Proper 10 (July 10-16)
Texts: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23;
Isa. 55:10-13; Rom. 8:1-11
GOD BLESS AMERICA . . . WITH GOOD SOIL
Bring a jar of mulch to elaborate on what makes for good soil (or the alternative word “dirt”). The parable talks a lot about the bad soil — beaten down hard, rocky, thorny — but it doesn’t say much about the good soil. Mulch is an example of how to make good soil. We put this on our gardens to make the soil better in growing our flowers and plants. Pass around the jar so the kids can see the twigs and dead vegetation. If I was spunky enough, I would have brought manure. Do you know what manure is? Explain how mulch and manure is dead, stinky stuff that makes for good soil.
Jesus told this parable to help us understand how God brings good stuff out of bad stuff. God can grow new lives out of dead things — like the things in your garden growing out of good soil made from mulch and manure. For example, three years ago told the story of a homeless man who later got a job and a home and then made helping homeless people his passion in life. Another example would be a sick person who gets well and then works to help other sick people. And our high school youth left early this morning for Iowa to help people whose lives have become stinky because they’re poor. Our youth are trying to be good soil for God’s love this week in helping people who could use some help. For God, the good soil of his love is when we live our lives helping others. And we most easily become good soil by going through the hard stuff in life and having God and other people help us through those times. Jesus let himself die on the cross so that God could raise him to a new life of being able to fill us with his love. The cross was like this mulch — the dead stuff out of which good soil is made, so that new life can spring up.(1)
Dear Jesus, thank you for dying for us, like mulch, so that we can be the good soil of your love. Amen
I’d like to begin this morning by reading a chapter from my new favorite book, Brian Zahnd‘s A Farewell to Mars — and, yes, I did say a chapter.
There is no them; there is only us.(2)
Did you miss it? It’s chapter 9 in the book, the concluding chapter, and it’s only eight words. I have time to read it again: “There is no them; there is only us.”
I want to build on where we were with this parable three years ago, which is basically what you just heard in the Children’s Sermon. And I want to extend it into the bigger picture of Matthew’s Gospel. When Isaiah uses the image of God’s Word going forth like rain and not returning empty; or Jesus the image of God’s Word continually going forth as seed and surely producing a yield; what is the yield which God is trying to produce? Life, certainly. But for us human beings abundant life will only come when God’s love pulls us together like a family, when there is no longer any them but only us. For it is all the ways in which our us-them structuring of human institutions continues that creates so much death.
God’s word to us from the very beginning has been about creating one human family. It came to childless Abraham and Sarah in order to give them a family, many descendants, but only in so far as they became a blessing to all the families of the earth. And so the message of the prophets was about God favoring the “them” which we most often leave out, like the widows and the orphans. It came to a climax in Jesus whose whole life and ministry was about crossing the boundaries of us and them. In the end, he let himself become a “them” in order, as St. Paul says, to break down the dividing walls and create one new humanity out of two. There is no us-them; there is only us.
And in Matthew’s Gospel the final words of Jesus’ teaching make what’s at stake clear. Two days before his Holy Passion begins, he tells a final parable, one that is very familiar to us.(3) “When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” it begins, “and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats….” (25:31-32) And then we quickly learn the criteria for the separation: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. . . . Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (25:35-36, 40). This, I think, is a picture of the good soil bearing fruit. We become one human family by taking care of the least of Jesus’ family. We are good soil when we care for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the prisoner.
The goats? Well, they neglect or oppress the least of Jesus’ family. Even so, their judgment seems awfully harsh and scary. “Depart from me,” says Jesus, “into an age of fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41). How do we understand such words of judgment from Jesus which seem to bring us right back into us-them thinking? First, understand what the devil and his angels signify. They signify the powers that lead us into us-them thinking. Satan in Jesus’ time was the symbol for the Accuser, the one who points the finger at “them.” When we, “us,” carry out our crusading violence against “them” we think we are carrying out God’s punishment. But Jesus came to show us that this is actually Satanic work. Nations and tribes and empires that follow Satan’s way of doing things remain a house forever divided, so they are forever returning to times of terrible violence, of hellish fires that consume us — like “the devil and his angels.”
And that’s the second thing to understand about this parable: it poses things on the huge stage of history where empires and nations rise and then fall into violence. The imagery of the Son of Man on clouds that Jesus uses is taken from Daniel 7, where Daniel has a vision of many of the great empires in terms of animals — a lion, a bear, a leopard, and a monstrous creature, symbolizing Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. But Daniel sees a vision of the Son of Man in the clouds with God, judging all the nations, and the Son of Man is given lordship over all the earth.
Brothers and Sisters, I believe that Matthew and the other Evangelists are passing along to us the Good News that in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, he has become that Son of Man who gives judgment over the nations. But he’s also the servant king empowering others to join him in the creation of one new humanity out of two — which happens as we care for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the prisoner, and as we learn to love even our enemies. And in nations and empires where this isn’t adequately done, they will continue to be judged in history and fall, often coming to a fiery end in their own self-inflicted violence, like “the devil and his angels.”
Obviously, this regime change isn’t going to happen overnight, because King Jesus refuses to use any force or violence that would make him beastly. Jesus himself in this parable portrays his followers as sheep.(4) And the Book of Revelation, very similar to the Book of Daniel, portrays King Jesus as a Lamb slain.
So we are sheep, not lions. But in this long period of regime change, Matthew’s Jesus uses many other images for us: we are light to shine in the darkness; we are salt for giving the proper flavor; we are yeast to help things rise up. And we are good soil. Our nation, our world, needs people who are good soil for God’s word of love and new life. We are good soil when, as individuals, we reach out to a neighbor, or friend, or family member in need. We are good soil when we volunteer to help the stranger in need. We are good soil when, together in mission, we join Open Doors and Habitat for Humanity in multiplying affordable housing; in tending Jubilee Gardens of food for the hungry; in sending people out on mission trips. But we are also good soil, I think, when we find meaningful ways to call our neighbors and fellow citizens to what matters the most in living together in peace — namely, how we care for the poor the sick, the immigrant, and the prisoner. Can we find new ways together here at PoP to be the good soil our nation and world so desperately needs?
And so we end with the same point where we began, but in the form of a short story:
An old Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun.
“Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?”
“No,” answered the Rabbi.
Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”
“No,” answered the Rabbi.
“Then what is it?” the pupils demanded.
“It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”(5)
Yes, it may still be night, but the new day is dawning, and so Jesus says to you and me: “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). Or in the language of today’s Gospel: “Let the mulch and manure of your life become the good soil of God’s love shared with neighbors.” Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, July 13, 2014
1. This Children’s Sermon is a partial summary of my 2011 sermon on this text, but the main point was deepened thanks to a comment by Pastor Kim Beckmann on the ELCA Clergy Facebook page: “…it is the sower’s continued sowing that in time transforms even these failed situations into good soil and a chance for abundant life. Good soil only comes about through the processes of death and decay. Even the seed that falls to the earth and dies participates in this. God is driving toward life. I get assurance that Jesus is teaching about death and resurrection and God’s transformative power even in the face of sin and death.”
2. Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace [David C. Cook, 2014], page 197.
3. My reading of this parable is indebted to Brian Zahnd, in A Farewell to Arms, ch. 7, “Clouds, Christ, and Kingdom Come,” pages 153-72.
4. But notice that Jesus doesn’t use any monstrous creatures for those who are judges. It’s not lions, or bears, or dragons. It’s simply goats — not that much different from the sheep, really.
5. Thanks to Pastor Fritz Wendt for posting this Hasidic tale on the ELCA Clergy Facebook page.