When I was growing up, we always had a big garden in the back yard. My dad especially was really into gardening; and I have a lot of fond memories of helping plant impatiens or pick tomatoes or dig up carrots… or eat all the strawberries… After I graduated and left home, I moved around a lot – and I kind of missed having that big garden. I always had a houseplant or two, but it just wasn’t the same.
So when I moved into the parsonage here and saw that great big back yard and the space already marked off for a garden, I got SO excited! Finally I’d get to have a garden of my own! I spent my first winter here dreaming about all the vegetables that I was going to plant, all the things that I wanted to grow. When it finally got warm enough to plant, a member of the congregation was kind enough to come over and till up the ground so that I could get my plants in.
I bought tomato plants and red bell peppers and eggplant and summer squash, all ready to get started. And then I realized: I didn’t actually know the first thing about growing my own garden. Literally! I knew some of the middle things, but definitely not the first thing. I knew I had to dig a hole and stick a plant in it, and that I would need to water it from time to time. But I had no real clue of what I’d gotten myself in for. I was totally unprepared for battling with the weeds that had lived in that soil long before I decided I wanted to wrestle tomatoes from it. It had never even crossed my mind to do something like have my soil tested to see what kind of fertilizer I might need to add to it. And I had very, very much underestimated how physically demanding it would be to try to get a garden going on my own.
Suffice it to say, my garden was in pretty sad shape by the end of the summer – as my neighbors could probably tell you. I did manage to get out of it about a dozen or so tomatoes, a few bell peppers, a squash or two, and one massive, fat eggplant. But if I had known what I was doing and had put in more effort to take care of my garden, I probably would have gotten a lot more out of it. With patience and commitment and hard work, it probably would have borne a lot more fruit.
I couldn’t help but think about my ill-fated attempt at gardening when I read our gospel reading for this morning. Granted, I did not grow my crops from seed like the sower in Jesus’ parable. But I can still definitely relate to watching weeds choke the life out of something that you want to grow. This guy in the parable sure had a lot of trouble with what he planted. And that raises some questions for me about just how qualified this sower guy is for his job. Because it kinda seems like maybe he doesn’t know much more about gardening than I do. I mean, who sows seed on a path or among rocks or in really weedy soil?? What a ding dong! This guy is just throwing seed all over the place, all willy-nilly – what a waste!
Of course, in the second half of this gospel reading, we get kind of a rare privilege: Jesus actually explains his parable. We find out that this questionable sower is actually Christ himself, and/or potentially anyone who goes about spreading the good news of the kingdom in his name. And of course, the seed being sown is actually the very word of God. It isn’t foolishness that leads the sower to sow with such reckless abandon. It’s grace! It’s grace that leads him to sow this way. He sows with generosity and with abundance.
He gives every kind of soil the chance to produce fruit, because he knows – as Isaiah writes in our first reading – that the word that goes out from God’s mouth does not return empty, but one way or another, it accomplishes that for which it is sent. Christ sows the seed of God’s word abundantly, because he knows that it is good seed that will grow. And he can sow abundantly because there is no end to God’s generosity.
Of course, as we see in the parable, having good seed is not a guarantee of always having a good crop. Good seed grows best in good soil. You’re all shocked to hear that, I’m sure. 😜 Living in a farming community, you already know that good seed needs good soil in order to grow and produce. And you also know that good soil does not just happen by accident. It takes patience and commitment and hard work to get good soil.
A farmer growing crops doesn’t just chuck some corn in the dirt and hope for the best. You study the composition of the soil. You fertilize as needed. You irrigate when it doesn’t rain. You spray for pests. You spray for weeds. You do everything in your power to give the seeds you plant the best chance they have to grow. And that means taking care of the soil – carefully cultivating the earth for whatever kind of fruit you are trying to produce.
The same is true in ministry. It’s not something that you work at it in fits and starts. It’s something that you have to work at cultivating over time. It takes patience and commitment and hard work. Look at our hunger ministries. The mobile food bank was a seed that was flung onto our soil almost at random. But so many of you stepped up and took on that ministry as your own, putting in the hard work month after month to help feed our hungry neighbors. And even though the pandemic has changed the food bank’s location for the time being, our community now knows that this is a place they can come to be fed and to hear the good news.
This week, council and I will be meeting for our annual retreat, and we will be looking back over the ministry we have worked hard to cultivate over the past year and setting goals for another year from now. Last year, one of the goals we set was to develop our stewardship program – and I think it speaks volumes that our level of giving has hardly dropped at all even in this time of exile. That’s good fruit! Another goal was to start building up our Christian education program through our “Training Disciples” initiative – and even though there is still lots of room to grow, we had many wonderful evenings together of bible study and fellowship and prayer. With patience and commitment and hard work, I know we can keep on cultivating the soil of our ministry to produce even more good fruit from the seeds that God has given us.
And this is what is being demanded of us now more than ever. We are being called to care for and cultivate God’s word and God’s mission in a time of great crisis. We need patience, commitment, and hard work in order to carry this mission out, in order to make it through this crisis.
Patience, because this pandemic is far from over. I know there are lots of people who are eager for things to go back to the way they were; but just like you wouldn’t plant seeds one day and go out the next day expecting to harvest, the reality is that this is going to take a while.
Hard work, because this new reality is making life and work a lot harder for most of us – and also hard work because we are being asked to do some uncomfortable and unfamiliar things: like wear a face mask, or keep six feet of distance, or worship online.
And commitment, because now more than ever is a time when we are called to commit ourselves to caring for one another, to caring for all of our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable. We have to remember that doing things like wearing a mask or practicing physical distancing isn’t just for our own sake – it is to keep our neighbor safe. We need to get past our human tendency toward selfishness and instead commit ourselves to looking out for one another.
These are challenging times to be doing ministry – they’re challenging times to be doing anything! But our task has not changed. Christ continues to sow the good seed of the word in the soil of our hearts. And we are called to be co-farmers with him, co-gardeners, helping that seed to grow and bear good fruit.
That means having – you guessed it! – patience, commitment, and hard work to cultivate the soil of our own hearts. It means reflecting on what voices in our life are competing with the word for attention, snatching it out of our hearts before it has a chance to grow. It means pulling up whatever weeds or distractions might be growing up inside us, choking out the message of the word and keeping us from living it out. It means digging up whatever rocks may be lodged in the soil, whatever hardness of heart might be keeping the word from sinking in deeply and putting down roots. It means doing everything in our power to make sure that our hearts are good soil.
We can count on Christ to continue sowing God’s word in us abundantly. And we can count on God to help us keep working at cultivating the soil of our hearts, to produce better and better fruit. After all, even a lousy gardener like me can produce a basket of tomatoes and a big ol’ eggplant. Just imagine what kind of good fruit God can grow in you.