Proper 10 (July 10-16)
Texts: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23;
THE GOOD SOIL OF SUFFERING
Our congregation is one of about a dozen local faith-based groups who make up the Michigan Organizing Project, or ‘MOP’. Together, we work to make a difference in the lives of some of our community’s most powerless people. This year’s main project is to fund a program addressing homelessness, and MOP is proposing a one-third mill property tax for a low-cost housing initiative.
Two weeks ago more than a dozen members of POP joined me for MOP’s annual Nehemiah Assembly. For those of you who may not have seen it, I’d like to share the beginning of the article that appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette the following day:
David Artley is the well-respected, suspender-wearing Kalamazoo County resource-development director, known for his ability to raise funds and secure government grants. But Thursday, Artley showed a more personal side, one he rarely reveals publicly. In front of more than 250 people at the annual Nehemiah Assembly, Artley told the story of how he was abused as a child while growing up in Detroit and how it stole away his childhood. As an adult, he found himself divorced twice and an alcoholic, living in a cardboard box without any place to go. Now, Artley, 66, who has been sober for decades and recently bought a condominium, told the gatherers that helping people find housing is his passion.
David Artley’s passion to find housing for homeless people is a perfect example of good soil. The seed of God’s Love found good soil in David’s life and is increasing it a hundredfold. And I think his whole life is good soil, including the abused child who ended up homeless as young adult. The good soil began being cultivated when the 8 year-old David told his mother that his cousin was sexually abusing him, and instead of helping him she called him a liar and severely beat him with a stick. That’s where the good soil began to be turned for the seed of God’s love.
Looking at Jesus’ life can help us understand why a place of suffering can be the good soil of God’s love. Under the imperial regime of the Romans, his people were horribly oppressed. The Jews were abused economically, militarily, and spiritually not only by the Roman overlords; but also by other Jews collaborating with the Romans. The Jewish leaders generally held one of two views on how to end their oppression: either through military revolt, or the belief that, if they were strictly faithful to the Torah, God would reward their faithfulness and long-suffering by crushing their enemies.
But Jesus spoke against both those views, instead planting the seed that God’s power of love would bring God’s kingdom into this world. Through Jesus, God’s love takes root in the soil of human hearts so that God’s children can begin to understand the call to take care of one another as brothers and sisters. Instead of using military power or invoking God to destroy the Romans, Jesus taught people to experience God as Abba – Father, or more precisely ‘Daddy’ – who asks his children to care for one another in love. Jesus taught that God’s way of love makes sure that everyone has enough, just like a loving Father does.
But, Jesus’ message is an unusual seed that needs an unusual ground to grow bountifully. Let’s start with the hardened soil of the path where the abusive politics of the Roman Empire dominate so completely that the seed never has a chance to take root. The “evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart.” In the Gospel, the Roman and Jewish leaders who can see nothing but power represent this soil.
But they are soil nonetheless. They are children of God. They were not created bad — it was the evil one that snatched away the seeds of love. The difference of Jesus’ message from his Jewish contemporaries was that they preached hatred and death for Romans and the Jewish leadership; while Jesus preached that even though they were oppressors, they still deserved love. The true enemy calls for hatred and killing, hardening the soil. So the Sower generously sows seed everywhere.
And then there’s the rocky ground, where, as Jesus says, “one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.” In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ own disciples represent this soil. They all ran away when Jesus was arrested. Jesus renames Simon as Peter, which means rock. Peter the Rock? No, rocky soil. The other Gospel writers redeem Peter and the other disciples to eventually become good soil. But their initial failure presents a hard truth throughout history: when we are faced with armed forces of imperial domination, it is nearly impossible to have faith in love. We are more inclined to either run away, or to mount an armed force of our own. So the Sower generously sows seed everywhere.
Finally, there is the thorny ground, the soil in which “one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word.” It is difficult to hear Jesus’ message about taking care of all our brothers and sisters when one is enjoying the situation of getting more than his or her fair share. The rich young man who comes to Jesus asking what he needs to do to have real life is an example of the thorny ground. Jesus tells him to sell everything and give it to the poor – which seems extreme to us! Jesus offers his answer sadly, because he knows this man’s wealth makes for thorny ground. The man doesn’t want to hear that the way to truly live and have a peaceful household where everyone has enough is to share generously with his poor brothers and sisters. So the Sower generously sows seed everywhere.
So where do we find the good soil? In Mark’s Gospel the good soil is in the lives of the most powerless people, those who are suffering. The hemorrhaging, nameless woman who comes to simply touch Jesus’ cloak in order to be healed. Jesus tells her she has great faith. The nameless foreign woman whose daughter is sick – she endures insults from Jesus in persisting to plead for her daughter’s healing. Jesus tells her she has great faith.
But today we hear from Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew took Mark’s basic story and shaped it so that the good soil is even clearer. We can see this in how Matthew tells us Jesus begins and ends his teaching ministry: he begins with the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, those who are mourning, the meek. Blessed are those who hunger for the rightness of God’s household, where everyone has enough. Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Blessed are those persecuted by this world’s powerful because they stand up for the powerless in God’s kingdom, God’s household, God’s world.
And what are the last words of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel? ‘You saw me hungry and fed me, thirsty and gave me to drink. You welcomed me as a stranger, clothed me when naked, took care of me when I was sick, visited me in prison. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ This is exactly what we’ve been talking about! God, our Lord and Creator, came to us in Jesus to teach us and empower us to care for one another as family. And it is the least powerful people in this world who are most often the good soil — just as the life of abused and homeless David Artley has become good soil.
How then do we become good soil? Not by our own efforts. We become good soil only by God’s bountiful grace, which sows the seed everywhere, even on the bad soil in our lives: the hardened hearts ripe for the temptation of domination that snatches the seed away; the fear that makes us flee from trusting the power of God’s love in the face of violence; and the allure of wealth that causes us to abandon the least of Jesus’ family. But the Sower continues to sow graciously everywhere that seed may land on the good soil, too — the parts of our lives where we are most vulnerable. The seed of God’s love lands amidst our own suffering where our lives connect to the suffering and death of Jesus. Or we let ourselves become more vulnerable by standing with brothers and sisters who are suffering — as our youth are doing this week on their workcamp to Minnesota.
And what does the hundredfold yield look like in our lives? This is another instance of it emphatically not looking like going up to heaven after we die. No, the politics of God’s household has come down into this world in the suffering of the Risen Christ, and it is truly at work wherever his disciples are working to make sure that the least of his family have enough. Let’s go to God’s table now, to water and feed the seed that falls into those most vulnerable parts of lives, so that we might go forth this week — and our youth go forth this week — to yield the fruit of God’s love. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran
Portage, MI, July 7 &10, 2011