Thought I’d better just say a few words about compost!
It surprises me how little the church needs to do in fact to soften the soil.Just being nice can be enough. No, really. Friendliness, openness, humility. Being involved in the life of the community, remembering people’s names, acting as if the tragedies of other people mattered. Appreciating the demands on other people’s time. Getting on with each other. Doing what you’ve said you’ll do. Offering words of appreciation. Valuing someone’s contribution. Smiling. Yes, really. Serving in small ways. Sharing of yourself. Telling the truth. Laughing! …Nooo, not really?!! Responding to suggestions. Admitting mistakes. Facilitating good times together.
We don’t have to solve the problem of poverty in our community (although that would be ideal) or heal all the sick (wouldn’t that be great?). We just have to be approachable, trustworthy, warm individuals. And people will start to listen.
What happened before the sower went out to sow?
I could make pots out of the soil in my garden. It’s clay. There’s no other description for it – it just needs to be moulded and fired, and I could eat fish and chips off it. It’s useless as stuff to plant things in – you put a fork in the ground and the turned lumps of earth are like sticky irregular cricket balls that defy the laws of gravity and cling to the fork prongs rather than falling back in the hole where they belong. Breaking it down into particles small enough to cuddle a young plant is a labour of Hercules; you chop down the hunk of clay into smaller chunks and it immediately re-combines itself into a glutinous mass that would smother life sooner than nurture it.
Didn’t Jesus know about compost? I don’t know how many hundredweight it’ll take to make my soil plantworthy. Of course nothing grows in it. Nor does anything much grow in the builder’s rubble I call a vegetable patch next to the garage full of DIY and gardening kit. Before the sower went out to sow, surely he spent hours ploughing up the clumpy earth, sending his labourers to pick out all rocks and stones, pulling up the weeds that were likely to throttle the seedlings, and digging in manure? Why doesn’t Jesus tell us what happened before the sower went out to sow?!
It’s relevant because some of the people we live among are like my garden clay. It’s not that they don’t want to receive the seed, it’s just that they’re going to need a lot of preparation before it’s possible. Leading a baptism on Sunday, I think I heard someone stifle a snigger when I said getting to know Jesus was a good reason for exploring God’s kingdom. And I wondered: if I could download a schematic from their brain of what that name conjured up, what would it show? Possibly a string of swear words and a man in a long white dress?
Some people are unchurched to the third or fourth generation, and have no idea what Christianity is about at its heart. They’re going to need a lot of compost to break down the skewed scornful media messages that form people’s image of Jesus. Some people have been hurt by religious institutions in the past – an elderly man I recently met at a wake told me he was permanently scarred by the harsh discipline he received as a child at the hands of teachers at his church school. Healing these hurts with loving kindness is like removing sharp stones and scraps of broken concrete from the soil. And we need to pull up the weeds of mistrust: these are self-seeded from the widely-reported wrong-doing church individuals and institutions have committed in the past.
You can only do a little of this at a time – it’s back-breaking work that takes a lot of patience. So each church and each individual disciple needs to prepare the ground square by square in their own back yard: people trust their Christian friends and their local church when they don’t trust ‘religion’ because they’ve pinched and prodded us and seen what we’re made of. This is before we do any real planting.
Obviously Jesus knew about preparing the ground… he had John the Baptist to do soil-shifting on a grand scale what with lowering mountains and filling in valleys and suchlike. I think we need to identify the people groups of clay in our society, and start preparing the soil. No expectation yet of fruit. Seeds will bounce. Bring on those who will give their time to doggedly preparing the ground for planting.