Hi friends! We were back in the sanctuary this morning – still trying to figure out how to make the sound better! But it still felt good to be there. Here is my sermon – with the video from the whole service.
Rehoboth Congregational Church
July 12, 2020
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Nurturing Our Own Soil
Many of you know that Bruce and I faithfully plant a vegetable garden every year. Since we moved to Rehoboth in 2011, we have only missed two summers – one when Harrison was born and the other the summer we were moving out of the parsonage and into our house. Yard work last spring – our first spring in our house – was focused almost entirely on building a big fence so we could start planting.
Gardening is fun for me, because you start with something small and nurture it in various ways and then watch it transform and grow right before uour very eyes. I particularly enjoy growing vegetables, because then I get to enjoy the fruits (or, I guess, the veggies) of my labor. I find so many powerful parallels between nurturing growth in a garden and nurturing personal growth in my life and my faith.
Which is why I always love this parable’s placement in the lectionary for us. It pops up in the middle of the summer, usually when we are surrounded by an abundance of fresh flowers, berries and vegetables. It is so relevant, because when Jesus talks about what seeds need to really take root and grow and produce, we have tangible examples of this metaphor all around us as we try to apply these words in our own lives.
I have to admit, however, that one of the things that has always perplexed me about this particular parable is the fact that I believe God can work with any kind of soil, which is not exactly what this parable is saying. This parable is saying that the soil has to be “good”.
If you look at the passage we just read, the first part is the parable, itself, where Jesus explains what happens to seeds when they fall into or are planted in less-than-desirable soil. They either do not take root or the growth that does happen cannot be sustained.
The second part of the passage is when Jesus then explains what this means in terms of our faith. The Gospel – the word of God – are the seeds and we are the soil that the seeds are being planted in. We need to be good soil so we can understand the word as it is planted within us and then nurture growth so it will bear fruit.
So my question has always been, but what if we are bad soil? Where is the room for redemption? For second chances? For grace? For the whole reason Jesus came into this world in the first place?
The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that was kind of Jesus’ whole point.
Let’s look at the passage.
We have reached the point in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is really starting to show the true depth of God’s Kingdom. Leading up to this particular chapter, chapter 13, was the section at the end of chapter 12 where Jesus’ mother and brother show up, wanting to speak to Jesus and Jesus, instead, points to his disciples and calls them his mother and brothers, saying that whoever does the will of God, his Father in heaven, is his brother, mother and sister.
In other words, what Jesus is talking about – this Gospel he is proclaiming – is so much bigger than any of our earthly lives. Jesus is not just speaking to his family – at this point he is not just speaking to his disciples anymore! Jesus is gathering crowds (albeit a concept that is a little strange to us right now, but I will just picture everyone in masks as they listen to Jesus talk). Jesus is trying to reach as many people as he can with the Gospel.
So Jesus begins speaking in parables to give concrete examples and metaphors in order to explain the Kingdom of God, not only so those who had gathered that day could understand, but so we could understand, as well. He begins with the parable of the sower, which is this morning’s passage. The parable of the sower kicks of a series of planting-related parables – the parable of the weeds among the wheat, the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast.
The point Jesus is trying to make with the parable of the sower is that God’s word will do nothing to us if we are not ready to receive it. In the same way that a seed will not grow in the ground if the ground is not ready to receive it – if the soil is not good – we will not be able to grow in our faith and spread the Gospel without ensuring first that our soil is nutrient-rich.
Let’s get back to my original issue with this particular parable. At first glance, it appears that if you do not have nutrient-rich soil that you will not be able to nurture growth in your faith and in the Gospel. But what about those of us with rocky soil? That are on a path with no soil? That are surrounded by thorns? What about those of us that do not have a strong foundation in faith? That have a lot of questions? That doubt more than we believe? That have made mistakes? That did not have the privilege of growing up in a household where going to church was part of our lives?
It is naïve to think that all we have to do is proclaim a belief in Christ in order to have nutrient-rich soil so we can nurture God’s word and let is grow in our lives. I would argue that many of us likely do proclaim a belief in Christ and do not always think we have nutrient-rich soil in which to receive and nurture God’s word.
But, actually, I think that might be the point.
You see, it is not about what we are planting – it is about the soil in which we are planting it in. The point of this parable is not to “weed out” (sorry, bad pun) the Christians with good soil from the Christians with bad soil. The point is that we all have to nurture our soil before we stand a chance at nurturing growth within it. So often we focus on how the seed is growing and what it is producing when we should be focusing on what we are planting that seed in in the first place.
We need to be focusing on the soil.
In other words, it is okay if we have not-so-good soil. That is not the point – the point is that we can nurture our soil. But that is where we have to start. Not with the seeds – with the soil.
So we proclaim ourselves to be Christian. Great! But now what? Christianity does not come with a shiny badge and a bag of nutrient-rich soil for us to plant seeds in. It does, however, come with the promise of redemption and reconciliation and a Gospel that will challenge, comfort and strengthen us as we seek to learn and grow that so we can provide nutrients to the soil that we already have.
It is not about the seeds at all, it is about what we are planting them in. And, as Christians, we have to do the hard work that is required to nurture our own soil before we even think about planting a single thing. The message of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God that it invites us into will do nothing if we are not able to cultivate it in our own lives.
So the question is – how do we nurture our own soil?
In many ways, I think this time of social distancing has allowed us to get back to basics at the church. Without the usual the flurry of activities (while I dearly miss them!) we have been allowed to focus on what brings us together in the first place – our faith, as Christians.
Our worship services center solely around God’s word and a reflection on that word. Our nightly prayer meetings in our Facebook group not only connect us in prayer, but also strengthens our community as we check in with one another and hold one another in the light of God’s love. We use the simple act of making phone calls and sending cards to have meaningful conversations and know that we are not alone. Care packages are delivered to the homes of the children in our church school to remind them that their church loves them and has not forgotten them.
The more I reflect on what we are doing and how we are being church right now, the more I realize that now is the time to nurture our soil. This time of social distancing will end eventually – we will, one day, resume our usual flurry of activities. But I strongly believe that what will define us as a church is not what we produce then – it is the soil that we create now.
And so I know it is frustrating that we cannot meet in person yet. I know it is hard to cancel so many of our favorite activities, not knowing when they will, once again, resume. I know it is painful to not be able to look one another in the eyes and hug each other and do church the way we are used to.
But I invite you to take comfort in knowing that we are nurturing the soil in which we will plant our seeds in the future. The work we are doing now is so important for what we can do and who we can be in the future.
The same is true for all of us, an individuals. Many of our lives have slowed down – or, at the very least, changed – dramatically since things initially shut down in March. And, in many ways, it is frustrating and heartbreaking – devastating, even.
But this is where we are – this is the chapter of history we are writing. And so I believe that we, as individuals, can do the same work that the church is doing right now to nurture our own soil. We can get back to basics – focus on reading scripture, on centering ourselves in prayer and on connecting with one another through meaningful conversations. We can prioritize our personal faith journeys in a way that we never have had the time to do before.
We can read scripture. Use a daily devotional for quiet time. Write in a journal. Participate in our evening prayers. Pick up the phone and catch up with a member of our beloved community. While I know we would all love nothing more than to plant seeds and watch them grow by getting out into the world and doing all of the things we want to do, perhaps now is the time to focus not on the seeds, but the on the soil that we will plant them in.
Friends, let us use this time – this time of social distancing, as frustrating as it might be – to nurture our soil. Let us turn to scripture and prayer to give ourselves the strength, wisdom and courage to cultivate growth that can be sustained and will flourish in the future. Let us nurture good soil within ourselves so that we can bear fruit and yield, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.
I keep hearing people say that we need to keep the faith right now as we get through these challenging times. And I agree. Now more than ever, we need our faith to sustain us.
But I also think that in order to keep that faith, we have to have good soil for it to grow in. And that takes work.
And that work starts now.
So let us nurture that soil that the seeds of the Gospel that fall within us will take root, grow, bear fruit and yield, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.
Thanks be to God!