(8th Sunday after Pentecost July 13, 2008 Isaiah 55:10-13; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)
Did you know that the Cooperative Extensive Service will examine your dirt?
If you send them a box full of soil from your garden or lawn, they will analyze the soil and advise you about how to improve your chances of successful growth. The soil must come from a particular depth: 6 to 8 inches for a garden, 2 to 3 inches for turf. The soil test will tell you:
• the soil pH;
• levels of potassium (K), phosphorus (P), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg);
• organic matter level;
• if there is lead contamination;
• how much lime and fertilizer (organic or chemical) to add; and
• other management tips for growing your crop.
I have to admit that I have never sent off a box of soil to be tested, but I have done my best on one occasion to ensure the success of a planting. When I moved into my house ten years ago, I wanted to plant a forsythia bush. The property was crowded with yews, and I had three removed at a corner of the back yard. When I went to the nursery to look at forsythias, happily, a person who knew more than I asked me what had been planted there previously. I went home with not only the bush, but also a bag of lime, because if I recall correctly, yews are very acidic and the soil needed to be neutralized. The forsythia is thriving, ten years later, but it was a long time before I went to that much trouble for soil again, getting ready to put in the bulbs and new shrubs I planted in a major front garden renovation last fall.
Today we heard a parable about soil and seeds and sower. It might be helpful to learn a bit about the agricultural practices of his time, given that they were so different from ours. Seed was sown by hand, essentially strewn about by the sower in a manner that might charitably be called imprecise. It was only natural that some seed would fall in places where rooting was unlikely. Jesus describes seed falling on the path, and there were certainly hard, dirt paths amongst the fields, compacted by the passing of human feet. Jesus also describes rocky ground, and we know that some of the land in Jesus’ homeland had a thin layer of soil covering a stone base. The soil would heat up during the daylight hours, then release enough heat in the night to cause seeds to sprout—but with no place to put down roots. Lastly, the borders of fields were likely to be infested with thorns and weeds, and those seeds would blow onto the plowed land, invisible to the sower’s eye but quite ready to germinate and threaten the good seed.
When I bought my home, the previous owners had let the yard go. Dandelions thrived, and more yews, though removed, had made the soil unfriendly to other life. The first spring, I determined to try and grow some grass. A lawn company came in to aerate the soil and kill the weeds, a serious effort!
But a year later, the dandelions returned, and the grass did not. I decided to try and get some grass growing myself. Like Jesus’ sower, I hand-seeded the lawn. Some of the seed no doubt landed on the sidewalk and became a snack for birds. Some never took root, and although I know there is something other than rock under my front yard, you would never know it to look at the bare patches that are resistant to any of my ministrations. Clover choked out some of the grass, and, in a few places, the beautiful impervious dandelions reared their yellow heads.
Just like the soil, some of us resist the seeds God seeks to plant. We may be rocky or shallow, too acidic or even too basic. What do we find when we test our own soil? How do we measure the pH of the soul? I know there are things that sweeten me, bringing me back from sharpness or sadness, reminding me that there is joy in life: music and poetry, my family, a walk around the neighborhood with the dogs, the fragrance of lilacs, a splash in the ocean—almost any chance to feel connected to something beyond myself. In those times I am most open to God’s seed, flung lovingly toward me though in no particular direction.
As excited as I am about my new front gardens, it became clear in the past week that despite efforts at mulching wisely, we need to do some weeding. I missed Snowman especially, because of all the other people in the family, he would be the one most likely to cheerfully cooperate in ridding the garden of weeds, without being asked more than once. Because I’m facing some challenges with rheumatoid arthritis, I can’t just do things myself the way I would like to, and now I have to ask for help from the less enthusiastic assistants in my family, unless I want the pretty and well-defined beds to lose their edges and eventually their middles to the weeds. It would be easy to lose it all, to let it go, and that can happen to us spiritually, too.
Do you find yourselves choked by the weeds of worry or frustration? What crowds your blossoming? Jesus spoke of the cares of the world, of the anxieties of the age. This summer the Trustees have looked ahead to next winter’s oil contract, as many of us have done at home, too. We may find ourselves choked by such concerns, wondering how to manage what feels beyond our control. And weeds can take other forms, not so material, can’t they? Family issues, relationship problems, work pressures may distract us from the growth that matters most.
Those are the times we most need each other, I think, the times we hope we can turn to our faith community and find help, the times we can turn to each other and work together to improve and sweeten and strengthen our soil.
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Then what about the times when the seed we sow seems to fall on the path, or to take only shallow root, or to be choked away by cares and weeds? Do we know how to sow with that old-fashioned frame of reference? Can we bring ourselves to let the seeds fall where they may, simply rejoicing in those that take root? Jesus assures us that the harvest will be great, for thirtyfold and sixty fold and a hundredfold are far beyond the usual yields considered successful in his time.
This church has been planted in three different fields throughout its history, and the fields around it have changed dramatically over the past 20 years in particular. Once upon a time, there could be no town until there was a church, did you know that? The church had to be founded before a town could be chartered, and therefore a church meant fruitful soil for community and commerce and all aspects of civic life. But now, given the way the town has changed, the life of the residents is not focused where we are, so although we are on Main Street, it may seem we are invisible, choked out by the weeds of commerce.
Are the stores weeds? Or is the church on a rocky path? That may sound hopeless.
Yet we believe God’s seed will return a harvest. In fact we are promised it will. The question is not whether God’s seed will return an abundant crop, but about our own planting. Have we thought about the seed we are scattering? And what would it look like to scatter our seed wide? And what is the seed we are scattering?
Standing on the sidewalk on the 4th of July, I saw both church people and people I know from my “other” life, my 20 years in this area before I came to work with you. Our doors that day were wide open, and our sign says “All are welcome,” a message of presence and hospitality. People saw the church selling food, so clearly we are here, but they also remember hearing that the church had considered selling, and to some that is equivalent to closing.
I suspect this all sounds and feels confusing. This is one of those stories, like so many parables, where we may see ourselves in every image in the story. We sow seeds, and we are seeds! But right now it seems most important to test our soil, to consider how receptive we will be to the new seeds that must inevitably be sown during a transition. In small group meetings, we will test our soil by working on three of the tasks of the interim time: by trying to understand the church’s history and seeking to determine the congregation’s identity and beginning to make a commitment to a new future. Together we will discover the spiritual pH of this field and make ready to receive the seeds of God’s hopes.
To test our soil, first we need to dig. I hope you’re ready to get your hands dirty. Amen.