This week, congregations across the nation and world will read Jesus' parable of the sower, from Matthew 13. This sower of seed that Jesus describes, is flinging his seed around somewhat haphazardly, and some lands in such non-fertile places as a hard path, rocky soil, and weed infestations. Only some of the seed the sower flings, will fall on "good soil" where it will grow as it should, and then naturally produce more.
Pondering the state of the church, at my own congregation, the New England Synod, the ELCA as a whole, and even our ecumenical partners, my current working hypothesis is that we, on a general level, are not Good Soil. I say this, not as a criticism of who we are, and our decreasing everything, most everywhere. Rather, I come to this point as I pray about how we are trying to grow ourselves and in turn produce more.
First, this is not a criticism of where we are now at, in terms of the "church's" (pick your mainline congregation/synod/denomination) health. God has sown many seeds, they've grown and produced, these places have incubated the seed and while there is less of a proverbial harvest, (people actively involved in our faith communities is just one example) there still is a harvest. If we choose to look at the resources that we have left to us, there is still more than enough to be "Good Soil" that will incubate the seeds of God's grace that will certainly fall upon us, and for this I give thanks.
My biggest criticism of our past, is also where my concern for our present and future lies, and that is the fact that we continue to seek more and more produce, without ever letting our fields go fallow. As the Hebrew people were walking in the wilderness, God commanded them that every seventh year, they should let their fields go fallow, or unused. Furthermore, God commanded the people, who would be owners of those fields, that in that seventh year, they weren't even to gather-in what the fields naturally produced, but leave it for the poor, and even their domestic animals. God commanded this, because all of creation, even the soil, needed this rest then, and needs it now. Even though we just think of it as dirt, "Good Soil" can wear out and needs time off from producing to turn rotting waste into nutrients and to sustain its goodness.
An indicator for me of the reality of our own soil deterioration, is the biblical and theological illiteracy among our people. In my comings and goings, our most dedicated "church folks" aren't the ones who spend time learning and growing in faith. Instead, they are the ones who are dedicating themselves to continual deficit budgets, buildings that are in need of repair and mostly empty, and a lot of anxiety and ideas of how to make the field produce like it did in the past. (Which really wasn't as great as anyone remembers anyway!) Also, these folks are also a bit perturbed because they are getting less and less help and commitment in doing all of this work for the Lord. As our soil gets more and more worn, more and more rocks come to the surface, weeds sprout up, and before long everything looks pretty unmanageable. Finally, as even our efforts at maintenance begin to fail, we start questioning and blaming each other for the failure, and become divided in our fantasies about the miracle sower who will make us productive again.
(I would spend time talking about the folks dedicating themselves to the learning/growing part but in my working, non-official, and very generalized hypothesis, they would at this point be in the statistically insignificant category.)
In all this, we refuse to let the land go fallow, to have rest. To come together under the grace of God, and instead of throwing around blame for all that is wrong with us, or trying to formulate our own version of "Church Miracle-Gro" we actually take time to just hear, rest and talk about what God has done and is doing. Instead of talking about getting the message out about this or that style of worship, how about taking time to sit and talk about what it means that Jesus has died and been raised? Instead of putting up with the rocks and weeds that divide us, why don't we spend time talking with each other and letting God's grace remove them for us?
In addition to the joy and hope this type of rest renews in us, it also gives us a chance to talk about the "big things", like who is Jesus and why does he matter, so that we can be more unified in our life-together in him. In our lives together, especially in this "post-modern" age, we are less-likely to dictate to people what they should believe, but we do just as great a disservice to the health of our Body, to the fertility of our Soil, when we ignore them. The discernment over these things takes a lot of time, and safe space, and GRACE, but the Savior we can proclaim together is much stronger than the savior that exists in us, but not between us. In our race to produce, we've stopped talking about what kind of seed that it is being sown.
There are patches of Good Soil remaining in our midst, and in all of us, that can grow and produce. But if we don't take some time to rest and let God clear the field, those seeds will produce grain that will have no where to fall. And we need those seeds to have a place to fall, not for God's sake, but for the sake of our own purpose and life today. Because if we don't busy ourselves, in resting, in hearing the word of God, in uniting in the grace that has brought us together, freed us from sin, and remains our hope, then we are already dead, we can stop going through the motions, and just proclaim we are "Hard Path People", who have no room for the Sower's seed in our life together.
Thankfully, the Sower's seed keeps falling on the hard path, and if Jesus can destroy a temple, and rebuild it in three days, he can certainly deal with some crusty earth.