The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
My yard is like the parable we just heard, with every kind of soil. And I’m the sower who has tried to plant in each of them. I’ve put in trees in those hard deposits of clay we call caliche. Having to use a pick instead of a shovel should have given me a clue. I created what I thought was a large enough hole, filled it with improved dirt, planted, and watered. And then I wondered why, after a year or two, the tree just stopped growing – it turns out that the roots hit the cement wall of caliche around it.
In other places there’s rocky riverbed soil, probably brought in by a previous owner as fill. Only goat-heads and red ants like it there. There’s extremely sandy soil where water drains away from the plant immediately. Those plants are stunted, too. And there are a few places where we’ve taken the time to add nutrients annually and water frequently, coaxing the plant to a verdancy that is, of course, unnatural in the desert.
So I understand that the quality of the soil determines the success of the plant. Jesus uses this metaphor to talk about what kind of inner environment we’re trying to grow our faith in.
It’s tempting to see this parable as if it is about entirely different types of people, each of whom is like just one of those different types of soil. Some are resistant in matters of faith, some are fair-weather friends to God, some are distracted. A few hear and understand, and bear much fruit.
Or we think that we’re supposed to progress from one type of soil to the next: “I used to be like that hard-packed pathway, skimming along the surface, not caring a bit about religious things. Then I approached God superficially, just going in far enough to say I’d been there; but my pious platitudes did no good when trouble came. I’m in a dense thorn-patch right now, pretty preoccupied with worry and stress. But I hope to get to the point where my soil is finally deep and rich. Then I’ll bear lots of good fruit.”
I find myself more like my yard. At any given time, there are patches that are as hard-packed as caliche. But right alongside that is something rich and healthy. Worries like weeds sometimes choke out faith and keep me up at night. But the next morning as I sit on my back portal, all I can see is how beautiful the shadows look as they play upon the grass, and I know that in God, all is well.
We’re not just one thing, and whatever progress we make in the spiritual journey is not entirely linear. We’re patchy and inconsistent, moving forward in age and wisdom by fits and starts. If we look at ourselves honestly, we can probably see every type of soil that Jesus talks about, all at once.
But there’s one part of this parable that usually gets neglected, and that’s the sower. The sower goes out and he casts seed everywhere, indiscriminately. This week, I read something about this figure by a commentator from somewhere in the Midwest –
God, the sower, is like a farmer who hooked up his planter to the back of his John Deere, started up the tractor, but then threw the switch to activate the planter even before he was out of his driveway.
There he is putt-putting down the country lane with corn seed scattering everywhere as he goes. It bounces on the road, some flies into the ditch. When he finally gets near his field, he first has to cut through a weedy and thorny patch with corn seed still flying out loosey-goosey from that planter that, by all rights, had been switched on way too early.
In truth, no farmer would be so careless, so profligate in the scattering of valuable seed. It would not even make sense to do this. It would be a waste, a spectacle of great prodigality that a frugal and economically minded farmer would never tolerate.
God, it seems, casts the same amount of precious seed on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as around a monastery on a sacred mountaintop. God casts the same amount of seed among the junkies and prostitutes on Central Avenue as around this altar. God casts the same amount of seed in prisons, meditation halls, hospital beds, and your kitchen. Every day. All the time.
What is this seed that God is casting all around, all the time? It is the self-manifestation of God’s love and truth, reaching out to all being. God’s seed is those who try to do good in this world, to set things right where there’s injustice, to reach the lost, to mend what’s broken. It is everything in creation that makes itself so lavishly available to us through our senses. God’s seed is planted within us as our conscience, our frustration at our own inconstancy, and our need for God. It is the people that surround us - the pain and the quiet dignity they carry, and the way they sometimes break open a wisdom and clarity we cannot find on our own.
God is casting this seed everywhere, all the time, not just in individuals, but in society, in the nations of the world. In ravaged neighborhoods of our cities, there is always the possibility that some little child, or community organizer, or teacher, or political movement will cultivate those seeds and encourage God’s life to flourish.
Just yesterday in South Sudan they celebrated freedom and security after 50 years of horrific violence and a million lives lost, partly because Christians, including many Anglicans and Episcopalians, doggedly cultivated seeds of peace over a period of decades.
God also casts seed with the same recklessness in your own patchy soul-yard. When you open your heart and pray, we all know that God’s seeds will surely sprout. But God is also casting seed on the caliche, the patches of your life that you are still defended about, your self-justifications and hardness of heart. God is trying to grow something in that part of you that foolishly insists on trying to control outcomes with worry.
Divine seeds are cast everywhere. The only question is whether we are ready to cultivate what God sows. How do we do this? In many ways – by bringing awareness to that part of our life; by turning the soil over and exposing it; by asking for help; by admitting we don’t know what to do next; by watering it with prayer.
For the seeker, I think there is such as thing as progress. It may be spiral, not linear, but we can grow in wisdom, self-awareness, and love. And so, piece by piece, more and more of the little plot of our life is cultivated. Every time we bring awareness to another part of ourselves, every time we surrender it to the One who can help us, it is fertilized with God’s love, made richer and full of life.
By this process, it all becomes fruitful. Nothing is wasted. And the very patches that are the hardest – the most resistant, most addicted, most fearful – those, by grace, become the very places that bear the most fruit, with lush greenery, and colorful flowers.
This is what St. Paul meant, I think, when he said a thorn was given me in the flesh... Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness…whenever I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, not in our strengths, our gifts, or in the things we can do well naturally. Our caliche soil is the very place where the tree of life will grow. For it is the place of our greatest need for God, the place where we must finally get out of the way and allow God to cause the growth. And that growth is more beautiful, more useful for God’s purposes than anything we might have cultivated on our own.
God will never give up on any part of you that still needs to be redeemed. The One who made us in glorious potential will bring us, every part of us, to fulfillment - if not in this life, then in the next.
For all things shall be brought to perfection by the One who made us and who loves us into abundant life.