“The Good Soil”
A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Douglas M. Donley
April 22, 2018
University Baptist Church
Today is Earth Day. You could feel the energy here in Dinkytown yesterday. Spring Jam, a couple of concerts and the first warm day since like October. Maybe we’ll even see crocuses break through the seemingly never-ending tundra. It’s a day to remember the land and the soil, if for no other reason than we can finally see it.
And in the midst of this, our sisters and brothers in Nicaragua are hiding under tables in the interior of their homes and are hoping to survive. In this age of social media, we can receive videos form our sister church, complete with gunshots outside their homes, armed mobs trying to enter homes. We see the university being torched. We see people burning flags. We see bodies in the streets. We hear the cries of the people we love and all we can imagine is hell.
We don’t know who is responsible for the current violence. Was it students? Was it individuals upset by a new tax increase seen as a way to prop up a corrupt government? Was it the military putting down the student protests? Was it a right wing plot to destabilize Nicaragua so that regime change can be easier—a ploy from the Syrian and Venezuelan playbook? Are people using social media to spread information or disinformation or a combination of both? Who gains from the unrest? Maybe it is the culmination of years of being left out of the discussion?
How can we talk about the good soil, as important as environmental stewardship is, maybe we need to stop and pray for peace in Nicaragua. (We broker here for silent and spoken prayers for the Nicaraguan people caught in this maelstrom of violence.)
What good will looking at a story from the Bible do us today? I don’t know. But I do know that when we read the Bible with the Holy Spirit as the guide and the community as the sounding board, we find the word of God for our lives.
So let’s look at this one. This scripture is unique in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus not only tells a parable, but he interprets it. It’s not just about seeds and ground. It’s about our lives, and the lens through which we view our world.
Jesus says that there are four types of people. And the metaphor he uses is soil. Those who have ears to hear, listen up. Try to discern which kind of soil you are. Do you remember the four types of soil?
The first is hard and so impenetrable that the seeds don’t even have a chance to take root. Birds come and devour the seeds on this kind of soil.
The second is the soil filled with rocks. There is little depth to this soil and the seed can’t take root.
The third kind of soil is the thistle-strewn soil where young saplings are choked as the thorns block its light and take its nutrients.
The fourth and final type of soil is the good soil which will actually bring forth grain.
The gospel then goes on to show us these people. If you can see them in the gospel pages, then maybe you can see them in the world. Maybe we can see which kind of soil we are.
The sower, says Jesus sows the word. In other words, the word or message of God is scattered like seeds on the ground. The sower, the planter of the seeds stays the same. God remains constant. What changes in this story, in this parable is the ground, the soil, the dirt, us. Since we are all part of the ground, we all receive the message. But hope only grows in good soil.
Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford, CT had a beautiful tiffany stained glass window above its altar. Where many churches had a picture of Jesus on the cross, this window had a larger than life figure of a Sower, one who sows the seed of the Word. The sower sows everywhere, but it’s up to those of us who tend the ground to see that the seed takes root and grows.
Jesus explains the story this way: the first group of people, those who are so hard and rigid that nothing penetrates their shell, not even a good seed, never hear the gospel. The birds snatch up the good seed.
These are people blinded by their hard-heartedness. These are people who have lost all hope. These are people who have all of the answers. They feel they need no new seed. They are like a lot of us.
But there is another aspect to this. The scripture says that these first seeds were strewn “along the way”. Jesus meets many people “along the way”. These are the crowds who love him on Palm Sunday and want to crucify him on Good Friday. Many people lined up on the shore might be people Jesus met “along the way.”
Mobs operate in such a way that you can only hunker down and try to ride out their terror. These are people who take guns and kill with impunity.
The second type of ground is called rocky ground: ground which is solid but has little depth. Surprisingly, the disciples fall into this category. When Simon became a disciple, Jesus changed his name to rock. Petros, Peter. He, like the other disciples receive the word with joy immediately. Without question, they leave their nets and follow Jesus. But as the story progresses, we find the disciples to be pathetically unable to get beyond their own need for power and their need for comfort. They have little depth. Chapter 10 shows James and John asking Jesus to grant them privilege to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus. They wanted to rule like everyone else rules—lording it over others. But Jesus’ way of leading does not look like the largely corrupt present-day authority systems. He said, whoever would be great among you must be like a servant.
The disciples, Jesus’ supposedly closest allies have their faith tested later on in chapter 4 and accuse Jesus of not caring if they die in the fierce seas, but Jesus calms the seas and rebukes the disciples for their shallowness. When tribulation comes on the count of the word, the rocky ground people deny Jesus, betray Jesus, fall asleep on Jesus and at the time of the crucifixion, they all run away from Jesus in fear.
Rocky-ground people are in love with Jesus when things are going their way, but cannot bear the burden of the costs of a servant-based discipleship, where we are bound to face persecution and tribulation. For hope to grow, it needs soil with more depth.
Revolutionary forces in Nicaragua forced out a brutal dictator in the 70’s. For a good while, they made fine reforms. But the US funded a counter-revolution and the ideology became fractured as they tried to survive. In exchange for peace with the US, the Nicaraguans enacted austerity measures and eventually changed their constitution to allow a former general to become a leader for seeming life. The liberator now seems to be the oppressor. Rocky ground. And it’s hard to follow Jesus when all you see are rocks.
The third type of people are referred to as the thistle-choked. This is ground strewn with thorns. These are people who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth and the desire for things come in and choke the word and it yields nothing.
This can be seen in the rich young ruler who asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers, “you lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” When he heard this he was shocked and went away grieving for he had many possessions. Those of us with lots of stuff get caught in this same trap. We love and admire Jesus, but we would rather spiritualize his strong words than put them in practice.
Another person who would fall into this category would be Pilate. Pilate originally chose to listen to Jesus and gave him the benefit of the doubt. He found no guilt in him. But when push came to shove and the crowds started threatening Pilate’s power and control, he was quick to opt to maintain his position rather than risk on behalf of the Word.
The revolution in Nicaragua held so much promise. It finally brought down a dictator and sought to do things right. But they were in debt. So they made alliances with those who would fund them and forgive their debt. First it was the Soviet Union and Cuba, then it was the IMF and the world Bank who made them privatize industry in order to get loans forgiven. This made them create things for export but not to feed its people. Then it was the US and Venezuela. The former revolutionaries started consolidating power and undermining the trust of the people.
I wonder about so-called Christian rulers of today’s world who opt for power over human need. I fear for governments that prefer military might over taking care of the poor. When our desire for things and the lure of wealth blinds us to human need, then we are choked by thistles. Hope cannot be sown in this type of soil.
Finally, there is the good soil. “They hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty and a hundredfold.” A normal peasant farmer in a good year would bear fruit about 6-fold. Bearing fruit 30 to 100 fold is very good news to the poor peasants to whom the gospel is written. This is a harvest that will set them up for years to come. This is the language of jubilee.
Interestingly, these good soil people in the gospel are mostly unnamed. All of them are outsiders and none of them are part of Jesus’ inner-circle. They are not part of anyone’s inner-circle. They have no religious or political power. And they are the good soil! Jesus said, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Whoever has ears to hear, listen up. This is what it’s all about. And let me tell you, friends, this is scary because I’m not sure I’m part of the good soil. My own wealth, my own privilege, my own biology, orientation, education and class are thistles and rocks which hamper the seed’s growth. But I want to be good soil. So, with you, I listen for the stories of the good soil.
The Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel, is certainly one of the unnamed good soil.
Another is the unnamed woman with the flow of blood in chapter 5. No physicians could help her and she was on the streets begging and bleeding for 12 years. None of the religious folk would come near her because the book of Leviticus says that anyone touching a woman in her menstrual cycle is ritually unclean. Yet she reached out and touched just the hem of Jesus’ garment. Jesus didn’t rebuke her like all of the other religious leaders, he simply asked who touched him. When the woman admitted in fear and trembling, Jesus said, “your faith has made you well.” This is good soil.
Or then there was the blind beggar Bartimeus in chapter 10 who obnoxiously kept yelling, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Bartimeus called Jesus the Messiah in ways that others simply hadn’t. This one without eyes had seen the most clearly. Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.” This is good soil.
Then there is the woman who anointed Jesus for burial, to the rebuke and consternation of the disciples. This is good soil.
In Mark, the good soil are those outside the accepted parameters of what we usually call power. That’s why we need to be suspicious when people use the Bible to persecute others. It is the opposite of what Jesus did. The only ones Jesus criticized were the ones in positions of domination and control.
And to the early readers, many of whom were persecuted and running for fear of their lives, it was incredibly good news. Jesus said, the good soil is not in Rome, it’s not in the temple in Jerusalem, it’s not even in the leadership of the institutions of religion and politics. The good soil are the people who see the world as it is and have the guts to proclaim not only that it’s messed up, but that there is a better way to live. That way is a way of discipleship. It’s a way of holding on to the power of God instead of the power of institutions. It is by embracing justice and thereby sowing hope in a world bent on destroying itself. To those physically poor, the political and religious outcasts, it was very good news. To the rest of us, this parable is a wake-up call.
The good soil people we know in Nicaragua are hunkering down. They are trying to get the truth out there. They are calling on us to tell their story, to give them names and agency.
If hope is sown in good soil, what kind of soil are we? Are we so hard that we cannot hear any new truth? Are we full or rocks just beneath the surface, willing, but rather shallow? Are we choked by the thistles of power and domination? Or are we good soil which yield grain, growing up increasing and yielding thirty-fold and sixty-fold and a hundred-fold?
This story was told to the people living in terror to help them to hold on when all hell is breaking loose.
What good is this story when all hell is breaking loose? Just this. We need to hold on even tighter when all the world seems to be caught in apocalyptic terror. For the constant in chaos is this Gospel message that we are to create the groundwork of peace. Only then can the seed grow.
So what is the ground of peace? It involves a spirit of truth. It refuses to respond to violence with violence. It prays for those who are blinded by their rage. It offers a better way. It comforts those who mourn. It embraces the reality of trauma and is patient and wise as people disentangle themselves. It works to bring accountability to those who have abused their authority.
The violence in Nicaragua is a symptom of years of pent-up rage at the poor and outcast being ignored or placated. Our role as good soil people is to hear the rage, to not minimize it, and to stand alongside those willing to help. All indications are that this will take a long time. Just like it took them a long time to get to this place.
The parallels to our own country also cannot be overlooked, but that’s another sermon.
Jesus calls us to be the outcast, to stand with the outcast. To stand with those who are often unnamed, who have no claim to worldly wealth or power, but have a connection to God. That’s where the seed of hope really grows. That’s what we have seen in our sister church. That’s what they have helped to foster in us.
A sower went out to sow, said Jesus. But when all hell was breaking loose, the sower kept on sowing, looking for good ground. We along with Jesus, with seeds in our satchels, search for Holy Ground. Maybe it’s right here.