Sunday, July 10, 2011

Homily: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost [July 10, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrrok

When I worked at All Saints Pasadena in the 1990s I was fortunate to have shared some of my time there with a retired priest I admired very much, Larry Carter. Larry had been the longtime rector of St. John’s Church in downtown Los Angeles, and he was one of my heroes. His ministry at St. John’s had been an expansive peace and justice ministry. He was known to be a fearless advocate for minorities and the poor.

My image of Larry was of a fierce prophet. So imagine my surprise, once, in a Bible study when he said that the opening of today’s Gospel was his favorite passage in the New Testament: “Jesus got in a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.” [Matthew 13.2] Something about that picture of Jesus teaching from a boat while people listened from the shore touched Larry deeply, and because it touched him it touched me. We 21st century people read the Bible sometimes so fervently in search of big, deep truths that we don’t pause to savor the simple details. Here is Jesus, teaching the crowds by sitting peacefully in a boat that rocks and sways to the gentle movement of the water. You can almost hear the wavelets plashing against the boat as it bobs. Apart from the content of anything Jesus might have to say in his parables, the image itself of him in the boat teaches us something about what it means to live a centered life, grounded and at home in God’s creation. Hold that thought.

Today’s Gospel is the familiar parable of the sower. Whenever I hear this parable I see two images in my mind’s eye: with Larry Carter’s help I see Jesus teaching from the boat; with the aid of my memory of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, The Sower, I see a man striding through the fields, casting seed in every direction. You and I live so much in the modern urban mental world that we have to exercise some imagination to get what sowing and seeds meant to pre-modern people. A seed, after all, is a tiny mysterious miracle. In this compact package lies a hidden something that can not only produce life itself but can do so abundantly. We put these things in the ground and, amazingly, plants and trees and shrubs come up as if by magic. It’s not surprising that Jesus would use the seed as a symbol of God’s creative, mysterious abundance. Something big lies within something small, and the way it works is entirely hidden from our view. According to Jesus, God is like that: miraculous, abundant, mysterious.

Today’s Gospel is very familiar: a sower goes out to sow, and he scatters the seed in every direction. Some seeds fall on the path, and the birds eat them up. Other seeds fall on rocky ground, and they sprout quickly but then die because they have no root. Still other seeds fall among thorns, which grow up and choke them. Only some of the remaining seeds fall on good soil and produce grain, thirty, sixty, a hundred times what was planted. If you have ears to hear, listen!

Right after the parable itself Matthew gives us an explanation of the parable. Many biblical scholars think that the explanation comes from someone other than Jesus, and I tend to agree with them. There is nothing wrong with the explanation, which likens the types of soil to types of recipients of Jesus’s preaching. It’s OK as far as it goes, but there are two things that make me doubt its authenticity: first, Jesus elsewhere refuses to explain his parables. Like the sower in the story, he throws out these weird stories and asks his hearers to grapple with them where and as they are. Why would Jesus suddenly offer us a first century Cliffs Notes? Second, the explanation of the parable is frankly so flat-footed that it closes off a myriad of other meanings. And if I’ve learned one thing after years of hearing the parables of Jesus, it’s that these stories open up and reveal themselves in multiple, almost infinite, ways.

So let’s listen to the story and pretend, for a moment, that we’ve never heard the explanation. A sower goes out to sow, and he scatters the seed in every direction. Some seeds fall on the path, and the birds eat them up. Other seeds fall on rocky ground, and they sprout quickly but then die because they have no root. Still other seeds fall among thorns, which grow up and choke them. Only some of the remaining seeds fall on good soil and produce grain, thirty, sixty, a hundred times what was planted. If you have ears to hear, listen!

I spent a good part of my adult life studying and teaching American literature, especially the Transcendentalists: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. They too were alive to the power of the seed as an image not only of fertility and abundance but of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Emerson and Thoreau lived and wrote during the nineteenth century, the age of the rise of science, specifically the time of Charles Darwin. They were alert to the complexity of the processes of natural selection at work in the dispersion of seeds. But they lived in an America that was still mostly rural and agricultural. So they saw seeds scientifically, but that awareness did not stop their seeing seeds in a more nuanced way, as part of the farming life of planting, cultivating, and harvesting, and so as metaphors for life and its processes. Emerson said that the seed was “God manifest in the mind,” “of which the Beauty of the world is the flower and Goodness the fruit” [quoted in Thoreau, Faith in a Seed, “Introduction”, p. 16]. Toward the end of his life, Thoreau became preoccupied with the way plants propagate themselves, and he increasingly saw seeds and their dispersal as a powerful metaphor of life, death, and rebirth. As one critic puts it, for Thoreau “Every plant can be born again in every seed. Every day is a day of creation and at the same time a day of rebirth” {Robert D. Richardson, “Introduction”, Faith in a Seed, p.16]. At the end of the “The Dispersion of Seeds”, Thoreau exclaimed, “The very earth itself is a granary and a seminary, so that to some minds its surface is regarded as the cuticle of one great living creature” [Faith in a Seed, p. 151]. The little miraculous package that makes this holistic vision of life possible is, of course, the seed.

You don’t have to have lived before Darwin to see the way seeds work as miraculous. Even a modern scientific observer can have faith in a seed. Jesus knew what he was talking about when he made the seed and its dispersal the subject of today’s parable. Our whole life is bound up in reliance on the tiny packages of mystery. When Jesus talks about seeds, he is relying on the near awe with which his hearers would have regarded them. They tell us a truth about God and God’s processes. If you have ears to hear, listen!

So my question for everyone here this morning goes like this: what, right now, might this story mean for you? What might it mean for you to think of God as someone who is scattering seeds all over the place? What might it mean for you to think of yourself in relation to these seeds? Are you the path, the rocky ground, the thorns, or the good soil? Or might you be all of them at once? What do these seeds represent? How might we let the truth on offer in this story germinate and sprout within us, bringing forth fruit 30, 60, 100 fold?

I won’t, like Matthew, try to give you an authoritative interpretation. But I will tell you how I hear the story this morning. Instead of thinking of the types of soil as types of people, I hear the story asking me to think of the types of soil as aspects of myself, perhaps as periods in my life. There are times when I seem open to what God is up to in the world and ready to respond to and participate with God in God’s creative, redemptive, healing work in the world around me. Those are the good soil times. Then there are times when I am more closed to God’s promptings and resist seeing myself and others as God sees us. Those are the path, the rock, the thorn times. The point of this story has less to do with characterizing different kinds of Christians than it does simply with seeing ourselves as always involved in the process of life, death, and rebirth. There are times when I am alive and open. There are times when I am closed and as good as dead. That cyclical, rhythmic process of life, death, and rebirth goes on all through the course of our lives. And if I’m hearing this story right, that means that the Christian experience is more like a cycle or a process or a journey than it is like having a once-for-all born again moment. Some days I’m good soil. Some days I’m thorny rocky ground. I know myself to be born again almost daily, and that’s because I can be thorny rocky ground almost daily, too. But over time we move with God in the right direction. Over time those seeds do take root, and we become the people God created us to be.

The good news this morning is that God is like the sower as Jesus describes him in today’s parable. God goes out to sow, and God scatters the seed—the miraculous package of mysterious life—God scatters the seed indiscriminately, with almost reckless abundance. God does not select certain types of people who are privileged to “get it”. God does not select certain moments in your life when you are going to “get it”. God knows that you and I will get it for a while, then not get it, then get it again. God does what God does: God sows the seed indiscriminately, abundantly, generously. God is always coming toward us, opening up the possibility for us that God’s love and hope and blessing will take root and blossom and bring forth fruit in our lives.

And that takes me back to the thought I asked you to hold earlier on. The thought was about the opening picture of Jesus, sitting in a boat, teaching his disciples in parables, the image my friend Larry Carter thought the most beautiful picture in the New Testament. Jesus was at home in that boat because he was at home in the world. He lived a centered life, grounded and at home in God’s creation. You can live that life, too. Summer is the time when we have the possibility of slowing down, going to a different rhythm, a time when we can, if only for scattered moments, rest and relax and open ourselves just enough to let some of those divine seeds come into us and do their transforming work in us.

As you go about your life this summer, I invite you to picture Jesus teaching his disciples from the boat. And then I invite you to picture God sowing those seeds in your direction. If Jesus could relax, so can you. Let God’s loving, embracing, accepting purpose wash over you as waves lap against a boat. In so doing, you’ll find yourself becoming open to God’s promise and call to you in ways you maybe hadn’t before. If God’s purpose can take root in rocky ground, it can take root in you. The abundance of God’s blessings will germinate, sprout, blossom, and bear fruit in your life and in the life of the world. Amen.

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