July 16, 2023, Proper 10A
Isaiah 55:10-13, Psalm 65 (1-8), 9-14, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Gardening was not part of my early years. Growing up I lived in three different houses by the time I turned five. They were all in the same general area, but the houses and environment of each was quite varied. The first was a newly built, small post-war bungalow. One of many built on land across the street from an older neighborhood of homes. The second was a Victorian house further out of town and adjacent to farm fields. I remember we had a small orchard and my mother always told stories of how she could grow almost anything there from seed; the land was so fertile. The last house where we lived from when I was five until I was grown was, like the first, newly built but there the resemblance ended. Rather than being built on a fairly flat lot, this one was built on hilly land newly cleared of forest. Much of the soil had been scraped away in the grading for houses leaving only a thin layer over the underlying shale. Things we planted grew only on the fill near the house, so gardening beyond some grass and foundation shrubs was not part of my experience. My mother struggled to grow some flowers in just one small bed.
It wasn’t until moving into my current house that gardening became part of my life. I did not expect to love it as much as I do – not only tending the plants and weeding, but doing much of the design and hardscaping as well. I wouldn’t want to even guess how much compost and other amendments I have added over the years to turn the native clay soil into something more fertile. I have also lost a lot of plants along the way. Slow perhaps to learn the gardener’s mantra of the right plant in the right place. When I’ve tried to grow things in the ground from seed, there has always been some beastie coming along to chomp on the seedlings. Perhaps if I had sown as generously as the sower in Jesus’ parable I’d have had more luck.
And generous is how we see the sower in Jesus’ parable – profligately spreading precious seed willy-nilly without regard to where it will land – whether on the hard-packed earth of a path, or the rocky ground with little soil, or in amongst thorns and then finally throwing some on good soil that would reliably produce a harvest. A sower paying no attention, it would seem, to where the seed fell. Not wise husbandry then or now. Those listening to Jesus would have been appalled at the story. Seed was expensive, and not something to be wasted. Even those who didn’t farm would have understood how reckless such behavior was. This parable, as so many of Jesus’ parables, turned what would have been considered “normal” upside down. Told to shake people out of their way of thinking, their assumptions about who God is and how God is working in the world. The Kingdom of Heaven is like this – like a sower spreading an abundance of seed everywhere – on good soil and bad soil. Who isn’t concerned with what is efficient, or perhaps even what’s most effective.
Turning from telling the parable to the large gathered crowd, Jesus gives his close disciples an explanation – not even mentioning the sower, but describing how they might understand who the various types of soil represent. Those who hear the word but fail to understand, or the one who receives but is not well rooted, or the one among thorns in whom the word is choked out – all of whom hear but in whom the word does not come to fruition. It would appear that the evangelists align these in order to apply “this parable to their own situation where believers were struggling to hang on to their faith. The parable, then, was a proclamation of unending grace, whereas the interpretation was encouragement to persevere.” To work to be good soil. But the primary message, it seems to me, is that God does not hold back. God, to quote the theologian David Lose, “is not worried about whether there will be enough seed or grace or love. God may want our hearts to be good soil but nevertheless hurls a ridiculous amount of seed even on dry, thorny, or beaten soil. Goodness, but you get the feeling this God would probably scatter seed-love-mercy-grace on a parking lot! Why, because there is enough! And, ultimately, because God believes we are enough. Enough to save ourselves? No. Enough to deserve love, dignity and respect? Absolutely.” Regardless of who we are.
In a time when most often we hear about scarcity – about their not being enough whether from politicians or the ads that bombard us on all sides; about fear of the other in whatever guise is current; or about our own inadequacy – this is God’s message, that there is more than enough, and we are enough as we are – yet with the invitation to be more, to be good soil.
But how do we make this happen? How do we, as St. Paul asked in our reading from Romans last week, do the thing we want and not the thing we do not want? The answer is to cultivate our life in the Spirit. For as the Romans reading today reminds us the Spirit of God dwells in you.
In a Lenten program I used some years ago, we explored one approach by using material from the Society of St. John the Evangelist, one of the Episcopal men’s monastic communities, designed to help us in our spiritual growth, in our becoming even better soil. Called Grow a Rule of Life, it was designed to provide a way of approaching how we as individuals live into being receptive to the abundance God so freely offers, how to form a framework that will allow that abundance to flow into and through us into all our relationships. Our relationship to God, to ourselves, to other people, and to creation.
The opening reading reminded us that “Certain kinds of plants need support in order to grow properly. Tomatoes need stakes, and beans must attach themselves to suspended strings… Without support, these plants would collapse in a heap on the ground.” Like the plants we too need structure and support for our spiritual growth. A rule of life can provide that – a pattern of spiritual disciplines than help us to establish a rhythm of daily living.
- It allows us to live with intention and purpose in the present moment, and helps us clarify our most important values, relationships, dreams and work.
- It is meant to be simple, realistic, flexible and achievable. It is a purposeful tool to help us grow into a more meaningful life with God.
Using a lot of garden imagery, we worked individually within small groups on identifying what practices, ways of being, activities, etc., both feed us and help us to express who it is that we want to be and how we want to live. For it is in the dailiness of our lives both individually and as a community that we live into our faith, become that fertile soil bringing forth grain as much as a hundredfold. Lavishing on all around us that same reckless abundance we ourselves receive.
I’d like to close with a poem by Barbara Brown Taylor:
To make bread or love, to dig in the earth,
to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—
these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology.
All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir.
Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy.
And yet these are the same activities that change lives,
sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly,
the way dripping water changes stone.
In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking,
bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.
Barbara Brown Taylor from An Altar in the World