Calvary Episcopal ChurchPhoto of Doug Bailey
Memphis, Tennessee

July 11, 1999
The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost

Preparing the Soil of Your Soul
The Rev. Dr. Douglass M. Bailey

First Reading: Isaiah 55: 1-5, 10-13
Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Do you ever ask yourself questions like this: Why do I seem to go through so many spiritual deserts? Why do I have spiritual depressions, not necessarily the kind of depressions that would put me in bed, but certainly ones that prevent me from soaring in spirit? Why do I not have a deeper relationship with God, one that will guide me through the hard times I face in my personal life, or that we face in our public life?

If you can identify with those questions, then maybe you can identify with the voice of God who speaks in the Hebrew Scriptures for today. The background for this particular text in the 55th chapter of Isaiah is this: The people of Israel are returning from exile. They're moving back into their homeland. You might climb into this text by becoming a contemporary ethnic Albanian returning to your homeland in Kosovo. If you can do that, you will experience much of what is being experienced by the people of Israel. They find that while they were in exile, their homeland was ravaged. All of their sacred places, like the mosques for the contemporary ethnic Albanians, all of the religious centers for the people of Israel have been destroyed. The great Jerusalem temple, the spiritual center of Zion, has been leveled. The corporate heart of the people is defeated and depleted. It is as if their corporate soul is in a desert. Yet, there is a voice who speaks in the midst of them, the poetic and passionate voice of the prophet, Isaiah: "Ho! All of you who are dry, all of you who are thirsty, come to the waters of God. Why do you spend your money trying to buy things that will never satisfy you? All of you who are thirsty (and grieve about your own personal faith), come to the waters of God." So speaks the prophet, as contemporary as if it is this very hour.

Now let's go to the parable in today's Gospel Lesson from Matthew. It also speaks of deserted soul and soil. But, there is also the promise of good soul and soil. This passage is often referred to as the parable of the Sower. It probably should be called the parable of the four different kinds of soils. The parable begins in such ordinary fashion. Jesus has spent the night, presumably with a friend, by the lakeside of the Sea of Galilee. The next morning Jesus rises early, and goes out to the edge of the shore. He probably sticks his feet in the water, and seems to go through his morning meditations. Before very long a crowd gathers around him. The people always seem to be wanting something from Jesus. Probably, He has to watch out for being consumed completely. So He climbs into a boat and moves the boat out from the shore. Then, from the prow of the boat, He begins to teach them. He says, "Listen. If your souls are hungry for the Kingdom of God, then open your ears and your hearts:"

A sower went out to sow one day, and he began to sow everywhere. (Those gathered around him could picture this image in their minds.) The sower threw the seeds in the weeds and on the ground. He did what farmers in those days often did, no-till farming, simply throwing the seeds out. Jesus goes on to say that some seeds fell on ground packed down so tight that the seeds could not get into the soil. Birds came and devoured them. Other seeds, says Jesus, fell among rocky soil. There was thin soil on the top, but very quickly you ran into rock. The seedling came up, but it could not stand the heat of the day. It began to wilt and eventually die, since its roots could not go down any deeper.

Then there were seeds, says Jesus, that were thrown among weeds and thorns. The thorns and the weeds grew faster than the seedlings, and they choked the new seedlings. And some seeds, says Jesus, were thrown on good soil. Those seeds in the good soil produced good fruit. "Those of you who have ears to hear," says Jesus, "let them hear."

A couple of decades ago, one of the most popular plays off-Broadway was one called Godspell, based on the Gospel of Matthew. It's a joyful, rambunctious piece of drama, with each of the characters played by clown figures. In one particular scene, they act out the parable of the sower and the soils. The Jesus character is telling the parable. "The sower threw some seeds out, and some seeds fell on the packed ground." With that, some characters in the play, dressed like little seedlings, tried to wiggle down into the ground, but they couldn't. Several other figures, dressed like birds, come and grab the seedlings and yank them off the stage. The next scene shows the seeds that fell on rocky soil. A seedling comes out dressed in green and begins to sprout up and grow. Then a big cardboard sun begins to rise, and the sun wilts the seedling. You watch that little seedling just sort of die right before your eyes.

The story continues as the Jesus character says: "Other seeds were thrown on thorny soil and among the weeds." Again a couple of green seedlings come out, and they start growing. All of a sudden, some thorn characters, dressed in black, come out and start choking them. I remember one of the seedlings really hams it up with a huge AAAAAAHHHHHH! and finally dies. "Some seeds," says Jesus, "fell among good soil, and they grew abundantly." With that some green seed figures come out and sprout up and grow. They have risers under them that help them grow. And they produce very good fruit.

If you are like I am, whenever I read this parable, or hear it read (or acted out), I always ask myself the questions, "Am I good soil? If God throws seeds of faith into the soul and soil of my life, if they come my way, will they grow at all?" Do you ever ask yourself these questions when you read stories like this in the Bible? What kind of soil are you? Will the soil of your life produce something good for God's sake?

Therefore, let's look at that this way. If the soil of your life is going to be productive for God's seeds, then it has to be spiritually honest. By that I mean that when things are going well in my life, your life, we need to learn how to do a better job of giving thanks. I don't know about you, but when things are going very bad for me, I spend a lot of time in prayer. But when things are going well for me, that seems to be a time when I am most vulnerable to being bad soil, because I am not giving thanks. Like the Psalmist says in the 65th Psalm, we must learn how to give thanks for the rains that come that feed the soil and enable the fruit to come.

On the other hand, when things are tough and grim in our lives, and faith is dim, I think we need to be abundantly honest with God and act that out as our prayers become authentic.

I recently read an excellent book by Dr. Renita Weems titled Listening for God. Dr. Weems is a profound preacher, one who has been in our Lenten Preaching Series. She is a scholar and teacher at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She's an African-American who grew up in the Pentecostal black church. She's now ordained in the AME, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but she still remembers the ecstasy of her growing-up years in Pentecostalism. This book is about her journey from what I would call spiritual ecstasy to spiritual depression to spiritual honesty. Dr. Weems is able to talk and write about how the demands of being a minister, a teacher, a scholar and a mother leave her spiritually parched, and how that spiritual dryness must be embraced. One has to be honest about our spiritual depressions.

Renita Weems' book has been so very helpful to me. There are those times when every single one of us experiences a spiritual breakdown. There are times when, like Dr. Weems writes, it seems to me that the way to move through is spiritual honesty: "God, this is honestly where I am, right now. This is the soil of my life today." It may well be that we will listen best for God when we're most honest to God. Honest soil and soul can lead to productive soil.

Another thought for the shaping and making of good soil might be for us to be radically open to God. I don't know about you, but when I go through difficult times, often that's when I am most cautious and closed to God. I am learning, however, that God cannot place a gift or a seed in a clenched fist, a closed soul. The heart and soul must be open, radically open, in order for us to receive the seeds of authentic faith.

Dr. Brooks Ramsey speaks and teaches here at Calvary Church. I remember once when Brooks was talking about the Hebrew word for faith. He said the Hebrew word for faith is probably best understood as openness. "Faith," said Brooks, "is like a tiny bird, with its beak open, waiting for the food of God."

Oh, what a great image for faith. A hungry little bird with an open beak. Faith is not discovery. Faith is recovery. Faith is recovering again and again, particularly after we go through all of our dry times. Faith is not possession. Faith is the posture of openness.

Archbishop George Carey recently concluded a visit to the Anglican Churches in South America. In one of his talks he was describing the Anglican Church in England, and he said maybe it's best described this way: "There is a church in the Cotswolds, the sheep-raising area of England, that has a large sign outside the front door that says, Keep This Door Firmly Shut, Sheep Might Get In. "Too often," says Carey, "that is the mark of the spirit of those churches. Don't let any strangers, any sheep, in. Keep the doors shut. And keep the spirit out."

Authentic faith, however, is the process of keeping the doors open, our souls open, our lives open to the seeds of the extravagant Sower.

Another image for the development of good soil, good soul: We need to trust in God, to trust deeply in this outrageously extravagant Sower who just throws seeds everywhere, on rooftops, in drains, in waterholes, everywhere. The seeds just fly. It just doesn't matter. Everywhere and everything is sacred to God.

I don't know about you, but I find that kind of farming to be crazy. I want things ordered. I want all the rows neat. I want the seeds to grow under my design and control. But that's not the way God sows seeds in this parable. God just throws seeds everywhere, God throws them into your life and mine when we're not even prepared for them. We haven't tilled the soil enough. We haven't fertilized enough, and yet God throws the seeds. So we need to trust in this extravagant Sower.

I remember reading Fred Buechner, a great writer. He writes about going through a very difficult time in his life. His eldest daughter had an eating disorder and she was in extremely bad shape. One day while driving, he was in a depression about her, and consequently, his own life. He pulled over to the side of the road. When he looked up, he saw a car coming towards him with a license plate in the front. In very large, bold print on the license plate were the letters: T-R-U-S-T. Later he concluded the driver probably was some trust officer from some bank. Yet, that was the very Word from God that he needed to hear. Fred Buechner writes of our need to TRUST in this extravagant Sower, this God, who is always seeking to guide and nurture us through the dark nights of our soul.

I recall the story of two friends, one a believer, and the other a nonbeliever. They were soldiers together in World War II. Throughout their experiences, the one kept trying to tell the other one about his faith that held him up. The other, who did not believe, was injured grievously and was dying. His friend was holding him. The injured man looked up at this friend and he said, "You know, I am going to die, and I'm really sorry that I never learned how to believe in God." His friend looked on him and said, "You don't have to be sorry for that: God believes in you."

Do you trust like that? Do you trust that God believes in you, even when you cannot believe in God?

God's seeds are thrown everywhere. When you ask yourself the question, "Why this dry, empty time in my life?" dare to offer the authentic soil of your life. Dare to be honest to God, to be open to God, to trust in God who trusts in you. Then, stand back, and just watch what God can do with that kind of soil and soul. Why it is enough to make radical believers of us.

Copyright 1999 Calvary Episcopal Church.

First Reading: Isaiah 55: 1-5, 10-13
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

For 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. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. (NRSV)

Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 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!

"Hear then the parable of the sower. 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." (NRSV)

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