Several years ago, as a young adult, I made what I still think was the perfect New Year’s Resolution for myself- “Be More Awesome.” It’s great because there is no metric for success really. If I was 1 degree more awesome than the year before, I’d have succeeded. And it gave me a way to make decisions. What’s the more awesome thing to do here? It led me into taking some risks that paid off, I tried new things, I did some things to make me more excited about my life and proud of myself. But, for every resolution that worked, I have lots that didn’t. Both New Year’s Resolutions and just regular- this time it's going to be different kinds of resolutions. You know the ones- Starting next week I’m going to start meal prepping so I’ll have a healthy lunch every day. Starting next month, I’m going to stick to my budget. Any New Year’s Resolution people out there? It’s okay if so. They’re the butt of a lot of jokes, but I love a resolution! I love to see people (including myself) make and keep promises to themselves. Give me a thumbs up if you have ever made and kept a New Year’s Resolution. And a thumbs down if you’ve ever made one and failed to keep it. No judgment here. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.
Psychologists can tell us that behavioral change is hard. So, if you’ve ever struggled to make a change, know this: it is actually just as hard as you think it is. Unraveling some deeply entrenched habits while building positive new habits is a lot of work for our brains. Successful change making requires some perfect alchemy of understanding why you need to make the change, feeling the pain of your current situation, understanding the rewards of making the change, having the right motivation, having good support and resources for making the change, rewards for progress, and of course, having the ability to continue trying even when you’ve failed. So, for all of your failed resolutions- same. Been there. And so have many of the people around you. And if some of those resolutions were about your spiritual life- I’m going to have a better prayer life, I’m going to start going to church every week, I’m going to find a spiritual mentor, I’m going to have a daily devotion- again, same. Been there.
When we look at a scripture passage like ours for today about the Parable of the Sower, sometimes we think we know what it means and that meaning is that we just need to be better followers of Christ. We just need to make those changes in our spiritual life, and we’ll be the good soil. If we could finally get into the right habits, we’ll have it all figured out and then BOOM! Bumper crop. But I think there’s something else going on here.
For many of us, the Parable of the Sower is very familiar. You’ve likely heard it before and you may think you know what it says- Jesus does, after all, offer an explanation. Each of the soils in which the seeds do or do not grow represents a different kind of person. And the gospel writer offers case studies in future chapters of Mark to show his readers what exactly this looks like. Some people are like the path- too hard for the seed to penetrate, evil causes those seeds to die or be blown away immediately. And others, like the crowds who sometimes love Jesus and other times turn away from him are like the rocky soil; the word enters them, but it never takes root. For some, like the disciples themselves, the seed takes root and flourishes, but when trouble comes, the plant dies. The disciples believe themselves to be the most faithful, but when Jesus’ arrest and persecution comes, they scatter to the wind. Still others are like the thorny soil; they hear the word but the concerns of the world, wealth, and power choke it out. We see this in the story of the Rich Young Ruler who, when told to sell everything he has, instead goes away sad. He prefers the comforts of his wealth to a life with Jesus. And finally, there are some who are like good soil. The hear the word and the seed grows healthy and strong and the plant bears fruit- a bumper crop! Growth beyond what could be imagined! So, we’ve got this parable down, right? Be the right kind of soil. Make those changes and report back. Glad we’ve got it on lock. Go have a good lunch and Sunday afternoon nap, see you next week!
Just kidding! As is often the case, there is more in this parable than meets the eye. One thing to remember is the audience to whom Jesus was speaking. They were likely poor, mostly illiterate, people of the land. Most were farmers, which explains why Jesus so often uses stories about the earth. These were recognizable metaphors. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that poor and illiterate means stupid. That wasn’t the case then, and it wasn’t the case now. Jesus’ listeners lived in an economic system that of course, privileged the rich. The land was almost entirely controlled by the wealthy. Most small landowners were forced to sell their land to the wealthy and then lease or rent it back in order to survive. They would often be working on the worst patches of land. They may be the farmers trying to grow a crop on the hard packed earth, among the rocks, the thorns, the wind, and drought. They knew the risk of planting with a slim chance of harvesting. They knew they just had to work with whatever they had. And they also knew the absolute freedom of a successful crop. The good soil that produces thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold? That was lifechanging. That was freedom for their family, perhaps even for the whole village. They knew that was beyond imaging, they knew that was abundant life.
But Jesus’ listeners (and any among us who know anything about growing plants) also knew that soil can’t change itself. Soil can’t just magically decide to be different. So that earlier, shallower interpretation of the parable to just be the right kind of soil? Not particularly helpful. Dirt has never had a successful New Year’s Resolution. The story of soil is that it is improved by having the sun and rain it needs, tilling, fertilizer; soil is improved by the work of the farmer. And the story of us is that like soil, we are changed by what happens to us, for better or for worse. And we only become the good soil because of the grace of God.
In the past, our backyard has had a near-constant shade cover due to the many large trees in our yard. But this fall, we had to have two trees removed and another pruned. The sun can now shine on the ground in areas that had previously been, at best, dappled with light. The soil will change. (And maybe one day we’ll have some grass, we’ll see!)
Our environment changes us. Time changes us. The seasons of our lives change us. Think for just a moment of the child you were. What were the dreams you had then? Who did you think you would become? Or what about the person you were when you graduated high school? How have you grown and matured? How has time made you cynical, brittle, closed off to new life? Those changes, of course, cannot be separated from the way the events of our lives change us. You flourish in a new area. You fall in love. You get lost in your grief after someone dies. Your eyes are open to the pain of others and your heart grows more and more tender. Soil can’t change itself. We can’t change ourselves, at least not easily. But we are changed. For better or worse, we are changed.
So rather than reading this parable as if you get to choose what kind of soil you want to be, or as if you can simply decide to be a different kind of soil, I’d like to suggest what I think is a more honest reading. Maybe in different seasons of your life, you are different types of soil. As you are changed by the seasons of your life, your soil composition is different. Perhaps it changes from day to day or even minute to minute. Some days you’re the rocky soil. Some days you’re the thorny soil. Some days you’re the path. Maybe you were grumpy and tired this morning. You forgot you were out of coffee, and do you even know how cold it is outside?! You showed up to worship this morning as the hardest path you can imagine. No seeds could possibly penetrate. But being here in this place among these people, perhaps your soil has been tilled, watered. A seed might take root after all.
Every day, God is tossing the seeds of grace your direction. Every day God is good and faithful and maybe God is wasting grace on your hard, cynical, angry heart, but it’s coming every single day whether you want it or not, whether you can see it or not. Every day, a hopeful seed is thrown your way. And one day, it is going to flourish. One day, it will bloom and bear fruit again. Some among us have been in a long, dry spiritual place. It won’t last forever. The Sower promises a crop.
You see, this really isn’t a story of how you need to get your act together and decide to be a good Christian. This is the story of how absolutely indiscriminate the Sower is with the seeds. As you are changed by the forces of the world, and you try and fail and try again to be faithful to God, never doubt that the Sower is still planting in you.
So then, what can we do? What is this parable calling us to today? I’d suggest a couple of things:
1) Beware the forces that will prevent the seed from taking root in you. Evil, cynicism, distraction, busyness, fear, the pursuit of power and money. All of these will come (they’ll probably come today). Beware the ways they will make it difficult to follow Christ. These forces can change us for the worse, but we have choices about how we respond.
2) Just keep showing up and allow yourself to change and be changed. Let the gifts and goodness of life aerate, till, fertilize, and nourish you. Virginia Woolf wrote, “A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.” Respond to the seasons of your life with hope, faithfulness, and openness.
3) Trust the sower. Trust that in time, God will do in you and through you exactly what is needed. Philippians 1:6 says “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.” Trust that however bad your soil might be right now, this is not the end of the story. Grace will trickle down like water, softening the hard places, nourishing what has been depleted, giving you everything you need to live the life God is calling you to.
Friends, salvation and sanctification are through the grace of God. It is not in your ability to keep spiritual disciplines perfectly or to make whatever change into the perfect Christian. It does not depend on us, thanks be to God. Salvation is a gift of God. Ephesians 2:8-9 remind us “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God- not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Works are good, works are important. But your works will not save you. Friends the good news of the parable of the Sower and the good news of Jesus Christ is this: you are loved, God’s relentless grace comes over and over. All you are asked to do is to receive it.