Tending Soil or Slinging Mud?

venice

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on July 16, 2017, just a couple days after returning from a fabulous vacation to Italy with my family.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Some of you know that my family and I just returned from a “vacation of a lifetime” to Italy. We spent three days in Rome, took a train to Florence and spend three days there, and finished with another three days in Venice. I will resist the temptation to make this sermon a travelogue of the trip, except to say that all of it, from the ancient ruins in Rome, to the Renaissance art in Florence, to the canals in Venice, to the food, Oh, the food, all of it was extraordinary!

That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges. It was about 90 degrees and humid the whole time, the three of us shared small hotel rooms and none of us slept well. And though we tried to pace ourselves and not take on too much, we were constantly on the go with little real down time. So, despite the glory of it all, and it was glorious, we experienced the occasional meltdown.

Not surprisingly, the most significant of these came on our last day in Venice. With no more “must-sees” on the agenda, I suggested that we take the Vaparezzo, a water bus, to a nearby island in the bay to see a church there and climb a tower for a view of Venice. Lourdes was not enthusiastic, in particular noting how much this additional side trip would cost. You should know that Lourdes very expertly manages our family finances, and it was entirely because of her disciplined budgeting that we were able to go on this trip to begin with. While I regularly affirm Lourdes for her money management and express gratitude for all the ways it benefits our family, I occasionally push back and dig in around the particulars, how much to spend on a meal, whether to catch a taxi from the train station to the hotel, or whether to ride the Vaparezzo to San Giorgio Maggiore. And on that last day in Italy, on that subject of whether or not to ride the Vaparezzo, I dug in.

I won’t give you the play by play, but there are two things I want you to know.

First, we did not ride the Vaparezzo to see that church, yet we had a marvelous time. Taking our (free) walk through Venice we met an expat-Englishman who introduced us to a very inexpensive gondola to take us across the Grand Canal, and pointed us toward a lovely café on Plaza San Marco where we enjoyed a cold beverage and a sandwich. He taught us that by standing at the bar, as many locals do, instead of sitting at a table we would pay much less.

To make it plain, Lourdes was right, I was wrong.

The second thing I want you to know is that before that happy outcome was determined the disagreement devolved into one of those “you never-you always” disputes. I know you know what I’m talking about. Instead of just discussing the pros and cons of different points of view, we quickly claim the moral high ground and judge the other, using words like “always” and “never” to impugn the other’s character. As in, “You always spend money so frivolously,” or, “You can never relax and let us just enjoy ourselves.” Just for example.

When I returned to the office on Thursday and opened to this Sunday’s lesson, the well-known parable of the sower from the gospel of Matthew, I recalled this always-never exchange in Venice. Let’s take a look, then circle back.

You may have noticed that there are two distinct parts in the telling of this story. In the first part, Jesus tells the parable of a sower, a farmer sowing seed, who casts seed everywhere. Some falls on the path, some on rocks, some among thorns, and some in good soil. The seed that falls on good soil thrives while the other seed fails to produce. Notice that the focus in these first verses is on the sower, the one casting seeds without regard for where it lands or whether it produces. The sower is God, and the seed is God’s word which communicates grace and love. God shares grace and love abundantly, even, by the world’s standards, foolishly. After all, why scatter seed where we know it will not take root and grow? But this is the extravagant nature of God.

After the parable itself, comes an explanation or interpretation of the story. Some scholars suggest that while the parable was likely told by Jesus himself, the interpretation may have been added later by the writer of the gospel. Note that the explanation has a different emphasis. While the parable focuses on the sower, an extravagantly loving God, the interpretation focuses on what kind of soil the listener will be. Matthew likely wrote this as encouragement to those in his community to be good soil who take in God’s love and grace, reproduce it and share its fruit.

So both the parable and its explanation seem to have fabulous messages, right? God shares abundant love and grace everywhere, even upon the rockiest, thorniest parts of our lives. And, we are encouraged to be fertile soil for all that love and grace, take it in, nurture it, let it sprout and grow in us, and bear fruit that we then share as God does, extravagantly, along life’s path, amid rocks and thorns.

Unfortunately, I think we sometimes take another turn in response to this parable and its explanation, a turn not reflected in the biblical account, but evidenced in the “you always – you never” exchanges of our lives. That is, instead of tilling our own soil, we sling mud at others. We take Jesus’ symbolic identification of types of soil and appoint ourselves the world’s horticulturalists. When we claim the good soil of righteousness for ourselves and judge other’s dirt piles and sandboxes as inadequate we shut down communication and the consequences can be hurtful, even devastating.

I came across an article this week written by a woman whose parents had just finalized their divorce after 44 years of marriage. On the surface, the cause of the divorce was her father’s serial infidelity. But the author digs deeper, trying to get at those things that set up relationships for such betrayal, things she describes as hardness of heart. But we might just as rightly call them rocky and thorny soil. Her list of rocks and thorns includes these:

  • Comparing and contrasting your wrongs against the other and making the judgement that “theirs are worse.”

 

  • Magnifying the weaknesses and minimizing the strengths of the other, while magnifying the strengths and minimizing the weakness of yourself.

 

  • Spending more time trying to find an official diagnoses to explain away their issues than looking in the mirror to address your own.

The writer ends this list of heart hardening, soil depleting behaviors with one last example:

  • Reading this list, she writes, and thinking someone else should be reading it instead of reflecting on its implications for you.

It seems to me that these are all variations of the soil depleting “you always – you never” response to the tough stuff and hard work of committed relationships. Each presumes the moral high ground, justifying one’s own beliefs and behavior while condemning that of the other.

Lourdes and I celebrate, and I do mean celebrate, sixteen years of marriage this coming Friday, and in those sixteen years I have fallen into each of these ways of thinking and acting from time to time, most recently in Venice. I have also come to better recognize these rocks and thorns when they arise and respond differently, namely by returning to tend to my own soil.

So, here are the takeaways. God scatters love and grace everywhere. There were ample reminders of this in Italy, from honeymoon couples riding in gondolas to the extraordinary churches and cathedrals, but truth be told, our trip also reminded me of all the love and grace I experience right here. The comfort of our own bed, a slower, more predictable pace of life, home cooked meals, our dog Sweetie, and this good church.

God scatters love and grace everywhere. Whether it sprouts, puts down roots, grows up and spreads out, and bears fruit is up to us and the soil we prepare.

When we are weary, as I was in Venice, it is easy to claim our patch of earth as moral high ground and sling mud at others – you always… you never…. But when we do, we only succeed in depleting our own soil.

Perhaps you are weary now, feeling depleted by rocky and thorny circumstance, tempted to blame and dismiss others with pronouncements of “always and never.” We are encouraged by Matthew to return to our own soil, opening ourselves to the grace and love of God. And we are reminded by Jesus that that grace and love is EVERYWHERE!

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