Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
This morning’s texts seem particularly appropriate to our cultural context. It’s all about farming. We live in a small, rural, farm based community. Many of you are farmers, living on farms, working on farms, raising families on farms. I remember as a child spending most Sunday’s after church at my grandparents’ farm. Summers during my very early childhood including playing in haylofts, being terrorized by feral farm cats, and walking the beans in the morning. The reward was half a bottle of Pepsi and a nap on the couch in the couch in the afternoon.
One might think I would have lots to say about this morning texts. One might think I have all kinds of stories to share about planting seeds and reaping harvests. I wish that were the case. I LOVE the idea of gardening. The idea of sustainable, family based agriculture gets me giddy. I love the idea of growing my own food, of putting up preserves, of having homegrown tomatoes turned into succulent sauces that are available in the dead of winter because of something I did with my own hands.
The truth is, however, I cannot dig in the dirt. I really wish I were kidding. But the reality is, I can’t. Terrified. Utterly, completely, and in all other ways terrified. I get nervous just talking about it to you guys. Now there are two reasons for this response. One—the lesser reason—is that dirt is dirty. It grosses me out. I hate getting it under my fingernails. I hate how, at the end of the day, when the skin on your hands has completely dried out and begun to crack, the dirt works its way into those tiny crevices of skin and it’s impossible to get it out. Let’s be honest—garden gloves don’t keep the dirt out. They just make your hands sweat and turn all that dirt into mud. It’s disgusting.
The second reason, though, the real reason I can’t garden, is because I have a phobia. A genuine, bonafide phobia. A completely irrational fear that interferes with my ability to do things that I might otherwise enjoy. I can’t garden, I can’t even seriously contemplate gardening, because the very idea of seeing a certain animal (which happens to be really, really good for your soil) terrifies the bejeezus out of me. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Some people refer to them as night crawlers. Others use a four-letter word I cannot bring myself to even think, let alone type, or speak aloud.
So, now you know. My secret shame. Having grown up on in a rural, agriculturally based culture, I’m almost totally divorced from the foundation of that culture by virtue of this weird little quirk known as a phobia.
Our lesson from the Gospel of Matthew today talked about four different types of soil:
1. A path—hard ground, beaten to a nearly indestructible solid mass of tightly packed earth; the result of years of being tread upon by foot or hoof
2. Rocky ground—soil that has stones, large or small mixed in
3. Thorny soil—dirt that might be rich and fertile, but which is seemingly unsuitable
4. Good soil—soil which is loose, free from debris, rich and fertile, without weeds or thorny plants to interfere with the growth of more preferable plant life
Each of these soils, Jesus tells his disciples, has characteristics that make it either suitable for, or hostile to the growing process.
The first, the path, doesn’t allow for the seed to mix with the soil, and as such, the seed is easily plucked up by the birds of the air which carry it away and consume it.
The second, the rocky ground, allows for the seeds to sprout. However, because the stones interfere with the plants ability to produce a deep and effective root system, when the sun comes out in the heat of the day, the plants are scorched and die. This is similar to the method of weeding most gardeners I know subscribe to—weed early in the morning and the heat of the noonday sun will kill the weeds, not allowing them to take root again. These gardeners also know that if you weed your garden at night, these same undesirable plants will simply take root again over the course of the cool evening and reinvade the garden.
The third soil type, that which contains thorns, is considered unsuitable because the thorns, having been long established, use all of the nutrients that might otherwise go to the seeds which were planted. Seeds planted among thorns might take root, and their root system may run deep, but the thorns have deeper root systems, and in times of drought will use up all of the water in the soil, and so the other seeds are choked out and die.
The fourth soil type is like an Iowa farm field, tilled and fertilized. The soil has been broken up and is suitable for planting. The stones and boulders have been removed. Herbicides have been applied and all alien plant life has been destroyed. This type of soil is prepped and ready. Anything planted in it will take root, grow, and produce fruit.
Jesus then goes on to explain how these types of soil are really types of people. Those who hear the Word of God but do not understand; those who receive the Word with joy but have no root and so wither; those who hear the Word, but who are concerned with the things of this world, with material wealth and whose faith is thus choked out; those who hear the Word and understand it, and bear much fruit.
What I find interesting about this parable that Jesus tells, and his further instruction on what it means, is that Jesus never condemns the soil. It’s simply there. It’s the nature of the path to be hard; it’s the nature of rocky soil not to permit deep roots; it’s the nature of thorny ground to choke out new life; it’s the nature of healthy, fertile, prepared soil to produce abundant fruit.
Even more importantly, it’s clear to me, from a text we read a few weeks ago, that God is the one who determines the soil type. God, who created the heavens and the earth; God who brought forth light; God who separated the ground from the seas; God who produced every living plant—including those thorns; God who created humankind in God’s own image.
The seed is dropped on various types of soil because the sower sows. And the sower seems to sow indiscriminately. Wherever the sower happens to be, there seed is thrown, with the expectation that something may come to fruition, but without much concern thereafter. The seed is sown, and the sower moves on. The sower doesn’t worry about whether or not the seed was sown properly. The sower doesn’t worry about what might have been if only he or she had tossed the seed with more verve. The sower doesn’t sit down and dissect every aspect of their planting, wondering what they could have done to be more effective sowers.
As Christians, we are called to sow the Word of God. We are called to sow liberally. We are called to share the Word of God with everyone. We are not called to do a chemical analysis of the soil; we are not called to break up paths, to move boulders, to rip out weeds or thorns; we are simply called to sow the word. The rest is God’s concern. God determine the soil type. We plant where we are. God provides the growth.
Now, fortunately for us, writing and preaching a sermon on a text deals with various types of soil did not require that I actually had any contact with soil, and for that I am extremely grateful. I did, however, do a bit of research about various plants and their effect on the types of soil mentioned today. This research led to me to one glaring conclusion: no matter what the soil looks like, the seed is never wasted.
Take that path, for instance. The one that was so hard, the seed just sat there until it was carried away by the birds of the air. Jesus explains that this type of soil is like a person who hears the word of God and does not understand. Immediately Satan swoops in and steals the Word. Now, what I love most about this analogy is that there a variety of plants that are actually dependent upon birds for germination and continued survival as a species.
Birds eat seeds. Their bodies digest the outer shell of the seeds. Birds then ‘drop’ these seeds via waste elimination. The seeds are sown in this fertile byproduct known as poop, and grow up to produce more plants.
I think similarly, sowing the Word of God in hard places, places where it is immediately snatched away, can have a similar result. I remember once talking with a friend who said, “I had this really weird experience earlier this week. Some guy came up to me and shared a bible verse with me. It meant nothing to me.” When I asked what verse was shared, and the person told me, I thought “The sowing of that Word was meant for me.”
Those big rocks and boulders that do not allow seeds to take proper root? Did you know that the roots which do develop before the plant is scorched and die exerts some degree of force on those rocks? Over the course of time, those root systems can actually break down rocks, turning them from boulders, to rocks, to stones, to pebbles until all you are left with is soil. New seed can take sprout; seed which will be deeply rooted; seed which will not wither in the heat of the sun.
The same is true for sowing the Word of God in the lives of those who have big obstacles to overcome. We may not see a difference in the way these people live their lives. We might be encouraged by an immediate joy and a desire for change, but become discouraged when they come face to face with challenges and revert to old ways of living.
But when that happens, rather than being disheartened, we can be encouraged that the new life that sprung forth, even for a moment, has had some sort of an impact. It has produced some root, which though it may have died quickly, was surely exerting force upon those stones and breaking them down, even if we do not see the result for years to come.
Those thorns, the ones that choke out the seed and do not allow it to grow; well, God is the one who made the garden. God is the one who tends it. God will do the weeding. We cannot know the reason behind why God chooses to move when God moves; or how God chooses to move in the ways in which God moves. We simply know that God works when and in the fashion that God does.
That good soil? The soil which is ready, fertile, tilled? The soil which is free from rocks, free from wees, which produces abundant fruit? Well, you’re all familiar with farming! You know that this type of soil doesn’t just appear overnight! You know the significant labor that goes into producing this soil type and preparing it for seed.
The person the fourth soil type represents didn’t just appear on the scene ready to receive the Word and produce fruit. Chances are, that person has been tended and cared for by God. Chances are, God’s word has been dropped in their life at some point. Chances are, the Word of God has broken up the boulders in their life. Chances are God has plucked the weeds from their life. Nobody starts out as type 4 soil.
As Christians, what type of soil are we?
Are we able to accept the Word of God?
Has God’s Word made a lasting and significant impact on our lives?
Where is our focus on Sunday mornings?
How about Sunday afternoons?
Where do we set our gaze come Monday?
Do our lives produce abundant fruit? Do we see growth of 30, 60, or even 100-fold?
Do we continue to sow the Word of God in all areas of our lives?
Like the four types of soil, we are all in process. And it’s possible to be each one of these types of soil in the course of a week; in the course of a day; in the course of an hour! There is no shame in being any of these soil types, because God creates the soil. God tends the soil. God changes the soil. God is still present, still active, still speaking. The Word of God continues to be sown into our lives. We are called to continue to sow it into the lives of others. This is how the Kindom of God is spread: one seed at a time.