July 12, 2020, May We Be Soft Soil, Matthew 13:1-9,18-23 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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One of my favorite Collects in the Book of Common Prayer is the Collect for Proper 28, the Sunday just before Christ the King Sunday. It’s all about how we read the Bible. “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” We pray that God will give us the ability and the desire to read his Word with our full attention; that we will be able to understand what we read; that what we read will nourish us and become part of us, just as the food we eat nourishes us and becomes part of our physical bodies, strengthening us and helping us to grow.
This Collect fits in very well with our gospel reading today, where Jesus tells a parable about sowing seeds. The sower broadcasts the seed in the field. Some of it falls on the paths and gets gobbled up by birds before it has a chance to sprout. Some of it falls on thin, rocky soil where it springs up quickly. But as soon as the afternoon sun beats down on it, it withers away, because it has no roots. Some of the seed falls among brambles and burdock, or whatever nasty weed Palestinian farmers had to deal with. It sprang up, too, but the weeds choked it out before it could bear a crop. And then there was the seed that fell on the soft, rich soil that the farmer had cultivated. It put down roots and it reached up to the sun and it bore a good crop.
When the disciples got Jesus off by themselves they asked him to explain what the parable of the sower meant, and he did. The seed, Jesus says, is the message of the Kingdom. He explained that the seed falling on different kinds of soils were the different ways that people receive the message that is spoken to them. This was really important for them to hear, because as the disciples of Jesus, they were the ones who were going to have the job of teaching people the message of the Kingdom. Sometimes it was going to seem like their message was snatched away as quickly as they spoke it. Sometimes their listeners were going to get all excited and enthusiastic. But as soon as those people faced persecution or any kind of hardship they’d forget everything the disciples had taught, and their budding faith would just seem to wither and die. Other times they’d find people who were willing to listen, but they had so many other irons in the fire the message of the Kingdom would get lost in the shuffle of work and family, wealth and reputation and politics. But there will be people, Jesus said, who will listen and understand. There will be people who hear, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the good word you speak to them. And the message of the Kingdom will bear fruit in those people, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.
The thing about parables is that they invite the listener to find themselves in the story. The disciples could see themselves in the sower, going out to sow the message of God’s Kingdom. When we hear this same parable, some of us might recognize ourselves in the sower, too, but most of us, I think, find ourselves in the dirt. Jesus himself explains how the seed is the message sown in our hearts. Our hearts are the soil in which the message of the Kingdom is sown. And so, for most of us, this parable is a call for us to cultivate the soil of our hearts so that we can receive the message. Most often, when we hear this parable, it encourages us to stop and consider how we are doing in receiving the written Word of God.
In our private devotions, in the Daily Office, at Bible study, in the course of the Sunday Eucharist, we hear the Word.
Do we receive it with our full attention? Or do the words we hear just fall among the multitude of thoughts along the trampled pathways of our minds like litter, somewhere between the grocery list and the episode of The Bachelor we watched last night?
Do we seek to understand what we are hearing or reading; do we take the time we need, asking questions, re-reading it if we need, to give it a chance to really take root? Or do we post a verse or two on our social media and forget about it ten minutes later?
Do we read and mark and learn and inwardly digest it, but then get so overwhelmed by our unpaid bills, and the COVID-19 numbers of the day, and how unfair it is that our neighbor got a new car, that we completely lose track of what we learned?
Or do we receive the Word with the loving attention it deserves: does the Word fall into the soft soil of our hearts; does it sink in, and take root, and grow and blossom? In the parable of the sower, Jesus invites us to cultivate our hearts, quieting our competing thoughts, focusing our attention, listening with patience, so our hearts will be soft soil to receive the message of the Kingdom.
But we can take the message of this parable even a little farther. We are used to hearing this parable as an encouragement to be faithful and diligent in our study of the Bible. And that is a good and valid application of the parable. But the message of the Kingdom of God doesn’t only come to us in the pages of the Bible. God speaks through his written Word, yes. The Bible is God’s main revelation to us of who he is and what he’s doing. But he speaks to us in so many other ways as well. The message of the Kingdom of God is all around us, if we are paying attention. We are surrounded every day by God’s very first expression, the Creation that he spoke into being. David, in Psalm 19 wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” In Psalm 8 he exclaims: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?” And Paul writes in Romans, chapter 1: “what can be known about God is evident to all mankind, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
The message of the Kingdom is proclaimed to us by every single thing God spoke into being, from a single cell to the vast universe. So, how can we cultivate the soft soil of our hearts to receive that message? One of the greatest hindrances to modern man is simply lack of time. We are so busy. Like Martha, we are worried about accomplishing so many things, we are in such a constant state of busy-ness, that we forget to just be present in the natural world, and to let the beauty and the power and the incredible intricacy of God’s works speak to us and take root in us. We need to cultivate the art of sitting still and being quiet – as God commands us in Psalm 46 “Be still, then, and know that I am God.”
And I think there is more to hearing what the Creation has to say to us than just enjoying and appreciating it – as important as that is for us. When God created mankind he set us as stewards over all that he had made. He gave us the enormous responsibility of caring for the Creation – not merely the right to exploit it, as we all too often have done. And that means that if our heart is soft to hear what the Creation is saying to us we will take care to protect and nurture our fellow creatures. And it also means that we will be grieved by their suffering. I heard a report on the news the other day about a disease that is killing off an enormous number of elephants in Botswana, which is where a third of all the elephants in Africa live. With so many human problems in the world, it’s easy to tuck that information away as just another depressing bit of news. In the face of wars and pandemics and rioting in the cities, it’s pretty easy to put elephants down pretty low on the scale of things to pay attention to. But every creature in the created world has a message for all of us who will listen, to all whose hearts are soft soil to receive it. The Creation is speaking to us, teaching us, every day, not only about the goodness and power and wisdom and beauty of God – but also about the greed and arrogance and foolishness of mankind. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
And are there other ways that the message of the Kingdom of God is sown in our hearts? I think the message of the Kingdom is proclaimed to us in more ways than I have time to mention. But maybe more than anything else we hear the message of God’s kingdom from other people: from our brothers and sisters here at church, from our next-door neighbor, from our children and grandchildren, from people who live on the other side of this earth, from people whose cries we hear on the news. Do we cultivate the soft soil of our hearts to receive what people are saying, and not only to hear them, but to understand what it is that God is saying through them. Do we really pay attention to people, or do their words just fall unheard and unheeded among all the other clutter of our lives? Do we listen warmly and attentively but then go about our business and let their words fade away like plants with no root? Are we so caught up in the needs and anxieties of our own life that we just don’t have energy to care what somebody else is saying? Or do we take the time to understand, do we listen deeply. Are we willing to learn from our brothers and sisters?
In a word, to cultivate the soft soil of our heart means above all things to be teachable. Because when the seed of God’s word is sown in our hearts – through the Bible, through his Creation, through our fellow human beings, in whatever way he speaks to us – if it falls on soft soil, if we not only hear but seek to understand what he is saying to us, and if we let it take root in us, then we will bear the fruit of the kingdom of God, a hundredfold, or sixty, or thirty. If we have ears to hear, let us hear.