The kiss of the sun for pardon, / The song of the birds for mirth, / One is nearer God’s heart in a garden / Than anywhere else on earth. (Dorothy Frances Gurney)
Today’s gospel parable does not say much about gardeners, but does have abundant commentary on the nature of the soil into which seed is sown. Preaching at the seaside, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is sown among us as if it were seed. Cultivation of a life with God – – metaphorically identified as the yield of the seed – – depends on the soil on which it falls.
Anyone who grows flowers or crops will tell you that in the garden, it’s all about the dirt. The right balance of minerals, soil texture, organic matter, and moisture is necessary for the growth of plants. One of the reasons that central Pennsylvania has a rich and successful agricultural history is the quality of the soil. Miracle Gro and mulch can only accomplish so much.
On the worn and hardened soil of a footpath, the seed of life with God is unable to sprout, and it becomes food for the birds. Now our avian neighbors are really quite wonderful, and they sing songs to God nearly every morning. If we need a crop, however, we need to find a way to soften some of the hard and worn paths into our hearts, so we will have some food to sustain us through the long and cold wintry seasons of our life. What path have we walked so long that the soil beneath it has been fossilized, so even weeds cannot grow there? If you have ever tilled compacted dirt, you know that softening that hardened soil demands some work, and it can be arduous. And if we want to have decent produce, we need to commit to that work.
On thin soil, seed cannot grow roots because of the rocks just beneath the surface. Fieldstones are inevitably somewhere beneath the surface. Seeds may sprout quickly, but without strong roots they cannot withstand the heat of the sun or a week without rain. The difficulties of our lives, hardships, losses, and grief, are as inevitable as hot summer sun and drought. We need to find ways to build up the soil, so the roots of life with God can make their way around the barriers and grow, like the trees one can see along the interstate, growing up through boulders, strong and tenacious.
It is interesting that Jesus refers to the distractions of life to as thorns, which wound. The lure of wealth, status, and power is deceptive, because these worldly advantages seem to offer us freedom. The glittery things can also wound us. Undermining the relationships that we cherish most, they cut the life out of us and choke off growth. Jesus never tells us not to work hard or not to make a living. He does tell us often that we need to remember that only God is God, and that we must love God and our neighbor at least as much as ourselves.
How can we cultivate “good soil”? It’s a process. One can buy topsoil, but it is not nearly as good as dirt with years of rich loam in it. Good soil takes years to cultivate, as it is worked and re-worked, fed by the compost of plants that grow and then decay. And when we wonder why there is so much icky stuff dropping into our lives, maybe we should remember that sometimes a little manure, with aging, renders the soil rich and fertile. With God, and with time, even the sufferings, losses, and trials of our lives can be part of a deep spiritual experience. And it is a process, meaning that this is not like spiritual fast food. It requires prayer, and tenacity (or stubbornness), and a touch of rebellious hope, in order to overcome the hardness, the rocks, and the thorns. There is no quick or cheap grace.
We have been living through an extended time of disruption, loss, and fear. Coronatide – from March until now – has been brutal. Over the last four months, our sense of safety and security – perhaps also mental health – have eroded. I have had more than one person ask me why a (formerly) comforting relationship with God is not working. They wonder if something is wrong with them, if all the years of saying prayers, and going to church, and trying to know the Almighty have failed. Here’s the truth: there is nothing we have done that has led us to this dry spell. We are in a wilderness confronting our anxiety, our mortality, our longing for freedom. And while God is certainly here with us, still loving and guiding, still listening, it is very difficult to perceive that when we are semi-quarantined and surrounded by worry. (And this applies to me, too).
My friends and mentors who have lived a long time remind me that the way to survive an extended crisis (Great Depression, WWII, Cold War, Vietnam, long-term grief) is to be grounded. Look to God: find a prayer discipline and stick to it for a few weeks. Look to the primary elements in nature: spend time with earth, water, light, air. Look to escape: read a novel or watch a movie. Look to clarify priorities: what really matters? And each night, remember to be grateful for one thing. All these enrich our spiritual soil, giving us something to grow on. The crisis will pass. Let’s not let it go to waste.