Is There Good Soil?

This was my sermon from July 13, 2014.

5th Sunday after the Pentecost
Dalton, MA
July 13, 2014

Scripture: Genesis 25:19-34 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Until an epiphany earlier this week, I had the image of this parable as four different places where the sower casted seeds. Maybe it came to me because I have an old vegetable garden in my yard which over the past several years weeds have overrun. About 20-plus years ago I planted the entire patch and it produced well. Then I barely had to buy vegetables. But as having children and increasing work responsibilities took more and more time, I did less and less in the vegetable garden. Finally, the last couple of summers we belonged to a CSA, which meant I didn’t have to do any gardening, and the weeds finally triumphed.

In April my older daughter called me, which when your children call you on the phone today, you know if must be important. “Dad, can we plant the vegetable garden?” “Sure,” I said, “are you going to help?” So, with the help of both my daughters we reclaimed some of the vegetable patch. It’s modest compared to 20 years ago, but it’s doing well. We’ve been able to stay on top of the weeds, too.

Matthew 13 is all about the kingdom of God. What is it like? It points out its expansiveness: bringing forth grain a hundredfold or yeast that leavens the flour. It reminds us how it is distinguished and stands apart from our world: the wheat among the weeds or the pearl of great value. By planting the good soil, the kingdom of God will flourish. My epiphany was fundamentally, except for the path, all the soil was good. Why should we be limited to the clear field? If we prepare the soil by removing rocks (remember we live in New England – home to stone walls), we make the field workable. Removing thorns and weeds exposes good soil. By working the field, removing rocks and weeds, we expand the possibility for the kingdom of God to take root and flourish.

Knowing that we can’t sow on the path, when we see this parable as three different fields we think in the ways of our world, a world organized around scarcity and fear. That’s part of what was in play with Jacob and Esau. There was only one birthright, which Esau purchased from Jacob for a bowl of lentils. Later in the Jacob story, we learn that Jacob stole Isaac’s blessing from Esau as well. We want to have enough without realizing that there is enough already. When we think about the full trajectory of the Jacob story, we see that getting the birthright and Isaac’s blessing didn’t make Jacob wealthy. Before he could use them he fled to Laban, Rebekah’s brother, and eventually married both Leah and Rachel, his daughters. Jacob became wealthy because he was clever and was able to finesse Laban’s sheep and goats from him. After many, many years, Jacob returned home a very wealthy man and reconciled with Esau, who also became very wealthy. As young men they competed over a finite resource, but in that stunning reconciliation scene in Genesis 33 they had more than enough.

I think that’s what’s happening in this country today. The split between left and right, Republican and Democrat has multiple roots, but one is around our perception of our economy. We see scarcity and that frightens us. It’s a small patch of the field without rocks and thorns and we have different ways to preserve what we get from the field lest we run out. Furthermore, we can’t risk letting others share from this field because we barely have enough for ourselves. We look at the rest of the field and say, “It’s too rocky. The weeds are thick and dense. Nothing will grow.”

I think that’s one of the reasons we’re in a bind over the current human tragedy along our border with Mexico. Since October 2013, over 50,000 unaccompanied children have tried to cross it. They have come primarily from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, places where extreme, lethal gang violence, especially targeted at youth, is commonplace. Many families are sending them to the United States to re-unite with family members already in this country, many of whom are probably undocumented immigrants themselves. There is resistance to letting these children into the country. Here’s a comment in response to a recent Newsweek article:

OBAMA wants 3 BILLION dollars from the AMERICAN TAX PAYER. Try not to be clueless, but yes every American is having their pocket picked because of these ILLEGAL ALIENS who are the dregs of the society they came from! They contribute nothing to society….they are greedy takers! They will get free health care, free education, will work under the table and not pay taxes.

Of course the political rhetoric doesn’t help. Many critics fault the administration for not following the law, despite the law that’s on the books. An immigration law passed and signed in 2008 allows unaccompanied children to enter this country and be housed until they appear in an immigration court for a ruling. This law was put in place as a way to stymie human trafficking. Today’s children are not coming because of the DREAM Act, which allowed undocumented immigrant children already in this country an opportunity to stay. It doesn’t apply to the children coming now. Furthermore, this administration has been particularly tough on illegal immigration. The Pew Research Center found that the Obama administration has deported more people every year than George W. Bush’s administration.

The conflict around the children’s immigration situation is a distilled glimpse of the larger conflict around immigration right now. True, the conflict is not only around economics. Race has a large and unacknowledged role, too. But the common reasons we hear to keep our borders “secure” are economic-based. Like the Newsweek comment, there’s a sense that we don’t have enough anymore. And that may be true because the rocks and weeds are changes in the world which have upended traditional economics. Capital moves across the world without regard to international borders. Technology allows high-paying, middle class jobs, such as accounting and engineering, to be exported to places wherever there is a highly educated workforce like India and China. Products, such as clothing, once made in the United States are being made in countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. Even some fish caught in American waters are sent overseas for processing before coming to our supermarkets.

But the field is a lot bigger than the exposed patch of rock-free and weed-free ground we see now and fight over today. Sure, looking at the rest of the field, it seems pretty daunting to make it arable, especially if we continue to think only about our parochial interests. But the kingdom of God is not about each of us individually, it is about all of us together. The kingdom comes when we work together and share together. We’ll clear the field when we all work together: men and women, gay and straight, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, people of all races and all cultures, citizen and non-citizen, native and immigrant. When we clear the field and plant it we’ll have more to share among all of us. Indeed if we clear the field and rethink the way we distribute the field’s yield, we will probably have so much that we could give away enough to close the income and wealth disparity in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador so the gang violence can end and families won’t send their children unaccompanied to our border.

We cannot continue to think in terms of scarcity. It will lead to more fear. It will lead to death. Abundance describes God’s kingdom. That’s how we must frame our world. When we do that it will lead to love. It will affirm life.

There’s a hymn set to the tune King’s Weston. John Dalles, a Presbyterian pastor, wrote its lyrics. The first verse reads as follows:

“Come to tend God’s garden, seeds of hope to sow,
planting fields of justice, watching mercy grow!
In an arid wasteland, spread a verdant heath!
In a land of tumult, cultivate God’s peace!”

Unless we look at the entire field and grab our hoes and work hard together to clear it of weeds and grab our shovels to dig out its rocks, we will rage as two nations against each other while occupying the same land. We will not have peace. We will not know shalom.

The soil is good across the entire field. Let’s clear it together.

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About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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2 Responses to Is There Good Soil?

  1. Margaret Beckman says:

    Thanks for this message. The scarcity mentality may well be our collective undoing. Yet, the prosperity gospel is no true counterpoint. We continually two questions. How much is enough? Who is my neighbor?
    May we each be guided by the quest for a meaningful life and justice.

    • Quentin Chin says:

      The prosperity gospel is false – we might even call it a false god. When I think of the prosperity gospel I think of the parishioners who lost their financial well-being and future when Enron collapsed. Was that really a sign of God’s disfavor?

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