Seed and Soil

Proper 10A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

We have green beans! These are the first fruits of the season from my backyard. We always had a garden when I was growing up. I remember eating tomatoes and vegetables, like this, straight from the vine.

A few years back I bought, cut, and screwed together some 2” X 12’s. I caulked, painted and put them out, two hulking wooden rectangles, laid perpendicular in the backyard. I bought maybe four yards of topsoil? They came and dumped it on my driveway. It seemed like an impossibly large amount of dirt. Yet, it all went in, wheel barrel after wheel barrel. So now, we have two raised-bed garden plots.

That was maybe 7 years ago, and I think we’ve planted a garden exactly twice in all that time. It turns out they’re not in the best location. I was too worried to leave room for the kids to play. They’re tucked away under some overhanging tree branches. They never get enough sun. Even so, it would be manageable, if we watered more regularly, if we didn’t try to stuff so many plants in close together, if we picked weeds –in short—if we weren’t such bad gardeners!

Yes. We’re bad gardeners but even we look good compared to God. Jesus says God is like a gardener too. But where we take care to plan and prepare, God is reckless. Where we carefully plant seeds in straight rows, eight inches apart, God is wasteful, like a foolhardy gardener slinging seed everywhere without preparation or care.
“Listen,” Jesus told them, ‘a sower went out to sow. He broadcast seed on the path, on the rocky ground; among the thorns as well as upon good soil’ (Matthew 13:3-8). God’s ways are mystifying. God’s Word is cast in abundance upon the righteous and the unrighteous alike. God’s grace is poured out upon ordinary uneducated fisherman and disreputable tax collectors. God’s saving power was at work with Abraham, Sarah and their descendants. In Christ Jesus, God’s saving grace is poured out again for us today. It sprouts and grows everywhere—especially where we least expect it.

Just take a good look at the patriarchs we’ve been reading about. What’s most striking to me is how truly human they all are. They are flawed, fearful, and selfish. Yet, within their day-to-day challenges of infertility, multiple births, treacherous plots, and deviant behavior, the purposes of God are not turned back, but are steadily carried forward from generation to generation. They were good soil despite themselves.

There’s something reassuring about that. If you and I were to lay out our family tree through four generations and draw a circle around fifty of our closest relatives—how many awkward in-laws and off-putting outlaws; how many strained relationships, and broken dreams would we be likely to find? The children of Abraham and Sarah look a lot like members of our own families. Yet God worked mightily and gloriously through them. God’s profligate extravagant grace was maybe the one unchanging thing they could count on. What could God be up to in these crazy COVID-afflicted days of ours?

“In this time of sickness, scarcity, anxiety, suffering, and loss, what does the world need more than a Sower who is lavish? A Sower who errs on the side of wastefulness? A Sower who’d rather lose a bunch of seeds to inhospitable terrain than withhold a single one?” (Debie Thomas, The Extravagant Sower, Journey with Jesus, 7/05/20) God is at work in you and your relatives. God is at work in this community. Pray the Spirit of God will find good soil.

When it comes to good soil, we make the mistake of thinking only of the receptiveness of ourselves to God—our faith, our deeds, our righteousness. This is absurd. Good soil is the by-product of centuries. The top 2 to 8 inches on average of decaying plant and animal material called humus or topsoil, is incredibly complex and teaming with life. According to the poet Wendell Berry a healthy forest generates just two inches of humus every thousand years. The good soil, to which Jesus is referring, like humus, is the by-product of countless grace-filled lives.

We must take care not to squander the good soil of community as we have already done with so much of our nation’s topsoil. It is time—it is always time—to restore hope, to build up our collective strength, to nourish the Spirit of wisdom God has so lavishly sown among us. It is time to extend the garden to accommodate people of color. It is time to make room for everyone left out and locked out because in God’s garden, just as in creation, our lives flourish when all lives thrive.
The times they are a changin’ (Bob Dylan). They fill us with grief and anxiety about the future even as opportunities for new life sprout and take hold. #MeToo. #BlackLivesMatter. #PeopleandPlanetFirst. Can we dare to hope God will bring a new day of faith to take hold in us and our church in the struggle for justice and equality for all? Will we be good soil?

“The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But the mystery of transformation more often happens not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart…Most of us would never go to new places in any other way. [Christian] mystics use many words to describe this chaos: fire, dark night, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial, the Evil One. Whatever it is, it does not feel good and it does not feel like God. We will normally do anything to keep the old thing from falling apart, yet this is when we need patience and guidance, and the freedom to let go instead of tightening our controls and certitudes” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Change Is Inevitable, July 5, 2020). Open our hands. Cast our seeds. Let them fall where they may. Can we be as reckless as our God
Bishop Tim Smith of the North Carolina Synod of the ELCA has said “you can count the number of seeds in an apple, but you cannot count the number of apples in a seed.” Most apples contain five seeds. Many apple tree varieties produce up to five hundred apples each season and can produce fruit for eight or more years. It is too small a thing to live only for ourselves. We are meant to leave a legacy of good soil that will contribute to the flourishing of all the lives who will follow.

As surely as rain comes from clouds, God’s Word falls upon the whole earth. As snow comes from the heavens to refresh the land, the grace of Christ Jesus comes to soften the soil of our lives so that the good seed may grow and ripen into rich fruit in us to return into God’s hand (ELW 508). Just as lichen slowly eats away rock, and plants slowly restore nutrients to sand, the wasteful abundance of God’s grace transforms our hard-scrabble hearts into good soil. May God be praised.