Sermon – July 12, 2020 – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Of Seed and Soil…

Summer is hard upon us.  If the change of the calendar page a couple of weeks ago didn’t bring that home for us, the heat and humidity that has marked this past week certainly has.  This is the time when we can begin to see and feel and taste the hard work we have been putting into our gardens start to pay off—the scent of roses on the breeze… the crunch of the first ears of home-grown sweet corn… the sticky juice of watermelons dripping down the chin… the snap of plump green beans in our fingers.  There’s a beauty to a ripe tomato hanging on the vine, a promise of goodness on the plate.  And the zucchini we will soon have way too many of—well, they are growing, too.  Even those pandemic gardens planted by newbies desperate for something to do during these long days of social distancing are starting to yield their bounty, too.

Most years, we cannot escape the lushness, the greenness, the growth that has been taking place all summer. This is Illinois, after all, home of some of the richest soil on the planet, where all we need to do to make something grow is to stick it in the ground and stand back while Nature does what it does best.

But some years are harder than others. Sometimes there’s not enough rain; sometimes there’s too much.  Sometimes there are too many hot days, too early in the season, and the crops wither instead of flourishing.  Sometimes disease or pests come and destroy what we would nurture.  

The parable Jesus tells says that happens sometimes.  When the sower goes out to sow, the seed falls in all kinds of places, all kinds of conditions, all kinds of soil.  Some of it never even gets the chance to sprout, the ground is so hard and rocky.  And some springs up quickly and then fades away, because it has no deep anchor to withstand the stress of adverse conditions.  And some just gets crowded out.  But some—well, some sends roots down deep, down to where the nutrients in the soil and the hidden moisture is, and that’s the seed that lives and grows and bears much fruit.

When the disciples ask Jesus to explain this parable, he tells them that the seed is the Word of God and that the soil is the human heart, that sometimes the heart is too hard and rocky for the Word to even enter, sometimes the heart is good-intentioned but lacks staying power, but sometimes—well, sometimes an abundant harvest comes.

I exaggerated a little bit earlier.  Even here in Illinois, we have to tend and weed and hoe our gardens.   We may need to put down a little fertilizer now and then.  And even in the best of summers, there will be days then we need to carry a little water out to the plants.  We work the soil; we do what we need to do to help our gardens grow.  If we don’t—well, just ask any farmer what happens if you neglect to do the necessary work to help the good things grow.

Here’s where our experience meets the parable: we don’t get to decide what kind of soil our own hearts are.  Only God knows that.  In fact, most of us are a varied mixture when it comes to what kind of soil we might be.  Most of us have deeply engrained prejudices, some we aren’t even aware we hold.  And we can bristle and become defensive when those biases get exposed.  We refuse to even consider that those might be something we need to re-examine, something we need to let go, something we need to weed out as best we can, with God’s help, so that we can grow into the people God wants us to be.  That soil is a little too rocky, a little too hard.

And then there are those places in our hearts that are eager and enthusiastic and willing, but lack the deep motivation to follow through.  “I’ll volunteer at the homeless shelter!…I could teach someone to read!…  I could feed the masses!…  Well, maybe I’ll start next week… or next month.  There’s no hurry…. Is there?”  And that soil is a little too shallow for our good intentions to take root and thrive amidst the other things going on in our lives.

But there’s also good soil, soil where the Word of God—the Word that calls us to love God above all else and to love our neighbor even as we love ourselves—there’s good soil where that Word can take root and grow and fill our lives so that we might fill the world with hope and peace and joy—not by our own power, but through the power of God at work in us to make that happen.

There’s no denying that this has been a hard year for so many of us, as we have faced the disruption and threat that comes with living through a global pandemic; hard, as we have become increasingly aware that we are all enmeshed in systems that often promote the well-being of the privileged over the desperate needs of the marginalized; hard,  as we have begun to try to imagine a way forward, where the wrongs of the past are acknowledged and redressed and we begin to find our way into a new world where all of God’s children have what they need to not just survive but to thrive.  We have worked hard, and there is still more work that must be done before we come to a place of peace and plenty, a place of rest and rejoicing.  The soil of our hearts is being tilled in a way most of us have never experienced.  And it hurts, and it’s exhausting, and we cannot do it on our own.

But here’s the good news.  The Sower is sowing still, and the Sower loves us.  The Sower wants to work with us and in us and through us so that we might become the best soil possible so that we might yield an abundant harvest of righteousness and peace, of justice and mercy. We don’t have to do it on our own, for God is with us and God will do it.  

But we can cooperate with that work by being ready for it to happen, by being ready to confront the injustices we find revealed within our own hearts, by being open and ready to receive the seed of love that the Sower is always sowing into the world.  We can help one by gathering together in whatever ways we can, to read and study scripture, to pray for one another and our world, to encourage one another in acts of mercy and justice.  We can share what we have, not just with those who are like us but those who are “other,” those who can help us learn about a reality that is different from our own—goods and finances are meant to be shared, of course; time and talent, without a doubt; but also our knowledge and our experiences, so that we can learn and grow together.   That’s how we help one another grow strong and resilient as we do whatever piece of God’s work God places in our hands, whether that piece is big or small.  God gives us to one another precisely for that purpose—to support one another, to help one another, to nurture one another. 

How can we know that God is at work in us, turning our hearts into good soil that will bear much fruit?  Well, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22)  Where we see those things we know that the Spirit is alive and at work.  And where we see their opposites—where hatred and suspicion and division are being sown, where self-will takes precedence over the needs of others and even of the community, where strife and a lack of compassion and caring are seen —we need to beware, need to be careful to avoid their temptation, no matter what alluring guise.  We belong to God, and God only, first and foremost.  God is the One who is turning over the rocky soil of our hearts so that we can bear God’s fruit for a starving world.  We need to be careful lest we be deceived by something lesser, by something that lures us away from God and one another.

At the end of each day, we can go to God in prayer, asking in humility to be shown how we have served—and sometimes failed to serve—God’s reign here on earth.  We can ask the Spirit to reveal certain things to us: Where have I shown love today?  Where have I known joy?  Where have I sown peace? Was I patient with others?  Was I kind?  Well, you get the idea.  Each day, even in these challenging times, brings us opportunities to help reveal God at work, right here in our midst.   Day by day, we will change the world as we are changed by God.  The seed is sown, and may the yield astound us with its abundance and power.

Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift of love.  Amen.