It’s September and school is back in session.  From my office window here at Knox, I get to watch the kids arriving at preschool.  New Velcro shoes, tiny backpack with a water bottle and a snack.  Most of them are joyful and excited.  Some have that trembling lower lip.  And of course, there are the screamers—they mostly end up in the toddler room right below my office.  God bless our preschool teachers.
Years ago, I heard a wise pastor, at this time of year, praying in Sunday worship.  She prayed for students and teachers, and then she prayed for parents who are putting their children on the bus.  What an image, I thought.  Parents do everything they can to prepare children for the world that awaits them.  It’s a task that is never complete.  We want them to have the security and confidence to learn and explore.  And we want them to know that the world is risky, and so don’t talk to strangers.  Somewhere in between lies those many moments of learning to let go, from the first preschool dropoff to the day they move out, and beyond.  We release them into the world.  It is a journey of preparing a good foundation for growth, and praying that they will thrive.
The scripture for this morning is about the same thing—good foundations for growth—for little people and big people alike.  Like most of Jesus’ parables, this one is layered and complex in its meaning, but let’s review the basics:  A farmer goes out to sow seed.  Some fall on the path and are eaten by birds, some fall on rocky ground spring up fast, but are burned up by the lack of good roots, some take root among thorns and are choked by weeds, some land in dark, rich soil and will grow, thrive, and bear fruit.
On the surface it is a simple story.  A skilled farmer knows what to do to grow a good crop.  A farmer and blogger I read jokes that he is always being asked what he is growing, and while people want to hear about carrots and lettuces and tomatoes, the truth is that he’s growing soil.  “We’re composters, he says.  Cover croppers, mulchers, companion planters, because we understand that before we can grow anything, we have to grow good soil.” (The Tablespoon, by Ben Johnston-Krase)  Taking care of these foundations matters in farming.  So it is with our children.  Parents putting their children on the bus know how much effort goes into a successful journey.  School supplies and medical forms and new shoes.  Getting the schedule right.  Daily probing conversations in the car about homework and what happened in class and with friends.  All of it because there are questions that remain in the back of parents’ minds.  Are our seeds thriving?  What other care will be required tomorrow?
There’s another layer to Jesus’ parable—a harsher reality.  In the real world, some seeds don’t get the care they deserve.  It’s fairly inconsequential to forget to water the flowers.  But what about children whose parents have done no preparation to put them on the bus?  It is a reality some of us prefer not to think about.  In the first century, the parable Jesus tells is not about the quest for a good landscaping service but about survival itself.  Seeds poorly cared for translate to hunger and death.  The cruel real world meaning of this parable is that, for reasons that are unfair, there are seeds—children, and adults too—in this world, who have less of a chance to thrive than others—even though they began as perfectly good seeds.
Also troubling in this parable is the idea that even a good gardener can’t control everything.  Some seeds are planted in solid earth.  But a flood or a drought, or a season of perfect weather, suddenly interrupted by a hail storm can devastate an otherwise healthy garden.  Parents know this too, for there are many among us who have given the same great love and care to each child they’ve put on the bus, only to have a car accident or an addiction or a cancer diagnosis—or countless other threats irreversibly alter a life.  It is all so unfair.  You put them on the bus, and pray.
I must have heard this parable first as a child in Sunday School, I can’t remember not knowing it.  It has always seemed rather simple to me, but actually it is quite amazing.  In a few short lines, Jesus captures so much about good foundations for growth.  He teaches the importance of good soil—active care for the ground in our own lives and the lives of our loved ones.  He acknowledges the deep difficulty and injustice endured by people who do not have a good place to grow.  And he has shown us that no matter how hard we may try, there will be threats in life that are far beyond our control.  That is a well-told story.
So, now that I’ve done all I can to retraumatize the parents among us with my reminders of the gravity of your responsibility and your utter lack of control—let’s talk about hope, and see if we can encourage one another a bit today.
This story is so rich in its imagery and layers that Jesus follows up the parable by explaining it—that was the second part of today’s reading.  And what Jesus says is that this parable is about the Word of God—the wisdom that leads to a joyful life.  And to that end, it is not enough to read this as a metaphor for parenting, for its much bigger than that.  It is not just a story for parents or for children, but for every one of us—anyone seeking wisdom that leads to a happy and purposeful life.  Jesus says we all need a foundation, and if you haven’t thought about it in a while, perhaps you should attend to yours.
It won’t surprise me at all to know that some of you got up and came to church today not quite sure why you’re here.  Church seems like the right thing to do, but a lot of people don’t do it.  It takes a long time to make good soil, and sometimes the results are slow in coming or hard to see.  I’m not judging you, I understand.  I don’t show up each Sunday like some kind of spiritual giant.  Much of the time, I come to work just as insecure as other working people, hoping that my mistakes won’t be too visible and distracting.  I don’t want you to see too much of the soil in my life that has been rocky, or the weeds in my life that choke out the Word of God, or how completely ill-prepared my children would be for life if it were all left up to me.  On my better days, I remember that it’s not about me, but about the work we’ve come to do together and that I get to be a part of too.  We are here because we share something that matters:  good soil and strong foundations for the lives of real people.
Here are some brief reminders of how it happens.
Some of it is about children and parents.  We teach Bible stories here.  Children learn stories about character and goodness and justice; they are taught by adults who care about these things.  As our children become teens, our youth group adds to the good soil.  We don’t teach platitudes and religious moralisms to our youth.  We provide a safe place for them to struggle with the wisdom of the Bible, and with injustices, they find the world and to be active in making the world a better place.
We pay extra attention to places in our community where children need rich soil, where they may not have a well-resourced adult watching them get on the bus.  Just a week ago, we helped to hire the first full-time Program Director of Third Presbyterian Church in East Westwood.  His job will be to supervise and scale up the good work in that community to tutor and mentor children and to prevent violence and drug use among young adults.  There are good seeds in that community.  We want them to have a chance to grow.
It’s hard work creating good soil, and to keep ourselves from being overwhelmed by the burden, we play and sing together.  We’ll gather on the lawn today for games and share a meal and laugh with one another and welcome the gifts of friendship into our lives.  We’ll have a welcome tent on the corner so that our neighbors know we want them to be a part of us.  Our children will sing together.  We sing together in here because your week should begin each Sunday with something that is beautiful for beauty’s own sake.  You may not know it, but other songs are sung here, throughout the week. Every Wednesday afternoon, about 50 people gather in our Social Hall with loved ones experiencing Altzheimers’s or dementia; they have lost much of their memory, but songs still remain, so they sing together.  It is both beautiful and painful to behold.  Sometimes seeds that have had a lifetime of growth are suddenly struck by a storm.  We are here to help.
When I say “we” I mean the church, and that’s not a building or a budget, it’s all of us.  We are strong to do this work because of the gifts that God has given each one of us.  Sunday School teachers for our children, and musicians who lead us as we sing.  Tutors and mentors and visionaries who volunteer in mission.  Authentic, vulnerable people who listen and pray with friends to struggle.  And we are able to do it all not because we are so good or faithful or smart, but because we come together to ground ourselves in the Word of God.  We come to be swept up in a little story about a farmer 200 words long.  It contains within it the mysteries of being a parent, the injustices of poverty, and the limits of our control.  And in sharing these stories and leaning into the grace of God, we find courage, together, to begin another week in a world full of threats and hope and dreams.  This is the small miracle that happens at Knox Presbyterian Church.
Think you don’t have anything to contribute?  Nonsense.  You know what I think most people come to church seeking?  Kindness.  The simple hope that in this hard world, someone at a place called church might smile and say hello and welcome a friendship.  We want to grow together, and keep at bay as much as possible the weeds and thorns of our lives.  It starts by being kind.
That same farmer I mentioned notes that in one tablespoon of good soil, there are more living organisms than people on this planet.  An incredibly small ecosystem, but just teeming with life.  Here at Knox, on our small corner in Cincinnati, we’re not a huge place; we’re not curing cancer or ending the war in Ukraine.  But we have a powerful gift to share.  We are given the chance to start each week by engaging in kindnesses that can change the life of someone else.  Thank God for good soil and a place to grow.  Amen.