Be of Good Soil

Sermon by the Rev. Abby VanderBrug on Sunday, July 12, 2020.

I wonder if you can think back to the last time you made a choice. This morning I made several. I chose to put half and half in my coffee, to eat eggs and toast at the breakfast table with my family, to wear contacts instead of glasses, to come to church, to send a text message to my friend wishing her a happy birthday. 

Our lives are full of choices every single moment of the day. I’d argue that for many of them, it doesn’t always feel like a conscious decision, more of an act of habit. But if we are honest with ourselves, it becomes pretty clear that we have a whole lot of choice in our lives, not just about our daily decisions about food or clothing, but about our behavior as well. 

The story of Jacob and Esau is a perfect example of making a choice. Jacob, the younger brother, who had been at home while Esau was out hunting, had the choice to either share his soup with his hungry brother out of the goodness of his heart, or take advantage of his desperation and wager his birthright for it. He chose the latter. Esau, had the choice to fill the immediate need of his belly or release his long term inheritance. He chose the latter. 

I am one of 4 siblings, and so I know my way around sibling dynamics, and my thought is that there must be more to this story than this one little snippet we get here, but the point is that they each made a choice in the moment – for better or worse.

The theme of choice continues on in this Sunday’s gospel readings as we hear the Parable of the Sower from Matthew. But, really, the sower doesn’t seem to be the real meat of the story – instead what Jesus focuses on is the soil – there’s the soil on the path that the birds eat, there’s the rocky soil, the thorny soil, and the good soil. When the seeds are cast, their growth is dependent upon what type of soil they fall into. 

The best part of this parable is that there is a debrief section so we can actually know what Jesus is talking about!  God is the sower, the seeds are the Gospel, and we are the different types of soil – each of us responding to the Gospel in different ways, sometimes being led astray from our culture, sometimes picked up by something else, sometimes we simply ignore it. 

Jesus doesn’t say much about how it is decided what type of soil we each are. There’s no cut and clear answer about our innate spiritual soil, and that’s because what soil we are, is a decision that we each make, and that fluctuates throughout our lives, sometimes it fluctuates throughout the day. 

We’ve all been in the weeds (at least I certainly have), and in the thorns, and on the busted up path. They are usually the isolated, hateful, grueling, and all around rotten places to be in. It’s where we feel our life is being sucked out of us.

The good soil is where it’s at. In the good soil, we yield the delicious fruit of the Gospel, we bask in an abundant life of love, peace, joy, mercy, hope, courage, and freedom. I believe that we all desperately want to be the good soil – we want God’s love to take root in our heart and grow beautiful lives, but how do we get there? How do we get good soil?

I asked my husband this question the other day, and he replied, “compost.” He is a farmer, and I am a priest, and every so often our vocational worlds collide in a perfect way. “Can you say more?” I said back to Michael. “The only way to make good soil is to use good compost”, he said. 

Our compost pile is full of things that have no immediate use or value –  banana peels, the ends of the bread loaves, watermelon rinds, carrot tops, and egg shells.  But these nutritionally dense items, originally tossed aside, then decomposed, and redistributed into their original form make their way back into the soil to give life, vitality and strength to the new seeds planted among it. This entire process takes significant time and energy from both the farmer and the earth. In essence, good soil doesn’t just happen – it takes work. It is created, nurtured, and prioritized. 

Author and farmer Wendell Berry claims this: “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” 

I find this same thing to be true when talking about our spiritual soil. To have good soil in our hearts so that the Gospel can take root, takes work and practice, it doesn’t just happen. The work it takes to make good soil are the Christian practices that we have held onto for generations. These practices are what it means to be a Disciple of Christ, not just someone who attends worship on Sunday.

They are practices like: daily prayer, sabbath rest, generosity, listening, love of neighbor, confession, proclamation, forgiveness, joy, and peace, and wild hope. These are the small practices, that at first glance, don’t seem like much – but over time they are the nutrients in the compost that are broken down into our hearts which create the soil. Together, these daily practices heal us, restore us, and bring us closer to our creator God and give us deep and abundant life. 

Just like Jacob and Esau, we have a choice about the soil we are planted in. We can choose to do the work to cultivate our spiritual lives, or we can choose otherwise. It’s up to us.  It doesn’t mean we won’t get a thorn or a weed every now and then. It doesn’t mean that our lives will be full of pleasantries and we will sail through without a care, it means that whatever happens, our lives will be rooted in Christ.

Biblical Scholar Walter Brueggeman says this about the parable of the sower, “We live in a world where the word of God is choked, and we arrive at a time when we cannot breathe anymore. The thorns will have come, and we will be as stupid as Esau because we are hungry for satiation. We can choose otherwise, toward a neighborly future, the one that brings common abundance and well-being.”

The choice is ours: what will we do with our soil? How will we keep it? What will we choose to put in the compost? What should we choose to get rid of?

Throughout the course of my marriage with Michael, I’ve gotten to know many farmers, gardeners, and growers of all sorts. In Michigan, the agricultural community was our church for many years. The thing I like best about these people is that they are all undoubtedly optimists. They spend the cold season of early spring working their hands in dirt,  pouring their money, time, and devotion into soil and seeds because they hope that it will turn into something delicious one day. Yes, it could all be blown away in a bad storm. Yes, the groundhogs could come in the night and devour an entire patch of beans. Yes, the crop might fail, but they do it anyway. They trust that something wonderful will come out of it year after year. 

And so friends, listen to what the parable of the sower is saying to us today: be of good soil. We never know when the sower will cast the seeds, but we can do the internal work of preparing the soil to be ready for it. May it bless you abundantly. Amen.