The Parable of the Dirt

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

Three or four years ago, when we still lived in North Carolina, and on the recommendation of my in-laws, we decided to make a trip further south, and found ourselves at a very small Baptist church in the middle of rural Georgia – in a very small town called Plains. We were there for Sunday morning worship, preceded by adult education hour. The main text for that Sunday – I think it was around May – was the Parable of the Sower, and so the person leading the pre-service Bible study decided to focus on that for his teaching that morning. It was a great Bible study, with interesting things to ponder on that well-known story. It was particularly apt, I thought, since the elderly gentleman leading the Bible study was himself a farmer by occupation and had spent many, many years patiently tending his crop of groundnuts, but always with that sense of uncertainty about how the new crop would respond, and very much guided by his Christian faith that so much of what we do is in God’s hands and that ‘whatever will be, will be’. 

After the service, Kelly and I had a couple of minutes to speak with the man who’d led the Bible study, and his wife. Mr. Jimmy, as he was known to the church members, was one of their deacons and a regular Sunday School teacher. He and his wife, Rosalind, couldn’t have been nicer, and when he found out that I was a new immigrant, he warmly welcomed me to my new country. Mr. Jimmy also happens to have been the 39th President of the United States.

As you can imagine, it was one of the most memorable of occasions, and sticks in my mind perhaps more that some other Bible studies I have attended.

One of the points that he made was that Jesus taught very much in the daily idioms of those around him. If we want to know who Jesus’ most regular audiences were then the particularly numerous agricultural references will give us a good idea. 

We are often so far removed from the earthy realities of agriculture and food production, growing cycles and subsistence economies that the metaphors in Jesus’ parables likely do not have anything like the same visceral kind of impact on us that they would have had on the original hearers. To lose a sheep (to reference one of Jesus' other parables) was a disaster, to slaughter a calf (referencing another) was a considerable sacrifice. These people knew all the nuances of the agrarian subsistence economy that Jesus was referencing.

But for us, those kinds of agricultural references are much more removed from our everyday experience. I mean, I know that some of us tend gardens, sure, but our entire existences are not co-merged with the growing seasons and almost entirely dependent upon them in a direct and vivid way.

And so, in consequence, the parable of the sower loses a good deal of its visceral impact when we hear it. Not only that, but we’ve heard this most famous of Jesus’ parables so many times that I suspect that we go onto church-autopilot when we hear it. Because we think we know it. Maybe we do. But maybe we don’t.

If I asked you what it was about, you’d probably say, “Well, it’s about us, isn’t it, and the nature of personalities. Some people are so flighty that the word of God just bounces off them and gets blown away by the wind and eaten by the birds. And some of us have hard hearts that resist new ideas. Those people think they know it all, don’t they, or perhaps they are just so set in their ways that they don’t think they have anything new to learn. And some of us like the idea of new ideas, and social butterflies that we are we flit from one new fad to another, word of God this week, hot yoga next week, fidget spinners the week after. Know what they are? I didn’t, but I Googled it. Now I’ve bought one on Amazon. See what I mean?

And some of us are the rich, deep, loamy earth in which the word of God can thrive. 

And so that’s the parable of the sower? Right? That’s essentially what we’ve learnt to understand the parable as.

And I must admit that I have been negligent in thinking deeply enough about this parable to drill down into it. But when you have to preach on a text. Incidentally, I don’t choose the readings we have, they are chosen for me by the Episcopal Church – in fact, they are chosen by a worldwide committee of many denominations, called the rather snappily-named International English Language Liturgical Consultation and so the Parable of the Sower is what you will get this Sunday whether you are in a Presbyterian Church in Ohio, or a Lutheran Church in North Dakota, or an Episcopal Church in New York. 

Having readings prescribed for me is an excellent way of getting me to think about a reading in new and insightful ways and the trouble with the interpretation I gave you a moment ago is that it is rather shot-through with the old Calvinist doctrines of pre-destination or, if you prefer the more modern language of social anthropology, shot-through with the pathological argument: that is to say that we are just hard wired to be either flighty, or hard-hearted, or social butterflies, or virtuous souls. In other words, we are what we are and if we’ve been saddled with a personality that is anything other than virtuous, then cultivating the word of God in our hearts is going to be a struggle.

 The Parable of the Sower as illustrated in Hortus deliciarum compiled by Herrad of Landsberg at the Hohenburg Abbey in Alsace (12th century).

The Parable of the Sower as illustrated in Hortus deliciarum compiled by Herrad of Landsberg at the Hohenburg Abbey in Alsace (12th century).


But what if the parable of the sower wasn’t about the way our personalities were wired but, instead, was about the situations we find ourselves in? I find this a much more encouraging interpretation. What if the parable of the sower was renamed the parable of the four types of soil? What if the focus was not on some innate propensity for us to be condemned forever to respond in some particular kind of way but to know that, as St. Paul so emphatically says in our second reading this morning, that God himself came to earth as a human being, one of us, in order to release us from the prison of being forever captive to original sin.

The good news of the Parable of the Sower is that it is about an environment over which we have the control to change, not one that we have been stuck with.

The sower was a well-known sight in the agrarian subsistence economy of first-century Palestine. He went out to sow, and he walked up and down the field scattering handfuls of seed as he went. The farmer walked well-worn paths, up and down, back and forth, to and fro, year on year. This was the ‘wayside’. The soil would become impacted and the scattered seed that fell there would just remain on the surface until the enterprising birds – and that would be pretty much most of them – would follow after him know that they would pick up an easy meal that day. 

The landscape of Israel and the Palestinian territories is often dry and rocky. Indeed, if you have visited the Holy Land, you will know that it is arid and stony. The farmers would do their best to clear the land, much as our hardscrabble forebears in this country would do. Any anyone who has thrust a spade into the dirt around here will know that the odds of hitting granite stones are extremely good. Basically, you can’t dig a hole in the yard here without at least three or four big stones every couple of minutes. We have so many fieldstone walls here because they had to do something with the geology they dug up. But hardscrabble soil is challenging. Seeds can germinate, but then the depth of soil is poor, or there are too many rocks, and the plant fails to thrive. The farmers of Galilee in the time of Jesus had those kinds of hardscrabble smallholdings. 

 Pioneer farming in western New York

Pioneer farming in western New York

Another constant irritating companion for the farmer of that time – indeed, for farmers of any time in human history up to the mid 20th century was the ever-present rampage of weeds. We are so used to seeing – especially in the mid-West – images of pristine prairie-sized fields of a single crop that we fail to remember that weeds were an ever-present occupational hazard for farmers before our parents or grandparents’ generation. We can easily fail to remember that a crop could easily be choked out by weeds as they competed together for the scarce nutrients in the soil. In our pristine world of disease-resistant crops and selective pesticides, the metaphor of choking competition is much less visceral than it would have been for Jesus’ hearers.

And then there is the good soil. And we know how fine that is. Not too much clay, not too much sand. But, in the words of Goldilocks, ‘just right’. And, yet, even then, Jesus does talk about variables. When he is explaining the parable to the disciples later on, since they are all fishermen or tax collectors and not farmers, he says that some who hear the word of God yield a hundred-fold, whereas some only yield sixtyfold, and others only a mere thirtyfold. Perhaps this variance is due to the weather. Not enough rain… too much rain… too cold… too hot. 

I don’t believe that our hearts and minds are hard-wired against the word of God. I believe that in each one of us, including all of the people you know who would never darken the door of a church, have the capacity to receive the word of God and for it to take root, and produce a beautiful, bountiful crop, a hundredfold. But it is the soil and the weather and the husbandry that matters. These things are largely in our control. Poor rocky soil can be made better by clearing it of rocks and boulders. As the pioneers of this country found, the hardscrabble life of making rocky, thin soil into clear, deep, rich, loamy soil, involves a lot of work, a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but it is worth it for the abundant harvest that it eventually produces. I don’t know what the rocks and boulders are in your life that you need to clear out of the way, as you dig down to uncover them. I do know that it will often take as much hard work, physical labor and frustration to remove them as any hardscrabble pioneer, but its value to you and yours will be incalculable.

The weeds are a bit more insidious, aren’t they? I certainly find weeds curious. I often like to say that weeds are just flowers in the wrong place. And so they can appear to be. They can look really lovely, and they grow really beautifully. It’s a shame that we can’t eat poison ivy, Japanese knotweed and cornflowers, because they sure do a lot better than most stuff that I plant intentionally. These weeds are productive, well-organized and often seductively lovely. Think of the things in your life that are like that, but which are actually weeds. Again, I don’t know what those weeds in your life are – I have some inkling as to what they might be in mine, but only you will know what they are in your life. Identify them, and root them out because, alluring and harmless as they might seem, they are strong, they are rampant and they will choke out the good crop that your life otherwise might yield.

And then, even when we have got rid of the compressed dirt of the paths, the rocks and the weeds, there is that endless variable, the weather. And don’t we just know that right now, in the midst of this oddly wet summer? Sometimes we have to take what life throws at us, no matter how carefully and thoughtfully we have tended our fields. Yet, the fact remains that a farmer that has addressed all of the other variables is more likely than not to be in a much stronger position to still produce a crop despite the odd other curveball. 

So, may the Lord of the harvest grant us all the strength to clear the rocks, the wisdom to recognize the weeds, and the resilience to weather the storms, so that we will produce the harvest of love, joy, peace and forbearance that will make this world the place that God dreams for it to be.

 

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