Soil, Sower, Seed

It was the summer of 1994 and, somewhere off the coast of Belize, I lay on the bottom of the Caribbean, resting my scuba tank on the ocean floor, gazing upward. I remember looking up to the surface and the refracting sunbeams reaching into the sea… and I remember thinking, wow, that’s a lot of water. Who knew, right? There’s a lot of water in the ocean?

Nearly twenty-three years later, somewhere in Alamosa, Colorado, I sat in a potato field… and, quite similarly… I was thinking: Wow, there’s a lot of potatoes in the earth. No, really. There were potatoes everywhere! We may sing about “amber waves of grain,” and Peter Piper may have picked a peck of pickled peppers but let me tell you! Those potato fields in Alamosa are filled with a lot of potatoes…. You could almost close your eyes, plunge your hand into the rich dirt, and pull out potatoes of every size and shape. And, like Ruth of the Old Testament, we were gleaners; picking food from the fields after harvest; So much food left in the good earth, and we were the second gleaners of the week!

How could ANYONE go hungry in the world, in the United States, in Colorado…? I had flashbacks to college classes on Soviet history, stories of bountiful farms of abundant food, rotting in the rich soil… and I thought, are we much different??

~ ~ ~

There’s a social media app called “Facebook”; if you know me, you know I’m rarely online and barely post anything, but that day I uploaded pictures of the potato fields and wrote that same question as a caption, “How can anyone be hungry in this world of abundance?” And, almost immediately, the answer came, not from Heaven, or Washington, DC, mind you, but the answer came nonetheless:

“It’s never been about the abundance of the food, but the distributive justice and economic factors that make it more appealing for food to rot in the fields than to feed the homeless and hungry.”

Apparently, our pastor, Curt Preston, was on Facebook too that beautiful autumn morning…

Such rich earth; such good soil. In fact, Colorado is part of what is economically known as the “Breadbasket of America”; Collectively, the United States, Canada, Zimbabwe, Ukraine, and Russia are known as the world’s breadbaskets; the good soil of just these five countries, producing food at peak capacity, could feed the whole, entire world. I kid you not. No more hunger; no food insecurity, no starvation; no famine. Such is the good soil of this Earth, this Garden of Eden…

And yet, we live in a starkly different reality, don’t we? We live in a world in which one out of every five residents of Alamosa County, Colorado, is below the poverty line; in 2010, the per capita income in Alamosa was just $18, 820 (and for comparison, Jefferson County, in the same report, had nearly double a per capita income of $34, 714).

~~~

We live in a world, similar to the time of Jesus, in which the powerful cluster together in their trappings, whether it be behind the walls of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, or the echo chambers of Washington and Wall Street… and the poor and the needy go without… without food security, without employment opportunities, and at times, without even hope.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus preached to the hopeless and the poor. His Good News is recorded for us in the Four Gospels… the more allegorical Gospel of John, and then three Synoptics which retell similar biographical accounts of Jesus’ ministry and his parables… Parables… Parables, as we know, are those little stories that Jesus used to make a deeper, often table-turning point to his followers. Parable comes from the Greek word, para-bol-ē (παραβολή) which, etymologically speaking, comes from “Bolla” meaning “I throw” and para meaning “beside” so a para-bol-e is something thrown side by side… and the word para-bol-ē can it can be translated from the Greek into English as a “comparison, an illustration, analogy…”

All told, the three Synoptic Gospels contain approximately 46 of these parabol-es, or parables; Yet out of all 46, only four appear in all Synoptics Gospels: The Parable of the Mustard Seed, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, the Parable of the Faithful Servant… and… yes, today’s reading, the Parable of the Good Soil that we just heard so beautifully proclaimed…

The Good Soil, appears in Matthew 13: 1-23 and Luke 8:1-15, as well as Mark 4: 1-20… Matthew, written to the Jews; Mark written to the Greco-Roman people of the Empire; Luke, written to Gentiles who already converted to Christianity … three very different audiences and yet all share this parable with us? Why it this parable so important that it is retold in all three synoptic Gospels?

I mean:

Sure, Jesus, talking to a crowd? We’ve heard that before…

Jesus in a boat? Yup, we’ve heard that before too.

A farmer? Of course!! Jesus’ stories were being told to an audience of Jewish peasants, so, of course, he referenced tenant farmers, the farmer sowing seeds, and the day workers in the vineyards who today we might call migrant labor… We’ve heard about seeds too multiple times in Gospels: the Seed Growing Secretly, the Mustard Seed, etc., etc.

So, what’s the big deal? I mean, sure, I think I get it: We’re supposed to listen to the parable and determine what kind of soil we want to be, right? Or perhaps we’re called to consider what kind of soil our world has become?

Are we Number 1? Seed thrown along the path and eaten by birds: What a waste… like fertilizer on the driveway, washing into storm drains… watching sprinklers run all summer long at 2pm in the blazing sun, or worse, in the middle of a rainstorm… school lunchroom trash barrels, filled with food, and discarded fruits filled with seeds… wasted… never given a chance to grow… all that waste…

Or have we become the rocky soil and scorched by the sun? Do we have hard hearts? Has our earth become rocky soil? Soil Depletion, the Dust Bowl, climate change… temperature fluctuations, some places that were hot are getting cold, some places that were cold are getting hot, and some places that were hot are getter even hotter! In the news, we hear of each new ‘hottest day on record’, hottest month on record, the hottest year on record… longer summers at the South Pole, and melting Arctic ice and drowning polar bears in the north… Our planet is being scorched by the sun and is becoming rocky soil like the hardness of our hearts…

And then there’s #3: The seeds that grew among the thorns: Weedy soil. Weedy soil, filled with thorns… thorns that could be any of those things choking out the Good News from our lives: gossip, social media, political vit-riol, substance abuse, greed… Or more literally, look at the invasive species taking over native plants and animals… the ash borer beetle brought here from Asia and now destroying Colorado’s beautiful mountain forests… The round goby and Asian carp fish affecting the ecology of the Great Lakes, and -my personal favorite- invasive species… Mosquitos; No, mosquitos are not native to North America, but brought to this continent on slave ships from Africa, perhaps aboard that very first slave ship, the White Lion, that sailed up the James River in 1619… what an ironic, ironic, reminder of our country’s Original Sin…

And then there’s #4. Finally. The Good Soil. Well, hey, that’s it, right? Easy-peasy. We’re supposed to the Good Soil, like the God’s bountiful Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. And the Seed is the Good News being planted in our Good Soil. Done.

But wait…

As Billy Mays used to say, “But, wait! There’s more!!” Or at least, there might be, right? What if we’re not just the good soil? What if there’s more to the parabole? As Curt and Mollie suggested during Lent, what if this parable is an invitation to turn the tables? Yes, we have the human capacity to be like all four of the soils in the parable, but aren’t we also the Farmer, the Sower?

Farmer/Sower

Having been exposed to many different Christian theologies, I can tell you there are those in the universal Christian community who believe this is a story of exclusion, a story of protecting yourself, a story that cautions good women and men not to waste their time spreading the Good News to those rocky soils, those weedy soils, those carnivorous birds and heretics. After all, the Gospel writer Mark also quotes Jesus as saying, “The poor you will always have with you.” There ya go: Save your time. Stick to the Good Soil.

Yet, many other Christians have a different take on spreading the Good News. The volunteers of La Puente, for example, spread the Good News to all people, regardless of whether others would consider them to be Good Soil or not. The LaPuente volunteers are like the Biblical Farmers of the parable, and they also tend to the farmers, to the migrant workers of Alamosa County…

The famed writer John Steinbeck highlighted the struggle of farm labor in The Grapes of Wrath, but it was really the Caesar Chávez who put agricultural issues into the national spotlight… Chavez once said, “It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.” Migrant labor and family-owned farms… falling prey to xenophobia, agribusiness and mechanization…

But, in Alamosa, the volunteers of LaPuente and their community partners gather in “the lost and forsaken”; together they live out the Biblical commands to leave food in the fields for the poor, the orphans, the immigrants; so that they might glean from the fields and find sustenance.

And here, at the Lakewood United Church of Christ, like LaPuente, we too are Farmers. We are a community blessed with a rich harvest of gifts, that we’ve reaped, and, in turn, we freely sow back into each other, into our community and into the world…

Week after week, month after month and year after year, I see the people of this congregation spreading Good News to those in need, sowing hope in the hearts of those who may have lost hope… I see Linda Robal sowing a greater empathy and understanding of mental illness… I see our faith formation teachers passing along the gift of faith… Because it is not enough to receive the bountiful Graces of God, we must multiple those graces, like loaves and fish, and give back to the world…to Deane Elementary School. Amen, I say to you, of course, we can be the Good Soil, but we can also be the Farmer, sowing the Good News in the Good Soil… and even, maybe, what others might not see as good soils….

Seeds

But aren’t we also the Seeds? Are we not called to root ourselves in the Good News to grow in the Good Soil? Isn’t that the Gospel message, the Call to Action? To go forth, to GROW forth, and spread the Good News? To support the Neighbors in Need and the 5 for 5 Special Offerings, to run at Clement Park and support Second Wind project, and To March for Science?

After all, what good is it to be a Farmer or a Seed, if nothing ever grows? As the epistle writer James says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?

Amen, I say to you, each of us is called to tackle the issues of the day, to build up the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth, and though we may be overwhelmed by the decadent waste and the thorns of opulence, to throw ourselves upon the rocky path!

Our hymn says, “We are called to act with justice….” because, as the philosopher, Paul Tillich, stated, “Our having is not unrelated to others not having.”

Yes, Mark quotes Jesus as saying there will always be the poor, but here’s a fuller version of the quote, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” Jesus knows the poor will always be with us, because he knows the hardness of our hearts…

And so, we are called to soften our hearts…

To be present on the rocky soil, to be witness to the scorched Earth, to consumed by the fire of righteous anger that our Mother Earth, our home, is being burned by the flames of greed, of hoarding, and of a rejection of Stewardship…

We are called… to live among the thorns; to be in the world but not of the world. We are called… to stand up to invasive attitudes and invasive species, so that “all might have abundant life.”

In Genesis 1, Verse 26, “God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the Earth.” Is that an invitation to squander and consume, or an invitation of Stewardship to care for creation?
Just three chapters later, perhaps my favorite line in all the Torah, God asks Cain, “Where is Able?” And Cain famously retorts, how should I know, “Am I my Brother’s Keeper?

Friends, let suggest that, yes, there are two parts of the Bible, but maybe not Old and New Testament as we’re used to… Perhaps the two halves are, on the one hand, the invitation to Stewardship and then the rest of the Bible is the 2nd part…

Cain asks, “Am I my Brother’s Keeper?” And Dr. Michael Barram points out everything after Genesis 4:9 is the answer! And the answer is a resounding YES! YES, we are our Brother’s Keeper!

And, if you happen to need a little extra motivation, try Malachi 3, Verse 5: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, thus says the LORD.”

My sisters and brothers, it never ceases to amaze me that so much energy is spent on two lines in Leviticus that are allegedly about homosexuality, while some of us miss the entirety of the rest of almost 70 books in the Bible and the explicit demand to care for the orphan, the poor, the widow… and to be our Brother’s Keeper! To do unto the Earth and to each other as we would have the Earth and others do to us. That is not just the Golden Rule, that is the Green Rule!

Amen, we are called, as the Iroquois once did, to make decisions based not upon our own self-interest, or on the wants of our generation, but upon the best interest of the Seventh Generation… our children’s, children’s, children’s, children’s, children’s children… our progeny that we will never know… Caesar Chavez also said: “History will judge societies and governments not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless.” What world are we leaving behind for the Seventh Generation?

~ ~ ~

Para-bolē. I mentioned that Para-bolē can be translated as an illustration; Friends, let me suggest that the universal message illustrated by the Gospel parables is compassion. I think it is compassion that we are called to learn from the 46 parables… Compassion… meaning “co-passion” or “passion with another.” Amen, I say to you, we are called to act together with passion and justice for our Brothers and Sisters as well as with passion for Creation, and justice for our world.

We are called…

Whether it be spring planting or fall harvesting of the potato fields in Alamosa; today’s Earth Day celebrations or yearlong Stewardship; the parables of yesteryear, or the environmental news of today; the hungry peasants in the time of Jesus, or the hungry families in our midst… Let us remember that Jesus is the Good News and the Good Soil, sent by the God-Head, and we as a people of faith are rooted in the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier. In turn- we are called to become Good Soil to enrich and nourish all our communities. But we are also the Farmer and the Seed!!

Thus we have a trin-itarian calling, to be Soil, Sower, and Seed, to be present in the world and care for creation, to spread the Good News and grow the Kingdom of Heaven, here, in the good soil of Lakewood and Alamosa, Colorado… yes, We

are the living Body of Christ, and the hands of Christ in the world today.

Let us pray…

O Lord, who commanded us in Leviticus not to overharvest our world (Leviticus 19:10) and who commanded us in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 24:19) to ensure that there is food for the orphans and widows, Lord, help us be like Ruth who gleaned in the fields to care for Naomi; Help me to serve others and be both my Brother’s Keeper and to Care for Creation in whatever ways I can… Lord… Let My Heart Be Good Soil…

Will you say Amen with me?

 Amen.

 

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