Dan, a minister at the Village Church and Communuty Centre – Christchurch New Zealand joined us on Sept 1st for a pulpit exchange.
On 9 September 2018 he led his first morning at Pontypridd.
Reflection – Seeds and Soil
Isaiah 55 Mark 4: 2-9
A few years ago, we had the privilege of designing and building a house. We quite enjoyed the process of building not to mention the excitement of living in a brand new home – I didn’t have cold feet, nothing was broken and needed fixing… we were very grateful for the opportunity. Privilege doesn’t always mean that things are perfect though, does it. Within a very short time of us living in this house I found myself going and purchasing a pick-axe. What I had discovered was that in trying to save us a significant amount of money by not having the landscaping done for us, was that the dirt was extremely hard. The land a long time ago had been a river bed. On the Canterbury plains where our home city of Christchurch is, most of the rivers are what are called ‘braided’ rivers
you can see they kind of weave themselves across the land in braids… over time they are known to shift significantly, in fact that’s how the land of the plains was formed, over time the rivers had brought down shingle and stones and sediment from the mountains and formed this wide flat plain. We had indeed followed the advice of Jesus and not built our house on the sand… however trying to dig any sort of a hole in this mostly clay based stone filled soil was next to impossible – especially in summer – at times I was pulling rocks the size of large watermelons out of the ground – it was not soil that was conducive to a garden. I discovered quite early on that we would have to work quite hard to break this land in. What it needed for any chance of any sort of plant to grow was for the stones to be removed and the clay broken down… it was all very well wanting a nice relaxing lush garden with lawn and flourishing native trees and birdlife but it wasn’t just going to happen. There was no way we were going to simply throw some grass seed around and plant some plants if we wanted any hope of getting what we wanted. We had to pay attention to the soil.
Jesus seemed to understand the importance of soil, it seems to stand out in this parable as the deciding factor in the fate of those seeds. Remember earlier I said that the message of the parable is usually hidden in the unusual, in the extravagant or exaggerated? Well, I think that the surprising message of this parable is very much to be found in the contrast between the haphazard way the farmer had sown the seeds – just kind of throwing it out all over the place; the sort of depressing scene that is then painted by how much of the seed ultimately dies whether it was by rock, or thistle, or sun, or birds, and the rather abundant harvest we see at the end – it is really a miracle any of those plants produced anything… but they did, the delightful surprise is that they not only produced, but seemed to do so exceptionally… a thirty, a sixty, a hundredfold harvest! Our attention is drawn to the soil. Good dirt is important.
It has been said that to understand the gospel of Mark one simply needs to pay attention to Mark 1:15 “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Jesus here at the beginning of his ministry announces the key point behind his teaching and Mark picks up on this all the way through. Jesus essentially says, ‘The time is now, God’s ways are within reach, change your point of view, have a change of heart, and live your faith for real.’ “Listen, to this!” he says before telling this parable about dirt, ‘Listen to what I’m telling you!’ Listening of course implies paying attention, of hearing and of taking it to heart. Which in turn implies that you will do something about it. The message of God’s good news is for here and now, it is for paying attention to and acting upon.
Did you know that by the year 80, the Christian faith had spread as far as India and France? In less than 100 years, the message of Jesus had spread all over the known world. “…a startling idea runs through early records of faith” Historian Diana Butler-Bass says about early Christianity. “…Christianity seems to have succeeded because it transformed the lives of people in a chaotic world.” The message of Jesus had made a difference in the world because people experienced it as real and it was real because they lived it. There seems to be a few key things about those early Christians that helped their faith to grow and flourish and produce good fruit and I have seen the same themes in faith communities that thrive today – they pray together, they eat together, they worship together, they serve together, they share what they have, and they play, they have fun together. It seems as if the gospel flourishes in an environment fed by these things. As Christians, before we got caught up in worrying about complicated things like statements of belief, doctrines, and arguing about who was morally right or wrong, we were simply concerned with living together in the transformational message of the good news of God.
So, faith is for living, God draws near to us, and transformation is possible. What does dirt have to do with it? Well, seeds need dirt. Seeds need to be grown in something. The message of Jesus is like a seed, it is bursting with the abundant potential of the Kingdom of God but it needs good soil to take root in. God’s reality, God’s love will flourish, it will come to harvest – the message in here is really a message of hope – the things of God that we long for will come to pass. There will be justice for all, there will be peace, there will be freedom from struggle, from pain; there will be food for the hungry, there will be healing, there will be fulfilment; all these things will come to be but they need good soil to truly take root and become real in our lives and in our communities, to become the life giving work of God in our world. The seeds of God need to be planted. ‘Listen’ Jesus says, ‘take this to heart, do something with what I am telling you.’
The soil in which the Kingdom of God takes root, is our lives. Be good soil Jesus says. He implies that we are to cultivate our lives in such a way that the Good News can’t help but bear fruit. So, what is the soil that your faith grows in? What is the soil of this faith community? The life of faith in community together could be described as a garden… how would you describe your soil? Are you paying attention to the dirt? Do you take time cultivate good soil? Do you prepare the ground before planting something new? Is there turning over, weeding, resting, feeding, and watering of your soil? Is there turning over, weeding, resting, feeding, and watering in your life? Often if we are considering adding a new activity – we could call these plants – or if we are considering existing plants – that is, activities – then gardening questions are really helpful: What is the soil like at the moment, can it sustain a new plant, and is it able to support the existing plants? Is this the kind of soil in which the gospel of Jesus can take root in? Are there too many plants? Does this plant need a companion? Are some plants past their best? What is helpful to nurture new seedlings? It works too for our individual faith journeys. Times of harvest, times of fruitfulness often come after we pay attention to the soil in which our faith is planted in. If you are struggling with faith, a question of soil may be helpful.
The question ultimately becomes with all of this, what kind of soil, what kind of environment will be helpful for the gospel to take root and flourish? How do we take this to heart and live in ways in which transformation happens? How do we cultivate the important things in our lives like, prayer, worship, sharing our lives, sharing our resources, mission, and having fun? Good soil doesn’t just happen by itself.
You may have heard the saying, ‘Culture eats Strategy for breakfast.’ What this is really meaning is that it doesn’t matter to a certain point the way you go about trying to achieve whatever you are trying to achieve, if the underlying culture is working against you then you really don’t have much chance. Certainly in New Zealand a lot of organisations, especially a lot of churches are learning this one the hard way – the most common story is this – we may want our churches to grow and continue long into the future but the underlying culture distrusts new information, distrusts new people, distrusts new ways of doing things because ultimately there is a fear of the unknown that change brings about and so any sort of new initiative or flurry of activity is doomed from the start. It’s the classic picture of the iceberg… most of the iceberg is underwater, we only see a small part of it – culture, the stuff that lies beneath the surface is 90% of the picture but it ultimately determines the shape of what’s on top. To take it back to soil, it is what’s in the soil that determines the health of the garden.
I think Jesus’ message in this parable, the parable of the soil as I like to call it, is really an encouragement of two things. The first is an encouragement to keep the main thing the main thing. We are simply people who are following Jesus, and our lives are to be rich and fertile land in which the Kingdom of God can make a home and flourish for the good of us and for those around us. We are to live in the transformational message of Jesus by simply engaging with practices of faith that cultivate our soil. The second is an encouragement of hope… the work of God is God’s and it will come to bear fruit, an abundant harvest, big enough for all… all we have to do is to listen, take it to heart, and get about living in harmony with the full potential of it.
As the words from Isaiah say, “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live… For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (from Isaiah 55)
The delightful surprise is a message of hope despite all odds, and an invitation to participate fully in the cultivation of the joy and life of God growing in us and through us.
 Diana Butler-Bass, A People’s History of Christianity, p26.