Sermon for St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church, July 13, 2014.
Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton. I am the campus minister at St. Francis House, UW’s Episcopal Student Center, where we are enjoying our summer rest. I hope you are too. It’s good to be with you this morning. Reverend Miranda is a dear friend, going back to our time together at Duke. Celia Fine and Charles Ver Hoeve, along with Miranda, are members of the St. Francis House board, supporting Episcopal campus ministry at UW on behalf of St. Dunstan’s and all the Madison-area churches. Throughout the morning, I come across other familiar faces, which is a testament, I think, to the good friendship between this place and St. Francis House, for which I am grateful. It’s good to be with you, God’s people, this morning. It is a privilege to worship the living God with you this morning.
No need for a clever beginning. Not today. You’re a sharp bunch. This is not your first ride ‘round the lectionary, most of you. I mean, within reason, once the preacher gives the green light toward the gospel, you know the dance: a farmer throwing seed left and right. Some of it growing, others of it not. Later, alone with his friends, Jesus blames the ground. Some of it’s hard and shallow. Some ground is weedy. And then there’s the plain truth that seed is just not gonna grow well on sidewalks, except maybe in the cracks between the pavement squares, where ambitions to become more than birdseed are not wholly illusory.
Some of the soil is good soil. Fertile soil. And the seed on the good soil becomes plants, yielding grain, in different amounts. Even in good soil, though, some plants yield more grain than others. I don’t know why.
But we do know, from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 and your regular or occasional flirtations with the stock market, that a high yield is good. We know this. You know, because AT&T and Viagra are forever reminding you, that more is better. It follows that, having acknowledged Jesus’ set up with seed and soil and probable yields, the preacher has just one good question to ask you on a Sunday like this one: what’s your soil type, baby? What’s impeding your yield? Are you dry and shallow? Are you choked in the weeds of wealth and the cares of the world? Or are you otherwise mostly good seed, stuck on a sealed path, with urban sparrows circling ominously overhead?
Your self-soil-sample analysis will help us determine the appropriate next step for you: weeding for some; improved soil chemistry for others (thank God for good universities and friends in permaculture); for still others, nothing short of a wholesale transplant to more fertile ground will do. Pick yourself up by the roots and move to the valley. Or Door County. Or wherever. But, for God’s sake, do something. Whether for fear of God’s judgment of your present lacking condition or, as is increasingly more respectable to admit, your fear of humanity - other people’s judgment of you, i.e., ending up on the wrong side of history - put yourself in position to grow. Increase your yield. What’s your soil type, baby?
But, can we be frank? I don’t think you need the gospel to impart to you the fear that you’re not growing fast enough, that you’re not yielding enough. I don’t think you need Jesus to believe you’re not producing enough and, played to its extreme, that you might not be enough, either for God or anyone else. A reading of this mornings gospel that would compel you to pick a soil type, pick up the slack, and finally realize your untapped potential smells too much like warmed-up leftovers from the world of YOLO and FOMO (“you only live once” and “fear of missing out”, respectively). So if we’re lucky, I guess, the preacher can take a swing this morning at moving a chunk of the guilt you already feel about your work or marriage or children or parents or broken promises or pending broken promises or repeated failures to live a life worthy of your life and move just an ounce or two of that guilt and sense of insufficiency onto your relationship with God. Perhaps the successful preacher today can play off the insecurity the secular world has already bred in you and mercilessly sells back to you; maybe we can shake that, stir that, fold that, onto, into your relationship with God. But that I’m not producing enough - that I might not be enough - isn’t just not Good News, it’s not news, period. And it surely isn’t from God.
If we come to Scripture looking for homework assignments toward self-improvement — some small but significant task you can take home and work on to forgo your need of grace (whether for or in spite of God), then we’ll want to take a soil sample this morning of ourselves and consider actions toward becoming a less barren field. Assuming God’s disappointment in us and wanting better for God - or, equally, assuming God doesn’t care enough to notice and we have only the others to impress - we will either dutifully or vainly take on the project of improving the soils of ourselves and those around us, all to the end of increasing the yield. Because we know more is better.
Quick aside, in the interest of full disclosure, there is plenty in Scripture to suggest that a poor yield is genuinely displeasing to God. God calls Israel God’s “choicest vine,” and earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire and burned. So the Christian’s instinct toward flourishing to stay clear of the fire is not altogether out of line.
But here’s the catch and the interesting thing, I think, about this morning’s parable: Jesus, here, doesn’t judge the soils. He doesn’t follow the parable with further instructions or warnings detailing what to do next. There is no call to action. Jesus just tells a story: a sower threw some seed; some seed fell here, others fell there. Some grew for reasons easy to understand. Some failed for reasons just as easy to understand. Some put down roots. Some got snatched up. Some persevered through inevitable hard seasons. Some wilted. Some focused on flourishing. Some got distracted. The end. Roll credits.
There are no shoulds in the soil this time. Indeed, no suggestion that things could have turned out other than how they did. In what comes almost, to us, as a disappointment, Jesus isn’t preaching his disappointment, but maybe he’s noticing ours, giving light to the raw questions we have, not when we disappoint God, but when life disappoints us. When the plants of our lives don’t produce the yields we were expecting.
A parent’s disappointment in the choices of a child that leave so much potential unopened on the table. A child’s disappointment in the intrusion of a parent, leaving the child feeling frustrated, thwarted in her attempts to be all that she believes she can be. An unexpected layoff. The early and untimely death of a lifelong friend. A spouse’s feigned surprise at her loved one’s latest relapse.
Sometime shortly after my daughter turned three, she looked out the window on a rainy day whose rain had changed her plans without consulting her first. I marveled at her wisdom when she stopped and said simply, “Daddy, this is not the day I was hoping for.”
It’s tempting to want to say more. Tempting to equate one’s disappointment with an affront to justice - even divine justice - and often there is injustice in the things that disappoint us. But I’ve grown to believe that my daughter’s words are more true than the things I’m often tempted to say after them. Moreover, there’s a simplicity in her words, I believe, that can heal. “Daddy, this is not the day that I was hoping for.”
Jesus’ description of the seed on the soil is mercy. “I see it,” he says. “No, it didn’t come out the way you were hoping. There were reasons. Not all of those reasons were up to you. Some of them were. No matter. I want to honor your pain, but I will not make an idol of your brokenness. This is disappointing to you. I hear that. And this is not the end.”
It would be convenient in the short-run for God to be as unforgiving of us and circumstances as we are of ourselves and our circumstances. A self-made cranky god might give us a puppet through which we could name the disappointments - even in God - that we dare not claim for ourselves. Our disappointments. Not God’s. Of course, every day, God’s heart breaks, too. And it’s one thing to have one’s heart broken by the things that break the heart of God. But the psalms give us permission, also, to name even our unholy disappointments (for the extended conversation on this, see Jonah). The disappointment God didn’t pre-approve. Did you know, God doesn’t have to sign off on your grief? Which is to say, God doesn’t need to control you to love you.
Similarly, Jesus’ description of seed falling on all kinds of soil, given careful attention but no condemnation, gently asks us a question that lies near the heart of God. This is the question: “Can you also love that which you do not control?” Can you love without the promise of victory on your terms? Can you love without assurance that the outcome for which you hope, for which you pray, will receive the validation of power, success, or respectability? Thus the audacity with which Jesus preaches love of the enemy. Love for the poor and the destitute, but/and also love for the rich and the threatening, love for the ones too clever for their own good and love for those, as with dementia, literally losing their minds. All of the ones you can’t fix. Will you love even these? Even, when you’re honest, yourself. Can you love even the you you do not control?
“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
God knows, God does. It’s what the Church through the ages has come to receive and understand as love without condition, and it is God’s love for you. Love placed on outstretched hands and on your lips, that it may soak and fill your life. This day, and always, may the love of our Christ for you and your parents and your neighbors and your acquaintances and the strangers and your children and your enemies and this whole complicated world - may the love of our Christ for you and for these - give you joy and strengthen your heart.