A few weeks ago, my kids and I planted a bunch of seeds: squash, pumpkin, peas, carrots, some flowers, and a couple of things that I don’t even remember. We also, in a fit of over-zealous gardening, bought a tomato plant at Home Depot, some pepper plants, and buried a couple of wrinkled, growing potatoes in the yard. Ostensibly, I planted to teach my kids (and myself) how to water and nurture plants. More truthfully, I believe that I was depressed at the time and just wanted to see something, anything, grow, particularly in these strange and uncertain times. Have you ever felt that way? You are so desperate for change that you finally move yourself to make the change that you both desire and fear by doing something, however uncomfortable it may be. I also wanted to plant the prayer hearts that many of you completed as part of our Lenten exercise, back in February, pre-Covid. The prayers had been written on seed paper and I finally retrieved them from the church and planted the prayers to see what would come up.
Back to the vegetables: we now have a somewhat thriving container garden. Somewhat thriving because some of the vegetable seeds never took root. I think that some of them were drowned in some shallow containers that had inadequate drainage; some simply dried up, and some disappeared. The prayer seeds appear to be doing just fine, though no flowers just yet.
The fact that we have several plants that are actually growing is nothing short of a small miracle and our possible harvest will be beside the point if the plants survive the summer and our lack of consistent care. As Thoreau wrote: “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells the familiar parable of the farmer who generously scatters seed, seemingly without a thought as to where it might land. Some seed falls on rocks; some falls on weeds, and some seed falls in the path of birds and other predators. But some seed lands on good soil. When I was younger, I thought I knew where the good soil was and is and how to avoid the so-called “bad soil.” However, the older I get, the more I am likely to say that I have no idea what ground will prove fertile and what ground won’t. My experience has shown me that some soil that appears perfectly healthy, when it really isn’t. Some soil that is filled with rocks will actually support wonderful growth (like a stony wall with lichen) and that some birds are capable of carrying seed to better ground. I don’t know why this is—it is just an observation about our all-too-human capacity to judge prior to experience.
In any case, Jesus tells this parable—or rather, Matthew’s gospel relates this story with Jesus as the author. The disciples don’t really have a clue as to what Jesus means or intends, and so, we have an unusual moment where Jesus—in Matthew’s gospel– actually explains the parable to his dense disciples. Jesus asks them to listen, really listen, in a different way—not using just their ears, but the gift of their insight.
Here, I believe that Eugene Peterson—the writer of The Message—gets the essence of Jesus’parable. Jesus tells those disciples (in Peterson’s words):
“You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight.”
The idea that we need to be receptive to the good news and to God’s Word is a poignant reminder that the way in which we listen or receive the story we hear impacts what we hear. We might ask ourselves how receptive we are and what “being receptive” even means. To be receptive is to encounter ideas, stories, or wisdom that might challenge our assumptions or even our own cherished ideas or views of the world. To be receptive to God’s word means to trust that the ultimate message of these stories is that God has our best interests at heart and is worthy of our trust. To be receptive to the stories of the Bible is to ask questions, to voice our doubts even as we trust, and to let the stories do their work in us—paying attention to how the soil is turned ‘round and ‘round as we consider the story and its trajectory from different perspectives.
There are some who would be threatened by this kind of process. There are some who lack the patience to wrestle with God’s word and the stories of the Bible. There are some who want told a story that is one-size-container-fits-all. There are some who only want to know a definitive answer where X means this, and Y means that. There are those who are deeply uncomfortable with the kinds of questions and reflection that the stories of the Bible ask of our relationships, our history, our ideas of right and wrong, our lives, and above all, our relationship with the Divine. There are those who are uncomfortable that God’s Son shines on the seed indiscriminately and generously, without regard to our notions of which seed is superior or “deserving” of whatever soil in which it has landed.
Yet, there are others—maybe you—who will keep listening, even when it is hard and even when you fight your own familiarity with what is being said and how it is being said. You realize that just as the weather conditions of your life change, your understanding of Jesus’ parables can change. You remember that when we, as God’s people, are receptive, there is often good growth, spiritual and emotional.
Sometimes we humans forget that we–like plants—need some tending to thrive. We should not be embarrassed by this need, no more than my tomato plants need be embarrassed for their need of some kind of vine support, lest they fall on the ground to be eaten by bugs. Nor should we be shy about critiquing the writers of the Gospel—their possible motivations and faults—as we would another writer. Still, we might start the critique with ourselves first, seeking the place where the story challenges us or offers us a too-easy-comfort.
A heart that is ready to receive God’s word is a heart that has been cultivated and cared for, made pliable from a variety of experiences. In the bible, there is a curious phrase about “hardened hearts.” Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and in Ephesians we read, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” A heart that is ready to receive is a heart that knows what it means to be parched, to crave sunshine, to survive storms, and to bend with the wind. It understands what it means to be pruned and transplanted in unfamiliar soil.
Lastly, a ready heart knows gratitude and all of the amazing and life-giving connections that we share with others—both those of previous generations (our ancestors) as well as those who may be radically different from us. Soil, sun, root, water, bird, rock, and Gardener—they are all connected in the vast web of being that is life. No one is truly dis-connected, though we might act as if that were true to our demise. In our Contemporary Reading for today, “Seed,” Kathleen Driskell writes about a little girl discovering a juicy, delicious melon –her melon– with pride. “How proud you are,” the mother thinks to herself, “to think you grew this delicious thing all on your own.” Of course, the poem is itself a parable—the Mother of the parable considering with pride her own daughter, like the melon, and likewise considering her daughter’s growth as something not entirely due to her own isolated efforts.
Religion, when practiced honestly and with integrity, exposes our vulnerabilities and the narcissism to which we are prone. None of us grow on our own; none of us are so independent as to be responsible for ourselves only. We are a beholden people—beholden to each other and beholden to the Gardener who has sown us in eternity. Perhaps some do not like to be reminded of this in the current discussion around masks and their use, but we are connected and responsible to each other—we are our sister and brother’s keeper.
And now a story for you, as told by author Paul Wharton:
“A man was watching his 80-year-old neighbor plant a small peach tree. He inquired of him, ‘You don’t expect to eat peaches from that tree, do you?’
The old man rested on his spade. He said, ‘No, at my age I know I won’t. But all my life I have enjoyed peaches — never from a tree I planted myself. I’m just trying to pay the other fellows who planted the trees for me.’
Sisters and brothers, may you plant seeds for others. May you allow others to help tend and nurture your growth. And may you cultivate a ready and receptive heart that these stories may take root in you and bring forth the harvest that God intends.