6th Sunday after Pentecost 2020
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
The Right Rev. Brian L. Cole
Travis works at the airport in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. He is tall and neat and is helpful to all the customers checking in for the flight to Minneapolis. It is not until our flight is delayed and delayed and then delayed again, however, that I notice the tattoo on Travis’s arm.
There, in the center of his right forearm, is a tattoo of a large cross outlined in red ink. It is a Christian arm that patiently takes the ticket given to him by the grandmother who fears she will now miss the Las Vegas Elderhostel.
When her grandson delivered her to the airport, she was sweet. She is no longer sweet as she expects Travis to find another Northwest plane in the middle of the North Woods of Wisconsin. As my mother would say, she is being ugly.
Travis remains patient with her. He is patient with all of us as we take turns expressing our frustrations about modern air travel to the clean-cut kid with the big red cross on his forearm.
He is doing the best he can. He is from good stock, good people. His cross tattoo is Travis’s way of letting you know he might also admit he believes he is good soil.
In baptism, we speak of being marked as Christ’s own forever. But at some point, the shine of the chrism oil fades and the Christ marking is left only in an interior space inside of us.
On Ash Wednesday, one question every Christian must wrestle with each year after having been reminded we are dust and to dust we shall return is, “Okay, how long do I leave these ashes on my forehead?” Friend, could you not tarry one hour before wiping the cross of ashes from your forehead?
Travis of Rhinelander might be the kind of Christian who wears his Ash Wednesday ashes on his forehead until the night hours come. One day of ashes apparently isn’t enough for Travis. Possibly after some serious reflection or maybe on a spiritually intoxicated high, Travis entered a tattoo parlor and asked a tattoo artist, this age’s secular priest, to mark him as Christ’s own forever. Baptizing waters and anointing oil meets red tattoo ink.
Every day now Travis’s body is a witness, a sign that the seed of the way of Jesus has taken deep root in his life. As the long night in the Rhinelander airport wore on, Travis kept his cool throughout, as the red-trimmed cross offered itself up again and again to a group of stranded pilgrims.
The parable of the sower is not a parable about farming, though seeds and soil and both failed and bumper crops are mentioned.
As a child, I was always painfully aware that my father was an English teacher in a town where it seemed everyone else’s father was a farmer. The other fathers drove tractors and chewed tobacco and wore heavy boots and baseball caps advertising seed and fertilizer and were always up on the latest weather report. My father graded papers and checked roll in homeroom and taught people how to write topic sentences and wore shoes from Penney’s.
There are no parables in the New Testament where a man diagrams a sentence or spells a word correctly and so enters the Kingdom of God. So many parables deal with dirt and weeds and seeds and rain and crops and sowing and reaping.
It is tempting, therefore, to believe all those parables are about farming and that all those Future Farmers of Palestine had some deeper knowledge about the Christian faith.
Remember though, Jesus was a preacher, not a farmer.
He was a preacher of the New Way and in telling about God’s New Way he chose to talk about the old things that people understood.
But if you know anything about preaching, you know that preachers can exaggerate or make stories too fanciful in order to help the Cause.
And so if sister had gone down to the shore that morning to hear the preacher man Jesus sit in the boat and tell a parable about the sower and the seeds, and she had come home and told her father the farmer what Jesus had to say, the farmer would have laughed. “He might be a really good preacher,” her father would have said, “but he’s a crazy farmer.”
In the parable of the sower, the sower throws seeds as if they are free and there is an unlimited supply of them. And the sower sows as if the entire world is a farm field.
The sower does not search out first to determine where the good soil is and then focus the sowing of seeds there. The sower treats the seeds like they are able on their own to make things better. That land has never grown anything before but wait until I toss these seeds. Then things will be different.
The parables are not about farming because no one would farm like that, no sower worth hiring on would ever waste seeds like that.
The parables also are not given to us in order to make the Good News easier to take, to increase our chances of saying, “Oh yes, that makes sense, loving the enemy and taking up the cross is just so practical now.”
Remember where Jesus is situated as he tells the parable of the sower. Jesus is sitting in a boat, a little distance from the shore, where a great crowd has gathered in order to be close to him. To not be overwhelmed by the crowd, to not be crushed by their love and devotion and curiosity, Jesus finds safety in a boat. It’s an absurd scene.
So Jesus responds by telling an absurd story. In fact, all the parables are absurd and I think we typically miss the absurdity in them. If we believe them to be Reader’s Digest versions of the Good News or the Cliff Notes edition of the Christian faith, then we have missed their true meaning.
The parable of the sower is not given to us in order to make the Good News make sense. The parable of the sower, even after Jesus explains it to the disciples, remains a nonsensical story.
Jesus often spoke of himself as a door into abundant life. Yet after hearing a parable, the door can appear to be locked or mislabeled or serve only as an entryway into nowhere.
The parables disorient us and require we enter a new world in order to follow Jesus. The French poet, Paul Eluard, once said, “…there is another world and it is in this one.” Such thinking serves you well in following the way of Jesus.
Jesus is the sower who sows seeds everywhere. The seeds fall onto all kinds of land, rocky and dry and fertile and moist and field and path and pavement and sidewalk and parking lot and forest. Jesus believes the Good News can go anywhere. Jesus believes the Good News can take up root everywhere.
We do not enter into the abundant life because we figure out how to open the Christ door or because we master the art of decoding a parable. We enter because the Christ has opened the door and has reached through and found us in all kinds of conditions, living in the midst of all kinds of dirt. And the Sower Christ has thrown seeds our way whether we were ready for them or not.
In St. Matthew’s gospel, we also hear Jesus tell Peter that the Church will be built on him, Peter, a rock. Peter’s life was indeed rocky. In the stories of Peter, we see signs of all kinds of soil conditions. The same man who denies Jesus as the cross approaches will proclaim the message of Resurrection to thousands on the day of Pentecost.
There may come a day when Travis of Rhinelander finds his life to be dry and the good soil of his soul might lose its fertileness. And he may believe that his tattoo no longer tells the truth about himself. He might head back to that tattoo artist and ask him to place sharp thorns and choking weeds around that cross. As he leaves the tattoo parlor, the tattoo might appear finished.
But outside the tattoo parlor door, is a world that is broken and blessed. In this world, despite all your best efforts, all your tender care, the squash crop this year was a big disappointment. In this world, despite all our indifference and neglect, a wild flower grows in a cracked sidewalk.
There is no telling what the seed can do, once it dies. Once it dies, a new kind of life emerges. And once that kind of life gets loose there is no telling where it will end up and where you will see it again and who will be the bearer of Good News.