Gardening is not magical. It requires hard work.
If you’ve tried to garden here in Northern Virginia, you know that the soil is not too friendly to planting. It’s that tough red clay, great for making mud, but thick and sticky and slimy and hard to dig. So if you want a garden, be it full of lovely flowers or tasty vegetables, you’ve got to do what the garden books call “amending the soil.” You’ve got to dig down maybe a foot or so, through that rocky, thick clay, and add things like sand and compost and vermiculite and lime to lighten it, to make it loose enough for those delicate plant roots to snake through, to make it the kind of dirt that gracefully accepts rainwater and holds it.
When PH and I owned a house over in Arlington, we decided we wanted a fish pond, with a little waterfall, in the front yard, under the trees. My son StoneMason was with us for the summer, and we thought this might be a good project for him to help with. The starting point was, of course, the digging of a hole. Most good gardening seems to start with a shovel. PH and Stonemason hit that hard clay soil, under the hot summer sun, and suddenly the little project looked a lot more daunting. Stonemason lasted little more than a day doing that dirty difficult drudgery, but PH kept on plugging, digging, digging, fighting with the clay. It took all summer, but eventually (after moving what seemed like eight bathtubs full of soil and putting in a couple of tons of stone), the pond and waterfall was done. The work was long and sometimes very tedious, but the result was great. Sometimes the soil isn’t receptive to the project, though, is it?
There was an article in the Washington Post home and garden section last week about a couple who, over the course of thirty years, built a garden not from the ground up – from well beneath the ground and up, making an environmentally sustainable garden, eventually even using the bathwater from their tub to water it. It’s a gorgeous place, full of plants that do well in this climate, and at this point, it looks as if it was there forever. But the starting point, though, some thirty years ago, was digging three feet down into the dirt, and amending it, adding sand and peat moss and topsoil, turning it over, folding it like chocolate into cake batter to make it hospitable soil in which things could grow.
It’s an interesting image, preparing the soil so that the plants can thrive, and it relates to an image that Jesus uses in the parable of the sower and the seed from the Gospel of Matthew today. The parable is really more about the place where the seeds are planted than it is about the seeds themselves, and it begs the question: what kind of soil are you? Are you tough and hard to dig? Are you hospitable to the seeds that are tossed on you?
Jesus talks about the words he preaches as seeds. As the sower, Jesus, spreads these seeds, not all of them will take root. He tosses them out generously, across all sorts of terrain, as a Palestinian farmer in the first century would do. Some of the seeds will fall on rocky ground, grab a little soil and sprout, but will be burnt by the heat of the sun because their roots have no depth to reach down to the water table. Some of them will fall on the path, and the birds will swoop down and eat them up. Some will land in among thick bushes, and even if they sprout, they’ll be choked by the larger plant. But some will land on good soil. Their roots will grow deep. They’ll flourish. They’ll produce lots of fruit.
So, too, when we hear Jesus’s words, some of us will not understand it. We won’t even try. The word will not grow in our hearts. Some of us will hear the message and embrace it, but not put any effort into it. We will be rocky soil, and we’ll get bored with it or unhappy when something difficult happens in our lives, and the word will wither and die. Some of us will hear it, but become distracted with the busy-ness of our lives and the things we want. But some of us will hear, and work at it, and keep trying to understand it, even the hard parts, and the word will blossom in us.
So we hear this parable, this little story that Jesus has told his followers to help them to understand what his expectations are for them. He has explained the parable even further to his disciples, whom he knows will have to continue his teaching after he is gone. Here’s the interesting thing: the subtext of this passage is that understanding the gospel is hard work. By inference, the work of discipleship is hard work. Being a Christian is not supposed to be easy. And here in our town, with our relative comfort and our houses and our cars and our vacations – those lures of wealth and the world – it’s easy to compartmentalize religion into one small comfortable niche. And in putting God and God’s word into that niche, we run the risk of trying to make religion easy. And easy religion is the kind that has shallow roots, that get burned and shriveled under the hot sun. Growing deep roots is hard work, particularly in the hard red clay soil of a life lived shallowly.
So how do we grow those deep roots? How do we live a life in which our religion is not shallow, not sentimental, not merely a little compartment that has no bearing on the rest of our life?
Here is where the image of planting really shines a light on the work of discipleship. Let’s take it as a given that we start off as clay soil. We are hard to work. We are resistant to the threads of roots of the word working through us. We don’t hold water to nourish the roots very well. How can we improve ourselves, amend ourselves in such a way that God’s word grows deeply into us and informs every aspect of our lives? Some of the logical starting points are the things we know enrich our souls, like prayer, like worship, and the reading of scripture, and doing things like helping out at the local homeless shelter.
But I’d suggest that there are also some other things that we can do to enrich the soil of our souls, some things that might not immediately come to mind. These things might fall under the general category of “the compost of life.”
Now you all know what compost is. It’s gathering up kitchen waste like the onion peels and the ribs and seeds from the bell peppers, the brown-edged lettuce leaves and the egg shells, and putting them in a pile with some grass clippings and some old mulchy leaves, and letting the whole mess just sort of simmer for quite a while, getting hot, breaking down all the organic matter, until what you have is not a smelly slimy mess, but beautiful rich brown compost that can be shoveled and folded into your garden, providing lightness and richness that helps plants grow.
It’s remarkable how something that starts out so nasty can turn into something so life-giving, so useful. By the time it’s done going through the composting process, after several months, it doesn’t even smell bad. In fact, to some folks, it even smells sort of sweet and nice.
And here’s what we can learn from this, in our effort to become good soil to receive the seeds of the Lord’s word: sometimes the most enriching thing we can add to the red clay is what we learn from the difficult, smelly, nasty stuff that makes us screw up our faces in disgust.
Sometimes, the things that will lighten the soil are the least likely of things, the detritus of our lives, the pain.
What does this look like? Is it the moment when bank forecloses on your house, and you fear that you will end up on the street, with nothing…until your friends help you find a place to live and give you a shoulder to cry on and hang in there with you as you start to rebuild your life? Is it the time that you get very sick and your church family goes into high gear, bringing meals, taking you to your doctors’ appointments, praying for you, keeping you company? Is it the day that you lose your job and two friends start making calls to help you find another position? Is it the day that you take your youngest child to college and come home to an empty house, and your sister calls up and says “Come on over and have a glass of wine” and you suddenly don’t feel so alone?
These hard times, and what we learn about ourselves and our friends and family in the midst of them, are the compost. When we are in the midst of them, they smell bad. They feel bad. They appear to be useless, garbage. But time – sometimes a long time- and prayer and help turn them into a recognition of Christ touching us, of the Word lived well, of God’s great love for us. When we recognize these moments, and fold the thought of them into the hard clay of our hearts, we loosen the soil. We make ourselves more open to what Christ is asking us to do. We take the pain and use it, transform it into something that is no longer about us, it is about our relationship with God and with all of God’s creation.
We know from our time in our backyards that gardening is hard work. My son Stonemason, who gave up after only a day when we built the fish pond, has learned that and – irony of ironies - now works in landscaping and stonemasonry up in Vermont. Sometimes preparing the soil is the work of a season. Sometimes it’s the work of thirty years. Sometimes it’s the work of a lifetime. But the digging deep, the enrichment of our hearts, the aching muscles of struggling to loosen the red clay of our hearts, all of it will lead over time to a soul that is prepared and ready to know God and to serve him.