Wednesday Sermons, 9/5/12: Good Soil

by President Phyllis Anderson

Luke 8:4-8; 11-15

This weekend I will be at a party in Fountain Valley, California, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ordination of Tim Philips, a 1987 graduate of this seminary. Lots of nice things will be said about him and his ministry because he has been a good pastor and also a member of our board. He has touched many lives, including mine, and many of us will testify to the ways we’ve grown through Tim’s words and actions and his way of being with us.

In his quiet moments, Tim may reflect on the ones that got away. After many years of ministry, it is humbling and puzzling and sometimes discouraging to think about the people who left the congregation and never came back; the young people who went through confirmation, but for whom the faith never really “took”. Many good pastors have seen their congregations decline or the life choked out of them through conflict. All the sermons, all the evangelism calls, all the Bible studies offered – with so little effect. The Parable of the Sower is a consolation in times like these, a reminder that our job is to plant, to scatter the seeds in season and out of season. We do not control where they land, whether they take root or not. Some soil simply cannot support life.

But today is not a consolation kind of day for mid-career pastors. Today is the beginning of the 61st academic year at PLTS. Today we welcome 18 brave new students into the community who want to learn how to sow seeds, or at least to hold the seed in their hand for a while– or some evolving variation on that theme. You are not done yet.

They join many more continuing students and returning interns. Since we saw you last you’ve learned a lot about yourself as a sower, you’ve tried your wings in Clinical Pastoral Education and internship or some other crucible. I’m so glad to see you back! In this circle today are also staff and faculty ready to serve, including David Balch back from a very fruitful sabbatical in Latin America. The professors have slung their seed pouches over their shoulders and are poised to share the wisdom of the Gospel again this year with those who come to learn. We especially welcome four chief administrators, who have answered a call to be sowers and leaders in this community: Alicia Vargas, Christopher Evans, Brian Stein-Webber, and Nan Hirleman.

So today we celebrate the sowers, which we are all called to be – or learning to be. I celebrate the sowers – or proto-sowers. But even more, today I want to celebrate the SOIL.

This parable of the sower is also a parable of the soils. This lesson from Luke provides an unusual amount of detail about the various kinds of soils, the various kinds of audiences, most of them not so good for growing things in.

  • Some people – some people you know – just never did get it. They heard the same Word that rocked your life, but it made no impression on them. They have rich, full lives. Or maybe they have complicated, tortured lives. Either way, there is no room in their lives for God. They don’t see the point. It just bounces off.
  • Some people along the way shared your interest in religious stuff. You knew people in college who loved asking questions about the meaning of life. Others got turned on to the love of God by a mission trip. But it just didn’t go deep. When they grew up they put away childish things.
  • Some people are actually interested in spiritual things and would like to know more about God. They would like to develop the disciplines of reading the Bible or praying or getting more involved in church, but it’s just never the right time. It’s never the top priority. Other stuff always gets in the way.
But then here you come. Against all odds you signed on to become disciples of Jesus Christ. You showed up to engage in serious study of the things of God, to commit to a lifetime of service and leadership in Christ’s church. You do it at great cost and with little certainty about where it will all lead.
These are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.
You must be the Good Soil.

Why you? Why us? Why do we believe when others don’t? I don’t know. I never knew growing up why faith flourished in me, when it didn’t in most of my friends – or even my brother. Faith is a gift, we say, a gift of the Spirit. Somehow, in the mystery of how we are made – the natural proclivity, the people who have influenced us, the opportunities we’ve been given, the active blessing of God – we received the gift of receptivity to the seed that is scattered everywhere. The seed took root in us!

It is a mystery to celebrate – with all humility.

  1. People in whom the seed takes root are not all in seminary. They are all over the place living out their faith in a million beautiful, challenging ways.
  2. Good Soil people are not better than our less receptive brothers and sisters. If you came hoping that we would be, I’m afraid you are in for some disappointments.
  3. God doesn’t love the Good Soil people more than the people who have harder shells. God is always on the side of the one who got away, the lost sheep, the prodigal son, the ones for whom religion is not easy, the ones who deferred for another year
What is different about us is that we get to enjoy and live in relationship with a God who loves us beyond all limits. By God’s utterly unmerited grace, you were somehow chosen and gifted to be Good Soil, the kind of soil in which faith grows.

Out in the garden good soil is complex and multi-layered. It is forty-five percent minerals that have been crushed and altered over millions of years by mechanical and chemical forces. Good soil is more than rock. It also contains at least 5% organic material, both live and dead – bugs and rotting leaves. We keep composting like crazy in our house – so that we can beef up the soil in that little walled garden so that someday the seeds we keep putting there will flourish and grow. Good soil also needs moisture. It is 25% water. The finally good soil has space in it. Good soil is 25% air. Good soil has to be porous, full of pores that breathe, with lots of openings for things to move around in and grow.

You have been wonderfully made. You are good soil.
Children of God, give thanks for the faith that is in you – however waivery and frail.
Let us celebrate the good soil God made us to be – rich, and loamy, full of traces of all the forces that have acted upon us, full of spaces where new things can happen.

You have been wonderfully made. You are good soil – rich, porous, and complex.
Do all that is in your power to keep that good soil nourished and aerated.
So that you are able to receive the new knowledge raining down on you this year,
So that you can process the wondrous, challenging experiences ahead,
So that you can enjoy the amazing companions with you on the way.

You are Good Soil -- diverse and mysterious, full of living things and open spaces -- a medium in which the Seed will continue to grow this year and produce the fruits of faith.

This article is from the October 2012 issue of Above The Fog, the PLTS monthly e-newsletter. Click here to subscribe, and receive great articles and seminary news right in your inbox.