Matthew 13:1-9, 18-24
I have always held a special place in my heart for the Parable of the Sower, probably because my earliest childhood memories include vague images of tripping through our community garden in my toddler's shoes and "helping" two old men – "Doc" and Mr. Bliel – who seemed to be as rooted in the central Ohio soil as the Buckeye trees in the fields behind our house. It was the sixties then and Americans seemed more enamored of the fast and convenient meals that could be procured at the local Burger Boy than they were of growing and canning their own food, but thankfully providence allowed that I be placed in the hands of a couple of beer-drinking retired sailors who all but lived for the smell of the soil and the first sight of a tomato blossom. And all of this just right outside their kitchen window.
So when I hear the Parable of the Sower, I am taken back over forty years to a place that was my own, and was made more completely my own by the people who shared it with me. In my small town, I was fortunate enough to be one of the final witnesses of a way of life that was quickly passing into the obscure pages of local history. As the tentacles of Columbus began to stretch their way into the outlying rural areas, I saw old men who had spent a lifetime tilling the soil and living off the land hang up their hats, sell their small five-acre truck farms, and turn their attentions to smaller, more manageable garden plots that could feed them well for a season. And it was in these plots that I would bother them, picking green tomatoes in June and being burned by the carburetors of their roto-tillers. It's a wonder they didn't just chase me away, but for some reason they didn't, and I have been grateful for this gift ever since. It was from these old-timers that I first learned to listen and to take note of the world around me.
In light of this week's text, I cannot help but think of Doc and Mr. Bliel, and to imagine that the planter of seeds in Jesus' story was as tuned in to the soil as these two were. I am also aware that none of these men – whether in Gahanna, Ohio, or in first-century Palestine – would simply wake up one morning, grab a bag of wheat berries, and stomp off to find any old field that would serve their agricultural purposes. Jesus, in fact, introduces his parable about half-way into the entire process, for any gardener knows that before seed can be sown, the soil has to be adequately prepared. The earth has to be tilled. Rocks and other debris must be removed. In some cases, manure or compost must be added. Finally, the planter must know when the conditions are optimum for sowing. If it's too dry, the seeds will not germinate; too wet (hardly a problem in Palestine, but a scourge recently in the Midwest), they will simply rot in the ground.
In explaining his parable (Matt. 13:18-24 – which most commentators recognize as a later edition to the original telling), Jesus makes it clear that the seeds sown, representative of the good news, will meet one of four possible outcomes, each symbolic of a spiritual state as common today as it was two thousand years ago. Some hearers, like the well-trodden path, harden their hearts to the gospel, thus exposing its life and energy to hungry scavengers who are ready to use it for their own purposes. Others utilize the Word as a quick-fix for their psychological woes, seeing it only as the latest in a long line of soul drugs. When the euphoric feelings fade, they are quick to move on to something else. Another group succumbs to what I like to call "the Joel Osteen-ization of the gospel," allowing the pursuit of wealth and material goods to compromise the truth of what they hear so that their own avaricious ends can be served. Nothing ruins the health of a garden more effectively than noxious weeds; the same can be said for our spiritual lives.
A fourth group, however, is ready to welcome the seed and nourish it in the depths of their souls, eventually producing a harvest of thirty, or sixty, or a hundredfold (Matt. 13:8). These are the hearts that are prepared to receive the Word and allow it to nourish every aspect of their lives, from the inner workings of their spirit to the very movements of their bodies. Naturally, this would have been the soil that the sower had spent his time cultivating, and it is in this discipline – tilling and keeping – that we can find a source of inspiration for our own spiritual lives. How, for example, might preparing soil for planting be likened to the cultivation of our souls for the reception of the gospel? Conversely, how is it that the neglect of our "soil" – allowing the world to trample over us, for example, until we become some lifeless thoroughfare where nothing can take root – can serve as a metaphor for the abandonment of our spiritual well-being? Jesus certainly chose his allusions carefully, knowing full well that "those who had ears to hear" would take away much more from his parable than they bargained for.
Though I could speak with some authority on the barrenness of the garden path, I would prefer here to reflect on the importance of "preparing a PLACE," the latter being my own acronym for five important aspects of the spiritual journey that must be held in balance so that the seeds of the gospel can bear fruit, perhaps even a hundredfold. Granted, I am less of an authority on what it means to live a spiritually-centered existence, but I have certainly seen intimations of it in many of the authors I have read, and in many of the people I have known in my life, including the beer-drinking sailors of my childhood, Doc and Mr. Bliel.
About five years ago I decided to make a concerted effort to explore the spiritual disciplines associated with Saint Benedict by becoming an oblate of the Order. Since that time I have tried to prepare a place for the reception of the Sower's seed in a variety of ways, but five practices have stood out for me, both for their importance in the Rule of Benedict, and for the way that they have nourished me spiritually. There have been times when my observance has been less focused than others – times, in other words, when I have been threatened by weeds and scavengers and hardness of heart – but for the most part I have returned to these five basic "tilling and keeping" principles for preparing a PLACE where the gospel can take root.
My Protestant upbringing left little room for the kind of prayer I am talking about here. When I was in high school I learned a tidy little formula for the way we should approach God on bended knee. It went by the acronym ACTS: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication. In other words, 1) let God know how great God is, 2) confess how bad you have been, 3) thank God for God's steadfast love and forgiveness, then 4) hit him up for some goodies. Not a bad approach I guess, but it can too easily become rote and meaningless. It was only later in life that I learned about prayer as contemplation – not talking to God as much as simply "opening the ear of your heart," as Benedict says in the first chapter of the Rule. I'm so grateful for the times that I can be silent in my life, listening for the movement of the spirit, clearing away the clutter of the day and very literally preparing a place for her presence.
Love through Service
Ora et labora, "prayer and work," is the Benedictine motto. Silence is golden, as the saying goes, but our labor is how we can make God's presence known most perfectly in the world. And lest the monastic brothers and sisters come to regard their daily physical exertions as mere ends in themselves, Benedict offers a helpful guiding principle: "All… are to be welcomed as Christ" (RB 53). That is, as Jesus expressed God's love explicitly through his ministry to others, even unto the point of death on a cross, so must we be ever mindful of the objective of our labors: to make the love of God apparent to those in our midst. It is by their very presence that Christ walks among us.
It is very easy these days to assume that spirituality is something that pertains only to individuals, something to be experienced rather than practiced, enjoyed rather than applied, guarded rather than shared. How else can we explain the prevalence of the commonly heard quip, "I'm spiritual, but not religious"? Recently I heard a lecture by Anselm Gruen, OSB, in which he suggested that many people he meets are drawn to spirituality because they see it as something that will make them "more interesting." This is a misguided assumption. The true mark of the life of the spirit, he went on to say, is the way that we are emboldened to look beyond ourselves and meet the other face to face. More specifically, it means taking what we encounter in our contemplative lives and making it applicable to the world "out there." In order for this to be effective, we must be acutely aware of what is happening around us in our local, national, and global communities. In this way, Gruen was echoing the words of the great Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, who said that a Christian must begin each morning with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.
While we live in a world whose contours are becoming unimaginably broader with each passing day, our prayer and work must still be practiced in the context of a particular community. This does not mean, however, that all other groups and concerns should be excluded, but to be effective, as well as personally fulfilling, we must work with our own spiritual "economy of scale." Jesus was able to change the world radically with only a handful of disciples, and not very capable ones at that. This means that we should regard our local church as a kind of base ecclesial community – a congregation of men, women and children who know us best, who join us in both our joys and our sorrows, and who hold us accountable in all things. But we must not stop here. Given our recent environmental embarrassments – from our appalling addictions to oil to our disgraceful insistence on conspicuous consumption – it behooves us to broaden our scope to include in this definition the biological communities, the bioregions, of which we are an integral part. Who we are is, to some extent, determined by where we are, so it makes sense that we should include as members of our moral community the nonhuman others who share our life-world. As Christians, we have an obligation to the well-being of these creatures.
This is rich: Dan Deffenbaugh talking about the importance of exercise. Yes, I agree, this is certainly a "physician, heal thyself" situation for me, but we all have our weaknesses. I do know, however, that the care of a person's soul is usually reflected in the way that she cares for her body. It is ironic that Christianity, with all its metaphors and allusions to the body – whether as an indication of the inner workings of the church, or as an affirmation of the resurrection – has done little over the centuries to develop a spiritual discipline that emphasizes the importance of corporeal health. Recent hybridizations like "Christian yoga" or "Christian Tai Ch'i" only accentuate the absence of these practices in our faith tradition, not to mention the present desire on the part of the faithful to integrate spiritual and bodily health. It stands to reason that if we are called to care for and respect God's creation – as many theologians, including myself, have argued over the last several decades – then the most responsible and accessible place to begin is with our own flesh and blood. Put another way: If we expect prayer to enliven our bodies, then it is only fair to ask that exercise as a spiritual discipline enliven our prayer.
And so we are back to where we started. As the doctrine of continuous creation (creatio continua) suggests, the Sower is still planting seeds, and many of these are still landing in the same time-worn places: the hardened path, the stony ground, the weed-infested earth. Thankfully, some are still able to find the right soil. It is our good fortune that this same Sower also provides the nourishment that will help these seeds to grow; as the Psalmist says, "You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it" (65:9a). But the work does not lie solely with the Creator, for what is cast must ultimately find its own rich, dark earth. And as any gardener knows, seeds can grow well only when a commitment has been made to listening, and laboring, and tilling, and weeding, and weeding, and weeding. In short, seeds can bear abundant fruit only when a commitment has been made to preparing a proper place.