One day during Christian Arts Camp we were talking with the children about seeds, particularly mustard seeds – as in, “if you have faith the size of amustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move.” So one of our activities was to go out on a “seed walk” – just around the perimeter of the Church. The children found all kinds of seeds from trees and flowers and bushes; some were tiny, some were fairly large and prickly. They collected their seeds in a paper cup and took the home at the end of the day.
The next morning we talked about trees – the kind of trees good fruit grows on (because “The Fruit of the Spirit” was the theme for the week), and we reflected on the fact that trees grow from seeds, like the seeds we had collected the day before. So we took a second walk – a “tree walk” – to investigate how many different kinds of trees we could find, and we found lots of them, including a wonderful tangle of raspberry bushes out between the garage and the trash bins. The raspberries had already set and were just beginning to ripen, so the children had a wonderful example of trees or plants that produce fruit, just as we were hoping to teach them about the Holy Spirit producing fruit in each of us: the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
This morning’s Gospel reading is all about seeds.
Jesus tells a story about a farm worker going out to sow crops – broadcasting seed by hand, scooping handfuls of seed from a bag or basket and then flinging them over a wide area while walking along across the field to be planted. And Jesus has lots of details in this story – and, as usual, it’s important to pay attention to the details he includes; they are usually there for a reason.
Some of the seeds in this parable fell on the path – hard-trodden, packed earth where the seeds were eaten by birds before they ever had a chance to take root. In spreading the seeds widely, some of them fell on rocky ground, and others fell among thorns.
Both sets of seeds started to grow, but the ones on rocky ground didn’t have enough soil to send roots down into, and so couldn’t survive the hot sun of the Middle Eastern growing season. And the seeds that fell among thorns also took root, but they had to compete with the bigger, more established, more vigorous plants – compete for sun and rain and nutrients in the soil; they also did not survive. And finally, there are the seeds which fell into good soil, took root, and grew and thrived and produced good fruit – all yielding different amounts, but all being fruitful in some way.
If the way that Jesus told this story, with the repetition of elements and the desired outcome appearing at the end, sounds a bit like the rhythm of a fairy tale or a folk story, it is because that is the pattern of story-telling in oral cultures; it’s the way to draw the audience in and help them understand the speaker’s point; it’s also the way we easily remember stories. But unlike many times that Jesus’ tells parables and leaves the meaning open-ended, in this Parable of the Sower, he gives the disciples an interpretation. We don’t overhear the conversation between Jesus and the disciples that led to the interpretation - that dialogue is in verses 10-17 which the lectionary leaves out; but it is clear that the interpretation is given to the disciples privately, perhaps for their own training and reflection. Jesus wants them to focus on being the good soil onto which the “word of the kingdom,” the Good News of the Gospel, the teachings and message of Jesus falls, and takes roots and flourishes and produces abundant good fruit. That is what Jesus wants for the disciples; that is what Jesus wants for us.
And here is where the details of the story become important: “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty….But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty." Jesus was not describing a modern, state-of-the-art crop where the yield could be predicted, and where the fruit would be uniform in size, weight, color and shape – like a hothouse tomato wrapped in cellophane. Instead, Jesus is saying that the fruit – the spiritual fruit of real, human lives that are connected organically to him – will vary; but the outcome will be abundant well beyond the initial investment of the seed.
So the question and the challenge for us is to understand how we can become the good soil that will receive the Gospel seeds with joy and gladness. How can we plow and enrich the soil of our lives, of our hearts and minds, so that the Holy Spirit can grow a good spiritual crop in us?
The first thing we might expect to say is individual prayer and Bible-reading, and those are both very important to Christian life and growth, but sometimes we need to do something else before that, or along with that, so we can really take in what God might be saying to us through our reading and praying. Getting rid of unnecessary distractions is very helpful to developing a healthy spiritual life. Of course there will always be things that pull and tug at us, real responsibilities that it would be wrong to turn away from; but there are for each one of us habits or patterns or activities that really just clog up our “God-channels” and we would do well to find a way to avoid them.
This past winter John and I gave up our cable TV subscription. Part of it was about the cost vs. the value we were receiving, but part of our decision was about the time waster the TV had become for us. It seemed all-too-easy to go from one movie to another on AMC or Turner Classic Movies, or to watch endless re-runs of “Law and Order”, “NCIS” or “House” back-to-back; given the right frame of mind I even sometimes managed to veg-out through several hours in a row of CNN, all the while telling myself what a waste of time it was.
So we let the cable go.
Sometimes we still watch movies on the DVD player; sometimes I even watch a little internet TV, but on the whole it has been a healthy and positive move for both of us, giving us the time and energy to focus on more important things – like our relationship, and like some projects that we have not been able to get to for a long time. I’m not suggesting that everyone should give up TV watching, but I am saying that each one of us has particular distractions that take our attention away from God, and become the thorns in Jesus’ parable, or perhaps the rocky soil that can’t sustain spiritual growth.
The whole purpose of being a Christian, of having a spiritual life, is to be more like God, to let Christ live within us, because that is where we find our deepest meaning, our greatest fulfillment; that is the way God designed us to be – in a relationship with him through which we are, over time, changed more and more into God’s likeness and image. But it’s hard for that to happen if we don’t give God much room to work in.
The more we can pay attention to the Holy Spirit as we go about our work and our errands and our family life and our friendships and our moments of quiet, the more porous to God our lives can be, the more we clear from the soil of our souls the weeds and thorns and rocks that inhabit them - the more we will know both the joy and the purposes of God.
As the poet Mary Oliver says in her poem “The Summer Day,”
“Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?” *
Jesus said: But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty." Amen.
*”The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems, 1992, Beacon Press, Boston, MA
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
July 10, 2011