By Beth Newman
On a recent Sunday, the gospel lesson in our church was Matthew’s account of the parable of the sower and, more significantly, the different soils into which the seed is cast. A little reflection of the fate of the seeds has led me to the topic of tomatoes and the church.
“There’s only two things that money can’t buy,” sings songsmith and guitar-maker Guy Clark, “and that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.” I’ve always known this, at least on an intellectual level, but it has become intensely real since our move to Virginia.
For those of you who may not know it, tomatoes are something of an obsession in the eastern end of Hanover County, Va. There is active and energetic competition to produce the first ripe one each year, with appropriate publicity for the winner. The Tomato Festival hosted well over 40,000 visitors this year. There is even a proverbial expression of praise: “Sweeter than a Hanover tomato.”
Of course, I can’t give my word that everything claimed for the Hanover tomato is true, but there is one story about which I have direct, personal experience.
A few years ago, my husband took some tomato plants to some friends in Alabama (this was a local favorite, not available down there). Later that summer we visited the same friends, this time carrying the produce from our own garden. “I don’t get it,” our friend said. “It’s the same tomato, but yours tastes better than ours.” The only difference that we could think of was the dirt that they’d been grown in.
Returning to Matthew, remember that Jesus speaks of the importance of the soil into which the seed falls. It never ceases to amaze me when I hear some of my students, who are studying for the ministry, denigrate the church. The only thing more amazing is when pastors of churches do the same thing.
One typical comment, spoken, I fear, only half in jest, is: “Letting the church define your essence is the path to insanity.” My only response is that if the church doesn’t define your essence, what will? It might be the career one follows or the “lifestyle” one chooses to adopt. On a more crude level, it might be the nation of which one is a citizen or the color of one’s skin. In any case, this much is true: You are being formed and defined by forces much more powerful than you. I don’t mean exactly that biology is destiny, but the dirt you’re grown in will determine your essence whether you like it or not.
A seed will die sitting in the hot sun. So, also, humans need some sort of soil. The parable is about what kind of soil. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus relates the soil to the Word: “But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit…” (13: 23). This is not the static word an individual reads off a page but the living Word we both hear and digest.
Augustine said about corporate worship, specifically the Lord’s Supper: We do not so much digest it as this heavenly food digests us, giving us a share in resurrection life. The same can be said about the spoken Word. It nourishes and forms us to be Christ’s body, to participate in the life of Christ.
True, the church is far from perfect. Anyone who has spent time with any particular body of believers is well aware of this. The church is full of sinners. And yet the miracle of God’s grace is that the church is also the place we learn to name and confess our sins. It is where we learn to practice forgiveness. It is where we learn to receive and extend the grace of Christ to strangers, and even enemies.
“Being in Christ” means being in the church, the soil where God gives us together the grace to produce fruit for all peoples.