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Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer: All We like Dirt

July 22, 2007

Matthew 13

Dr. Lewis Jones, one of those great treasures of not only Wofford College but also of the community of Spartanburg and the state of South Carolina, died this week. Dr. Jones knew the history of this region perhaps better than anyone I have ever known. He told me one time of three ways to get to Columbia from Spartanburg. He said, “By far, the worst way is I-26. Everybody wants to take that path, but two are so much better. One is to follow Highway 56 to Clinton, then take 76 to Newberry, Prosperity, and Chapin into Irmo. The third is to go drive through Union and Winnsboro. When you travel those back roads, you see so many sites that you miss if you are traveling the Interstate.”

Clare and I are both interested in history, so we occasionally take Dr. Jones’ teaching about traveling to heart. Our trip from the coast yesterday was one of those days. We came home without ever driving on an interstate by taking only those blue-line highways drawn on a map of South Carolina. It took us a little longer to get back to Spartanburg following that route, but traveling those blue-line highways allowed us to see sites we would have missed on the interstate: a work crew, patching a side road under the hot scorching sun in the town of Greeley; kids at Andrews, holding a carwash in front of their school to raise money for their Booster Club; and yard sales all along the way. We did not stop and attend a yard sale, but it is so interesting to see how people spend their Saturdays, exchanging junk with each other. Some of you do that quite well, I must say. We saw vegetable stands along the way, many stocked with wonderful homegrown tomatoes; laundry drying on clotheslines; cars and trucks for sale, including a 1950 Chevy south of Prosperity; a long freight train, traveling slowly down a track that paralleled our road in Newberry County; and fields and fields of soybeans, corn, cotton, and tobacco.

A man from the North traveling through the Peedee section of South Carolina stopped at a little mom-and-pop restaurant and ordered lunch. His meal included a side bowl of collards. He had never tried collards before, but after eating them, decided they tasted very good. He wanted to take some back home with him, so he asked his waitress where he could find this vegetable. She told him, “Many farmers grow them in the fields around here. If you see workers pulling big leaves off plants, just stop and ask if you can get a mess of collards. You have to word it, ‘I’d like to buy a mess of collards.’”

This fellow began his drive out of town and before long saw a man in a field, pulling big leaves off plants. When he stopped and asked the worker for a “mess of collards,” the man answered, “You’re not from around here, are you? This is not a crop of collards. It’s tobacco. I don’t think you want to eat this.”

Some of us have a problem with the agricultural parable presented in today’s message because we have lost contact with the land. Some of us do not even cut our own grass; we pay someone else to do that. Most people in this congregation are just a generation or two away from the farm or the cotton mill, or in my case the lumberyard. Actually, when we read an agricultural parable, we must get back in touch with our heritage. We must get back in touch with the land.

My father worked a large garden in the field behind our house when I was younger. He plowed the plot with a harrow cultivator and a Ford tractor, which he taught me to drive by the time I was twelve years old. Some of you have heard about some mishaps I had with that tractor. Watching my father garden taught me how important it is to turn that soil over, to break it up, to pulverize it, to get it into a fine texture so vegetables will grow.

Clare’s father, Mr. Jack as I refer to him, grew up on a red-clay farm in Saluda County, South Carolina. He said, “I grew up on a dirt farm in Saluda County.” I do not know what other kind of farm there is. Mr. Jack knew the importance of having good soil. He knew the importance of tilling, tilling, and tilling that soil with his Troy-Bilt tiller. When he retired, he and my mother-in-law, Miss Lib, moved to Lexington County, located just below the fall line. The soil there is a very different texture than it is in Saluda County. It has a lot of sand in it. Mr. Jack had a very large garden that he worked there, and Miss Lib enjoyed growing flowers in pots. Mr. Jack could never understand why she often bought bags of soil at a store for those plants. He had grown up with all the dirt he ever wanted to see and could not understand why some would load dirt in plastic bags and others would pay good money to buy it in bags.

One day when I was at his home in Lexington County, he was working with his tiller. As I walked to meet him in his garden, I saw that he was wearing his usual old hat and a long-sleeved shirt. Wiping the perspiration from his brow, he said, “Kirk, let me show you something.” He ran his hand into that soil and lifted up a handful, allowing it to sift through his fingers. He said, “This is some mighty fine dirt. Not many people appreciate the quality of dirt. This is some mighty fine dirt.” When was the last time you pushed your hands into dirt, lifted a handful, and let it sift through your fingers?

Jesus told a parable about some “mighty fine dirt.”

A son questioned his mother, “Mom, where did I come from?” He was probably asking about the “birds and the bees,” but she did not give a “birds and bees” answer. She went to the Bible and said, “The Bible says that we came from dust and we are going to dust.” Later that day, he returned to his mother and said, “Mama, there are an awful lot of people under my bed! I don’t know whether they’re coming or going!”

We find the concept of dirt in the Bible. In the very first pages of the Bible, we read that God took dirt and formed it into a ball of clay. Imagine the Great God of the Universe as a child in kindergarten, working with modeling clay, pulling, pushing, shaping, and forming it. Then imagine Him taking what He had made and breathing into it His life’s breath so that we became a living soul. We came from the soil, from the dirt.

Throughout the Bible, we read passages about how important God is as Creator in our lives, how He forms us and shapes us. The book of Psalms and the books of the Prophets include the image of a potter. For example, in Jeremiah 18, we learn that Jeremiah watched his neighbor throw a lump of clay on a wheel, which he spun by using pedals. This potter, with moist hands, shaped the clay into a vessel. If the vessel had a flaw, he would destroy it and repeat the process. Jeremiah uses this image to talk about how God shapes us. The Apostle Paul also incorporates that very image in II Corinthians 4:7, saying that we are like treasures in earthen vessels. We are like ordinary clay pots, but we contain a treasure. We are useful for God’s purpose.

Yesterday, Clare and I were driving back on South Carolina 261, also known as the Old Charleston Highway and the King’s Highway. A marvelous but unusual church, The Church of the Holy Cross, rests in a little town called Stateburg, located in Sumter County. Soon after the Revolution, the people in that area asked if they could have a “chapel of ease” built in their community. Traveling such a long way to St. Mark’s Anglican Church, located in Pinewood, South Carolina, was difficult. They wanted a chapel closer to their home, one easy to reach.

General Thomas Sumter, a Revolutionary War hero, donated a piece of land for the building of a little wooden structure in 1788. By 1850, the parish had grown. The members wanted to build a magnificent building, so they contacted Edward Jones, an architect in Charleston. He designed a beautiful Victorian-Gothic church known as a cruciform church, one built in the shape of a cross, as most Episcopal churches are. Dr. Anderson, a member of the church, was especially influential in making the decision to build the church, using a technique known as pise de terre, a French term meaning “rammed earth.” This technique required workers to build panels as molds, packing dirt between those panels. The outside of the building was finished, using a kind of cement made from pebbles. The whole church was constructed out of dirt, yet the walls were impervious to water. If you get a chance, you should go see it. The Church of the Holy Cross has withstood earthquakes and tornadoes that have damaged Charleston through the last 150 years. Though closed for repair now, it is remarkable that a church built out of dirt could be so durable and be so beautiful.

That church reminded me of Morningside. Morningside is built out of ordinary people. “All we like dirt…” We, too, are people that the parable calls “people like dirt.”

I learned in seminary never to interpret a parable using allegory, but the Bible itself interprets this particular parable, using that technique. Maybe this story is the grand exception.

Jesus, in the Parable of the Sower, mentions four kinds of soil. The first type is hard-packed dirt on the path. Jesus said that birds steal the seeds that fall on that soil before they have a chance to penetrate that packed soil and germinate. An allegorical interpretation is that the hard-packed soil represents people who are completely resistant to the Word of God, people so hard-hearted, so hardheaded, they will not allow the Word of God to penetrate their being.

The second type of soil is rocky or stony. Jesus is not referring to soil containing many rocks; instead, he is speaking of soil that covers a rock slab. The soil is very thin, maybe only an inch or two deep. Seeds that fall on that soil quickly germinate because thin soil is warmer than the surrounding deeper soil. Those seeds, however, cannot develop a mature, adequate root system. The roots simply have no place to go. The hot Palestinian sun caused plants without a good root system to wither and die. Allegorically speaking, Jesus is saying that some people seem to hold great promise when they first hear the Word of God. Initially so enthusiastic and energetic, they quickly lose their staying power. They are shallow, and the roots of faith cannot grow deep in their lives.

The third type is fertile soil that cannot support the seed. Seeds fall on that soil, germinate, and develop; but weeds also grow and choke the plants. Crabgrass will grow in the asphalt in my driveway. I probably have some growing there right now. Good wheat must have good soil that is rich, nourishing. The problem is that the fertile soil is contaminated. Jesus tells another parable about this very idea, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. An enemy sowed an inferior brand of wild wheat in a field that a farmer had already planted. The roots of the weed become entangled with the roots of the good wheat. That wheat mimicked real wheat, but it did not produce a good harvest. The teaching of that parable is that we have to let both grow. Only during harvest can we sort the two. This soil, while it is rich, provides little chance of producing good wheat because it contains contaminates that the nourishment from the crop. The expression “sowing wild oats” comes from that parable. Sometimes our life interferes with the growth of God’s Word in our hearts. Wild oats contaminate our life, cluttering it with busyness, anxiety, worry, and distractions, making us unable to focus.

The fourth type of soil is what Mr. Jack calls, “a mighty fine dirt,” soil that is fertile and void of rocks and stones. This soil is well cultivated, tilled so deeply that weeds are not present. Jesus makes a point that the sower really cherishes this soil, depending upon it to produce a good crop. We are to be this kind of soil.

Most sermons about this parable end here. I am not stopping. I want us to think about several other concepts that take us a little deeper.

First, remember that Jesus tells this parable in the hearing of his disciples. He is talking to them about their work of sowing seed. He is really telling them, “Not all of your work will be productive. Sometimes you are going to sow seed that will fall on hard hearts. People will ignore you. They will not react. It may appear as if you are getting a quick response, a desirable response; but it will actually be shallow, without depth. Sometimes, you may sow seeds that seem as though they will be productive. Those who receive this seed have an ungodly lifestyle so cluttered with cares and concerns that they will not be productive Christians. At other times, the sowing is indeed going to bear fruit.”

When Jesus tells this parable, he is being autobiographical, at least in some ways. Remember the times he preached when people within earshot did not really listen to what he said. Those who could have heard turned away and rejected the truth of the gospel he preached. He is telling his disciples then that at times, they will feel as if their work is not very fruitful. Jesus is reiterating this message to his disciples now. He is saying, “Do not be discouraged. You may go to Omaha or Poland and work very hard. Your hope is that the work you do will be fruitful, but it certainly might not be rewarding during your experience. God, not you, gives the increase. Your responsibility is to continue being faithful to the task rather than to fall into discouragement.”

Anybody who has ever worked with the soil knows that you must add amendments in order to give it a quality, a texture, that makes it far more nutrient-filled. That is especially true when we add organic matter.

When Clare and I lived in Louisville, Kentucky, I wanted to grow some strawberries in an area of our backyard that seemed perfect for a plot. I knew that I needed an amendment because the soil was red clay. Knowing something about red clay and having grown up in the red clay region, I bought some bags of cow manure. I tilled it into that soil – tilled it, tilled it, and tilled it – until I was satisfied the soil was right. If you think my father-in-law had trouble understanding buying dirt, he really had trouble understanding buying cow manure.

My plants grew very well, and I was so proud. Just about the time the strawberries were ripe, my mother and father came for a visit. I picked a bowl and placed them in front of my father. He asked, “What did you put on these strawberries?” When I answered, “Cow manure,” he asked, “Could I recommend cream and sugar?”

Good soil must be amended with organic matter. The word for that matter, humus, has the same root word as humility. In our lives, we must amend our spirit with humility. We must cultivate, cultivate, cultivate that humility within the substance of our spirit and soul. You might ask, “Isn’t it humility enough to think that we are dirt?” When soil becomes very productive, it is easy for us to think, “Look what I did.” Extend the allegory here. That soil can do nothing without the rain, without the sun, without the sower. Rain is a blessing of the Holy Spirit. The sun is the Son of God, the Light of the world. The sower is God Himself. Yes, the soil is necessary, but it is just one important component. The product that comes from the soil is not the soil’s doing.

The final point is that soil has great potential, power. Jesus said that the soil has the ability to produce thirty, sixty, even a hundred-fold. That is a lot of potential. If we are like dirt, “mighty fine dirt,” we must amend our spirit with humility. I do not know any other way for that to happen except through the life of prayer. We must be people of prayer. Prayer cultivates our spirit. Prayer turns us and stirs us up so that we become nutrient-rich. Prayer allows the Word of God to take root in our lives and become productive. The word used for a good crop is yield. What a word! That is exactly what good soil does. It yields, receiving from the Sower what He wants to implant in our hearts, yielding the increase He desires.

Have you committed your life to Christ? Are you receptive to what he wants to do in your heart? If you have never made that decision, we invite you to accept Christ Jesus as your Savior today. Some of you have other decisions to make, decisions perhaps regarding church membership. We invite you to respond to those decisions as we sing our hymn of commitment, “The Savior Is Waiting.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely


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