After a couple of years of apartment life and growing herbs on the kitchen windowsill, we found ourselves newly moved into a house with enough backyard space for a small garden. I could not have been more enthusiastic.
I dreamt of wicker baskets brimming with warm vegetables and newly cut sunflowers, of spending hours with a pad of graph paper and pencil, of sketching boundaries and rows, of planning what to plant. I’d gardened before in a few different seasons of life. It would be straightforward – seeds to the ground at the right depth, plus sun, plus rain, and voila!
As it would turn out, I was in for struggle and disappointment. This wasn’t the rich, loamy, black soil of the Midwest where I’d grown up. The Tennessee red clay in our yard seemed to resist me at every turn that summer, making my garden a slippery wet mess with water-logged plants that sometimes grew, leggy and small, and with little yield in return for my effort.
That was the summer I learned the hard way how much soil matters – but also that soil can be improved with right attention and skills. We didn’t live in our place long enough to really change the quality of the soil; it’s a long and slow process requiring a lot of hard work and investment. But remembering this season of my life opens up new possibilities of how to read the familiar parable of the sower from our gospel text this week. The quality of soil is at the heart of this story, seeds falling into different types of ground, flourishing (or not) based upon its composition.
I wondered first what kind of sower we have in this story. Is she just naïve, like me, or maybe a bit careless and clumsy, spilling seeds out into soil that isn’t equipped to give back any kind of yield? Perhaps she is like me, at least in her enthusiasm, her imagination of the fruit that may come, and her sowing of seeds in unlikely places while hoping against the odds. I picture her with lavish fistfuls from a crinkled brown paper bag, spreading with reckless abandon.
The soil in this parable is the human heart, after all. And don’t we do this sometimes too, sowing seeds in unlikely hearts against the odds, spreading fistfuls against the despair, aching for grace to spring up and for new growth to come from inhospitable or depleted ground? What courage it takes (and what vulnerability!) to walk headlong into hope like this, but we do it – in our families, our friendships, our communities, our churches, and even our enmities. We see the trauma and violence, the suffering of the world, and yet we sow new movements, new practices of being together, and even new hopes for a world made right.
It is arguably when we’re at our best that we do this. We long for “thy kingdom come” to be an answered prayer. We sow wastefully in this longing, trusting that the seeds of the kingdom know no scarcity, no measure – that the kingdom’s abundance makes way for the audacity of hope.
As a child hearing this parable in Sunday School, I perhaps saw it one dimensionally. I understood this kind of sowing as a one-time event: the sower comes, sows the seeds, and the ground is either good, or it isn’t. If a person was good soil, they got to be saved. But if a person was bad soil, well, they lost out on heaven.
But the truth is that sowing, growing, harvesting – these are all cyclical, with a rhythm of abiding and attention over many seasons, each season interdependent with those before it. The sower sows, and then sows again, and again, and again. And in the life-cycle of any given plot of land, the soil can be different from year to year.
Given enough time to rest, the worn paths go back to overgrown clearings, rocks are worn to pebbles are worn to sand; even thorns die away, emptied of their choking power. As it turns out, depleted and poor soil can actually result from too many successful harvests in a row. Soil wears out, gets tired, and is emptied of its nutrients and ability to nourish, not because of its inadequacy, but its adequacy. In the law of the Hebrew Bible, the people of God are to allow the land to rest every seventh year for this very reason.
It all makes me think that as people who care about the flourishing of the kingdom over the long life-cycle of the church, a crucial task is to attend to the soil quality. We must give deep attention to the condition of hearts where the kingdom is recklessly sown.
Certainly we’ll still sow seeds in unlikely hearts, hoping against the odds. We must. The seeds of the kingdom are so abundant that we must not hold back, the Spirit so wild—just who knows what might take root where?
But to acknowledge the seasonal nature of the kingdom coming, the possibility for shifting soil conditions, and the way the kingdom draws nutrients and life from the human heart (our very lives) is to ask how we might, as the church, sustain one another through practices of renewal. How do we become the kind of soil that can nourish the kingdom, making the way for a good harvest? And as lovers of God and one another, what kind of patient works of compassion and care are crucial in order to be attentive to the human soil entrusted to us, and perhaps even our own soil-hearts?
To see the parable of the sower in this way is to take a long view of Christian faithfulness, and a slow view of the church. We must be patient with ourselves and one another as we bear the fruit of the kingdom season by season. We must make way for future plantings through practicing attention to others and to the work of our own hearts.
Here I’m reminded of a few lines from Wendell Berry’s “A Vision” and leave them here as hope and benediction, a new lens through which to see our parable:
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
To stand like slow growing trees on a ruined place,
Renewing, enriching it,
If we will make our seasons welcome here,
Asking not too much of earth or heaven,
Then a long time after we are dead
The lives our lives prepare will live here,
Their houses strongly placed upon the valley sides,
Fields and gardens rich in the windows.
May it be so. Amen, and amen.