A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 16, 2017 (Proper 10A)
One of the few things I remember from middle school biology — besides dissecting that fetal pig (which was both disgusting and the precise moment I realized I would never become a doctor) — is the concept of photosynthesis. In order to grow something you need seed, sun, and water. Whether you’re trying to grow a flower or a tree or a tomato plant you need all three for horticultural success.
This isn’t to suggest I’ve been particularly effective at this over the years. For someone who spends a lot of time reading agricultural parables — about reaping and sowing and mustard seeds and vineyards — I’m a lousy gardener.
But we’ve actively participated in the process of photosynthesis here at St. John’s the last couple of months as we’ve been growing some grass out front. A number of you have volunteered to help water and it has actually worked. What once was dirt, now is grass. And we are reminded again of the miracle of creation and the beauty of the natural world and the rising cost of Aquarion’s water.
This morning we hear the Parable of the Sower. And one of the great things about this story is that it’s one of the few parables Jesus tells and then immediately interprets for the disciples. So he’s basically already done the work of the preacher — in no uncertain terms he’s explained what it all means. Jesus has spelled out the metaphorical meaning behind seeing receptivity to God’s word as the seed sown on the path and the rocky soil and among the thorns and on the good soil. I should probably just sit down and let him have the last word.
But that’s not my way. And, as always, there are nuances here that begin to emerge beneath the surface of the text. Because, of course, life isn’t so neat and ordered. Our spiritual lives don’t categorically fit into one of four quadrants. You can’t go up to a crowd of people, share this story, and say, “Okay, everyone who considers themselves rocky soil stand over here. And if you identify as thorny soil, go into that corner. Sown on a path? Go there. And those who see themselves as good soil, stay right here.” And while we all like to think of ourselves as the good soil, it’s always more complicated than that.
The reality is that our lives are made up of a patchwork of different soils. We bear more or less fruit at different times. Some days we’re particularly receptive to hearing God’s word and acting on it; on other days it gets choked by the pressing concerns and distractions of our over-scheduled lives. Some days we just don’t understand or can’t hear God’s word; on other days we receive it joyfully but it doesn’t stick.
In a sense, the soil of our lives is like fill dirt. That’s the dirt that’s taken from one construction site where holes are being dug — like to put in a pool or excavate for a building’s foundation — and taken to another site where earth is needed for regrading or landscaping. Sometimes you’ll see signs around town at houses where construction is being done: “Free Fill Dirt” or “Fill Dirt Wanted.” And so this dirt gets repurposed and reused and moved from project to project. Basically fill dirt is the poor stepchild of the soil world. It’s necessary, but it’s not pure in any form. There’s often some good soil mixed in along with rocks and sand and weeds.
We like to think our receptivity to God is more like a bag of potting soil from Home Depot. Rich earth, chock-full of nutrients that has been specifically engineered to encourage the greatest growth. That’s what you sink your geraniums into or use when you plant sweet-smelling herbs like basil or lavender. We like to think that, because we usually come to church or say our prayers or occasionally pick up the Bible, we are always receptive to the moving of God’s spirit in our lives.
And we’re often right. But not always. Sometimes we do all the right things to nurture our faith and yet nothing takes root. At other times we do nothing to put ourselves in a particularly prayerful posture and we suddenly have a powerful and surprising encounter with God. And what you start to realize is that we’re not the ones actually in control here. That we have a role to play in the process of spiritual growth but it often happens in ways that are well beyond our control.
The truth is, we can’t control all the variables needed for spiritual photosynthesis, but we can help tend the garden. Your spiritual garden begins with baptism — that’s the seed, the spirit of God that has been lovingly sown within your heart. And we’ll be sowing some of this seed in just a few moments when we baptize Miles and Julia and George.
One of the things we sometimes overlook in this story is the sowing itself. We focus on the soil. But when the guys came to spread grass seed around here, they put it exclusively on the bare spots in the lawn; they concentrated it on the areas where we wanted to grow grass. They weren’t spreading seed on the driveway or on areas where the lawn was already lush or in the flower beds or behind the church back in the woods or on the front steps. They put the seed where we wanted grass to grow.
That’s pretty obvious, right? It would be a waste of seed and therefore a waste of money to do it any other way. But isn’t that precisely what the sower in this story is doing? If we view the sower as a metaphor for God, then God is a pretty lousy gardener. Or at least a wasteful one. Old MacDonald himself would never sow seed in places he knew it would never grow — like on paths or rocky ground or among thorns. Again, I’m not a great gardener, or farmer, but even I know this is not how you sow seed. You don’t just recklessly throw it all over the place — seed is a precious commodity. It must be sown with care and intentionality.
But the point Jesus is making here is not about efficient gardening techniques. He’s talking about the abundant grace of God; a God who spreads love with reckless abandon; a God who opens his heart to everyone.
Here’s the thing about baptism: it’s not a magic formula, but an indelible one. When you are baptized – when that seed is sown in your soul – it doesn’t automatically turn rocky soil into good soil. But it does turn the soil of our lives — the fill dirt that makes up our authentic selves — into holy ground. It may not always be beautifully landscaped but it is always beautiful, even in its imperfections. May the grace of our Lord and the love of God and the utter abundance of the Spirit be upon you this day as you remember that you, too, are marked as Christ’s own forever and that the seed of relationship with the risen Christ has been indelibly sown within you.
Here’s the thing about baptism: it’s not a magic formula, but an indelible one. When you are baptized it doesn’t automatically turn rocky soil into good soil. But it does turn the soil of our lives — the fill dirt that makes up our authentic selves — into holy ground. It may not always be beautifully landscaped but it is always beautiful, even in its imperfections. May the grace of our Lord and the love of God and the utter abundance of the Spirit be upon you this day as you remember that you, too, are marked as Christ’s own forever.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017