Sermon for Sexagesima – February 4, 2018
“WHEN much people were gathered together, and were come to him out of every city, he spake by a parable: A sower went out to sow his seed.”
THE SOIL THAT MAKES THE FLOOR of California’s great Central Valley is known to be of the best 1% of all agricultural ground in the world. Everything grows in it. Its richness stems from ages of rainfall that have worn and eroded the mountains to the east and brought their minerals and other nutrients down onto this wide space where huge lakes once formed with the yearly rains to deposit that treasure in deep beds of dirt. It’s just dirt, and yet this dirt is the basis of California’s greastest industry.
We grow the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables, notably almonds, strawberries, grapes, apricots, nectarines, olives, dates, figs, kiwis, pistachios, prunes, and walnuts. We export rice even to Asia. We are known for avocados, lemons, melons, peaches, and plums. Only Florida produces more oranges. I love artichokes, their capital being Castroville. Then we grow lettuce and tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, asparagus, cauliflower, celery, garlic, mushrooms, onions, and peppers. Only Texas grows more cotton than California. And there is abundant hay, corn, sugar beets, and wheat as in the Great Plains east of the Rockies. A drought in California can be devastating to the dinner tables of the world.
We have sunshine, sufficient water in most years, and the world’s greatest dirt. And we have a relationship that’s even closer than that to this dirt, however. We are made of it.
The short story is that humans eat those agricultural products I’ve mentioned, and turn the richness of our state’s soil into nutrients to build our bodies. The longer story is that our earliest relative, one very primitive man, was literally created out of dirt. The story goes:
“Then the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person. Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. The LORD God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The LORD God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it…” Gen 2
He was made of dirt. God fashioned the form of a man from it, then breathed into that form, and it became a living soul. It’s a fantastic account, and hard to believe, especially as we have all these scientific explanations for our being here, slowly evolved from lower animals and finally achieving rational thought. But delve into the difficulties of that fable, explore what better science has discovered of the unlikeliness of each evolutionary step upward from bacteria to single-celled animal, from hydra to sea sponge, and you find complexity that will just not happen all by itself. If our life needs 3 billion base-pairs of genetic information in order to create a human, not some dead thing or a monster, this was ordered up from the start. 3 billion exact living parts is way smarter than dirt ever was. We have two possible explanations. Someone very intelligent made life, using dirt as its material, or else dirt is a whole lot smarter than it looks.
The story goes on, the man made from the native soil in the wilderness of our planet, and his wife was fashioned out of the substance of his body. Then all the trouble began. But not until they’d lived awhile in a perfect world, filled with more wonders than what we grown in California.
If we are intelligent dirt, then we must be made from the same stuff dirt is made of. And that proves true. Dirt, it would seem, is roughly ¼ water, ¼ oxygen—the minerals that make the rest of it being only half of what makes good soil. Well, we are also made of large parts water and air—also comprised of oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. Good so far. Other elements we possess in common with the soil are carbon, calcium, phosphorus, potassium – sounds like the ingredients of fertilizer. Then there’s sulfur, sodium, chlorine, magnesium, silicon, and traces of iron, fluorine, copper, zinc, aluminum, manganese, iodine, selenium, molybdenum, chromium, and cobalt. We are the chemistry sets of our early labs. We’re just dirt. And that’s what Jesus meant when He told about the Sower and his Seeds.
Jesus could wonderfully spin a story and keep people’s attention as they heard things they knew and recognized, yet something about these tales was new to them. Everybody in His day had seen farmers go out to spread seed. Israel lived by wheat and barley and other grains they grew in abundance from the soil of that land. The seed floated on the air and settled everywhere on tilled soil and all around it. The success of the crop then is largely due to how that soil was prepared for growing.
Notice that all the seed is the Word of God. There’s nothing wrong with the seed. Nothing is really said about the sower. This parable tells of four types of dirt, and in truth, only one kind of dirt. It’s what condition that dirt finds itself that determines a rich crop, or nothing.
The first dirt is packed down. It’s the cart path worn hard by transit to and from the field. It’s marginal ground and so it’s never been intended for growing. People in this category are cynical, beaten into feeling like the world will never give them a chance. The Word goes out to them, but they don’t take it in. Too smart to receive the life-giving gift, they shrug it off and then the devil makes sure nothing remains. We might not blame them for their lack of openness, but the parable doesn’t explain this. We only see their condition. Yet, this ground is very much the same as the open field. It just hasn’t been turned or broken up.
The next dirt has never been turned either, and was not expected to bear, for it still holds the native rocks that make it shallow. Seed may sprout in the thin dirt above those rocks, but lack depth to grow and soon whither.
Some seed lands in weedy soil, amid thistles and dandelions and crabgrass. The weeds will choke it out. Like people with too many distracting riches, entertainments and commitments, this soil can’t let the grain grow productively, for there is only so much the soil and water and sunshine can nourish, the weeds having prior claim to them all.
Only the soil in the middle of the field will yield a harvest, hundred-fold on each new stalk of grain.
But the dirt in all four areas was the same native soil: it only took care and work to prepare it, break it up, rake out the stones, pull all the weeds, and then plant to make it abound.
Adam watched Eve as she was spellbound by temptation in their perfect garden world. He watched and did nothing, though the warning of God against that particular fruit was still ringing in his mind. “Do not eat of it, lest ye die.” She took it, ate it, gave some to him and he ate as well. Then God returned to find them hiding in the bushes.
After cursing the serpent, and subjecting the woman to frequent childbirth and need for her husband, God cursed the dirt at Adam’s feet with the hardships we’ve just heard existed in Jesus’ parable. The earth will be hard to grow things, necessitating labor and sweat and toil. Thorns and thistles will grow in the place of your crops, and ultimately you will die and be buried in the earth, returning to the soil, for dust you are, and back to dust you will return.
It’s a story that, at hearing it, we should weep. It’s our dirty secret. There once was a world where we could simply gather low hanging fruits, easily sustaining lives that would have gone on indefinitely. We disappointed our Maker. But we were just dirt, intelligent, living, walking dirt. As so we still are. Life is hard, and then you die.
But is that the moral of the story? What can be done?
The parable doesn’t go into what labor is involved in treating the good ground. That has to be assumed, but who did it? What conditions brought us today to be sitting in a church listening to dirty stories? Who is responsible for our attention being drawn to this tale about ourselves?
There is more about that sower than Jesus’ parable relates. The Sower is, presumably, the farmer. He and his farmhands have labored with oxen and plow to make that dirt good for planting. They tore it up, hurting it, you might say, especially if we consider this dirt is really ourselves. It’s turned over, then broken up. The hard clods have to be broken down. What was once no better than a cart path is now soft, arable soil. Stones are raked to the surface, the larger ones carried off to be walls around our farm. Many rock walls surround the old farms of Butte County, rocks thrown here from the volcano. The soil is now deep enough to sustain a crop. And weeds must be carefully pulled up and gathered, piled together and burned. What cares and pleasures compete with God’s Word must be rooted out and eliminated from our lives.
Who is responsible for this preparation for the planting? Can soil prepare itself? Here a perfect parallel is impossible. We are intelligent soil, so we share in the responsibility for our condition. And yet, we need someone better, stronger, wiser to lead us. We need God the Holy Spirit, and the grace and example of God’s Son, Jesus. And sometimes we need experience. There is more than one season in most lives. Our first several seasons we may have spent as pathways, rock-laden dead ground, or choked with star thistles. And we got tired of it. We tried that and found it hollow. So we responded to the Master’s voice and allowed Him to prepare us.
We are just dirt. But this dirt lives. We are thinking dirt, dirt that loves, dirt that propagates and brings to life others. Eventually, we become sowers of the Word ourselves. Other mud-men will receive what we bring and rise up to live.
Eventually, all this native soil of earth will return to the soil beds from which our bodies were taken. The much better story is that we leave the dirt behind us, rise up and receive better bodies, made of better soil from another place. Stardust? Heaven’s ground? Who knows? But those bodies will not be made of this dirt. They will be bodies and they will live forever, fulfilling our original design, but much improved.
We stand on what we think is solid ground, but one day this world will blow away like sand in a sirocco. California will evaporate with all its splendor. The oceans will steam and vaporize. Nothing we know will exist. Only God, and God’s new heaven and new earth. And from that land, that good ground, we will be made to last forever.
“But the seed sown on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.”