July 16, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Years ago, a farmer would get to know the quality of the soil on his or her land by farming it. Truly learning what crops if any your particular farm soil would best support would take time and patience but, over the course of a few seasons it would become clear just how fertile your plot was. And of course other factors would play into the decision regarding where or even if you would try to plant crops, factors such as the aspect of the sun during the day, access to water in the event that natural rainfall proved insufficient, and whether or not the soil was overly rocky and needed to be cleared or ‘rock-picked’ before trying to cultivate it.
And when I first started trying to grow vegetables organically and on a large scale, these same considerations came into play. I learned over a number of seasons where the best soil was for particular crops and how to enrich my soil by growing certain crops which could then be turned in after harvest in the fall in order to boost the soil’s health and percentage of organic matter.
I also learned early on that it was possible to get soil ‘tested’ by sending in samples to a lab and asking them to evaluate the soil and its usefulness in growing particular crops or fruit or nut trees. The lab would analyze the content of various minerals and nutrients already contained within your soil and make recommendations in order to assist you in supplementing your soil with the proper elements in order to more rapidly bring the soil’s balance into line in order to support your farming requirements.
And I learned that those soil test reports were quite difficult to understand and to interpret and that the soil from one garden plot could be vastly different from another just a few hundred yards away. I learned that it would take far more training than I had in order to benefit from the wealth of information I was given on the soil test report and as a result learned to farm the old fashioned way…through fairly extensive trial and error, through retention of the knowledge the farm and soil itself gave to me over time, and by asking and trusting in the advice of other older farmers in the area who were quite happy to share the wisdom and expertise gained over many decades of farming on their own.
In short I learned to trust in my own eyes, my own ears, and my own experience in seeking to come to better know the land I was farming. Which is not to say that utilizing scientific methods and testing is not helpful or useful, for surely many others rely on such information and are very successful, but rather to say that for me, a ‘hands-on’ approach to getting to really know the land and to listen as it willingly gave up its secrets worked better for me.
But one critical piece of knowledge I learned and am sure I share with all serious workers of the land is that the soil of earth, the land beneath our feet, is one of the most sacred gifts we have been given within all of Creation…as well as one of our most sacred trusts. From the very beginning of the Creation stories where we hear that God created everything out of nothing to the modern-day theories positing some sort of ‘Big Bang’ I have no trouble at all reconciling the creative work of God with the notion of a huge divine throwing out of ‘stardust’ into space…‘dust’ comprised of all of the minerals and molecules needed in order for life to be birthed on this particular piece of space rubble we call planet earth.
And I also resonate deeply with the account of our Creation story in the second chapter of Genesis where it says that God scooped up some of the clay or dust from the ground and then lovingly formed ‘Adam’ or adamah in the Hebrew which actually translates as ‘dust of the earth’. And it was into this clay or dust that the spirit or Ruah or ‘breath’ of God was breathed thereby giving it life. All in all…it is the soil of earth beneath our feet that is the beginning or genesis of all life…as well as that which was given in order to continue to support that life here on earth.
And so it does not surprise me at all that Jesus spoke so much in parables starting with and based upon agricultural or farming imagery. And it was not just because his was a time in which agriculture was the dominant social and cultural paradigm, but also this fact that earth and our relationship with it is critical to our life and our future here on this planet.
And I also think that farmers in Jesus’ day also learned about their soil and its character and potential in much the same way as I did…through trial and error and by taking advantage of the wisdom of the elders. The audience to which Jesus spoke knew all of these images well, they knew them as though they were speaking directly of their own lived experience for in many cases they surely were. They knew what hard-packed and ‘sunbaked’ soil was and of how hard and resistant it could be to being worked back into fertile usefulness…they knew of the problems of excessive rockiness in the soil and of the extremely hard work it would require in order to render that soil willing and yielding to the plow…they knew the hazards of errant seed of briars or thorns, of the dangers posed by the haphazard and rapid growth of invasive weeds…they knew the work required to grow healthy and nutritious food in order to sustain themselves and their families…and they knew there were no shortcuts to insuring that blessing.
Our passage today finds Jesus asking his listeners to consider the quality of the soil into which their own lives and faith were planted…to compare that soil of their own soul with the examples he spoke of…examples with which they were familiar of soil or life conditions that might prove to be less than optimal for growth and maturation…either of food crops…or of their own faith life. Jesus was asking them to look inward, at the inner ‘soil’ of their own lives in order to determine whether or not that soil was capable of sustaining a healthy and vital faith life…
In our passage Jesus spoke first of hard, sunbaked soil…soil that is dry and unreceptive to anything new…soil or ground so packed down as to have any new seeds or new ideas or perspectives literally bounce off of it and refuse to take root…like the worn and packed earth and stone dust of the well-trod path…driven over so many countless times by the carts that have been and continue to travel that way before…you know, those roads we have all been on at various times in our lives…roads that are well-known, where there is nothing new expected and where weaknesses or discrepancies that surface as a result of its hardened and unyielding state are shrugged off as ‘collateral damage’ or ‘necessary evils’, or perhaps as simply the consequences of ‘progress’ or ‘normal’ everyday life and living.
Our parable tells us that when seed fell upon the surface of this hard-packed and unyielding surface it did nothing, but rather just sat there until birds came along and recognized it as an easy meal…in fact it is hard to even call this surface soil for it has been beaten down for so long and become so hardened that even gentle rains run off and pool on the side of the path. It is not a place for new growth but rather a sterile and lifeless place incapable of sustaining or even supporting newness of life…
The second soil of which Jesus spoke had a problem with the amount of rocks both large and small which were strewn about and all through it. Which begs us to consider as well whether the ‘soil’ of our own lives might also be so full of rocks that the quantity of natural and fertile soil is quite minimal. In a sense asking if the soil you have is capable of germinating and then supporting new life and new ideas, of receiving new perspectives, even if only for a time. Or…if the rocks that are so prevalent within the soil of the life of some take up so much space with their hardness of secure knowledge…‘knowledge’ gathered and held into memory blocks along perhaps with other concerns of ‘family’ or ‘tradition’, all codified into rigid and unyielding nostalgia and ‘ought-ness’?
It calls into question how willing is one bound by such ‘rocks’ to consider being open to new ideas and new ways of living life and might they be willing at all to consider wholesale changes to the way they view life and their place in the world with such minimal soil hardly deep enough and clean enough to sustain long-term growth and change? Or might such an individual have a point where they begin to become uncomfortable, a point where they start to say, ‘enough is enough’, that they are not comfortable inviting change and growth to the degree for which they feel asked…is their soil just too full of hard rocks to truly give birth to and support the change that only deep and fertile soil is capable of?
Our parable tells us that rocky soil such as we have just described can allow new life to begin, in fact perhaps even allowing for enthusiasm and excitement in the beginning, until the difficulties of walking a path in the footsteps of Jesus begin to place demands for which some are either unwilling or unable to continue their support. Such soil is often filled far too full with rocks of fixed ideas and specific expectations and simply cannot provide for the nourishment of new ideas and the long-term support of growth…far too often leaving the weary soul to retreat instead into past comforts of tradition and nostalgia.
The third soil of which Jesus spoke contained within it the seeds of future problems…soil that at first glance appears good and rich…dark and loamy, capable of growing anything within it, as though any seed dropped into it would immediately germinate and spring up into fullness of bloom. But are there perhaps potential other problem seeds hidden within that soil, seeds that are capable with time of completely filling up and consuming the life of the soul with distraction, with envy, or with unhealthy desire?
A well-known maxim of farming is that ‘One year’s weeds bring seven year’s seeds’. Meaning that if one allows even small distractions to take root, prosper, and grow unto seed-producing fullness in their life, then those same distractions will return in force in their next season proving to be ever larger and more consuming. These seemingly small if not invisible seeds of the distraction or desire for wealth or reputation, of self-centered rather than others-centered concerns may seem as small and unimportant at first, however when they are allowed to grow and to prosper within the soil of one’s own soul they can prove capable of fully overtaking the life of the one so infected…fully choking out the possibility of truly caring for others for their own sake, instead fully consumed with the search for self-serving adulation or personal ego-boosting.
Truly good soil is soil that is free of such noxious weed seeds or at least soil that can be and is worked over and over as small temptations begin to show up, in order to weed them out when they are just tiny seedlings and not yet full-grown thorny and entangling vines.
Our parable tells us that soil that is infected with the seeds of avarice and the desire for inordinate material gain is not able to support a life truly given over to faithfulness…the vines of greed and desire are capable of reaching into the tightest and smallest of cracks within the armor of one’s determination to do good, and instead blossom once they are grown into all manner of excuses as to why others should be helped only after one’s own self and one’s own loved ones are already fully provided for. A soul whose soil is filled with the weed seeds of future distraction and thorny entanglements will not be able to allow room for the commandment to love one another to truly and honestly be fulfilled.
And then lastly Jesus spoke of good and rich soil…soil that is clean of such bad seed and weeds, or perhaps soil that has been worked frequently enough and tilled often enough to have gotten rid of most of those distractions and problems. True soil of life that is loose and loamy, filled with organic matter and the fullness of life that is so present within all soil that is healthy…soil that has been picked over and cleaned, sifted through hard labor to remove the rocks of stubbornness and tradition…with all manner of weakness and selfishness cleared away and discarded allowing a true depth of dark, rich, life-giving soil to emerge as the true character and nature of the soil within your soul.
Our parable tells us that such soil is what the master gardener is seeking after in order to be able to transplant seedlings from the tree of life into it, as well as holy, nourishing, and wholesome plants of hopefulness and grace within the souls of those who follow after him. Such soil that is deep and rich receives, holds, and yields back life-giving water in its time but also has within its make-up and constitution the nourishment needed to initiate and to support healthy growth not only of individual faith life but communal faith life as well. It is this type of soil that Jesus tells us is capable of multiplying its goodness many times over…it is this soil that supports life that begets new life…it is this soil that is required to build the foundation upon which the kingdom of our Lord can truly begin to grow and to take root, until it grows up into the mightiest of trees giving shade and comfort, nourishment and shelter to all who draw near to its magnificent splendor.
…it is this soil of fullness and richness that our Lord wants us to cultivate within our individual souls as he works with us to break up the crusty and unyielding parts of our life that are like that beaten down pathway and as he teaches us to ‘pick rock’ until we are sure we have let go of anything from our past that might keep us from being able to sustain within our hearts a new word and a new command from our Lord…teaching us as well to carefully weigh all previous commitments to tradition and the subtle and seductive lure of nostalgia.
This is our call…to work the soil of our own soul tirelessly, rooting up any and all seedlings of the thorny vines of selfishness or worldly cares and to continue working that soil until it is finally and mostly free from bothersome and noxious weed seeds, leaving behind a work of beauty and wholeness, rich and fertile…soil ready and anxious to receive the seeds of life offered by the Lord to all who seek after them, offered to all whose soul-soil is ready and able to support and encourage the growth of those seeds of faith unto fullness and multiplied blessings…
How is the soil of your life? Has it been worked hard over and over in order to prepare it for use in the vineyards of our Lord? Is it free from hard places or an abundance of rocky distractions? Is it free from the seeds and roots of entangling vines that can only spell trouble in the future? Is the soil of your soul worthy of the garden of our Lord? Are you willing to let him help you work it until it is ready for his use? Jesus asks each one of us to consider our readiness to serve him fully and without distraction…but in order to do so we need to be willing to test our own soil…