Jeffery Todd Coleman, according to his mother, came out of the womb a “different child.” Reared in Danville, VA, he spent afternoons in the forest behind his house, playing beneath the shade of southern pines, tending to feral cats and adopting lost possums, preferring the warm hands of nature to the cold shoulder of concrete. When Todd wasn’t outside, he was with resentful relatives, caretakers forced to fill in for mom occupied at work. At George Washington high school, Todd’s interests included ROTC, aiming to be a Marine, industrial arts, vocational classes filled with denim aprons and plumes of sawdust, and substance use, a numbing agent for the pain of everyday existence.
Jesus often invoked the every day in his parables. Leaven in the bread, fishing nets in the water, sheep in the pasture, and, considering ancient Palestine’s agrarian society, seed in the soil. In today’s text, a sower, leather shoulder bag slung across his brown chest, began sowing. Walking down gravel-strewn paths, beside tangled brambles, and through fertile fields organized in neat rows, he scattered wheat and barley seed across the landscape. The Barn Swallows snatched some up; the noon-day sun withered others; and a few planted deep in the black earth. Months later, when the crop was mature and the sickle sharpened, the seed that took root grew to thirty, sixty, and one hundred-fold bushels of grain. Then Jesus said to the great crowds encircling him, “If you have ears, listen.”
In this first of nine parables found in chapter thirteen of Matthew’s Gospel, what’s the miracle?
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 a 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. If you have ears, hear!”
The incredible yield.
Jesus never stopped sowing.
Our lives have different soil seasons.
Riverside Cemetery, one mile north of here, was founded in 1885 as a public park and burial ground. Across its 87 acres lie many of Asheville’s most famous and historic deceased residents: the novelist Thomas Wolfe, the essayist O. Henry, the color field painter Kenneth Noland, the architect Richard Sharp Smith, and the slave turned educator of black youth, Isaac Dickson. One man, who spent his days with a spade in hand and knees in the flower bed, is not listed on the map of notable graves. Rather than a Victorian-style monument or a granite mausoleum, his stone marker is as ordinary as the life he lived. Chiseled in the unpolished rock are his name, date of birth and death, and these words of remembrance, “Some bud on earth, all blossom in heaven.”
When Jesus fastened his overalls and grabbed his seed bag, he had a decision to make. Do I plow the land ahead of time, check the pH levels, spreadthe fertilizer accordingly, coordinate planting with the autumn rains, and make a calculated judgment about the productivity of every parcel? Or, trusting what’s underfoot, do I grab lavish handfuls of seed and scattershot-fling it in every possible direction, indiscriminately sowing with a song of praise on my lips and my gaze lifted high to the sky of possibility?
Of all the miracles in this parable, the most miraculous is Jesus’ certainty that all soil is good soil. All soil is good soil. Despite just being disavowed by his homeroom teacher and little league coach back in Nazareth, Judas’ upcoming scheme to sell him out, and all the failures of humanity in between, Jesus refuses to be anything but a graciously irresponsible farmer.
To know Todd was to know how the world took advantage of him: an errand boy raided his EBT card at the corner store, squatters voided his lease in public housing, and a campmate walked off with his sleeping bag again. And yet, after waking up from one of his daily naps on the pew, with a shock of bottle-blond highlights and innocent blue eyes, Todd would recount what happened without even the slightest tone of cynicism, spiritually naïve to the transgressions that ceaselessly came his way. What made Todd different, in the most sanctified way, was his unrelenting belief that God doesn’t make bad dirt.
In the South, the funeral can be a grand opportunity for conversion. With the seasons we have left, let us overcome our reluctance in relationship, the defensive postures and suspicious attitudes, and be as reckless with our horticulture as the Sower we follow, the One still out there hurling seed into every corner of creation.