Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Clare and I subscribe to a CSA every year. A CSA is something called “Community Supported Agriculture”, in which you pay in advance for a weekly supply of vegetables and perhaps fruit, which you pick up once a week for the harvesting season. We subscribe to a farm from upstate New York, and they, conveniently, deliver here to OSA’s door. There are a couple of ideas behind a CSA: first, that if the vegetables are local, then they are fresher and taste better when you eat them; second, that purchasing from local family farmers is better than purchasing from soulless conglomerates; and finally, that eating local food has a smaller carbon footprint. I suppose all of these are debatable. But the vegetables do seem to taste better, and I am happy that I get messages from the farmer himself, who is providing food for us as we provide income for him, his family, and his workers. And I hope that supporting organic, local agriculture is better for the environment, even though I know that just because something is organic, it is not necessarily better for people or for the land.
Before they plant, the farmers had to prepare the soil—and it was hard, back-breaking work, with what could often seem like little reward. When farmers moved to the plains in the Midwest, they couldn’t believe what they saw under their feet: dark, loamy, rich topsoil yards deep—and almost no trees to clear, and only a few rocks to move. For a farmer, the Midwest was like the promised land—just throw the seeds and watch them grow. That’s how good the soil was. It was the product of time and geology and climate: giant glaciers pulverizing and planning the land, mountains to the West that release the rain from the atmosphere, and, perhaps most importantly, a lack of intense human agriculture for all but the last 200 years of its existence. You need billions of years and no humans—that’s how you get the best soil.
That’s the question, today, isn’t it? Are you good soil? When the Word falls on your heart, does it find a place to grow and yield its fruit? Or will the Word be snatched away by the cares of the world? What’s the difference between good and bad soil? It would be nice if we were all sure that we were thorn and rock free, that our hearts were ready, that our minds open enough, to receive the word of God’s reign, and that we are immune to the concerns of the world and the lure of wealth. It would be nice to believe that we would hold onto the confession of our faith in the face of social and bodily persecution, or even just a little trouble.
But that’s not the case. It seems like Jesus was not sharing this example with his disciples just to tell them that they were special, but to tell them to be on guard, and to continue in their faithfulness to his word. Following Christ is not easy. It is joyful, it is wonderful, but it brings with it conflict and suffering. We are all tempted—if not by the lure of wealth, then by other lures. There are many cares that choke and strangle our faith. Most people find one day that they are out of touch with God, adrift. Instead, Jesus is telling the disciples, and us, to be good soil. To cling to the seed of Christ, and to trust that the Spirit has done the hard work of a glacier in our lives, preparing us to be a good place for the Word to fall.
Sometimes, when I’m carrying the tubs of vegetables to the sidewalk, or standing in line to get my share, I think of my grandfather, who became a pastor in the mid-50s, and whose first call paid him something like $2000. He got two weeks of vacation, and lived out in Western Kansas, which was a lot farther away then than it is now. I believe he got paid, informally, in sides of beef and pork and sometimes pies and casseroles. He has spent his whole life on the plains of Kansas and Nebraska and in the mountains and deserts of Colorado. He loved those lands—I still like looking at the old photographs of him and his pop-up trailer, spending his precious vacation camping in the mountains. I believe he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps, or something like it, when he was young, and continued to love the outdoors for his whole life—although now his doctors won’t allow him to go to the high plains or the mountains any more.
But when I think about his life, I think about good soil. Much of his early life he spent in hardship. He was born in the Depression and came of age after World War II. His father died when he was still in high school. I have no idea how he paid for college and seminary, but somehow he did. At his first call, he met a bank teller who went to the other Lutheran church in town, and they eventually had three daughters together. Nothing in his life was fancy, nothing was proud. He worked hard, and during the heat of the civil rights movement, he lost a campus job for preaching about it. He suffered his share; but he worked hard in the calling God had prepared for him. He is by no means a perfect person, but I hope and trust that he was good soil, and I look to him in hope that I might be a little like him. He was the one who first told me that faith is not a way of believing, but that it was a way of living.
The creation of dirt takes thousands of years. Scientists can look at a sample and see a drama unfolding over millennia. And, the Bible says we are made of that dirt. In Genesis, God took some earth and breathed in it, and a human being came to be. And, in the same book, God promised that same sinful human that it would return to the dust from which it was made. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
But nothing can grow in dust. If a seed falls in dust, its best hope is for wind to come along and blow it to better ground. So, today’s texts are almost God speaking to us, saying that we who once were dust now have become good soil that can bear fruit. You are born of the Spirit, Paul says, and the Spirit of God works us like a good farmer, tilling and planting, clearing and fertilizing, so that we may yield the fruit of the Spirit by our way of life. The seed that falls on us dusty creatures is the Word of God, which changes us from dirt to soil.
Faith is not a way of believing, my grandfather said, but a way of living. I have been trying to avoid too much politics in my preaching these days, since I worry about becoming a one-note preacher. But I think it’s important for Christians now to really understand that these are the times of thorns and blasting sun. My grandfather is a product of the New Deal, which very likely saved him from a life of destitution and gave him an opportunity to be a professional, even if he never made a lot of money. For my entire life, there has been a concerted assault on the New Deal principles, that when the rich are too rich, the rest of the country suffers, and that strong rules make an economy more just and safe. This seems to be a product of anger from the very wealthy, who, like dragons, cannot stand to lose some of their hoard, even if they never use it. And at the same time, from the left, there has been an equal assault on the idea of truth, that there is something outside the mind and opinion that exists. Both of these have combined into a philosophy in which nothing matters but what you can take for yourself. These are the lures and thorns of our day.
Good soil, today, will be a place for truth and compassion, forgiveness and sharing. Christians are called to treat wealth like a radioactive substance that can be leveraged for energy, but not to be kept close, to believe and hold on to truth wherever it may be found, to forgive and mend and heal. There is plenty of need in this world now for the food that gives real life—there is need now, for good soil that bears fruit. Amen.
Reverend John Flack