Seth Patterson January 21, 2018
Scripture Mark 4:1–9
They stood there and watched me eat. It was a small, spare kitchen, cement walls, bare floor and an electric hot plate that was valiantly trying to get hot enough to boil water for corn. On the small table in the center of the room was a plate of rice, a small bowl of black beans, a plate of cabbage, cucumber and tomato, and one chicken drumstick. Oh, and me. I am sitting at this little table with all this food alone while my hosts stood and watched me expectantly and patiently. Their faces were placid and sort of unreadable—just watching me. Waiting for me. It was my host, her mother, her aunt and nephew, and another young man that I never quite figured out his connection in the family. A cousin maybe?
Nora, Nery and I speak Spanish and English in our home here, so I speak a little Spanish, but it is at the level of my daughter. So, in my 4-year-old Spanish, I try to express that I am hoping that they will all sit and eat with me, that I don’t want to eat alone, that I want to share the gift they are giving me. I want to tell them that I am uncomfortable having them all watch me eat, but I neither know the word for uncomfortable nor do I want to be pushy. Finally, the mother, a serious and round-faced woman, allows her daughter to join me—but she cannot eat any of the chicken! The meat is for the Yankee. (I understood that much.) So, my host, a 14-year-old girl named Leidy Laura, joins me and we eat together. The audience begins to break up and Leidy and I dine while her mother stands guard and makes sure I eat the one piece of chicken.
Cuba. Our much estranged southern sibling. I was fortunate enough to join our delegation from Plymouth on this bridge-building expedition. Eight of us travelled together: Nancy and Ana, Joan, Judith, Tom and Kathryn, Colleen and me. I was there for eight days, the others for a few more. We were carted around the country in a little bus by a very serious man named Enrique, who kept us very safe. And this was all made possible and curated and hosted and personally guided by our two friends Tury and Eduardo. Eduardo is the pastor of the church that we are in relationship with: Iglesia Bautista Immanuel. Tury is a journalist of culture and arts and works closely with Eduardo. The church is in Ciego de Avila—a moderate-sized city in the very center of the island. There is so much to tell you all. I could keep going on—and I kind of want to—but it is better suited for another time and another situation. What I need to tell you all, though, and the eight of us carry this back in our own words and our own voices—the large and loving heart of this small church in Cuba sends effusive and enthusiastic greetings back to their friends at Plymouth in Minnesota. This is an important partnership, I believe, and hope that we can find ways to share more broadly this necessary work of bridge-building and relationship-making. I also firmly believe that we have more to learn from them than they from us.
Cuba is a jumble of contradictions, like all places, I suppose—but especially so, it seems to me. It is spare and abundant. It is joyous and barely on its feet. It is working and it is waiting. It is like us and we are very different. It is a mosaic of the world and it is a world in isolation. It is an island and a bridge. It is the home of José Martí, their most famous poet and a hero of Cuban independence, who illustrates this contradiction beautifully in the poem that Nora read earlier:
I have seen wings that were surging / From beautiful women’s shoulders,
And seen butterflies emerging / From the refuse heap that moulders.
All is beautiful and right, / All is as music and reason;
And all, like diamonds, is light / That was coal before its season
I know when fools are laid to rest / Honor and tears will abound,
And that of all fruits, the best / Is left to rot in holy ground.
Butterflies emerging from garbage. Diamonds from coal. Fools being honored and that which is good left to rot. This is of course the stuff of life and the world, but this is Cuba especially. Due to its history and its location, its topography and geography, circumstances of its making and those imposed from the outside, Cuba can be a confusing place to know which end is up, to know which soil is fertile. Again, we are all contradictions and complications like this, but Cuba seems to be somewhat special in this regard.
So, this island itself is a set of contradictions, there are butterflies emerging from the garbage heaps—and then I arrive in Cuba with my own sets of stories about what Cuba is and is not. No matter how much you read and try to understand the other side, we still hold in primary positions the stories that our own society and culture have told us. So, I walked in to Cuba with our North American perspective and all the privilege and rights that come with it. It is easy, even when you try not to, to walk in with feelings of superiority in our supposed dominance and material wealth and feelings of liberty and freedom. It’s easy to feel like the winners walking into the losing team’s locker room, not to rub it in, but to see what losing looks like. I don’t want to feel like the conqueror, like I am squarely in the right, like I am a voyeur into their sadness. I do not want to and I work very hard not to, but it runs deep and cannot be escaped. And to ignore this undercurrent is to pretend that I am someone that I am not.
So, the island is a set of contradictions and then I arrive in it with my own North American privilege and understandings and then we are brought face to face with the other side of this relationship. We visited the Zapata Swamp area of the central southern part of the island. This was new to all of us, including Eduardo and Tury. This is where the Bahia de Cochinos is located—or, as it is more famously known to us Yankees, the Bay of Pigs. But they don’t refer to it in this way; they instead name it after the landing zone beach named Playa Girón. This museum at Playa Girón, full of joyous victory over the mercenaries supported by the imperialists and their CIA, was a fairly spare and sad building. The video we watched was 50 years old on a tiny TV in a theater. Even in victory, the results were weighed down. The same was the case at the Elias Gonzalez Museum in Cardenas City. It tried very hard to be celebratory, but to me seemed to be covered by a film of resignation. Furthermore, when I interviewed the youth of Eduardo’s church and asked them what they would like to say to the people of Plymouth, many of them said something like: “I know times are tough for you all right now. We want to know you and help you. Trust in God and all will be okay again.” My narrative of what Cuba is, especially in relationship to my own country, was increasingly and necessarily complicated.
Then, wonderfully, things were made even more complicated on my return. I returned alone before the rest of our group and had a long layover in Miami. Luckily, I have a good friend (we call him Q) that was able to pick me up and get me out of the airport. His mother-in-law joined us at lunch and it turns out that she is Cuban—and left Cuba in 1962. These Cubans that left in the early 1960s complicate the story even more. From the Cuban side, they are seen as the wealthy oligarchs that fled Cuba in the face of the righteous revolution. In the United States they are seen as exiles, still holding on to the Cuba that still should exist. But Elda was none of that. Her family was not wealthy at all and resided in a middle-class neighborhood in Havana. They were in full support of the revolution and Fidel Castro and thought the Batista regime was corrupt and unjust. The revolution seemed to be necessary to them until 1961. After the revolution, all of the land was taken from the wealthy and corporate interests and given to the people to farm. The promise was that after the first harvest, they would be paid for their own work on their own land. But, Elda says, this did not happen. The government took all of the harvest and said thank you for your gift to the new government. It was at this point that the family found false visas and left for New York City.
I could go on and on. There is so much to this. Like family fights that no one remembers how they began, the facts, the reality, the truth is buried under so many layers of history. How am I ever to know which side is up, which truth is more true, which reality is more real? How do I act as a good steward of this bridge-building relationship with Iglesia Bautista Immanuel if I have no idea where to plant myself?
And here is where this reading from the book of Mark comes into play. A brief bit of background before I try to connect some dots. And many of you may already know some or all of this. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the synoptic gospels (John is its own thing). Mark was the first to be written, probably about 40 years after Jesus died and the author (or authors) of Mark were almost certainly not an eyewitness to the events described in the book. Matthew and Luke, written slightly later, are both founded upon the material from Mark but for different audiences: simply put, Matthew for Jews and Luke for the Gentiles. And in this book called Mark, this is the first parable to be presented by this Jesus guy who seemed to use parables a lot as a means of conveying purpose to his disciples. It is also noteworthy that this is one of the very few parables that are subsequently explained for the disciples and therefore us. Thanks, author of Mark!
In this parable, Jesus explains a fairly straightforward analogy about a sower (God or Jesus) planting seeds (message or gospel, “The Word”) upon the ground (to the people listening). Four possible things happen to these seeds:
- Birds eat them immediately and they are never even given the opportunity to root.
- They land on thin soil so they root quickly but also are without adequate resources to grow once the sun’s heat is on them.
- They land in decent soil and begin to grow but are quickly choked out by weeds and thorns.
- They fall into the right soil with the right conditions and are allowed to grow unimpeded and the result is a great yield.
It is not hard to take the next steps and understand the analogy. Sometimes our efforts are in vain and nothing ever grows. Sometimes it looks positive quickly and then fizzles. Often it begins to grow and take shape only to be thwarted by outside causes. And sometimes our efforts, words, love, intentions take root and grow to unexpected heights and grow exciting fruit.
This parable is often used to help people try to be the good soil themselves. The Word has been given to you, be receptive and have good soil. We are often seen as the soil in this metaphor, not as the sower. But what if we are the sower in this parable? What if it is us who are trying to be good in this world and plant justice and cultivate peace and grow hope? We are all called to be the hands of God in this world and to try and be the people that God wishes us to be. But how do we do it? How do we know where to plant? Where are the birds and the thorns? Where is the rocky soil exposed to the sun? How do I find the right places to put my energies and my hopes in a world that sometimes feels overly complicated and barren? How do I know where the good soil is so that my love can increase thirty- and sixty- and hundredfold?
We like to be certain. We are careful not to waste ourselves needlessly. So, we want to find the good soil and we search for it and we read reviews about it and question the reviews and test it and return it and ask others where they found the good soil. We talk about the good soil so much that sometimes we convince ourselves that we have actually planted something. We want to do it right so badly that we forget to do it at all. We are so afraid of the birds and the thorns and the sun that we never actually plant anything. And that is a very normal, very human of us. And it is not all of us and certainly not all of the time. But I have to guess that we all recognize something in this.
But this parable in the book of Mark may be suggesting otherwise. Plant your seeds. Many may not make it, but just keep planting! Don’t take it personally if the birds eat your seed; keep building relationships! It’s okay if the sun scorches your good deed; keep sowing your goodness. Thorns are to be expected in the world; continue to give yourself to works of justice and love. Sometimes the soil will be fertile and excellent and amazing, surprising, unexpected results will occur but we cannot expect it every time.
God does not expect us to be right all of the time. God expects us to keep trying, to keep working, to keep planting. God doesn’t promise fertile soil, but God does promise the hope that when we do find fertile soil it will increase thirty-, sixty- and hundredfold.
They stood there and watched me eat. They gave me more than what they had to give. Not because they somehow knew with certainty that I was good soil, but because they decided to plant a seed.
The world and its people are complicated. Layers of history and geography, circumstances and decisions, cover most things in such a way that it is impossible to discern what is the correct way forward. But we keep planting. We keep spreading our love and our hope and our mercy, forgiveness, justice and peace everywhere we go. We are not asked to plant correctly. We are asked to plant.
May it be so.