Understanding the Land

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We moved into our home two years ago. I’d guess that almost half of our property is pine forest, which I happen to find beautiful. This is now the third summer I’ve had to work on my small patch of earth in Grand Haven Township. The first summer I took weeks weeding. It was sweaty, exhausting work. There were wild raspberries growing everywhere, trying to overtake out some of the groundcover that I wanted to dominate. I remember praying that this level of weeding was going to be a one-time deal, that next summer would be better.  Well, my prayers were answered. The raspberries and seedling maple and oak trees still show up, but now it only takes a few hours a summer to keep up on. This has given us more time to planning out what the plantings in our flower beds will look like. Each year we’ve taken on a new area. All going well in another summer or two, each bed will be the way we want it to be. Gardening takes patience and effort. It also takes timing.  That’s a lesson I learned the hard way this spring. Being at home so much got me focused on a lot of home projects including wanting to get my vegetable garden planted. When the governor lifted the restrictions on garden centers, I practically bolted out the door to get my seedlings in early May. I waited a couple of days and then planted them in our raised beds. And then the temperatures dropped, and I had to cover the beds trying to prevent frost. It worked for some, but a couple of weeks later I was back at the greenhouse buying replacement plants for the ones that didn’t survive. I’m drilling it into my head for next year – “Don’t plant the garden until after Mother’s Day! Don’t do it, Troy!” I’m still learning how to understand the land I’m living on, and bit by bit I’m getting better I’m still not a great gardener, but God is. God starts the whole show off by planting the perfect garden in Eden, a place where people, animals, and all of nature coexist harmoniously. Even when we rejected God’s will, God has still gone on planting rainforests and deserts, lush tropics and prairies. In providence, God tends to the whole earth with sun and rain and wind and air.  It should come as no surprise to us that God’s Son, Jesus, likes to speak in gardening terms. Even though he was a builder by trade, Jesus knew the rhythms and work of his agrarian society. He observed the farmers. He noticed the lilies growing. He saw the handiwork of God – his own handiwork – in it all. In one of his most memorable teachings – one so memorable that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include it – Jesus tells a parable about a farmer, the seed, and the land. Now, the word parable in Greek basically means “to throw alongside,” so a parable is a metaphor or sometimes an allegory. It tells a simple story that has a much deeper meaning and sometimes many meanings.  He begins, “Listen! A sower went out to sow.” Now, in our midwestern imaginations, we picture dark, rich soil. The soil is already cut by the plow and ready to receive her seed. This is not how things went in Jesus’ world. Even in the more fertile areas of Palestine, the soil is rocky. The fields have paths that have been beaten down by foot traffic. The edges of the field have competing plants. Unlike farmers here, they spread the seed before plowing. Seed goes everywhere, so of course some falls on the path, some among the rocks, some in the thorns, and some in the fertile soil. It’s how they did things. While we need an explanation for this strange kind of farming, Jesus’ audience did not. They knew this is how farming was, but there are two elements they would have noticed.  The crowd would have noticed how generous the sower was with the seed. While seed would have fallen in bad places, the exuberance of this sower tossing seed into the wind and letting it land where it will is striking. This sower is wildly generous in scattering his seed, which as Matthew tells us is the Word – the good news of God in the world. The Word does not just go where it is most likely to bear fruit. It goes to hard places, to unlikely place, and perhaps even there it will make a difference.  The second thing they would have noticed is that each soil type comes to mean something. In these soil types, the crowd finds themselves. Jesus gives this teaching while seated on a boat put a little bit out from shore on the Sea of Galilee so that the crowd could hear his words in this natural amphitheater. In that crowd there were people representing all soil types, just as is the case today when any of us hear Jesus’ teaching. Depending on the day and circumstances, we may be different soil types too.  Some of the seed falls on the path. Years of trampling the soil have made it too hard for the seed to get beneath the surface. The seed sits there, and others are there ready to take it at the first opportunity. On the path, it really can’t grow. It can’t become what it is supposed to be. In Jesus’ telling, the birds eat up this seed. He interprets it as the evil one coming along and snatching away this good gift. Haven’t we been there before? Something good comes into our lives, but someone or some circumstances immediately comes in to steal our joy? Maybe you got a great grade on a hard exam. You’re proud of yourself, but then a rival classmate who didn’t fare as well complains that the test wasn’t fair or that he thinks you might have cheated. Maybe you just got some new clothes you really like, but the first time you wear them in public you overhear someone making fun of them. So much of life tries to steal your joy. Don’t let others steal your joy!  Other seed falls into the rocky soil.  There it finds enough nutrition and water and sun to grow quickly, but its roots cannot go deep because of the rocks. With no root system, the plants wither away and blow away like chaff in the wind. Jesus compares these seeds to those who receive the word with joy but because they don’t grow with depth, they fade quickly. Disappointments come. People are cruel. A dream job evaporates or a bad diagnosis unravels everything. Adversity will always be a reality. It is the depth of our trust and character that allows us to survive and thrive in it. Too often people treat Christianity as though it should fix everything in our lives, but that it not the point of faith. The depth comes in learning to trust God come what may. Send your roots deep so when the troubles come, you can withstand the storms.  Other seeds falls on the edges of the good soil – a place where lots of things can grow, perhaps too many to sustain a full life for the plant. There the plant grows only to get choked out by all that surrounds it – things that Jesus calls the cares of the word and the lure of wealth. If I’m being honest, I think this is the patch of ground that many of us live in a lot. The Word has taken root in our lives, but we immerse ourselves in so many other things that there is no room for it to grow. We give space to career development. We spend hours mindlessly staring at our phones. We give space to the endless onslaught of cable news. We devote space to trying to impress others with what our money can buy. Frankly, we can live among the thorns and probably have relatively decent lives. Yet, these things put alongside of God’s call of our lives, these things out of order, will ultimately choke the joy we have. They’ll leave us empty. We can’t please all the masters we let ourselves have. It’s impossible, and Jesus tells us that it is unfruitful and even deadly. Still, some of the seed falls on the good soil. There it flourishes. It gets the nutrients it needs. It gets water, sun, and wind. And it bears a harvest that is astonishing, particularly for a farmer in first century Palestine. The harvest is thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times what is sown. God sows this seed in our lives. It is God’s Word to us. It tells us who God is, who we are, and who we could be. Psalm 119 tells us that “[God’s] word is a lamp to [our] feet and a light to [our] path.” It’s a guide to the full life – to life in God’s kingdom. When that seed is sown in us, it produces a huge harvest. The harvest accomplishes two things. One, it sustains life for others around it, and, two, it regenerates new seed, allowing the Word to be sown in the hearts of others. Making fertile soil of our lives is a win-win situation. On an individual level, we are in the position to be who God created us to be. On a communal level, when we living as the people God created us to be, then we are in a position to help others along the journey so they can become fully who God created them to be. It’s for us, and it’s for others.  So, how do we make the soil of our lives fertile? Let me suggest three ways. First, guard your joy. Jesus tells us that there are things that swoop into our lives and try to take away the joy of living in the way God created us to live. Guard your joy. Joy is a condition of being that rests deep down inside. God loves you, values you, and cares for you, which means that nothing someone can say or do to you can ever devalue God’s love and care for you. Guard that joy because it is a gift.  Second, order your loves. Jesus summarizes the entire law with these two sentences. Love God. Love your neighbors as yourself. In those seven words we see how to order our loves. First, love God, and second, learn to love others and yourself. It begins with God’s love. It courses into our lives that learn their value in the light of God’s unconditional love, but then like an ever-flowing stream, we learn to love and value others around us because we see how God has deemed all of us worthy of love. That means all people – no ifs, ands, or buts. All people. Even the family member who drives you crazy. Even the friend who posts political memes that raise your hackles. The strength to do this comes from learning how to order your loves.  Finally, prepare the soil of your life to receive the Word. This means making space for what’s important by letting go of what’s less important. I think this may be one of the hardest things – at least it is for me. Like many of you, I have FOMO – fear of missing out. From sunrise to sunset, I tend to fill my time up with few gaps for anything not on my work or home schedule. Perhaps your similar to me. In order to receive God’s Word, we must make space in our lives. This hour on Sunday is one step towards that, but we do need more. Take time for a prayerful walk. Commit to reading a book of the Bible. Call a friend you’ve been missing and truly listen to them.  The good news for us is this: the seed that falls on the fertile ground is massively productive. Its harvest is thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times the effort we put into sowing it in the first place. That’s the grace of God, the One who sows so generously in our lives and who wills for us the best, now and to eternity. If only we trust God enough to take this word to heart…