Monday, July 17, 2017

Sermon: "Fertile Ground for the Kingdom of God"

A Meditation on Matthew 13:
"Some fell on good earth, and produced a harvest beyond his wildest dreams."


Millet's "The Sower"
There’s a painting in Boston, at the Museum of Fine Arts, called “The Sower” by Jean Francois Millet.  With a name like that, you almost have to be a painter.  Jean Francois Millet.  He was a 19th century Frenchman, the founder, I believe, of the Barbizon School of French Realism.  And in a lot of ways, Millet’s painting of “The Sower” is as compelling as Jesus’ parable itself.  Go home this afternoon and look it up online.

Millet’s sower is a small figure, moving across what appears to be a parched and stony landscape.  But he moves happily, energetically, flinging his precious seed just the same, one hand dipping into his satchel and the other letting seed fly.  Wherever.  Sowing as sowers do.

And there are stones in his way, and the earth is scorched and cracked beneath his feet.  So it’s not real obvious that all this flinging’s a winning proposition.  It’s not real obvious what the return will be on the sower’s time and energy and love.  And in Millet’s painting there are a dozen black birds—a dozen hungry black birds—wheeling overhead and eager to pounce on any seed that doesn’t quite make it.

This is a parable, it seems, about the kingdom of God, the generosity of God, the grace of God.  The sower is undaunted.  Jesus’ sower.  Millet’s sower.  He’s undaunted, unfazed by the long odds of making things grow out there.  In Jesus’ hands, in Millet’s hands too, the kingdom of God is a kingdom of daring love and abundant grace and a thousand risks taken with no guarantees at all of return or reward.  The generosity of God.  That’s the kingdom.  There’s grace in the sower’s stride, in the sweeping extension of his arm as he flings his seed.  Flinging.  Always flinging.  Always flinging.

Some of that seed, some of that precious seed is undoubtedly going to fall on the road; we know it will.  It’ll lay there at the surface of things, unable to go deep, and the birds will have their fill.  And some of that seed’s going to sprout quickly, enthusiastically even, but put down no roots, make no commitments; and it’ll wither just as fast as it bloomed.

And, of course, some of that seed’s going to fall among weeds, and well, the weeds will have their way.  We know these things are true.  We know how the world works. 

But Jesus’ flinger flings, just as Millet’s sower sows, just as God’s lovers love.  And for all the stones in the field, for all the weeds at the edges, for all the hungry birds wheeling above, the sower’s grace shines under stormy skies.  The sower keeps on sowing.  The flinger keeps on flinging.  The lover keeps on loving.  And sometimes, sometimes, the seed finds its home; sometimes the seed finds good earth, fertile land, a deep and welcoming heart.  And when it does—when grace lodges in a humble heart—well, then, God’s harvest comes in.  God’s harvest comes in, plentiful and rich.  God’s harvest, Jesus says, is beyond our wildest dreams.      

So let’s just start there.  With the generosity of God.  With the amazing grace at the heart of God’s kingdom.  Maybe you’ll go home this afternoon, find Jean Francois Millet’s painting online, and print off a copy.  Put it up on your refrigerator or above your desk or on your bathroom mirror.  The sower sows.  The flinger flings.  The lover loves.  Whether the stock market’s up or the market’s down.  The sower sows.  The flinger flings.  The lover loves.  Whether you’ve hit a wall or a professional dead-end, whether you’re at a creative peak or an emotional low.  The sower sows.  The flinger flings.  The lover loves.  Whether the movers and shakers of the world are inspiring confidence or colluding in shame.  The sower sows.  The flinger flings.  The lover loves. 

In his painting, Jean Francois Millet adds a sprinkling of seed—midair, just released from the sower’s outstretched hand.  And it’s possible to believe that good things, generous growth, lively living things will come.  A harvest.  When the seed finds its home.  When the seed finds a humble heart.  When the seeds rests in God’s good earth.  I guess that’s what great paintings, great parables do.  They provoke possibility.  They inspire wonder and curiosity and promise.  Maybe that sprinkling of seed will find its home.  Maybe this good news is ours to cherish.  Maybe the harvest is coming in.


Of course, to say that a parable provokes possibility is also to say that a parable creates a kind of crisis in our spiritual lives.  Inevitably.  You see, Jesus isn’t fooling around.  Jesus is itching for a harvest.  To say that he inspires wonder is also to say that he offers us choices, critical choices around lifestyle and ethics, important choices around practice and priorities.  The kingdom of God isn’t just a sweet idea for Jesus; it isn’t just an image of a better world to come.  The kingdom of God is a lifestyle, a way of living and breathing and loving, in the very midst of God’s very present and very amazing grace.  How are we going to do that?  How are you and I going to live and love and eat and drink and organize and prioritize in a world governed and infused and shaped by grace?  Parables provoke possibility.  Parables create a kind of crisis.  These aren’t pithy one-lines.  These aren’t Instagram memes.  The kingdom of God isn’t just a sweet idea for Jesus: it’s got to be a lifestyle, it’s got to be a practice, it’s got to be discipleship itself.

When you follow me, Jesus says to his disciples, you’re going to live in two worlds at the same time.  Two worlds at the same time.  This is so important, I think, so radically important for 21st century church.  Jesus says to you and me: When you practice discipleship, when you follow me, you’re going to live in two worlds, two kingdoms at the same time.  And this is the context, I think, of all his parables.  The parable of the prodigal son.  The parable of the good Samaritan.  The parable of the sower today.  We live in two worlds.  We live in two kingdoms.  We live in two empires, at the same time.  And that’s some tricky business.

On the one hand, of course, Jesus and his friends are living in a Roman empire.  And that Roman empire is pervasive and powerful.  See if this sounds familiar.  Rome manages its global affairs by military might, and organizes its many bureaucracies according to privilege, and controls its many citizens and immigrants through fear.  Might.  Privilege.  And fear.  We ourselves know a thing or two about this strange trinity: might, privilege and fear.  It’s the stuff of many an empire.  The mechanics of many a kingdom.  Everywhere Jesus goes, he finds children conscripted by empire.  Everywhere he goes, he finds religious communities adjusting to empire.  Everywhere he goes, he finds poor folk marginalized and women demonized and families terrorized by empire.

So Jesus lives in that world.  His disciples live in that world.  We live in that world.  But the kingdom of God, he says—in his preaching, in his practice—the kingdom of God is at hand.  The kingdom of God is among you, is alive in your midst, is a reality you can embrace here and now.  His language is confrontational.  The kingdom of God is not the kingdom of Caesar.  The empire of God is not the empire of Rome.  The kingdom of God is compassion, not might.  It’s abundance for all, not privilege for some.  The kingdom of God is love, love, love; and not fear. 

And so living in two kingdoms is hard, Jesus says.  And his parables provoke possibility.  They create crisis.  They insist on a new orientation, our new orientation in the world.  Or in the worlds that we live in.


Let me suggest what this might look like.  In part.

Nine years ago, I visited the ancient city of Hebron in the West Bank, for the first time.  My guide for those couple of days was an 18-year-old engineering student, a Palestinian named Tariq Natsheh.  And Tariq introduced me to his friends and to the divided, anxious city of his people.  Then and now, Hebron is split in several ways by Israeli military outposts and small (but determined) Israeli settlements.  Illegal, but entrenched.  Tariq walked me through center city alleyways, where wire fencing had been tacked across those alleyways, parallel to the ground, to catch rancid garbage and rocks tossed by angry settlers at Palestinians below.  He tried to explain what this kind of violence, what this kind of occupation, does to a people.

That first day, as we scurried across a kind of ‘no man’s land’ at the heart of the city, an armed Israel soldier sitting at a makeshift called us over.  “Hey you,” he said, pointing at Tariq with his machine gun, “get over here.”  It turns out that it happens all the time in Hebron.  It’s about control, right, it’s about power.  Might, privilege and fear.  And Tariq Natsheh—this 18-year-old engineering student—was ready for it. Like he’d been preparing all his life.  For this.

So to make a long story short, that Israeli soldier was 18, maybe 19, the same age as Tariq.  He was good bit taller, and as he stood up and unfolded his long frame, he fingered the barrel of his pretty significant machine gun.  But face to face, he and Tariq were contemporaries: one Israeli, conscripted into a role it turns out he resented, the other Palestinian, determined to make a difference for his people.

It was obvious, from the start, that the young soldier believed that he had the authority in that square.  He was asking the questions.  He was playing the part.  He certainly had the gun.  But my young Palestinian host was polite, responsive and amazingly comfortable in what seemed, to me at least, a strange and dangerous moment.  I couldn’t keep my eye off the gun, to be honest.  But Tariq looked the Israeli boy in the eye, showed no interest in his weapon; and he smiled and before long turned the conversation in a whole new direction.

“You say you’re bored,” he said to the soldier.

“Yeah,” the soldier said, “I never wanted to be doing this.  This isn’t my thing.”

“Then why are you here?” Tariq said.

“Don’t have a choice,” the soldier said.  “We all got to serve.  We go where they tell us.”

And this was the moment, it turned out, that Tariq was waiting for.  With love in his eyes—and I really mean that—with love in his eyes, this Palestinian student told his Israeli brother about a network that helps Israelis in the army get out of serving in the West Bank.  I believe the group’s called Breaking the Silence—and I don’t for a moment imagine that joining the group, or getting out of the army, is an easy thing or a painless thing or a celebrated thing among Israelis supporting the occupation.  I’m sure it’s not.

But for about ten minutes, in no man’s land, these two 18-year-olds had a conversation.  About living in two worlds.  About dealing with that.  About making good choices, moral choices, life-affirming choices in the midst of it all.  I’m quite sure the young Israeli had never had a conversation like that; and I’m absolutely sure I’d never witnessed one before.  But young Tariq seemed remarkably at home: in those two worlds, in those two kingdoms.  One, a kingdom of power and might, a kingdom of fancy weaponry and occupation.  The other, a kingdom of decency and love, imagination and equality.  A kingdom where anything’s possible. 

Who knows what happened after we left.  But for ten minutes, I watched a young Palestinian encouraging a young Israeli soldier to lay his weapon down.  For ten minutes, I watched a lover of life offering counsel and friendship to a mortal enemy.  Like I say, who knows what happened after we left.  But that was faith out there in no man’s land that day; that was discipleship.  And that’s what it looks like when the word of life lands on holy ground, fertile soil, and produces a harvest of compassion and decency and hope.


The kingdom of God is a kingdom of daring love and abundant grace and a thousand risks taken with no guarantees at all of return or reward.  This is always the way in Jesus’ parables.  It’s inevitably the spirit of Jesus’ life, his choices, his loving.  The sower sows.  The flinger flings.  The lover loves.

And the invitation is ours.  The opportunity is ours.  The kingdom is at hand.  God yearns for our partnership.  God aches for our friendship.  God invites you and me to offer our lives, our practice, our church as fertile ground for the seeds of grace and love.  What will we do with God’s invitation?  How will we orient our lives, our days, our relationships in response?  I don’t think of my young friend Tariq as a superhero, or a Nobel prize winner, or even a spiritual giant.  But I do think of him as generous, I do think of him as prepared.  And I think of his life as fertile ground for the kingdom of God.  God, make me, make us all, fertile ground for the kingdom of God.