I read a blog post recently by a priest who said something like, ‘I struggled to write hopeful words about the coronavirus, and then I struggled to write a meaningful message about systemic racism, and now, while spooning cheerios into my kid’s mouth, I’m in a mandatory online meeting with my bishop being reminded that I need to ‘find my center.’ And I’m done. I can’t do this.’ And then she went on to write a silly post about seminaries instead. But I was like, oh, thank God – some other clergyperson is struggling to put those hopeful, meaningful messages out there too. Here’s my confession to you all, I guess. Because this has all gotten really, really hard.
Maybe that’s why the first thing I noticed about today’s gospel is that the crowd is all hanging out on the beach while they listen to Jesus. The beach! Ahhhh. That sounds awesome…Where was I?
Oh yes, Jesus is telling them a parable, the parable of the sower. I’ve always kind of liked this parable, maybe because it’s one of the few parables that’s actually straightforward to understand (especially because Jesus helpfully explains it right after telling it. Why can’t he do that with the parable of the unjust judge, say, or the one about the shrewd manager, the ones that make it sound like God is a tyrant and cheating is how we’ll get into heaven? But I digress.) This time, though, this parable is bugging me. Here they are, folks, four kinds of soil, the bad kind, the bad kind, the bad kind, and the good kind. Be the good kind. Hear, understand, bear fruit, be productive! Don’t be the bad soil. That’s the moral of the story.
But this time, I want to throw that dirt right back at Jesus. Be the good soil? what if the other kinds of soil are all I’ve got? What then?
Because I feel like bad soil these days. Let’s just stay with Jesus’ metaphor and see why.
I feel like the stepped-on soil of the path, where the seed can’t even take root. I feel beaten down by the relentlessly bad news, where all the top headlines are Deaths skyrocketing, virus out of control, vicious violence, people being stupid, worst ever. In a smaller way, I feel beaten down by the everlasting sameness of each day. The movie ‘Groundhog Day’ was funny a few months ago. It’s not funny now. I put the dishes in the dish rack at night and think, I’ll just take them out again in the morning. Every day I run on the exact same paths. Every day I chase after a to-do list that forever lengthens. Every day, my whole family is always there, all the time. It’s never gonna end.
I feel like the rocky soil where everything withers. In March and April, online church was all new and exciting. Stressful and a steep learning curve at first, but then wow, how wonderful to see my friends and parishioners on Zoom, how amazing the connections people were developing online, how fun and carefree the weekend suddenly became, because all the work for Sunday had been done by Thursday. Whee! I don’t feel whee! anymore. I want to be in church. In early June, the horror of George Floyd’s murder turned quickly to the amazing hope of demonstrations in the streets, people talking real change, coming together at last – and we even thought the virus might be coming to an end soon too. Well, I’m still hopeful about the real change, but it’s not just gonna happen in one big protest march. It’s a long, long slog before things will get better in America, and I’ll have to work at it, and you will, and we will be struggling for a long time. And as for the virus – still canceling plans far off into the distant future. My plant is all shriveled up in the heat of summer.
I feel like the soil choked with thorns. Jesus talks about the cares of the world and the lure of wealth? Well, I care about the world, I’m anxious about the disappearing wealth in most people’s pocketbooks and how we’re going to live going forward. I’m filled with fear and worry over my mom, our travel plans, the kids’ schooling, the church’s reopening, our collective mental health – you name it. What was that ridiculous sermon of a few weeks ago about ‘do not fear’? I can’t hold onto that. I’m hiding in the closet with my dog.
I’m all these kinds of bad soil. There’s my confession to you all. I have counted my blessings, I have tried to take what is good about this experience and thank God for it, I know I have it so much better than so many people, and still, there it is. The bad dirt of daily irritation all the way down to the grime of total despair. And honestly, I think some of you – maybe a lot of you – are there too. We’re all soil that is a little too hardened, rocks and weeds taking over no matter how much we might try. I can sow all the inspiring, hopeful seed I want in your direction, you can sow some right back at me, and yet we still might just end up in a funk together at the end of the Zoom call. And Jesus has the nerve to praise the good soil. Fine, Jesus – you go be the good soil if you think it’s so easy.
But in the words from Isaiah today, God insists:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
It sounds a little like God is saying, I’m working on your soil. I’ll see a return on my harvest, you’ll see. It will take time. But I’m working on it.
We pick up a farm share every week that comes from upstate New York, and every week the farmer sends out a newsy letter about how things are going at the farm, with comments on the weather and the rain or lack thereof, the weeds and the seedlings, the rhythm of planting and harvesting. Which helps us city dwellers remember what labor there is to bring us our chard and spring onions – it takes work not just to plow and plant and harvest, but also to maintain the soil well so the plants will grow. There’s an intuitive science to how moist the soil needs to be to allow the seedlings to break through, but how too much water might pack the soil too heavily; which plants need to be rotated from field to field so the soil has the nutrients they need and doesn’t get stripped and sterile; how to keep the soil loose enough so that the weeds can be pulled without damaging the roots of the crops. Good soil doesn’t just happen, in other words. It isn’t just there. They’re always working on it at the farm. Dirt isn’t just dirt – it’s a process.
Maybe I’m a process too. As that little saying goes, Be patient. God isn’t finished with me yet.
In moments like this I find myself relearning again something I wish I could remember for next time. I am trying to be the seed, the sower, and the soil all by myself, and make a great harvest happen to change the world. But it doesn’t work very well. And maybe it’s not the soil’s job to get itself together – just as it’s not the seed’s job alone to get planted and grow. Maybe we can’t always just will ourselves into being perfectly faithful human beings. Maybe we can’t do this all ourselves.
My mom and I have a favorite poem, a children‘s poem by A.A. Milne about an old sailor who gets shipwrecked on an island. He tries to get busy and be productive, building a shelter, finding a well, foraging food, making clothes, but every time he starts one thing he thinks, no I should do that other thing first, over and over, and finally he just gives up and lies on the beach waiting to be rescued. The poem, being British, is sort of disapproving of the sailor’s response. But sometimes, and now is one of those sometimes, I think, that’s really all I can do. Hang out on the beach, and wait for Jesus. Maybe you want to join me on that beach. The beach is, after all, where Jesus fed people, and taught them, and called them to follow him.
Help us, Jesus. We are tired of being alone. We are scared. We despair of our world’s corruption and malice. We are sick of the sickness stalking us. We are weighed down by the racism and hatred that infect our hearts and our country. And we just can’t get it all together ourselves. Help us.
I believe God will hear us. Because no matter what we do, our soul, our soil is getting worked on – tilled and plowed and planted and nurtured so that good fruit can come of it. God has no other intention but that. O Lord, mercifully hear the prayers of your people who call upon you, our prayer today says – and give us your grace and power to accomplish what you would have us do. Hear us and help us. And God give us the power to rise again tomorrow and keep going.