God’s Spiritual Agriculture

Everyone recalls the life science project in which a child takes an egg carton, a handful of beans, and some potting soil.  The child fills the cups in the carton with soil and then pushes a bean directly into the center of each cup of rich dirt.  Soil is carefully brushed over the top of each bean, and the child then selects the windowsill with the best direct sunlight on which to place the carton.  Daily, a bit of water is added to the experiment, until to the child’s wonder and surprise shiny green bean stalks rise from the cups, a windowsill lesson in the miracle of life.  Remember that project?  In a huge city like Houston, and, indeed, in our increasingly urbanized world, this may be the closest to sowing the soil that many children will ever get.  But even in miniature, the experiment teaches an important lesson about sowing: Everything is precious.  The soil, the sunlight, the water, and especially the seed…nothing can be taken for granted.  Each component, however small, is essential to the success of vitality, growth, and life.

Egg carton bean plants

When I lived in Virginia, I bird hunted in corn fields.  By far, the best field we hunted was one owned by a farmer who had a habit of taking to the bottle early in the day.  Consequently, he was a sloppy farmer.  Both when he sowed and cut his field he tended to leave as much grain scattered on gravel, inclines, and the surface as he did in furrowed rows.  That made for great hunting, but it didn’t make for much of a harvest.  The farmer had forgotten what every child knows, to take deliberate and tender care with the seed.

Such care is important even in the ridiculously rich and fertile farmland of the Mississippi River delta around which I grew up.  It is doubly so in more parched areas of the world, with thinner soil and less predictable rainfall, such as the ancient Palestine of Jesus’ day.  There, every seed matters, and careful coordination of seed, soil, sun, and water is necessary for a successful and sustaining crop.  With all this in mind let’s look again at the Gospel reading today: the Parable of the Sower.

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the footpath, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they just as quickly withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

For the villagers and subsistence farmers to whom Jesus first told this story, it was scandalous.  Do you see why this was so?  With precious seed—the very difference at harvest time between life and death— not to be wasted, the sower in the story is sloppy.  The image is of a farmer walking, or perhaps stumbling, through the field almost as though drunk, throwing seed hither and yon, taking no heed of where it falls.  And, the farmer reaps what he sows.  In every case but one, the seed fails to find purchase.

Were Jesus’ parable only a pithy story about a careless farmer, the people might shake their heads in amusement and call the man a fool.  But the sower in the story isn’t just any farmer.  He is God himself.  So, what do they—what do we—make of that?

Parable of the Sower

Before we can form an opinion of God in Jesus’ parable, it is worth considering again the second half of the Gospel reading, where Jesus reveals the identity of the soils in the parable’s metaphor.  If the seed God sows is the Gospel, then each of the soils, it turns out, is a different kind of hearer.  One hearer is the footpath, where feet trample the seed; another is rocky ground where the seed cannot take root; yet another is a briar patch, where thorns choke the new shoots.  And only the fourth is good soil, where the beanstalks grow.  Four different hearers; four different soils.  And the question begged for each hearer of the parable is, which kind of soil am I?

And yet, reality is more complicated than that.  I have read this parable a hundred times over the years, on different days, in different phases of life.  And like a tableaux that shifts with each reading, I discover that my identity in the story changes each time.

Once when I read the parable, my life is harried, and deadlines loom.  My prayer and study, I believe, steal precious time from the work before me.  And so, I goosestep through the parable, trampling its message underfoot, and I get up from my chair as quickly as I can to take care of the important things on my to-do list.

Another time I read the parable, it connects with me in a way that warms my heart and gives me joy.  I get enthusiastic for God and the wisdom of scripture and the ministry of this place, and I leap from my study renewed.  But then I check the news feed online.  And I remember the financial pressures that ministry faces.  And the drudgery of the day takes over.  The shallow root of the Gospel withers until I can’t remember why the parable first moved me so.

Another time, I study this parable as I am also working with a grieving family, or visiting a loved one in the hospital, or navigating a vicious argument with a cherished friend.  The parable tries to speak to me, but I am choking on the thorns of life, and I cannot hear it.

Do you see?  The different soils are not different people.  They are all me.  And they are all you, depending upon the season of our lives.  You see, despite what some more evangelical Christian traditions might contend, the life of faith is not a steady march toward attention to God and spiritual perfection.  Faith is rocky, and thorny, and sometimes shallow, and can often be trampled underfoot.  And the lived experience of our lack of attention, or our fickle and transient commitment, or of a world that seems to conspire against us, can be deflating.  In those moments we might ask in near despair, as God sows the Gospel in the world, why would God waste precious seed on us?

Sower quote

And that is the very reason Jesus tells this parable.  It turns out that God is not a careful farmer, and in the economy of God’s spiritual agriculture, the seed of grace, while surely precious, is not scarce.    You see, no matter what soil you are today, God sows grace upon you and within you.  You may be distracted (even from this sermon!) and wishing you were somewhere else.  Or maybe heart is moved, but you have the sinking feeling that your enthusiasm will wane by the time you get to Sunday brunch.  Or maybe there are anxieties or dependencies in your life that are consuming you and, even as you sit here, are choking you like thorns.  And yet, even now—even now—God sows grace.  Hither and yon, on the rocks and inclines and shallow ground in our lives, God sows grace.  In ways so small that, in the moment, we may not even notice, God sows grace.  That is the miracle of the parable.

In addition to miracle, Jesus’ parable ends in promise: As people of faith, no matter what soil you were yesterday, no matter what soil you find yourself to be today, God is slowly and meticulously preparing you and enriching you.  With love like sunlight, through the sacraments like nourishing water, and in the soil of this cathedral, God tends each of us like the farmer tends his plants, so that the day will be (maybe even this day) when God’s grace growing in you and in me will bear fruit one hundredfold, and when our very souls will bloom.  Let those who have ears hear!

Birth: A Reflection for Independence Day

Seventeen years ago on this very day, my wife was due to give birth.  We were in Jackson, Tennessee; it was blazing hot; and Jill was ready to burst.  We walked our neighborhood incessantly, hoping to entice and coax our firstborn child to make his entrance into the world.  He was having nothing of it.  Day after day, Jill and I walked.  Day after day, the baby obstinately stayed put.

Of course, our attention to this child had been attuned for a very long time, even longer than the nine months he had been forming in the womb.  For the previous five years of our marriage, Jill and I had talked about the child we hoped, one day, to have.  We had debated the values we would seek to instill in him.  We had negotiated how we would plan for his future.  We had dreamed of what impact he might make upon the world.

A full week after the due date, on July 7, the baby still offered no sign of his appearing, and our obstetrician decided to induce labor.  We entered the hospital early that morning, Jill was given a healthy dose of Pitocin, and we expected that soon we’d have a cooing, gurgling baby.  July 7 passed in discomfort but with no child.  Twenty-four hours turned into thirty-six before Jill’s body and the baby showed any inclination to give birth.  When things finally did start to happen, the baby became lodged in the birth canal, and there he stayed for what seemed like forever.  Finally, his heartrate fell precipitously, and with such speed that I didn’t realize what was happening, the doctor used forceps to retrieve our son and pull him, seemingly against his will, into the world.

The baby didn’t cry.  He was limp and lethargic.  Looks of concern spread across the faces in the room.  A special care nurse was summoned.  An oxygen bag was applied.  And I, a new and first time father, stood to the side paralyzed, wondering whether this event would end badly, whether the plans we’d made for nine months, whether the hopes we’d carried for five years, would leave us bereft.

Griffin first Halloween

My son on his first Halloween

It is impossible for me to celebrate my son’s birthday without dwelling upon, and sometimes losing myself within, the memory of his birth.  I daresay my gratitude to God is deepened because, for a moment, I teetered on the very edge of loss.  I also carry a potent sense of the precariousness of the project that is my son.  Each of his birthdays, like the day of his actual birth, is a moment filled with hope, and anticipation, and apprehension for what the coming year may bring.  All that preparation and planning that began five years before he entered the world is still operative.

My son’s birthday is the same week as Independence Day.  Sometimes the two events get muddied in my thinking.  I love them both, my son and the United States.  The coincidence of these auspicious dates also reminds me that Independence Day is a birthday, the anniversary observance of the entrance into the world of something uniquely new.

For years before our nation’s birth, there were those who debated the values this new thing would embody.  They planned for its arrival.  They imagined the impact it would have on the world.  What was born was not only, or even primarily, the legal entity of a nation, but rather an idea.  And though the Founders’ understanding of God was not, on the whole, orthodox, the idea gestated by them was commensurate with the Gospel.   The idea was that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is an idea about shared human dignity and worth, about the commonweal of which we are all a part, about being a city on a hill rather than a society in which any must crawl in the gutter.

Declaration of Independence

The birth was announced on July 4, 1776, but the announcement came at the beginning rather than the end of the birthing process, and labor turned out to be painful, lengthy, and precarious.  It began at Lexington and Concord, and it endured through Appomattox, two world wars, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, September 11, 2001.  In truth, it continues today.  There were times when the idea being birthed seemed stuck, when its heartbeat seemed to fade, when Americans felt paralyzed as events swirled around them, and in their fear didn’t know how to act or, worse yet, acted badly.

At such times, they might’ve given up on the idea.  We still might.  The laboring process faces us anew in every generation.  We might decide that the idea isn’t what’s valuable, that it doesn’t matter, that we can abandon labor leaving the idea half-birthed, and live as Americans anyway.

But we cannot, any more than I could have walked out of the labor and delivery room seventeen years ago.  My son was being born.  There was nothing in this world more valuable or precious.  All the planning, all the passion, all the love that brought us to that day hinged on the birth of that child.  Whatever happened next, life would never be the same.

And the same is true of the United States.  We are only American to the extent that our lives are dedicated wholly to the birth, health, and growth of a land marked by liberty for all.  It is the land we bequeath to our flesh and blood children.  It is the land that continues to be the iconic hope of the rest of the world.  If we ever walk away from birthing the idea of the United States, then it will be stillborn, and in spirit, at least, this great nation will cease to be.

When my son was in peril in the moments after his birth, our saving grace was the doctor, who all the while tended to Jill and offered us both confident words of encouragement and resolve.  In moments of our nation’s peril, sages and prophets have emerged who do the same.  In December 1862, a year and a half after the outbreak of the Civil War and three months after the Battle of Antietam, which is still the bloodiest day in American history, Abraham Lincoln addressed Congress.  He spoke to encourage the emancipation of Southern slaves, but his words are timeless, and they apply equally to any moment in our nation’s history when the laboring process is distressed, when we Americans allow our divisions to paralyze us.

At the end of his speech, Lincoln considered his generation’s legacy with both warning and hope.  Hear his words, but allow them to speak to us. “We cannot escape history,” Lincoln said, “We…will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the [United States]. The world will not forget that we say this. We…hold the power, and bear the responsibility…We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth…The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”[i]

lincoln_life_b

As I post this, my almost seventeen-year-old son is on his way home from Costa Rica with fifteen of his fellow parishioners, where they have served as the hands and feet of Christ for people in grave need.  All that planning, all that apprehension, all that hope…I am, this day, a proud father.  I love my son.

I also love the idea of the United States, for which so many before us have given their hearts, their hopes, and their lives.  With one another, and for those who look to us in hope across this globe, I pray that we will follow the way that is peaceful, generous, and just.  If we do, then God will, indeed, forever bless.

Happy birthday.

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[i] http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/congress.htm.