Decades ago, before I started attending church but when I had decided to read the Bible from cover to cover, I first read today’s story. It’s called the parable of the sower. It’s an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. It gives us one of my favorite images of God – a sower, a cosmic farm worker, a seed thrower, Jesus said. “He went out to throw seed.”
Judging by the sower’s actions, the sower is experienced, resolute, and hopeful when it comes to throwing seed. We know that because the story says only about twenty-five percent of precious seed finds good soil, grows and multiplies. The sower seems more concerned with fidelity than results, with possibility more than efficiency. The sower is working toward expansion by overwhelming limitation with generosity and constancy. The sower is bearing witness against scarcity by getting seed into every nook and cranny despite the most pernicious complications.
The good news of Jesus’ story is that it’s a story about a good God, throwing good seed, looking for good soil to multiply good in the world. What a marvelous way to think of God. And a marvelous way to approach our own good-doing in the world. What a wonderful God we have – genius in love and mercy. Steadfast in the work of nurturing growth. After all these years of thinking about this story this is where my mind goes now – to a good sower.
But when this story first got a hold of me, I had a question and a fear. My question was, if God is the sower of this good seed, which is the word of God, what kind of soil was I? I’m probably not the only person who has wondered that. I mean, had the birds come into my life and picked my path clean of good seed? Or was I rocky and thorny soil, either too shallow or too consumed with the ways of the world to give God’s word a real chance in my life?
Like most folks, I wanted to be good soil, I wanted to give Jesus’ teachings and example a good home in my life and in my heart; but could I? My fear was that maybe being good soil was a factory setting. You know? Some are born creative, some funny, some love math and some are good soil. I was really stuck thinking that either we are this kind of soil or that kind of soil; that is just who we are, end of story. What a grim way to think about loving God. I had somehow slipped into using Jesus’ wonderful story to categorize and limit God, myself and others. In an ironic way, my limiting thoughts about God’s ingenuity were like the birds of the story who fly away with the good seed before it sprouts.
So, thank God for a mentor friend who came to me, like good seed thrown into my life. I shared my thoughts about this story and, in short order, he listened and affirmed my love of God’s word and my desire for understanding. But what he said next to me opened my mind and rooted me.
He said it was his sense of the story that it doesn’t confine or condemn us to being one kind of soil in perpetuity. He said Jesus’ story is best understood as an invitation to consider and confess that we have all been each kind of soil at some point in our lives. In other words, we’re all saints and we’re all sinners. We are all made for good, but we shun good, the good we are and the good we can do, sometimes because of fear of one stripe or the other.
To paraphrase my friend, fertility in our lives and in the world happens when we find the courage to square our shoulders and ask and answer the questions that Jesus’ story prompts. When was your life indifferent or hostile to God and God’s word? What are the names of the anxieties that seduce you away from the love of God? But not only that, when was your last good soil season? What is green and growing in your life?
What blesses the soul here is no matter what soil season you are in right now, the Sower just keeps on sowing, resolute, generous, hopeful, undaunted. I will never forget the feeling I had at the end of that conversation. You could say he moved me from thorny soil toward being good soil. At least toward being available soil. Thank God for a friend with a seed to share!
Bundled together with this parable is the practical reality that we need to read the Bible in community. Even when Jesus tells this story, he pauses and then offers an explanation. He makes meaning and understanding with his friends in partnership. We also have to talk faith with one another. We need others, especially to help us when we reach confusing intersections in Jesus’ teaching. The Holy Spirit works her best magic in community! What is needed today are more Bible studies in local congregations and perhaps less sermonizing - a funny thing for a preacher to say while preaching a sermon! So then maybe a combination of both on Sunday morning would be an important experiment to run for the average church this year.
Now I confess, I confess here publicly that I don’t actually know much about botany or soil. Not only that, you might be thinking listening to me that, hey, wait a minute, this guy lives in Georgia! What does he actually know about good soil anyway? Georgia is not like the Carolinas with their rich black fertile soil. Down here in Georgia, we have red clay, unreliable rainfall, and temperatures so intense that they call the city of Atlanta “Hotlanta”!
And while all of that is true, here’s what I have learned: Our red clay is famously difficult to grown things. Clay causes water and drainage problems and clay has nutrient deficiencies. And yet, we have learned to grow all kinds of things here in Georgia: peaches and pecans, pine trees, blueberries, cotton and spring onions. What we have learned here is that if you have a soil problem, you need a soil supplement if things are going to grow. And if you want things to grow unusually good - like Jesus said was possible, thirty times and sixty times over normal output -then you’re going to have to employ an exceptionally knowledgeable gardener and an unusually good supplement.
What I love about Jesus is that he is God come among us. The cosmic come to the local. His stories start here in the fingernail-dirty places of life and living. The stories start here but move us by his spiritual imagination to a place of hope and of promise. That is the supplement that saves the soil and the sin-sick soul at the same time. Clay may not be much compared to some other kinds of soil, but over in the book of Jeremiah God says, “I am the potter and you are the clay; if you put yourselves in my hands, I can fashion you into something that is pleasing to me and something that is productive for the world.”
And don’t you just love that whenever Jesus points us in a direction generally and collectively, somehow we are assured individually that he is able to work with our specific soil conditions? So, if the path of your heart today is hard because life has walked on you and over you, your soil supplement is to pray. To pray for those who anger you, “bless those who curse you, pray for those who despitefully use you.” That is your path to be good soil.
And if the soil of your life is thin, like the soil that lives between the rocks and can’t sustain deep and abundant life, if that describes the season you’re in, then the word from the master gardener to you today is to practice radical generosity for a season. Give like you have never given before. Find the neediest people you can find and give. Find the most desperate brothers and sisters you can find and give your time, talent, and bright mind to their uplift. This is how the Spirit creates new depth in us so things can grow, so lives can grow. Don’t give out of the thin soil of obligation or guilt. Give because you realize at new depth that everything you have is gift. Give from that place: “God just loves a cheerful giver,” the Bible says. That’s how the rocks in our life get moved, by de-centering ourselves and centering Jesus’ example of serving.
And if the soil of your life won’t sustain great botanical heights because of the thorns that choke abundant life, then your soil supplement is gratitude. There is nothing like gratitude to drain away the fear that chokes out faith and joy. Start each morning by giving thanks for all the blessings of life, even though life has its persistent problems. Each time you pray, start by giving thanks. Let the thanksgiving portion of your prayers be longer than the portion where you are making requests. Do that for a season. Do that this summer. Do it with a prayer partner. Walk out in nature, lift up your head, and give thanks. It is amazing how this simple practice shifts our outlook and overwhelms our fears.
There is an old adage that says when your gratitude is great, your fears will fail to have power. So, we give thanks today because the thorns of life don’t diminish the goodness of God. They put a crown of thorns on Jesus to crown him as a criminal. But God used those thorns to crown him as the Lord of Life. And so, we give thanks because God can make the dry and withered thorns of today the fertilizer of our faith tomorrow.
Zora Neale Hurston said, “Trees and plants always look like the people they live with, somehow.” And so, the soil supplement that will grow us all up into the full stature of Christ is for us today to decide again to make Jesus the chief gardener and care taker of our souls. It is Christ who knows best how to transform our souls into fertile soil.