I like to think of myself as something of a gardener although my ancestors would laugh at the fact that I spend so much time on my daylily collection and don’t raise any vegetables. I learned a lot about gardening from my grandfather, Jack, and I remember him telling me that our people had worked the land for generations. He himself had learned from his father, who had learned from his father before him, and so on. They tilled the soil and planted the best seed they could find. And they waited. Gardening is about patience and waiting and wondering at the magic of it all: how putting seeds into the earth can render spectacular growth and beauty.
The garden, I’ve found, is a microcosm of life, and there’s more Gospel truth in planting and harvesting that there is in some seminaries and churches. There is miraculous wisdom in every seed as it gives itself up, surrendering its existence under the influences of sun, rain and soil. Seeds reveal a deeper dimension of life than is generally apparent, and I think that Jesus, too, knew something about gardening and subsistence farming and the miracles that surround us.
Jesus tells us today about seeds and soils. A farmer goes out to his field, with the intent of planting something that will bear fruit. Every gardener, every farmer knows, that there are two ways to sow seed. When I purchase little packets of seed, they cost me anywhere from seventy-five cents to perhaps two dollars per packet, so I very carefully make drills – little holes in the soil – and carefully place the seed at precisely the right depth and distance so that I can get the most out of the packets. That is one way to plant, when the seed is expensive or scarce. If the seed is in abundant supply, it’s sufficient to scatter them around in the general direction where the gardener would like to see them grow, and the breeze, rain and soil do the rest. This is called “broadcast sowing”.
God is a broadcast sower. That’s what the parable says. The Reign of God is so wonderful, so full of life, so full of possibilities, that its seeds are sown everywhere and it springs up and manifests the reality of God’s love. Sometime it springs up in a welcoming hug from a friend, the tender touch of a lover, the caress of the sunshine on the skin, in sacramental signs and symbols, in songs and hymns. Sometimes it’s a word of comfort that appears on our lips, or an insight that suddenly blooms in our hearts. The seeds of the Reign of God, elsewhere referred to as mustard seeds, are everywhere we turn our eye. The Gospels record that the mustard seed is the tiniest of seeds but grows into large trees. This is actually false and shows that whoever wrote that Gospel analogy did not know his gardening! The truth is that mustard shrubs are considered weeds, they are invasive, won’t grow in straight, orderly rows, and can’t be contained. Think about dandelions or thistles when you hear the parable of the mustard seed, because these are examples we are familiar with in this area. There is a message there for institutional religions who think they can control the Reign of God or contain it in some way. It just won’t happen!
Good soil is hard to come by, and I know this because I’ve lived many different places and tried to grow stuff in every location. Sometimes the soil is too sandy and needs loam and organic material to amend it; other times the soil is hard clay and needs more sand and sphagnum moss to undo its compact hardness. Some folks think that all it takes to garden is to make a hole in the ground and put in a plant. If that isn’t enough, they douse it with some chemicals: fertilizers to make it grow, herbicides to kill the weeds, and bug spray to kill the insects. They live in a consciousness that believes in better living through chemistry, and in trying to force nature to do as we will. We are just beginning to discover the folly of our ways: how bug sprays and herbicides make their way into the food chain and end up poisoning us; how fertilizers get into streams and lakes and kill the fish; how chemicals deplete the soil, destroy its structure and disrupt its delicate ecosystem. We are just beginning to rediscover the wisdom of patience and knowledge – that it takes a long time to build good soil, and a short time to destroy it. You have to treat the soil with respect, and be willing to learn, and have a lot of patience to be a good gardener.
The message Jesus delivers about the soils is clear: good soil produces good fruit, and bad soils just don’t produce. But there is another lesson here that may not be apparent at first: God is the good gardener, patient and infinitely wise. God can work even the rockiest soil into a fine tilth. There is always hope for bad, rocky, weedy, sour, hardpan soils.
What kind of soil are we? Soil by the wayside? Do we see ourselves as outside the limits of God’s grace, not looking or expecting anything of God’s promised gifts? Then know that the seeds of God’s Reign falls everywhere, even in seemingly impossible places. Expect the miracle and receive it when it arrives.
Are we perhaps stony soil? Do the hard places, the hard questions of life choke out the joy of our faith? Do we find it easy to become bitter or resentful because of what life has brought our way? Do we blame God for “doing things” to us? The truth is that seeds of love are falling all around us at every moment, and if we have known tragedy and heartbreak, know that God mourns with us and beckons us to a renewed life that transcends even death.
Or are you thorny soil, with so many other concerns that the simple joy of being God’s child seems beside the point? Consider this: We were made to receive all the gifts of God and to bring God’s love to fruition in our lives. If we miss that, we have missed the point of life – to grow and develop in the likeness of God. St. Paul said that he considered every other concern in life nothing more than clutter that got in the way, like a closet where we can’t find what we need.
We are not only the soil in this parable, we are also the sower and the seed. God has called us to spread the Reign of God in this time and place, regardless of the soil in which we find ourselves. We are also the sower of the seed, with projects in mind, ministries we envision in our hearts and minds. But, as always, it is the miraculous action of God that determines what will grow and when. It’s beyond our control. We are all gardeners, trying to plant the Reign of God, trying to make it come to full flower in our lifetimes. We are sometimes impatient, sometimes disheartened, always hopeful for the harvest we know is just around the corner. This trust is something we learned from our ancestors in the faith, who learned it from their ancestors before them. We till the soil. We plant the best seed we have. And we wait…we wait.