How Is It with Your Soil?

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That day Jesus went out of the house and sat down beside the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he climbed into a boat and sat down. The whole crowd was standing on the shore. He said many things to them in parables: “A farmer went out to scatter seed. As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. Everyone who has ears should pay attention.”

“Consider then the parable of the farmer. Whenever people hear the word about the kingdom and don’t understand it, the evil one comes and carries off what was planted in their hearts. This is the seed that was sown on the path. As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. As for the seed that was spread among thorny plants, this refers to those who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the false appeal of wealth choke the word, and it bears no fruit. As for what was planted on good soil, this refers to those who hear and understand, and bear fruit and produce—in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.”

I am so very excited, grateful, and honored to begin our ministry together here at Spring Valley. I received the call to serve here in early February, just after my birthday, and I have been counting down the weeks since. I was on leave for the last three months, so since Easter I have only preached once- I may be a little rusty. I look forward to hearing stories from you about Spring Valley’s ministry and history. I have already had extensive conversations with Jack Gibson, founding pastor of SprV, Don Renshaw, and of course Paul Gould, who did a great job ensuring an easy pastoral transition. Same for Cynthia Lee and the SPRC team. 

Immediately after hearing of the appointment to this area, I began to dream about possibilities. We moved here a month ago, and just driving around the immediate area of the church one gets an idea of the parish’s diversity. There is an eggroll place next to a tortillaria, and take a left onto Coit Road and you will soon pass not only a Dominican restaurant but a Dominican barber shop! I can’t wait to get my hair cut there. The other day I pulled up some demographic info for the one mile radius of the church. So.. Belt Line to the north, 75 to the east, Hillcrest to the west, and something to the south- I forgot, so let’s say Forest Lane. Do you want to hear what I learned? You can probably guess that it’s coming whether you said yes or no.

o Majority Hispanic/Latinx 60%

o Majority (53%) speak Spanish at home (43% English)

o Significantly higher rate below the poverty line (16% v 10% TX)

o The area is aging; the only ages that will increase over the next decade are 55+

o Denomination alignment: 44% Roman Catholic, 8% UMC

So just those handful of bullet points might start bubbling up ministry ideas in you. It certainly did for me. But how would we go about discerning what we should do? Let’s consider three models- none of these are better or more effective than the others. Just different strategies. Attractional, Partnerships, Missional.

Attractional ministries invite people to the building- they draw them in. So.. Spanish is spoken at home; it should be spoken in worship. ESL classes on campus. Concerts for the community featuring Mariachi music. Partnerships ask: what is God already doing in the community? What community organizing around justice and mercy, consistent with our values as a church, can we work alongside with- rather than inventing on our own? And the third strategy is what is modeled by the sower in the parable: let’s just see what works.

The farmer is just out doing the task; no preparation, no Farmer’s Almanac, no YouTube tutorials or Instagram reels on farming. Toss the seed over there. Toss more this way. Toss. Toss. There is no thought to which parcel of land is best for yielding a crop, no debate about the ph of the soil, no crowdsourcing on Reddit for best practices. Because while the parable is often titled the Parable of the Sower by most of us, the focus of the parable isn’t the sower at all. In fact, the farmer plays a very minor role, just setting the scene.

The action in the parable is with the soil. There isn’t just one type of soil- the farmer covers a lot of ground- there is soil on the path, rocky soil, thorny soil, and vague “good soil,” which allows the seed to perform its function- to produce fruit. The good soil produces an abundant crop- way beyond what could have been expected. The farmer might have hoped for a 6x increase, but the good soil has the possibility of producing 30/60/even 100x the yield. The farmer has nothing to do about this; it’s all about the soil’s readiness to receive the seed.

Parables can be tricky, so Jesus explained it. Some of the seed fell in the path, so it was exposed. The message was heard but not internalized. Birds swooped in and ate it. Some seed fell among rocks, and because there was no depth to the soil, the seed could not access the necessary nutrients, so like many of our lawns in the last couple of weeks, the infant plants were fried by the sun. Jesus likens these burned up plants to those who are new to the faith, infant disciples, who are excited and ready, even joyful, but when they face inevitable challenges, they disappear. Maybe this is a teenager on a mission trip or at Bridgeport camp. Maybe it’s a young couple who feels the need to baptize their infant daughter. On the other side of the meaningful experience, things get boring or there are other distractions or there just isn’t the support folk new to the faith need. Some seed doesn’t produce because of other thorny plants. Other life experiences, competing priorities and distractions- Jesus even specifically names worry about wealth- choke out the life of these infant plants. The things that worry us, keep us awake at night- how often do they cause us to lose focus on the life giving nourishment our faith offers us? 

When I was in eighth grade, some of the kids at my school, Bay City Junior High in Bay City, TX, had the opportunity to journey with eighth graders from the other middle school in town to Colorado for Spring Break. We all loaded up on a yellow dog and took off. This would be my first ever time to go snow skiing. It would also be my last—but I am getting ahead of myself.

When we were ready for the skiing, I was so excited, so ready for the challenge, that I didn’t pay close attention to the minimal amount of training we received at the top of the Bunny Slope. I heard about snow plowing, which was the practice of pointing the tips of one’s skis together in an upside down V shape; this would have the impact of slowing you down. I heard that, but I wasn’t really interested. I also heard the instructor tell us if we fell to not remove our skis—I don’t remember why. I had already done my fair share of failing; I was convinced that I was ready for the thrill of downhill skiing. In my mind, the training sesh ended there. Let’s get to the action. I took off, zooming past my snowplowing buddies. Ha. They were the babies doing the kid version of skiing; I was in control and flying. I was made for this. I had a need for speed and I was killing it. But when I got to the bottom of the bunny slope I didn’t know how to stop. So I am still going at full speed, not knowing what to do, as I began to ski toward the parking area. I have a fleeting memory of the back of a Volkswagen van coming at me at warp speed, when I instinctively jerked myself to the side and crashed into a snowbank. I am lying there on my back, my skis aimed at the sky at awkward angles because I had kept them on as I was told. Then the instructor comes over, looks at me, says, “You @$*&^$@,” which makes me wonder if this grown man cursing at a child ever really passed his Ministry Safe training at his local United Methodist Church. 

What would you say was the condition of adolescent Frank’s soil that say in Colorado? Hardened? I don’t think so, because I did remember a couple of his points. Rocky? Probably. I remembered just enough to not die, but the thrill of the moment was all I ever experienced- never returned. I don’t think it was throny, because I wasn’t worried about others or worldly concerns. And it absolutely was not good, since I am a preacher today and not an Olympic skier.

The truth is: the parable is about all of us. All of us find ourselves as one kind of soil or another. The richness and the challenge of the parable is that in real Christian life and practice we move from one kind of soil to another. Sometimes the Gospel is real and meaningful to us. We find our place to live out our gifts in a loving community, growing into the people God needs us to be for a particular season. Sometimes we are just too busy to grow at all. We have learned enough, experienced enough, been through enough challenges, that faith becomes like walking to class for the 35th day in a row or getting stuck in traffic again, just like yesterday and last week. Sometimes we get into a rut and a habit forms that takes us away from what was once meaningful and even indispensable to us. Sometimes our health makes functioning at the same level impossible.

The good news is this: the faithful farmer is going to show up again, still sowing that seed and hoping for the best. And sometimes the best happens! A generous crop is produced, and the farmer not only has enough to feed their family, but can even bring the harvest to market- sometimes enough is produced that the hungry within the community are fed and everyone has what they need to live a full life for another season. The hope of the gospel is that when it is time for the farmer to return, the seed will find in the soil a ready companion for the work at hand.

In the late 1960s, our Conference took notice of growth coming to this corner of Dallas County, and made the decision to send one of my favorite people on this planet, the Rev Jack Gibson, to serve as the founding pastor of what would become Spring Valley United Methodist Church. In the seven decades since, this congregation has experienced every kind of soil, and much fruit has been produced. Everyone who has been here at Spring Valley longer than today has a story of faith to tell about that experience, and I hope to hear as many of those stories as I can over the coming months. 

I am also fully confident that what was birthed here before isn’t all that God has in mind for this faith community and this parish. The sower is still at work, and it is not our place to judge which soil is good or bad. It is our place to be ready for the abundant harvest God hopes for at the end of the parable. Ultimately, the parable is about our faith in the boundless promises of God. If we are fully rooted, nurtured in the waters of our baptism, vested in the needs of the community, available to follow wherever Christ leads us to go, then there is no reason to believe the God who has shown such faithfulness to the Spring Valley congregation has decided to sow seeds elsewhere.

In the early days of the Methodist movement, the classes met each week for the purpose of helping one another grow spiritually. They would begin each session with each participant addressing this question: “How is it with your soul?” They would then hold each other accountable during the coming week. Today I would ask: “How is it with your soil?” Are you hardened, shallow, thorny? Are you in a good place? How is it with your soil today versus a year ago? I am just coming off of renewal leave, so I feel like my soil is good today, but a year ago I was struggling with burnout following a building and capital campaign held during a global pandemic. A year ago, or in 2021, I don’t know how I would have described my soil. The good news, the challenging truth of discipleship, is that we move between types of soil. We are not stuck in one place. 

In fact, we are like skilled skiers, flying down the most challenging of courses with ease and grace, having listened to the instructions of our faithful teachers, not concerned about the thoughts of others when we fall- or worried about our wardrobe. We have ears to listen and hearts to love and resources to share and new growth to experience with those who have not yet been planted in the Spring Valley fertile soil. The faithful farmer awaits an abundant crop! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.