Perhaps it is just that I’ve never had forty acres to dig around in before this point in my life, but since coming to Colorado and moving onto my Granddad’s old plot, I have been amazed at how quickly soil can change. The dirt by my house is sticky clay, up by my folk’s house it seems like it is nothing but rocks, up more on the hill it seems like there is a lot more sand. Sometimes it feels like practically anywhere you put a shovel in the ground your bound to end up with something different.
And maybe this shouldn’t be the surprise to me that it is. Particularly in an area that has had such an interesting geologic history as the Valley has, it makes sense that there would be a fair amount of diversity. And while diversity is generally a good thing, if you are trying to grow a garden, what you want is not the earth that is nothing but rocks, it is not the hard packed clay, it is not pure sand; if you are trying to get a garden going, what you want is a nice rich loam, not too acidy, not to alkaline, chalk full of nutrients, organic matter, micro organisms, and beneficial bacteria.
Jesus tells this parable today, the parable of the sower, and then gives his explanation. It is one of the few parables he tells where he does give and explanation. And it’s probably a good thing, because I at least, am not sure that I would have stumbled upon the same explanation that he gives. Perhaps this is why he does indulge in some unpacking though. Maybe he wants to make sure that his disciples get this one. Maybe he’s less concerned with them doing the work of figuring this one out themselves and more concerned with them taking the time to figure out just what kind of soil they are. Maybe he wants them to do a little self-work. They have been hanging out with Jesus all this time, they have been with him as he heals and cast out demons, they have been with him as he preaches and teaches, and now maybe it is time to ask the “so what” question. What difference has all of this made in their lives? How are they receiving the message? What are they doing with it? What kind of soil are they?
And of course by extension, maybe we ought to be asking the same question ourselves. Most of us also have been hanging out with Jesus for a long time. We’ve heard the preaching and the teaching and the healing, we’ve heard the story again and again and again over the years, and so… “what?” What difference does it make in our lives? How are we receiving the message? What kind of soil are we?
Are we like the hard packed earth of the path where birds come and take the seed, where we just don’t understand the Word, and the evil one carries it away from us? Are we like the rocky ground, where roots can never establish themselves, where the Word makes us joyful for a bit, but then we simply allow it to fall away? Are we like the weedy soil, where the Word is choked out by worries, and the seduction of wealth? Or… or are we good soil, where we hear the Word and understand it, and it grows in us and develops into a strong and healthy thing and bears good fruit?
Of course we’d all like to be like the last of these, we want to be the good soil, but as I look at my own life anyway, I find that I’m not so different than the soil up around my house. I’m spotty. The path here, the rocks there, lots of weeds, and here and there, well there might be a few patches of good soil. I struggle to discern just what God’s Word is to me, or to see just how I am fitting into the God story. I go along, and look around and find that I’ve been overwhelmed by things in my life or in the news and that my faith, my hope, maybe my love has worn thin. Or perhaps I’ve been sucked in by the material. There is some thing that I’ve grown overly desirous of or attached to. Or maybe, my emotions have started to get the best of me – someone or something gets me into a negative mood, and I become incapable of living out God’s word.
Perhaps you see these or similar tendencies in your own life. Well if so, there is some good news for us. And that is that soil is this living, dynamic, changing substance. So the question is not just how is our soil, the question should also be, what are we doing, or what can we do to tend to our soil, to prepare it for the Sower.
I used to be loosely connected to a permaculture/garden group in Minneapolis. Healthy soil was a huge deal for them. They would collect food scraps and put them in vermiculture composters, so that they could collect the nutrient-rich castings from the worms and make “worm tea” to spray on garden beds. They would collect lawn clippings and raked up leaves and compost them. They would take the bedding from chicken coops and add it to the compost. When fall came, and the harvest had come and gone, they would prepare their gardens for the next season by making a sandwich of cardboard, blood meal, compost, cardboard, blood meal, compost, layer upon layer, all covered up with straw and soaked with the hose, and then sprayed down with worm tea. They would do this year after year creating this amazingly rich topsoil that went down foot upon foot.
It might sound like a fair amount of work, but really what it involved was making small changes in their daily habits. Instead of throwing peelings in the trash it went in the worm composter, then once a month the composter was cleaned. Instead of tossing yard waste away it was collected, and then occasionally turned. Really there was only one big workday outside the normal toil of keeping a garden, and that was the day they put the gardens to bed for the year. But the pay off was worth it, watching the vibrant verdant vegetable plants shoot out of the ground and grow and grow and grow, and of course, collecting the harvest – scads of tomatoes, beans, squash, corn, greens, and on and on.
It is this kind of fruit, this sort of abundant harvest for God, that we want to bear in and with our own lives. So if this is the case what can we do build up that rich topsoil? Richard Roher, who is a Catholic Friar in the Franciscan tradition, and the head of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, has said that the church has been very good at telling people what to think, but horrible about sharing with people how to think. We in the church give sermons that go into the historical settings of the Gospel. We share about the social settings of Jesus. We make attempts at interpreting the scriptures for our current context. And so Roher says there are lots of people who have really good theologies, they know about how to think about the things of faith, but they have internalized the cultures polarization, its divisiveness, its materialism, the way it conceives of power, and so on. The result is that there can be a certain cognitive dissonance. We want to think in Godly ways, but down deep we feel otherwise. We are at war with ourselves. Perhaps it’s that we feel the weeds choking out the plants that God has planted in our hearts. Perhaps it is just that our soil has not been prepared.
To develop fertile soil takes more than just listening to a sermon once a week. It does take some work, but like my permculture friends and their gardens, a lot of that work can happen with little changes to the daily and weekly routine. Now none of this is especially earth shattering or new, but most of it does take a little effort on our part, largely because the things that it takes to create fertile ground can be against the grain of our culture. They can even be countercultural. Things like taking time to each day to meditate, to read scripture, to pray. Keeping a discipline of gratitude, pausing and giving thanks for the gifts of each day, for meals, for the sun coming up, for a good night’s rest, for friends, and family. Having a Sabbath day. Keeping these sorts of disciplines don’t add up to a whole lot of time, but the do add up to making a big difference in our lives.
In my own life, I have tried to keep spiritual disciplines like those that I have just mentioned. However, in all candidness, they have had their seasons. I will super diligent with a prayer routine for months on end, and then for one reason or another, it will slip away, and it will be months before I pick it up again. And from what I have noticed, Roher is right when talks about “how” we think. I find that when I am keeping disciplines, when I am tending to my soil, I encounter the world differently. I am less likely to get ruffled by things. I am less likely to be wooed by advertisers. I am more likely to feel spiritual connection to my brothers and sisters. And somehow in all of this I’d like to hope anyway, that I am able to bear good fruit. And as I look at people in the world who are and who have been spiritual leaders, more often than not, their lives bear this observation out as well. Their private contemplative life is as significant as their public life of witness. To bear the fruit, they need to tend to their soil.
And so, this is my hope for all of us as a faith community, that we are here, not just to learn, but that we are here to grow, to grow in God, and to grow fruit for God, and to this end, I encourage you to work on your soil. Make those little changes to build up the metaphorical organic matter, the nutrients, the microorganisms – prayer, meditation, gratitude, simplicity… so that when God plants a seed in your life it can really turn into something. It can bear good fruit. Go make yourself fertile ground. And for that, can I get an Amen? Amen.