Regardless of your particular taste in music, it is undeniable that country music has not just national but international appeal. It’s a unique form and style of music that transcends geography, class, and national boundaries. If there’s one thing people in Ireland enjoy, it is country music. I think there are as many country stations on the dial as there are here in rural Eastern North Carolina. Not only do they play they latest hits from Nashville, but there is a thriving Irish country music scene, with their own artists. Garth Brooks was scheduled to play five concerts in Dublin in just a few weeks time. This was cancelled only this week by city officials to a huge uproar by over 400,000 outraged fans. I could tune in the same songs in Moscow or Kinshasa. Why is that? It is because these songs speak to us as people. They speak to our lives, our stories, our experiences, what we know as common human experiences. People like to listen to songs about their lives which reflect their own experiences. They know about girls, beer, fishing, hunting, love, hunting, the flag, loving your family, and so on. When someone else sings about them, you feel less alone and isolated. We may not know all of our neighbors, but we know we are like them, and share so much in common when we hear “our songs”. My truck is like your truck. My hat is like your hat. My failed relationship is like yours. Those basic themes resonate everywhere. They tell our story. In one way, to borrow the cliché, they are playing our songs.
It reminds me of the old outlaw country song by Steve Goodman which David Allan Coe made popular in the early 1980’s. It’s called, “You Never Even Called Me by My Name”. It’s the story of a failed relationship, as many country songs tend to be. The singer, in disgust at the failure, recognizes that as an artist, he’s seen his name in lights on many occasions. However, from this moment forward, he’s freeing his former life partner from calling him by any name at all, be it Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, or his own (David Allan Coe). In fact, he says, the only time he knows he’ll hear his own name is when Jesus calls it on judgment day. It’s quite a poignant number. At the end, Coe starts to speak about a dialogue with the writer, Goodman. Coe says that he told Goodman he had written the perfect country and western song. Goodman apparently wrote him back and said no, he hadn’t. He had neglected to write anything about mothers, trucks, prison, or getting drunk. With haste, Goodman penned a further verse to the song:
I was drunk, the day my mom got out of prison
I went to pick up her up in the rain,
But before I could get to the station in my pick up truck,
She got run over by a damn ol’ train…
With that verse, Steve Goodman had written the perfect country and western song. It spoke to every aspect of the human condition.
As such, Jesus has told the perfect country and western parable, speaking to every aspect of our lives and the condition of our souls. He’s covered the rocks, the thorns, the sand, the heat, every emotional, physical, and psychological aspect of our lives. He’s telling our story.
In Matthew 13, Jesus is telling our story. That is why these words resonate with us and that’s why we need to hear it played on our spiritual radios. It’s why it feels familiar at one level but distant at another. Jesus is doing what all good country or bluegrass music does; he is making the ordinary important. Literally, he’s taking ordinary dirt and rocks and making them matters of life and death.
So what is Jesus saying?
My sisters and brothers, he says, y’all better listen up. I’m about to lay some important spiritual learning upon you. Anytime Jesus says, “behold”, believe me, this is what he meant.
A farmer climbed up in his battered old F150 pickup truck for another day seed sowing under the hot Galilean sun. The bed of the truck was full of seeds-all the same size, shape, dimension! This farmer was going to diversify and plant as much as he could. He wanted the biggest yield possible. He wanted to grow real food; he wanted to feed people, his family, whomever he met. He was going to scatter this seed over every inch of ground between Nazareth, Capernaum, Ocracoke, Bethsaida, Buxton, and Tiberias.
He put on the radio, pushed the Biscuitville coffee cups into the floorboard, put a big ol’ bag of seed in the passenger seat of that truck cab, started that engine and headed down Galilee highway 12.
He drove down the road, looking at those electric poles, how some of were still leaning at some mighty funny angles, and as he did, he threw some seed out. That seed just landed out there on the edge of the road. No sooner than it had hit the ground, the seagulls came and ate every last one of them.
Little further down the road he came across a patch of rocky ground, this time he was distracted by some morning show on the radio, where if you call in, they’d give you the punch line for a dirty joke. HE was trying to dial the number, drive, and throw seeds at the same time. The farmer managed hit those rocks without much trouble and without thinking. Those seeds might grow but they would last more than a few weeks, if that.
He was almost back into town when he drove up on a thicket of trees. It was nasty bit of brush, full of thorns and mess. And wouldn’t you know it, while he was reaching for his coffee; he threw a whole handful of seeds into the tangled web of thorns and trees. Nothing was going to grow there. It was to thick, no light. Everything was going to get choked out.
Finally, he saw (without looking at the radio, phone, or his coffee) a decent patch of ground with what looked like livable topsoil. He stopped the truck and put out some seed all through this little patch. This place had potential. Something would grow here. He just knew it.
Now the disciples needed that explained to them. They wanted to know why he spoke in parables and what this particular parable meant. I think we understand it. As I said, it’s our story. But what does it mean? How is it our story?
Usually we read this story in terms of evangelism. We, the good, God-fearing church-folk, are the farmers out sowing seeds on the different kinds of soil of the world. We tell ourselves (often times to cheer ourselves up) that sometimes the Good News will fall in places where it will be well-received and places where it will not. I know this all too well. As a former full-time missionary in Russia and Ireland, I know all too well about planting seed after seed and seeing limited growth. We also see it in local churches here in the United States.
But what if we don’t read this in terms of evangelism this week, this morning, or ever? What if we’re not the good hearted farmer in the pick-up truck? It’s so easy to sit in church and hear this story, to put ourselves in the place of that overworked farmer. We work and we try. Then we leave church and turn on the radio and thank God we’re not like the people in the songs who’ve lost girlfriends, wives, homes, cars, grapple with addiction, and so on. We think we’ve got it all figured out. I think we’ve got it totally backwards. What if we are the song? What if we’re the soil? That’s what I mean about this parable being our story. At times in our lives, we are pretty shallow people where nothing sinks in. In other moments, we’re kind of rocky. Maybe we are hardened by life’s circumstances, impervious to reason, with some cracks in our souls but still unsteady. Sometimes we’re tied up in thorns, so wrapped up in a thicket of emotional knots, and unable to move for the blood we keep drawing from the mental thorns that surround us. But luckily, there are moments when we get it right, when it all comes together and everything clicks, when the right seed takes hold and life flourishes within and the ground around us.
You see, this parable is our story. It is the story of our lives. We may, at times use it to talk about our lives working among others. But ultimately, it’s about us. At some points in our lives we will be all three, each one of these kinds of soil. We want it to average out, more of the last than any of the other three. I think Jesus is making us aware of dangers, challenges, and pitfalls. The seed, the Good News, has been offered equally (it’s the same seed) to all of us. The variable is us. We are the ones who are always changing. We are the ones who fluctuate. But we, with help from family, friends, church, and the Holy Spirit, have some control over our lives. Our stories don’t have to end with the alcoholic, tornado destroyed trailer, psychotic ex-wife fatalism of many country songs. There is a way out, a fourth option, the Good Soil, we can remove the thickets, rocks, and sand from our lives. How willing are you to start today? Do you want to be on your on work team?