Matthew 13:1-9

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!”

Good Soil

I grew up in a small rural town in Southwest Connecticut. It had one dairy farm and every year the Kindergarten class got taken on a field trip to visit it where we got to see cows grazing or chewing their cuds…or maybe even being milked….in in those days that was done by hand. But to this day I still remember that I got to see the bull get a shot. Though the bull seemed non-plussed to me it was very exciting. In fact the whole trip to the farm was exciting.

But it wasn’t until I came to Lompoc that I ever lived someplace surrounded by farms. For a preacher it is especially wonderful because the Bible is FILLED with stories about farming and today’s text is a wonderful example. It’s the Parable of the Sower.

Of course there are different ways a preacher can go with this story. Many interpret it in a pretty moralistic way. They invite people to think about what kind of soil they are. “What about you? Are you the rocky or thorny or the packed down path?” This is actually my least favorite interpretation of this story.

Other preachers focus on the nature of the Sower who, presumably represents God, and they note the extravagance of the sowing. Seed is simply thrown all over the place. This Sower is reckless in his sowing.

They say that any farmer would tell you that is unheard of because seed is precious to them. You just don’t toss it around willy nilly.  And yet isn’t that a wonderful metaphor for a God who is reckless with love. . .a God whose love is cast everywhere. . .who loved us so much that God was willing to risk it all by pouring God’s-self into a bag of skin, for which he paid the ultimate price. Yes, our God is extravagant in how the seeds of love are sown.

Besides, sometimes life takes root in the most unexpected places, doesn’t it? I’ve preached that sermon before. I’ll probably preach it again someday. But this week I just kept thinking about the nature of good soil. What makes for good soil.

Living in Lompoc for two years now I have come to understand that Good soil is broken soil. Good soil is broken soil. I have seen how when the plows do that first turning of the soil they create large blocks of hard soil, but then later they plow again and again, breaking it down more and more until finally it is ready for planting. Living in Lompoc I have learned that good soil is broken soil…soil that is tilled and turned, broken again and again until it is ready to allow seeds to take root.

And of course there is a brokenness in all of us. It’s part of being human. It’s part of living life. We have all known the hurt of betrayal, or abandonment, of being left behind or excluded, of unfulfilled dreams and loss. We have all done stupid things and paid the price for them. There are broken places in each and every one of us.

The irony is that so many of us desperately try to hide that about ourselves, maybe because we are afraid it will make us unlovable or unacceptable not only to others but also to our God. And yet it may well be our brokenness that is the very thing that allows the seed of God’s gracious love to take root in us. Good soil is broken soil.

You know, Jesus spent most of his time with people and in places that would have been considered bad soil in his day. He consorted with despised tax collectors, the ritually unclean, the sick, Samaritans, and women. These were not the spiritual elite of his day. They weren’t good soil by most any measure. But Jesus walked with them, taught, and healed them. Jesus showered them with mercy and love, recklessly sowed the seeds of his love over them, and they did indeed bear much fruit.

In fact if you think about it God uses broken things all the time. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength.

God’s soil is broken soil.

It’s always troubled me when people think of a church as a group of people who are saved. It seems to me that what churches really are is a gathering of people who have accepted their brokenness. We are all broken. It’s just that for some of us the brokenness is more obvious.

Last year I read The Sun Does Shine, a book by Anthony Ray Hinton, a man who was wrongly convicted of the 1985 murders of two fast food restaurant managers in Birmingham, Alabama, sentenced to death, and held on the state’s death row for 28 years….longest in history…before finally being released. It was a powerful book.

But when I read it I never imagined that within a year I’d be speaking to reporters about the prison here in Lompoc. And I know….many of you struggle to connect with that. You may feel like you don’t have any skin in that game. I get that. I’m sure I felt the same way 6 months ago.

But it has been an incredible blessing for me to get to know 12 loved ones of men incarcerated there. Every day I receive emails from at least one of them….sharing information, expressing a concern, lifting up a hope, looking for someone who will listen to them, anyone who might care. These people are truly broken and there’s no hiding it.

So yes, you may think this is all far removed from your experience…except, get this.  One out of two adults in American has experienced incarceration in their family. We’ve got 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s incarcerated. Do you know what the #1 provider of mental health services is in America? Yup….it’s the prison system. Did you know that on any given day about 600,000 people are incarcerated because they couldn’t post bail; they haven’t even been tried yet! Did you know that in CA it costs over $81,000 to keep someone in jail for a year? Your tax dollars at work! If nothing else, maybe THERE’S your skin in the game.

I suspect a lot of you saw the movie Just Mercy so you got to learn about Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who founded the Equal Justice Initiative. He has devoted his life to serving those the world has determined to be “bad soil.”

Bryan himself grew up in a solid working-class family where he was taught the value of education. He got a masters in public policy and a law degree from Harvard. But perhaps most importantly, as a child he was nurtured in the values of the Christian faith. He says he was taught to believe in the power of redemption over revenge.

What I find interesting is how much Stevenson speaks and writes about brokenness. He quotes the great mystic and social activist, Thomas Merton who once said: We are bodies of broken bones.

Stevenson writes:

“I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.

“AND (he writes) It turns out that embracing our brokenness creates a need and a desire for mercy, and then perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy.”

I don’t know. Maybe that is our skin in this game. Maybe there’s our self-interest. Having been touched by a God who has sown seeds of mercy into the cracks of our own brokenness there is something in us that really does need to sow those same seeds into the soil of others.

 Good soil is broken soil.

And if finding soil in those who are stuck behind bars isn’t your thing it’s probably a good idea to try to find it somewhere else if you want to know the sheer joy of sowing seeds of mercy.

Reverend Jane Quandt

July 12, 2020