‘A family that sows together, grows together…’
July 16, 2023
Scripture: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
It takes good soil to make a good garden…in fact it takes good soil to grow anything that’s of worth. Poor soil will never yield a harvest that meets our hopes or expectations. And anyone who has worked the ground will tell you that the first and most important element of any effort to bring forth a bountiful harvest is healthy soil, filled with nutrients and of a suitable structure to support young seedlings as they get their start in life.
And to be true, each of us has a deep history with soil, even our scriptures speak of the ancient and holy relationship between life and the earth, even telling us in our faith tradition that humankind was birthed from a ball of earthen clay scooped up by our Lord and formed into a vessel capable of receiving the breath of life. Therefore, each of us is literally made up of stardust, flung wide at the beginning of the creative moment and then gathered so carefully into holy and blessed reflections of the image of our God. And, we are each charged with the keeping of our own soil, with the care of the vessel that holds our soul…so that it might yield all our Lord asks from the life we have been so blessed to receive.
To be honest though, we all start out with rather common soil…nothing special…totally capable of being worked, but much in need of careful tilling and tending in order for it to become the healthy and robust foundation that is capable of supporting us throughout our life. And to be sure, as today’s scripture points out, there are temptations that can hinder our efforts to strengthen and develop our soil in ways that are pleasing and useful to God. Indeed, on occasion we may find our soil has become filled with rocks…rocks that prevent roots of goodness and faith to grow deep…rocks of distraction that may go by names such as ‘Doubt’ or ‘Unbelief’…or perhaps even ‘Insecurity’ or ‘Fear’. We hear of God’s promises, and may even hope in them for a moment, but then those darn rocks inhibit us from looking deeper and really taking hold of belief in our Lord’s pursuit of us.
At other times, we will indeed plant seeds of faith within our plain old soil, but fail to prepare the ground sufficiently in advance…perhaps not even noticing that there are other plants vying for the same space, nourishment, and sunlight as those precious little seeds we just planted. And then lo and behold, as our garden grows we find that those other unplanned renegade and thorny bushes have fully taken over, robbing nourishment and light from those poor little seedlings we had put our hopes in. These thorny bushes and pesky weeds that fool us into thinking we can do it all on our own, that we can tend our own little garden without anyone else’s help are troubling indeed, and need to be pulled out by the roots, if we are ever going to coax forth a yield of goodness and godly-purpose from the soil of our soul.
And I suppose…that with time…and with a lot of hard work we probably can put together a personal garden plot of sorts…a garden that is sort of capable of providing enough for ourselves and maybe even for another. But the soil may still lack key ingredients that would otherwise cause it to bring forth true abundance. And those key ingredients include things such as humility, compassion, and love…all of which can only make their way into the gardens of our souls through the action of loving and blessed community. On our own we can do only so much, and most likely far less than the true godly potential we were born with.
In truth, it is only within the life and embrace of loving community that our own soil, no matter how hard we may work at it, can become truly good and wholesome soil capable of producing a harvest that is worthy of the One who tends to the garden of all our souls. It is only within the community of faith that we can truly find the resources and guidance on how to improve our own garden, allowing it to become part of a larger planting that is so central to the hopes and dreams of our Lord.
Good soil…no, let me correct that, great and fully productive soil is formed in a garden of community…a garden filled with caring and sharing, a garden worked by many for the benefit of all…a garden whose soil has true resilience capable of withstanding the buffeting of extreme circumstances while still being able to respond with love…a garden of abundance sufficient to meet the needs of all who truly seek after God’s grace…a garden…of life.
In truth, we all are born into the faith within a community rooted and grounded in loving relationships. We get our start as people of faith by watching and learning from those who have traveled before us, those who have already spent time in the presence and care of our Lord. And it is by grace that we have each other as example…as fellow ‘image bearers’ of our Lord, and as vessels of love and compassion. Instructed and led by the Spirit of God, we are challenged to become all our Lord dreams we might…this God who loves us more than we could ever imagine.
‘Community gardens’ however, do not just come about all on their own. They require real work and input from all who are a part of the community. Each individual gardener needs to come to the table prepared to give of their own. Everyone needs to let their particular garden and the soil of their soul, their life-long experience and insight, become a part of that which makes up the life and substance of the faith community. A true community garden of the faithful is a reflection of each individual who makes up that community, as well as something greater than the sum of all that has been offered. And that something greater is the harvest brought into being by the Holy Spirit…the results of all God has done with what each of us has brought forward. And what is that harvest…?
One of the blessings to be ‘harvested’ from the garden of faith community is the freedom to truly be yourself. Within a community built upon communal goodness, compassion, and support there is the ability to truly be open…freedom to let down one’s guard, to remove the masks of so much ‘proper’ behavior, to let go and to trust in the community to find you where you are…and to care for you in your places of need or brokenness.
However, even though this freedom is there, still sometimes we choose not to take advantage of it, being more comfortable behind our old familiar masks. However, another blessing that comes from true and open community is a spirit of discernment, allowing an open heart to see through even the most stubborn of masks, deep down into the soul hiding within, and to gently and lovingly open that conversation which begins to comfort and relieve.
I know that there are times, especially of late when it seems that not all is right around us. When the challenges of illness or other things that are external and out of our control, or even a lagging in what our sense of purpose or worth is may become a distraction to us. It is in these times that we need to be reminded that our Lord is ever faithful…that he knows where we are, and what we are struggling with, and that he is faithful in his promise never to leave us or to abandon us. But still, gardening, especially gardening in the soil of the soul is hard work, requiring diligence and persistence in order to deal with the distractions and other weeds or rocks that may appear on the pathway in front of us.
I remember conversations over the years with our youth group, when the subject of God’s reality, of God’s existence would come up…when some of them were struggling with the inner doubt they often felt, and their inability to convince themselves of the enduring and constant presence of God in their own lives. I remember telling them that faith in God’s presence was something that grew over time…that in truth, there would be many times when their deepest convictions might feel challenged…when all they were sure of would come under intense pressure, when everything they knew up to that point would not be sufficient to keep them believing in a good and constant God. I also told them that there would be many other times when they would encounter God in the tiniest of ways…in ways and happenstances where they knew, that they knew, that they knew that God was in the mix…that God was behind it all.
And I told them that life was often like that…a balance of doubting moments, and a constant and steady stream of those other little moments filled with the essence of God’s goodness and love. And that over time, the evidence of God in all those little places and pieces would begin to build into a conviction that indeed God was real, and God was there, and God did hear us whenever we called out.
And while those little moments might not erase the doubts and moments of unbelief completely, they at least would make it easier to recover and carry on after a moment of doubt had happened by. I shared with them that I truly believed that remembrances of God’s grace in one’s own life were more enduring than mere doubt or occasional glances to the side.
And I know now that those moments of grace need the encouragement and affirmation of community if they are to become rooted firmly in the soil of one’s own soul. I realize that as we sought to share our faith in God’s goodness with the youth, we were also called to point out and affirm their own moments of grace, their own times when the Spirit reached out and sprinkled them with wonder, those moments when their eyes were opened for a moment, and when the presence of God had indeed drawn near and brushed against their inner souls. It truly does take a community garden to raise one in the faith.
One’s personal faith life is truly molded and formed within the embrace of faithful community, for it is here that the love of God is most palpable, most capable of being felt and experienced. I remember when I was young in faith in my early twenties, and in a local music ministry made up of folks from Patterson and Pawling that served in ministry in both towns. This music group was a community unlike any I had ever known, so genuine and sincere, so open and welcoming. And after a while I became quite comfortable and relaxed in their presence, joyfully sharing my gifts of music and faith with them. I remember however that there were a few individuals who were hard for me to get close to, individuals who I found to be even a bit difficult. But I resolved to continue to reach out to them anyway and tried my best to reflect love and patience.
And I remember sitting together one evening in the company of my newfound friends as we shared some of the amazing things that God seemed to be doing in our midst. I listened as others shared stories that truly were Godlike in their conclusions, and marveled at how gracious God could really be. Little did I know how gracious indeed, as I began to share my own ‘revelation’ of God’s grace within my life. I told them of how amazed I was that God had reached down and actually changed the lives and behaviors of all those with whom I had had such difficulty in the beginning…of how God had made them more grace-filled and loving all at the same time.
And by grace I must confess that as I told them, and then looked from one to another, I did not at first recognize what I was seeing in their deeply compassionate and knowing smiles. And so I asked them, ‘What? What are you all thinking? Did you not also notice the profound changes I have seen in these few who had been so difficult before?’ After a moment one of them spoke gently but oh’ so powerfully, both convicting and affirming me at the same time as she said, ‘In truth David, they have not changed at all…they are the same as they always have been.’
And slowly I began to realize what they all already knew…that in their care for and love of me they had allowed me to change and to grow in grace…that I was the one who actually had changed, not all those others…they were still very much the same. It was my understanding that had been profoundly touched by God’s grace. As that garden of blessed community nurtured the seedlings of my faith, they gave me room to grow, and nourishment to thrive…something for which I shall ever be thankful.
But not all stories of community outreach are the same…not all of our attempts to reach out and nurture, to guide and to protect are necessarily going to work out as we had hoped for. There will still be those stories that leave us totally confused, totally unsure of what went wrong, wondering even now if God heard us at all…times and circumstances that take a while to understand or at least to come to terms with. Situations that challenge our understanding and make us wonder if we had done all we could have, if there was something else perhaps that might have yielded a different outcome. And the sorrow can be great for these are no less our own family as our own flesh and blood. Individuals who have been assigned into the garden of our care, but for whom the embrace was not quite what we had hoped for. Not to say that fault lies anywhere besides the sometimes brutal and mean consequences of life, but to ever make us seek to care and to love to the absolute fullest of our abilities whenever God entrusts us with a broken soul.
Our garden of goodness with soil strong and filled with health is our responsibility to tend and care for. And whether or not the fruit of our efforts turns out to be all we had hoped for or not, it is the faithful care and nurture we each offer, that marks us as children of our loving Savior and Lord.
So after all is said and done…we are called to garden together…to help one another grow and prosper within the careful embrace of the Holy Spirit. We need each other in order to fully be ourselves…we were created by our God of love to love one another…in truth one could say that ‘blessed community’ is in our very DNA. We have a Lord Jesus who is as close as our very breath, who hears our every heartbeat. To be sure, there is meaning to life only as we give fully of ourselves, only as we reach out and truly find one another in our places of loneliness and need.
All of us have been invited by the good Seed-Sower to let our lives become a rich and bounteous garden filled with mercy and grace…strong in faith and resources, sturdy and resilient in times of trial, and committed to care for all those whom God has entrusted us with. May we never disappoint our Lord in this, the most holy of tasks that has been set before us.