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Saturday, July 9, 2011

It’s All About the Soil

Pentecost 4A 2011

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

One of Vicki’s and my favorite TV shows before we unplugged our cable was Mythbusters, on the Discovery Channel. Every week former Hollywood special effects wizards Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage and their team examine TV and movie stunts and popular myths to see if things could really happen that way or not. They’ve tested whether eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda simultaneously will make your stomach explode, whether using a cell phone while pumping gas in your car will cause an explosion, whether having a tongue piercing makes you more likely to be hit by lightning, whether Jimmy Hoffa is buried at Giants Stadium, and John Linka’s favorite, can a fishing reel catch fire with a fast enough fish on the line? The episodes are often hilarious, especially when, after disproving the myth, the team adds enough explosive, or enough speed, or enough whatever to actually make the thing come true. It’s every man’s dream job – crashing, wrecking, and blowing things up for fun.

Mythbusters, for all its absurdity, is actually a fun way to learn good scientific method. The team figures out all the possible variables in the experiment, isolates them, keeps all but one factor constant, and then varies one factor to see if they can make the experiment work. It’s what a good cook does to improve a recipe; what an electrician or mechanic does to track down a problem; what a teacher does to help a student learn. And, in Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed, what a farmer does to increase his yield.

The farmer, the seed, the sun, and the rain are constants. The variable in the experiment is the condition of the soil receiving the seed. Obviously, this is a Middle School science project, because no farmer in his right mind would try to farm in the middle of the road, or on thin soil over rocks. Nor would he try to plant in the middle of weeds. But this farmer does, to see what happens. The seed on the road just lies there until it’s gobbled up by hungry birds. The seed on the thin, rocky, soil sprouts, but can’t put down deep roots and it dies. The seed among the weeds sprouts and does well at first, but the amazing thing about weeds is their genius for taking over any place where they grow, crowding out the intended crop. On the end, the only seed that produces is that planted in deep, rich, composted, weeded, de-rocked soil. Not only does it grow, but it reproduces by multiplication thirty, sixty, or a hundred times the original seed.

The parable, of course, is about God’s work in the world, and about the conditions necessary for God’s Kingdom to grow in us and in the world. The sower – God – and the seed – the Good News of God’s justice and mercy in Jesus Christ – are the same. It’s the soil – you and I – that is the variable. So let’s see how we might move from being asphalt, unable to receive God’s work, to becoming deep, rich, productive soil.

First, though, let’s realize what Jesus is telling us about God and the Good News. God is an absurdly wasteful farmer, who sows seed on highways and rocks and among weeds. And the seed is certified – it is the same quality Good News scattered everywhere. God doesn’t plant lousy seed in unlikely places, lest the good stuff be wasted. Just as sin is sin is sin, so God’s grace is grace is grace, poured out on everyone exactly alike. If there’s a problem in the yield of righteousness, it’s not God’s fault. It’s not the quality of the seed. The problem is in the soil. That is, you. And me.

The first field to receive seed is the hard and packed path. Imagine Jimmy Talley driving his planter right down New Kent Highway. The only things that are going to happen are that Jimmy is going to have very dull coulters, and the birds are going to get fat. For God’s grace to grow, that road, or that path, are going to have to be split wide open.

I love to watch farmers plow a field. It really is agricultural surgery, violently splitting the earth open as with a scalpel. The moldboard digs deep, lifts the soil up and turns it over, exposing the underside to the sky. There, down deep, is where the rich soil lies, ready to receive and nourish new life.

That’s why sometimes it takes some terrible tragedy for hardened people to be able to receive the gospel – their lives are so compacted that nothing takes root in them until their hearts and minds and sometimes their bodies are split wide open and turned upside down. St. Paul was one of those people – the resurrected Jesus had to knock him off his horse and blind him before he could hear the Good News. You probably know people like that too – people who resist the love of God until something nearly kills them.

The second soil type in the story is thin soil, with rocks just beneath the surface. You probably know people who seem at first to be very open and loving and gracious people, but then, as soon as you scratch the surface, there’s something hard and impenetrable there. These are folks who just love Jesus when things are going well, but at the first sign of trouble, or when something happens at church they don’t like, or when they are challenged to move to a deeper level of commitment, they literally hit the stone wall.

The third type, Jesus says, are people who have some depth, but they’re spiritual multitaskers. The soil is rich and deep, the Kingdom takes root in their lives and grows, but there are thousand competing interests that soon crowd out faith, stealing the rain, the sun, and the nutrients from the soil. Some of those competing commitments may, like a morning glory, literally strangle the life out of the gospel, all the while producing beautiful flowers.

What does it take to be deep, rich, weed-free soil for God? Friends, this is what we’re trying to do here at Providence every day. Just as you can’t grow a decent garden by tending it once a week or twice a month or when you feel like it, so a life of discipleship is a full-time vocation. This is not a hobby – this is a way of life.

First, we have to be constantly turning our lives over, as a field is turned under a plow. The hard work of discipleship is being plowed open every day by surrender to God. Every day we come to God and confess our hardness and our sterility, asking God to break us wide open. When we worship, we gather to remember that God is great, and we’re not. We come to be fed by the Word of God, not by our own hands.

Some of us, perhaps many of us, need a deeper level of help in breaking through the hard crust of our lives. Several times in my life, when I have felt dry and sterile and dying, I have gone to professional counselors who have carefully and skillfully opened up my life for me to look at and for God to heal. Just as it was no shame for me to go to a surgeon to remove my cancer, or for another surgeon to repair my broken leg, or for another doctor to treat my high blood pressure, the shame is to not ask a professional to help treat mental, spiritual, or emotional illness.

Second, the hard rocks just beneath the polite surface of our lives need to be broken up. Jinks Kennon, an old farmer at Salem Church in Orange County, used to insist that rocks grew: every year he would pick all the rocks out of his garden, and the next year there would be new ones, brought up by the freezing and thawing over the winter. Rocks grow in our lives as well. We pick out the boulders of our fears and prejudices and hurts and sorrows, so grace can take root in us. But we soon discover there are more rocks there. And more. And more. We will always be picking obstacles to grace out of our fields. That’s what prayer is about. That’s what Bible study is about. That’s what holy and confessional friendships are about, where we can help each other lift the boulders in our fields to heavy for us to manage on our own. Clearing the boulders is a lifelong pursuit. But when we share the work with friends – and the more the merrier – then the work not only becomes manageable, but can even be a joy.

Lastly, although the Word of God is eternal, it is also fragile. It can be killed by competition. I grow more and more distressed at the attention deficit life we live in this culture. Thirteen year olds have cell phones so they can text each other. I sit in meetings competing with people constantly checking their phones. Parents run their children from school to band to church to soccer to cheerleading to Scouts to friends’ houses, while the parents scurry form work to home to church to gym to lodge to class to party to hell. The great preacher Gordon Cosby said, Overextension is the sign of undercommitment. Make few promises, but keep the ones you make. We live a mile wide and an inch deep: live your life deep and narrow instead. The weeds are killing us, folks. Jesus tells story after story – from the rich young ruler to the three would-be disciples to the rich fool and his barns – to warn that without relentless weeding, life in the Spirit will die. Just stop it. Stop. Say no, so you can say yes to God, and to each other.

And when our lives are broken open and turned over, today and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow; when we go beneath the surface and clear out the obstacles to faithfulness with the help of prayer and confession and holy friends; when we choose to live our lives narrowly and deeply by saying no so we can say yes, then we can be the deep, rich soil that will a great harvest for God. Good soil, after all, is really rock ground down to microscopic size; it is the compost of long-dead growth broken down into nourishing elements; it is the waste of living from which new life can grow.

The sower and the seed are constants: for the difference, it’s all about the soil.

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