Finding Good Soil


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

July 19, 2020

Texts: Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23

       Experienced gardeners know that the secret to a great garden is building good rich organic soil. The problem is, of course, how to do that and protect your potential seedlings from the elements that would destroy a young plant: birds, the summer sun, or a heavy rain that washes away all your efforts. Gardening, a source of weekend pleasure for many of us, was a full-time occupation for our ancestors. They didn't have lovely little plots of land with plants purchased at Dearborn or Home Depot; they harvested seeds from the plants they had and carefully planted them for food. If the seeds didn't take enough to grow, and if nature didn't cooperate in some manner, there was no food. 

      Our agricultural forbearers knew that certain things were essential to have a harvest that would support them and their families. They could not afford to lose a crop; they could not afford to waste a seed. As the parable we read in Matthew this morning states, first there is the soil. In today's world, we can secure one of a million gardening books or go on the web to figure out what to do with the soil we have and the soil we want. We are the inheritors of thousands of years of wisdom acquired from hard work resulting sometimes in success, sometimes in failure. 

      Our soil types here in New Jersey vary enormously depending on what part of the state we are talking about. Brown gravelly loam fed by the decomposition of organic material from woods with a touch of limestone from the prehistoric glaciers that once covered the northern part of the state is the predominant soil type in that part of the state while the shore and southern part of the state have soil derived from the sand, silt, and clay deposited in an even earlier prehistoric time. At one point in our prehistoric past, scientists tell us that New Jersey was joined with the western coast of Africa but was violently torn apart; as evidence, scientists use several kinds of measurements noting that we share many of the same characteristics in our soil, especially along the shore, with the coast of West Africa on the same latitude. 

       In this morning's reading from Matthew, Jesus uses this parable to develop a metaphor, of course, for how we hear God's word and respond to it in our daily lives. Now, the problem with a parable is that the meaning should be evident almost immediately, if not sooner. But Jesus as he tells the parable realizes that his listeners, the “great crowds,” as it were, don't get it. Parables are a bit like jokes: either they're really bad or the listeners aren't too bright. First, there is the capacity for evil that lies within each of us. The rocky soil is a metaphor for faith in name only, when we say we believe but which has no perseverance in the face of persecution, a serious issue for the early community being addressed through this parable. The thorns are the riches of this world that choke our faith, that tempt us to live according to the standards the world sets for us rather than by the demands of faith.

        Then there is the good soil. Good soil has nutrients. So, we might ask, what the nutrients of faith are, the equivalents of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Nitrogen is essential for healthy leaf development and good stem growth. Phosphorus is essential for root growth and for the development of bulbs; fertilizers that promote flowering bulbs and other kinds of flowers are high in phosphorus. Potassium aids in the development of a plant's immune system, keeping it healthy. Healthy plant growth also requires certain trace elements such as magnesium, zinc, calcium and other trace elements.

        Faith has nutrients as well. The first element or nutrient of faith is what is sometimes called attitude. The attitude we need to help us develop the good soil of faith is a willingness to ask questions, uncomfortable questions that may not seem to have answers. The early twentieth-century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his letter to a young poet wrote: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer." 

        A second element is acceptance, not of something we sometimes call “the will of God,” but an acceptance of other people and their differences. These differences not only challenge us but teach us tolerance of others and acceptance of the infinite variety within the world. These differences can be tools to actually enhance our faith and our faithful living. These differences could be ethnic or racial, religious, intellectual, developmental, or any one of a number of differences that make for the variety of people in the world. Acceptance is more than toleration; it is the recognition that every person is inherently equal to us, something we may assent to intellectually but difficult to accept emotionally.

        The third element, of course, is that of love, the kind of love that Jesus showed when he healed people without reservation as a demonstration of God's love for all. In addition to these essentials are the trace elements of study, honesty, forgiveness, trust, and reconciliation, to name a few. These other elements come from the compost of our lives, the compost developed from our life experiences of anger, sadness, disappointment, and doubt, among others. As we mix all these items together and turn them over, exposing them to air, water, and fresh experiences, rich organic matter develops that helps to aerate the soil of our lives and creates the kind of earth where the seeds of faith can really take root.

        Learning and study are important because as adults we cannot rely on what we learned as children or how we thought as children. Our life experiences obviously affect how we act in love and faith and as we grow in faith and learn how to forgive  – for forgiveness is not a natural response to being hurt – we learn how to deal with disappointment and anger. But the trace elements require the essential elements of openness, acceptance, and love. 

        Growing a plant takes time and effort. The same is true of growing in faith. Faith doesn't just spring forth as Greek mythology had Athena from the head of Zeus. Faith takes work, care, and time. Sometimes we have to have the soil around us patted down so we are able to grow stronger. In this age of Covid, we strive to maintain the important sense of community even in isolation and distance. We need others to help stake our weak stems, to pull the weeds of anger and discord, and to pat down the soil around our roots, not to mention watering us with love and care. 

       When we are in true community with each other, we come to trust each other to help us grow and develop in faith. Trust means that we do not need to be afraid to share our deepest feelings, our past experiences, our angers and hurts, our own need for forgiveness not just from others but of ourselves as well. Trust means that we know others will keep confidences and be supportive of our failings as well as our strengths. 

        Being in community with each other is a reflection of the relationship we have with the One we follow, the same Jesus who offers us a new vision of God, one full of love and acceptance. Our task in community is to till the soil of faith so we all grow into healthy plants with the fragrance of God's love for the world.

        Let us pray: Ever present Creator who brought forth all manner of life on earth, help us to have love and care for each other, acceptance of difference and diversity, and never be afraid to live the questions of our faith. Amen.