You may be good gardeners… you may have a passion for it… I’m not a good gardener and I don’t like gardening. My dad was a great gardener. When I was growing up He spent most of his weekends out the back in his vege patch. We lived off the veges he grew… summer lunch was the freshest sweet corn dripping with butter, breakfasts came from our grapefruit tree … Desserts were often topped by bottled peaches, apples and fejoa from our backyard… salads at dinner were made from the lettuce, cabbage and tomatoes from the garden and there always seemed to be beans
Years after my father had died Kris and I moved back to Auckland from Tauranga and lived just down the road from where my family home had been. We tried to start a garden and it was back breaking work in good old Waitakere clay. I came to appreciate what my father had achieved. He had spent a lot of time and energy in caring for the soil… he would leave a quarter of the garden fallow each year, planting lupines there to fix the nitrogen in the soil. When spring came the compost bin would be dug out, sieved and spread out and dug in. Crops were rotated so you only had the same thing grown in the same place every four years.
Jesus used the image of soil and trying to grow food to talk about how people would respond to his teaching, to teach us how to listen to the word of God… so it could do its work in us of producing good things.
It’s a very helpful parable because the gospels also record Jesus explaining it for his disciples. The sower is Jesus preaching, he was preaching to large crowds but the number who responded and followed seemed small. The seed is the word of God and those who listened are the various soil types.
He talked of seed falling on the road. The seeds would be unable to penetrate and be trampled or picked off by birds. He likened that to Satan being able to come along and take it away. We are not that comfortable about talking of Satan these days as the enemy of our soul, and there are others who simply talk too much about that and give him too much power. Jesus only mentions him once in this parable amongst so many other adverse conditions to good crop production.
The seeds take root in the other soil types. But one is rocky. In Judah much of the land is simply top soil over a hard limestone base and even though the seed germinates and starts to grow it cannot put its roots down far enough to get the nutrients it needs so when the hot weather of persecution or opposition comes it withers away. Other areas are full of weeds, which grow up and compete with the plant for sunlight and water and stop it maturing. Jesus talks of life’s worries and the pursuit of wealth and pleasure as things that will do that in the lives of the listener. Finally he talks of the good soil, the soil that has been prepared to receive the seed and is able to sustain it till it produces a bountiful crop. Jesus says these are the people who hear the word retain it and patiently persevere with it.
What crop is produced I hear you say? Well this is one of a series of parables in Luke of the kingdom of God. The crop of the seeds of the word will look a lot like Jesus. Paul paints a picture of what that might look like in our lives when in Galatians 5:22 he talks about the fruit that walking in step with the spirit of God produces in our lives… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control: Character traits that reflect Jesus.
One of the great thing about parables is they are open ended invitations to continue reflecting and journeying. We are using Leonard Sweets word narraphors to express this...They are metaphors to think with and narratives; stories that can shape our own life story. Here are a few of my reflections on how this parable connects with our lives today….
Firstly, This parable shows that Jesus was aware that different people would react to his message in different ways. That just because Jesus is God’s chosen agent did not mean people would respond to him automatically. It’s helpful when you work and minister with people to be reminded of this. During the week I had a conversation with a minister who had settled here from South Africa who said sharing the gospel with Kiwi’s was hard… it was like seed on hard ground. He had found many of the recent migrant groups to New Zealand more open to the Christian message. One of the reasons I don’t like gardening is that we’ve moved so much it invariably involves lots of breaking up hard ground, that’s hard work. We as a church are actually working in a field that is hard ground. It’s not easy work… we tend to have to do the hard years to see fruit.
Secondly, I don’t know about you but I’ve always thought that the different soil types actually referred to different people, and they do and I don’t really relate to any particular one of them . I’m sort of a mix, they all relate to me in some way. When I was at Bible College a visiting lecture invited us to reflect on this parable in a different way. He called it the parable of the field. We focus on the sower or the soil and maybe we can’t see the big picture that a sower would be working in a field that was a mix of these soil types. There would be the paths round the outside, some areas which had heaps of weeds and weed seeds, others that were rocky and thankfully others that were good, and in one way we could look at our lives like that field. To be productive we needed to work on the soil types in our field, our life just like my father worked on the good old Waitakere clay to make it productive.
How is our life like a road… The word road isn’t that helpful in our four lane asphalt world. In Jesus day it would have been well-worn walking tracks so the various farmers who lived in the villages and towns could get to their allotted fields. In my mind I couldn’t help but think about well used paths in our own life. The places we are very set in our ways… and it is difficult for the word of God to take root and bring fruit there. Some of those most resistant to Jesus message were the religious leaders of Jesus time. They were very set in their ways, they kept to certain paths and were very certain that was the right way. So when Jesus came along even though he was the fulfilment of all they were hoping for and believed they missed it. Maybe to allow the word of God to take root in those areas of our life, we need to do some spade work. This year as a parish council we’ve wanted to give people some encouragement to grow their devotional life, to try something different… not because we don’t think people develop their devotional life, but hopefully in doing a things differently like the E100 Jesus challenge and coming to church for an hour during the week to pray and even being part of a small group will help in that process. They are small invitations to take even a small step off the beaten track .
I wonder what rocks sit right under the surface of our lives as well. How deep have we let the word of God take root. Rwanda was known as the most Christianised country in Africa, yet in 1994 it was the scene of one of the worst genocides. The gospel was very widly spread but very thin, it was a veneer over seething racial hatred. I have a friend who has been involved with church leaders in Rwanda since then helping them working through reconciliation and seeing the gospel go deep to help people understanding a Christian way of seeing others; that we are all made in God’s image and we are called to love our enemies. That may seem a bit extreme but we like them are blind to our own cultural conditioning. At the moment I am reading a book which is wrestling with the fact that much of what is taught as Church leadership today has more to do with our western understanding of success and achievement rather than emulating the life of Christ. It kicks up some rocky ground for all of us…How much of the way we see what we want out of life is shaped in the same way. Is it a Jesus shaped vision or a culturally shaped one? Often breaking up that ground takes time. The nurture of the soul and the pursuit of Long range spiritual development and ministry gets second place.
When I mention weeds If you are like me then you’ve probably got a list as long as mine of things that are keeping you up at night, that compete with our faith for space and light and energy. I have to admit I’ve found myself focusing on the weeds in my life recently. Not to pull them out but the way they are getting on top of me, many have to do with the future of the church here. On Friday in the e100 essential Jesus we had the reading from John about Jesus raising Lazarus back to life… It was like a seed germinated… I was focusing on the doom and gloom of the tomb, not on the resurrection power of Jesus Christ… I had to pray the words of Martha “Jesus, I believe that you are the messiah, sent from God” and reaffirm my faith in Jesus. It has actually loosened up those weeds hold. It’s a step in the process of weeding them out.
What does good soil look like? Thursday started out a good day this week, U2 released a new studio album after five years… and what made it even better was that it was free. If you are a U2 fan you’ve got two weeks to download it from iTunes for free. AS usual its full of good tunes and profound lyrics… One of the songs spoke to me as I was thinking about what good soil looked like… It said ‘the only heart that is open is a heart that is broken’. Now I don’t think that means we should walk around with all the wounds and hurts we’ve suffered in the past not healed, I actually believe Jesus wants us to find wholeness and health in relationship with him… But in those words I couldn’t help but hear the invitation in the beatitudes that those who will be blessed are those who are aware they are poor, who are aware of their need for God, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who seek peace with a single mindedness.
I’m not a good gardener but my heavenly father is a great gardener… the encouragement to us as we work through all this is that we have a God who has dirt under his finger nails. Who is willing to get his hands dirty in our lives to see the seed of his word take root and grow and produce fruit. In genesis we see God forming humans out of earth and breathing life into that form. In Isaiah we see Israel as God’s vineyard, which he goes about tending, lavishing his care on… that is picked up by Jesus in the New Testament as he encourages us to abide in him, I am the vine he says in John 15 and my father is the gardener. In Jeremiah 18 there is the vision of God as the potter shaping his people into a beautiful earthen vessel. We have god who has dirt under his finger nails… Our heavenly Father is a great gardener. We need to let him tend the field that is our life… to make it more fruitful.
I want to invite you to take a moment or two just to focus on the soil we’ve given you and maybe as you do use it as a way of looking at various soil types in your life. Then as I close that off in prayer I want to invite you to plant a seed… it’s a seed of a plant we can plant out later in our garden out the back. It’s a sunflower seed and as we started the service by sayng sunflowers area great parable as they follow the sun through life.