us as nothing but rocky soil. And that means we have just as much cultivating work to do within ourselves. And when we do that, life springs up everywhere, including within us.
My Tuesday morning clergy group has worked hard at cultivating relationships. We worship together, we volunteer together, we abolish medical debt together, we watch ridiculous movies together – and by so doing we can listen to one another, hear a differing opinion not as a threat but a chance to think deeper. When one of us is being particularly thorny, we have established the trust to point that out. When one of us is feeling trampled down, the care and love we receive lets the sun back in.
There is a line in the old television show The West Wing that I have always loved. One of the main characters says this: “I’m sleeping better. And when I sleep, I dream about a great discussion with experts and ideas and diction and energy and honesty. And when I wake up, I think ‘I can sell that.’” We are all longing for connection and civility. We are all dreaming for discussions, not arguments. We are all longing for this and we all know it is possible. It takes work within ourselves and patience with those around us. And we will be going against the grain, something Jesus has been calling on his followers to do since the beginning of his ministry. But we are nonetheless called. So, let’s all work on limiting the number of our worst days, and which leaves room for our best.
Let us pray:
God of new life, all around us you have placed possibilities for making real your Kingdom. We are surrounded by the possibility of new relationships, new ideas, and opportunities to think deeper about what it is you want for your creation. As we look around, help us to see you. Help us to see you in the face of our neighbor and in the face of the stranger.
God, today we ask for prayers for ourselves. We ask that you help us to listen first, and speak second. We ask that you remove the barriers we have placed around ourselves so we can let more light in. We ask you to open our hearts and spirits so we always start from a place of love. We ask that you help us to take the first step towards our neighbors so together we can find and cultivate that good soil between us. We ask for your wisdom so that we may bring glory to you in everything we express. And we ask for your grace, because we know we will not always succeed.
God, you have called us to be sowers with you, to be Kingdom builders alongside you. This is a hard and taunting task, but one that you bless. So, when we are tired, afraid, or simply unsure – give us the guidance we need.
We pray all of this in the name of our teacher, the one who taught us before and will teach us always, Jesus Christ. The one who taught us to pray together…