Rich Soil or Red Clay?

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
July 9, 2017

Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23 (CEB)
That day Jesus went out of the house and sat down beside the lake. 2Such large crowds gathered around him that he climbed into a boat and sat down. The whole crowd was standing on the shore.

He said many things to them in parables: “A farmer went out to scatter seed. 4As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. 5Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. 6But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. 7Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. 8Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. 9Everyone who has ears should pay attention.”

18“Consider then the parable of the farmer. 19Whenever people hear the word about the kingdom and don’t understand it, the evil one comes and carries off what was planted in their hearts. This is the seed that was sown on the path. 20As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. 21Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. 22As for the seed that was spread among thorny plants, this refers to those who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the false appeal of wealth choke the word, and it bears no fruit. 23As for what was planted on good soil, this refers to those who hear and understand, and bear fruit and produce—in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.”

East Tennessee and North Georgia are not really known as agricultural centers. Despite the fact that we have an abundance of rivers and lakes in our areas, the topography is just not ideal for planting and raising crops; too many hills. But I think there’s another reason this area we live in is not a great agricultural hub, and that is the fact that our soil is primarily red clay. And any of us who have lived here for just about any amount of time know that about the only thing red clay is good for is making a big mess when it rains, and getting stuff really dirty.

Anyway, red clay is red because it has a higher concentration of iron oxides. The other minerals that are often found in soil and are important in growing vegetation (minerals like sodium, potassium, and calcium) have “weathered” out over time, so to speak, leaving only the more stable iron, but no minerals that are really useful in helping plants grow. Now, whether or not we know that particular detail, most of us know that if we want to grow anything in the ground around here, we have to put down a layer of topsoil, or fertilizer, or compost first.

I don’t fancy myself a gardener, if I happen to have any success at growing something, I consider it more luck than anything else, or more likely, God’s work. So anyway, when we started planning and planting the HOPE Community Garden last year, I had a steep learning curve. One day, the woman who started the community garden at Christ Church came out to take a look at our newly developed plot and to help us think through things as we made plans for planting our garden and maintaining it throughout the year. One of the comments she made to me as we talked was that one of the challenges they faced at Christ was finding folks who were willing to tend the garden through the barren winter months. Her exact comment was, “Gardens are more work in the off-season than when they are in full bloom!”

What my friend was getting at is the fact that in order for land to produce year after year after year, it has to be tended to and cared for throughout the months. Once the last harvest has been gathered in, the wilted remains must be removed and weeds have to be pulled. But there’s more, and this is where this becomes important for our look at today’s passage. Once the old plants have been removed, it is best to turn the soil. Then, often, we need to enhance the soil to replace nutrients that have been used up by the plants through the growing season. This may mean bringing in more soil or compost to mix with what is already there, or there might be some supplement we want to work into the soil. I hear used coffee grounds are a popular additive these days.

Today, we hear Jesus tell and then interpret for us what is known most commonly as “The Parable of the Sower.” However, it is also sometimes referred to as “The Parable of the Soils,” and as we consider Christ’s words for us today, that is the more fitting name. Whether it is plant seeds, or the seed of the “word about the kingdom,” no seeds have much of a chance if the soil is no good. Just as the soil of a garden must be enhanced and cared for both in and out of season, so must we work to enhance the “soil” of our lives so that the “seed” of God’s word can grow in us and in our communities.

I think we have a tendency to overlook the importance of this parable because we think it’s about those people who have not yet received the “word about the kingdom.” There can be no doubt that there is a message here about such folks and how the “word about the kingdom” is received or not received by different people. But equally important here, if not moreso, is the opportunity to reflect on our own discipleship. Though we have heard and received the “word about the kingdom,” how is the soil in which this seed has fallen? Are we attentive to our spiritual lives so that the seed has every opportunity to grow and is not impeded by rocks or crowded out by weeds? These are the questions inherent in this parable. This is our opportunity to reflect on our work of cultivating our lives for continued growth as disciples.

As we consider this parable, it is important to note that the farmer tosses the seed out indiscriminately. This is a sign of the vast graciousness of God. God does not spend time scrutinizing every piece of ground to determine its worthiness to receive a seed. Instead the Sower throws the seed everywhere. And God expects the same of any who might share the word of God in the world. Our task is not to judge the soil before we cast the seed, but simply to share the good news about the kingdom wherever we are and with all that we meet.

But even still, what Christ teaches his listeners as he tells this parable is that despite the fact that seed is thrown out generously, it will still fall in places where the conditions are not right for growth. So let’s consider for a moment what Christ says about the sort of conditions that will keep seed from growing. First, the seed might land on a path. Obviously, a path is packed down dirt, or in our modern world, concrete. It is exposed, an easy target for hungry birds. Christ tells us this is like the “word about the kingdom” sown among people who don’t understand, and so the devil comes and snatches what is planted on their hearts. Or, the seed might land on “rocky ground where the soil [is] shallow.” The seed may take root and begin to grow, but soon the heat of the sun will scorch the plants whose roots are too shallow to draw in water. Christ tells us this is like the seed of the kingdom that is received immediately and joyfully, but because there are no roots, as soon as trials or challenges come, they immediately fall away. The third scenario is seed that falls among thorny plants, which grow and choke off the blossoming of the seed. Christ compares this to the word that is sown and received, but then people are overcome by the worries of this life and the false security of wealth, and so these thorns choke the growth of the disciple. And then, of course, there is the seed which falls on good soil and grows to produce a harvest thirty, sixty, and even one hundredfold. And Christ says, these are like those who hear the word and receive, who understand, bear fruit, and produce.

I know we all want to be “good soil,” but the question for us today is, how are we doing? Are we producing a harvest, or has our seed been snatched up, or choked out? There are a lot of things that happen in our lives and in our world that are out of our control. There are going to be times when our best intentions are snatched up by some passing crisis. There are going to be times when things get so busy and hectic in our lives that we feel our faith being choked out. But here’s the thing, if we have done the good work to tend and keep the soil as best we can, then those setbacks are not going to hamper our growth. If we are being intentional about staying connected to God through prayer, study, worship, and service, then the sorts of things that keep seed from growing will only be minor challenges for us. Think about a little tree that takes root and begins to grow in the forest. Birds are all around. Leaves may sometimes keep water from getting to the roots. Larger trees and plants may limit the sunlight that can reach that little tree. And yet, there are these trees that manage to grow. They take advantage of the rich soil around them. Their roots are deep and their branches grow toward the light, and despite all the odds, over time and through the years they grow larger and larger.

This is what should be happening to us as disciples as well. Being a disciple of Christ is not some static thing where we profess our faith and then sit back and relax. We are meant to grow as disciples. We are meant to grow in our faith, in our service, in our relationship with God and others, but it means we have to put forth the effort in good seasons and in bad to keep the conditions in our life right for growth.

Now, before I finish, I want to talk for just a minute about why all this matters. As Jesus tells this parable of the soils and then interprets it, he doesn’t identify who the farmer is that is throwing the seed. It could be him, it could be God, it could be the disciples of every age. And in all reality, I think Jesus doesn’t identify the sower because it is all of those. In God’s infinite grace, God sows seed all around the world. Some of that seed takes root and grows, some does not. But God throws it out nonetheless. For those of us who have the seed of the “word about the kingdom” growing within us, our ultimate task is to become sowers ourselves. That’s why keeping our lives oriented toward God matters. We have to grow as Christ’s disciples so that we are able to scatter more seeds in our communities and in the world. We have to take care of the soil of our own lives so that we can then go out in our communities and help others prepare and tend their soil. We have this mission field right around us; around our church and our homes, and as much as we care for and nurture growth in our own lives, or in the lives of other individuals, we need to be nurturing these communities so that the seed of the “word about the kingdom,” can take root and grow.

Our little HOPE Community Garden out back is a clear testament that some pesky red clay doesn’t keep us from growing things around here. It takes work, but by tending the soil (and a good blessing of rain that only God can provide), we are seeing an enormous harvest that is being used to feed hungry people all around us. If we can do the work to tend the soil of our lives and our communities, then our God, the generous sower, will scatter the seed that will grow to change us, and to change the whole world.

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