July 16, 2017, A Garden Story Starring You as … Dirt! – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000033
Of all the times I had with my children, I think bedtimes might have been the most precious. At bedtime, children who have been moving and talking non-stop since the sun came up (or before the sun came up, depending on the day) are finally horizontal and at rest……and, often quiet. At bedtime, in short, they are finally able and willing to listen. And I am absolutely sure that’s why bedtime is when parents tell their children stories. Some parents are infinitely creative and make up stories – Carroll used to tell our kids stories he called “boring stories” that they didn’t find boring at all. And other parents go with the classics, the old fairy tales that can be adapted and re-told in a million different ways, depending on the circumstances. But generally speaking, parents for generation after generation have found these bedtime story-times, whether old stories or new stories, as some of the very best teaching moments. There are stories that bring comfort and reassurance to a child who is insecure or fearful. And then there are stories that teach children to love all those things that nourish their hearts – truth and kindness and courage and unselfishness and patience and perseverance and compassion.
But one of the main ways that story-telling teaches is by a child finding herself, or himself, in the story. She is the brave princess in the story who was kind to the poor, dirty beggar only to find out it was a powerful good fairy in disguise. Or he is the patient tortoise that everyone laughed at because he was so slow, who won the race by putting one foot in front of the other and doing his best. Or maybe he is the foolish rabbit who took his abilities for granted and got lazy and lost the race! The stories of our childhood are gentle and very effective teachers that become a permanent part of the way our minds and our hearts function as we grow up. And that’s why Jesus so often taught by means of stories – because if people were willing to quiet their minds and hearts and really listen they could find themselves in the story. And finding themselves in the story they found their minds and their hearts nourished and transformed.
And today we are invited to find ourselves in Jesus’ story – in the illustrious role of dirt. The story begins with a farmer, who goes out into the fields with a bag of seeds slung over his shoulder, like you’ve seen in paintings. He walks along, tossing the seed as he goes. Some of the seed ends up in the bellies of hungry crows and seagulls. Some of the seed sprouts quickly and shrivels up on the first hot day of summer. Some of the seed comes up in the middle of a weed patch and the brambles choke the life out of the little seedlings. And some of the seed puts down roots and send up strong shoots that grow and blossom and set fruit and bear an impressive harvest – producing 30 or 60 or 100 times as many seeds as the farmer planted in the first place.
But we are not the farmer in the story. And we are not the seeds, diligently trying to make something of themselves. We, it turns out, are the dirt. It’s a humble part we play, you might think. Not very important, it seems. But that’s not really true – because the kind of dirt we are makes all the difference in what happens to the seeds.
The seeds, Jesus told his disciples, the seeds are the word that God sows in our hearts. And by word he doesn’t just mean Bible verses. The word is the whole creative voice of God, beginning with the first “Let there be…” that turned the lights on in our universe….to the perfect Word that is Jesus himself – everything that God has given to us so that we can know him – the Bible…but also the natural world of trees and birds and mountains and dogs…and our fellow human beings – the person sitting next to you in the pew and your next door neighbor – and most importantly, Jesus Christ, who was born right into our world to be God in the flesh.
God has planted a lot of seeds. And the story of the sower tells us that we bear responsibility for what happens to the seeds when they plop into the soil of our hearts. Because the truth about seeds is that every seed contains life. Every seed has the power to grow and flourish and reproduce. But not every seed makes it.
The first problem that the seed in the story encounters is that it falls on the path and gets gobbled up by hungry birds. That seed, Jesus told his disciples, is the word that people hear but don’t understand. Like seed that falls on the hard-packed soil of a path, when the word falls where there is no understanding it is soon snatched away, as if it had never been sown. Notice that Jesus is explaining the meaning of this parable to his disciples because they didn’t get it. Without his explanation, this could have been a nice story soon forgotten. Jesus was doing a little cultivation, to make sure they heard this word, to make sure it didn’t just get snatched up.
So the first message of the story is that dirt doesn’t cultivate itself. Our first responsibility of being good dirt, we might say, is humility. We will never do very well trying to know God on our own power; we need the Holy Spirit to soften us up, to stir our hearts, to shine a little light on things. Otherwise, no matter how smart or well-read or studious we are we don’t have very much hope – really, none at all – that the word will put down roots and make any kind of a decent crop.
What that looks like in real life is that we remember to let Holy Spirit do her work. We remind ourselves, when we are out in the world, that we aren’t alone. We listen for the voice of God our teacher. I remember one time when Michael Harris showed me a picture of a tree that he came upon while he was on a walk, this tree that had grown in an amazing configuration, and the growth of that tree spoke to him, personally. I believe that God’s word to Michael in that tree put down roots and began to grow, because he remembered to listen, and give Holy Spirit a chance to dig in. And God is speaking to all of us, all the time, in all of his works, if we only are willing to be still, and remember to listen, and not just keep tramping the soil of our hearts hard in all our rush and bother.
And then there is the literal word that God has given us. Sometimes that seed seems to have a really hard time digging in. But it’s not because we just need to be better and smarter all on our own. God didn’t speak to us in such a way that we need to be scholars with 180 I.Q.s if we really want to understand what he’s saying. And the Bible isn’t some kind of secret code that we can break only if we are very, very clever. When the seventy-two disciples came back from their first mission trip, Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said this prayer, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” The word can speak to our hearts, no matter how simple we are. In fact, we hear best when we are most like children. But we do need to have the soil of our hearts prepared if we want the word to sink in and do some real growing. So, no matter who we are, we need to ask for a little help before we read the Bible, and while we read, and after we read. And then we can be sure that our reading will be fruitful. Because there is nothing Holy Spirit loves better than doing a little heart-gardening.
The second kind of dirt in the story is hard, too, because it’s full of rocks. I don’t know if you have ever tried to garden in rocky soil but there is not much that is more disheartening than the sound of your shovel hitting a big rock. Carroll can vouch for that. This rocky dirt is the person, Jesus says, who hears the word with joy, but there’s nowhere for the seed to put down roots. It even starts to grow, maybe, but as soon as there’s any difficulty or persecution he just falls away. Sometimes we’re only listening to God on the surface; we’re just wearing our faith like a pretty dress or a nice suit, but underneath, in our heart of hearts, we’re just full up with all manner of anger and resentment and prejudices and bitterness and unforgiveness. And then we are just exactly like that rocky dirt that makes an awful clang of immovability when the shovel goes in. Those roots, if any roots grow at all, are going nowhere, and as soon as the sun gets hot; as soon as our faith encounters any kind of opposition, it’s dead.
The third kind of dirt has a little more depth, but there’s a lot growing there already. Too much, in fact. The seed sown among thorns, Jesus said, is the one who hears that word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke it out. This is when we love God, and we really believe what the Bible says, but we also really need our 401K and our good insurance and our comfortable life: our cars and our big houses and our vacations and our fashionable clothes. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those things except that we all know that the more stuff we own the likelier we are to end up being owned by all that stuff. How easy it is for us – especially us Americans, who live with more wealth than anybody else on this planet, even those of us who don’t think of ourselves as wealthy – how easy it is for us to let our lives be utterly consumed by the care and feeding of our “blessings”. Most of us could use to do quite a bit of weeding in our lives, and I definitely include myself in that category.
We’ve all heard the story of the rich young man who met Jesus. That young man led a virtuous life, keeping all of God’s commands rigorously. And Jesus told him, “You only need to fix one thing.” (Which is pretty impressive, because most of us would need to fix more than one thing to get our lives in order) “Go,” Jesus told him, “and sell all your stuff and follow me.” But he couldn’t do it, and he went away, sad. Preachers are usually careful to point out that Jesus wasn’t saying that we ALL need to sell everything in order to follow him; it wasn’t a general command to everybody everywhere. And that is clearly true. But it is very telling how uncomfortable that story makes people. We don’t even like the thought of giving up all of our stuff. And that, it seems to me, is probably a sign that we need to do some weeding.
But of course, what we liked best when we were little and our parents told us stories is we liked to be the good guy. When we hear stories, whether we are children or grownups, we want to identify with the one who does what is right and good and heroic. And in this story about the sower and the seed and the dirt, that means we want to be the really good dirt: the dirt that is rich and deep and soft and fertile. We want to be the one who hears with good understanding, the one whose heart isn’t hardened by anger or hatred, the one whose affections aren’t strangled and choked out by all our desires for things and all our worries about losing them or getting more things. When Jesus told that story, he was planting in us the desire, the longing, to be that good, soft, rich dirt. And if we seek to be that good dirt, letting Holy Spirit guide and cultivate us along the way, then this story will bear fruit in our lives, thirty or sixty or a hundred times what we put into it. We can be sure of that. Because God is a great gardener.