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Good Earth

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

August 30, 2020
Matthew 13:1-9, 19-23

The Parable of the Sower
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the 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. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

I wanted to preach this morning from my kitchen table, so that you can see the very, very tiny garden behind me, such as it is. The little bird feeder we can watch over mealtime, and the little signs of life sprouting up around it and beneath it. But I also want to confess very quickly that what you are seeing here is not the result of good gardening. We put up this bird feeder in the spring, and then we left town for a few weeks over the summer, and when we returned, we found a crime scene in our backyard, our former bird feeder having been brutally assaulted, ripped open, hanging there limp and forgotten, all of its former contents spilled out below, certainly at the hands of some local squirrel. The bird feeder you see there today is our military-grade replacement, we’ll see how it goes. But the real story is that that bird feeder is hanging over a big barrel planter that came with the house, which itself is sitting on top of a decorative rock bed. So, when we came home and found the bird feeder assaulted, we also found seed everywhere. We found seed all through the gravel. We found seed all over the concrete patio. And inside that barrel planter, in the one patch of soil anywhere around. We found sprouts. So those green plants you can see behind me? They are not part of a coordinated landscaping scheme. They are not some appropriate local wild grass or some sapling we are growing for fruit. What you have right there is birdseed. All grown up.

Now, a lot of you know a lot more about plants, gardens, birds, and backyards than I do, and I know I’m going to get some emails this afternoon telling me how to do this better. The rumors are true: I am not a gardener. Sarah is slightly more of a gardener than I am but between the two of us our goal is just not to get angry letters from the neighbors. But that’s sort of the point here. I think the point is sometimes the seed falls on the rocks and sometimes seed falls on the good earth and you actually don’t have be much of a gardener to figure that out. I can tell you that. I have no kind of green thumb and I can diagnose that in about two seconds. So why, why for anything, why on God’s earth, so to speak, why on God’s earth is the sower in this parable throwing seeds onto rocks? Why do I, who you have already figured out should not be given legal custody of a fake Christmas tree, much less a living plant — why do I know more about how seeds work than the sower in a parable told to farmers about farmers surrounded by farmers who can clearly see this gig for what it is. Don’t throw seed on the rocks. Can we just agree that seeds go in the ground? Can we just agree that this sower may not be the sharpest tool in the shed?

Of course, the sower may not be able to see the field in its entirety. It may be inherent in the act of sowing seed that she can’t predict all the trajectories, and so the sower is to be applauded for her steadfastness, for her determination. I’ve heard this sermon preached a few times. I think I’ve preached it once or twice myself. You don’t always get to see the outcome of your work. You don’t always get to predict the fruit of your labor. So we sow our seeds. We speak something we think needs to be said. We proclaim the Gospel we have to proclaim. We do the work we feel called to do. We do this thing called church with the fullest measure of integrity we can find. We speak something of God’s truth as we perceive it out into the world, and we hope that it finds soil. And if this were that sermon, I would exhort you, my dear church, to keep speaking and preaching and proclaiming in word and deed, and trusting that the good earth is there, waiting.

But I am not altogether sure that this is, first and foremost, a parable about speaking. Jesus has the crowds gathered around him, and he starts this story, and then Matthew interrupts it to give the footnote we heard last week, this whole sidebar about why Jesus has to speak in parables in the first place, because some of you don’t get it. None of which is why the disciples should also speak in parables. None of it is about how the disciples should speak at all. The whole moment is about training the disciples how to hear and listen. “Let anyone with ears listen!” Jesus says. “Hear again the parable,” Jesus says. The whole moment is Jesus teaching his disciples, and the crowds around him, how to listen. Jesus is going to preach the same word to all of them. The sower throws his seed everywhere. But Jesus also knows that they won’t all hear it. He knows that they won’t all understand it. He knows that they won’t all blossom and grow as a result of it. Some of them will close themselves off, and the word will bounce off them like seed on a rocky path. But some of them will let that seed burrow inside them and transform them. Some of them will be good earth, listening and changing.

I think that’s the question for us. It’s not about what we might say. It’s about what we might hear. Can we hear what God needs us to hear? Can we be good earth?

In late 1964, during the height of the Civil Rights movement, Jackie Robinson put pen to paper for the Chicago Daily Defender. Jackie had been retired for eight years from Major League Baseball, where of course, for a decade he had endured daily threats and physical violence from fans and players alike, so he knew a bit of what he was seeing on the news. He wrote, “How the world can wonder at riots in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, when American justice, down-South and up-South continues to countenance complete forgiveness of murders of the Negro people, it is difficult to understand. Those who preside over those who put into practice such ‘justice’ are as guilty of inciting violence and murder as anyone in the land. For, ignore it if you like, the truth is that the time will come when the Negro, all over this country, will finally find his patience worn so thin that he will have no choice but to rise up and retaliate. … No one will be glad when it comes but come it must if something drastic is not done to curb the unbridled murders in the South and the slightly more subtle murders in the North which pass under the guise of police vigilance.”[1]

Now, I like my baseball stories, and I’ve heard a few Jackie Robinson stories. But until this week, I’d never heard that one. And it makes me wonder who did hear it. It makes me wonder where his words found good earth.

This past week we also passed the four-year-anniversary of a different kind of sports groundbreaker. It was four years ago last Wednesday that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the National Anthem before an NFL preseason game. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” he told reporters. “There are bodies in the street and people getting away with murder. … I am not looking for approval. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”[2] Well, they did take football away. And they did take endorsements away. And of course, you may know, because Kaepernick’s name has been dragged through every kind of public mudslide there is, such that it felt almost impossible for a while even to give the man a fair hearing. But it wasn’t impossible. Any of us could have heard him. Any of us could have listened.

And he did find good earth. Four years later, four years to the day, this past Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks simply refused to come onto the court for their scheduled game of playoff basketball. They put an old-fashioned work stoppage. Speaking to the press afterwards, the players said “Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protestors. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball. When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement.”[3]

Of course, the Bucks are not alone. In the years since Kaepernick’s protest, it has become more and more common for professional athletes to use their platforms to advocate for social change, and the Bucks were simply following well-established precedent. And then, in the wake of it this week you saw players across basketball, baseball, tennis, in varying degrees and with varying theatricality, all of them effectively kneeling right there next to Kaepernick, which of course is the point — that he found good earth. That the seeds he sowed. The seeds Jackie Robinson sowed. The seeds Arthur Ashe sowed. The seeds Tommie Smith and John Carlos sowed. The seeds Megan Rapinoe sowed. The seeds that Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery and players throughout the WNBA sowed. The seeds that Naomi Osaka sowed. That those seeds have found good earth, and they have sprouted up inside it, and they have taken root inside it, and they have grown up from inside it, and they have come to flower from inside it, and they have gone to seed themselves from inside it, and the question now is —

Where else can those new seeds now find good earth? Can they find it, at long last, with us? “Those who preside over those who put into practice such ‘justice’ are as guilty of inciting violence and murder as anyone in the land,” Jackie wrote. Would we let those words sink deeply into our hearts? “There are bodies in the street and people getting away with murder,” Colin said. What would we do with those seeds? What would we do with them now? Are we ready, finally, to let that prophetic cry join so many prophetic cries somewhere in the vulnerable place inside us? Would we listen? Would we hear? Would we seek to understand? Would we now finally nurture those seeds with compassion and imagination and solidarity? Would we let them take root, churning through the dirt inside us, finding passage, finding footing, would we allow ourselves to be overgrown with this truth, with this witness, with the urgency of this moment, would we let something flower from us, would we let seeds come forth from us, seeds of change, seeds of restitution, seeds of restoration? The question in this story is for us. What do we do when the truth of the world is presented to us? What do we do when God confronts us with a word we can hardly bear to hear? “Let anyone with ears listen!” Jesus cries out. Would you be good earth?

The good news, of course, is that Jesus is a terrible gardener. He keeps throwing seeds on the rocks. And he keeps throwing seeds on the rocks. And he keeps throwing seeds on the rocks. Because he believes in the transformative waters of grace. Because he believes in the redemptive light of justice. Because he believes in the persistent, resistant, resilient work of tilling and digging and weeding and tilling and digging and weeding. Because he believes in us. Because he believes in what we can be. Because he believes in what can flower through us. Because he believes in what can grow out of us. Because he believes in the good earth we can be.

And so, he keeps throwing seeds on the rocks.

And he keeps throwing seeds on the rocks.

And he keeps throwing seeds on the rocks.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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