Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
RCL - Proper 10 A - Sunday 13 July 2008
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
The Parable of the Sower
First off, and we’ll get it out of the way, your homework assignment: the next time you read a passage of Holy Scripture, especially a Gospel passage, take note of your first reaction to what is said. Before you have time to think about the “right” answer, before what you already know starts to clean up what you hear, read in such a way that you can catch the reflex that the tap of the passage brings out from your inner spiritual muscle.
I mention this activity because in my own sermon preparation while my head wants to go in one direction with the text, more and more some other angle or theme begins to gnaw at me and nag for attention. Sometimes I charge ahead and say what I want to say. Lately, however, I’ve experimented with saying to that other voice “O.K. Let’s see where this goes…” This inner struggle between my own ego and the Holy Spirit is the soil from which an edifying word to me, the community, and our guests can come.
My first unfiltered and unedited reading of the Parable of the Sower brought to light some of my own struggle and shadow. I said to myself “I’m good soil. The seed of God’s word, God’s self, has taken root and grown in me. After all, I’m a monk, right? Pretty good fruit. I’ve devoted my life to the service of the Church and to living and teaching the Gospel. Check plus for me! On to the next chapter!” After I had worked myself up into a pretty good lather of pride and self-satisfaction, this nagging voice shows up… “Oh, really? Is all of you good soil? All the time?” And then I’m brought back into reality and reminded, not in a condemning or judgmental way, but gently and persistently, that in fact the places in me God wants to seed are not all open and available all the time.
Also, while the Lord describes these grounds as different persons, perhaps what He was talking about were not separate individual persons but the selves that live in me, in each of us. We have been and are capable of choosing to be hard to God’s voice, shallow when consumed by our desires for gratification, and knocked off track when the cares of this world strangle the tender and vulnerable sprouting of virtue.
The symbols of the parable are rich and universal - seed, ground, soil, growth, plant, fruit, and harvest. In farming and gardening, cultivation is the key. For seed and soil to have a successful meeting, planning and preparation are in order beforehand and careful care during the growth process. Hazards and dangers are always present to prevent the fruit from coming to full ripeness. Too much or too little water, insects, and weeds can wreak havoc. If the soil is determined to be good for growing, it still must be given the best chance for producing the desired flower or fruit. An apt analogy for the spiritual life. Our good, real self is present but must be tilled and tended in order to breathe and flourish. The soil is the stuff that makes us us - the divine image that can become hard through selfishness, shallow through arrogance, and chocked through greed.
The image of soil has stood out for me in my reflection and led me to the word humility. The Latin for humility is humus, earth, and is, as we know, the central virtue proclaimed by St. Benedict in chapter 7 of the Rule. The association is important to the parable because humility for Benedict is the virtue that loosens the soil, breaks up the hard ground, clears the weeds and digs deep, preparing the seed to find a welcome home. Humility is essentially a grounded and real understanding and acceptance of ourselves and God. It is the acceptance of gratitude and service that flows from the truth that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, and that while we fall short in our call to love one another, Christ never ceases to love and forgive us. Humility is living from the unshakable truth of that rather than who we are, what we’ve accomplished, how we feel, or what spiritual experiences we have or have not had. When our hearts are hard and the seeds are choking and dying, it is not because we have lost our value to God, but buried our true selves, our deep soil, to the distraction and allure of easy shortcuts and instant gratifications. Humility is the key to finding it again and remembering what’s real and important. In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton says faith and humility are inseparable and: “humility alone can destroy the self-centeredness that makes joy impossible. If there were no humility in the world, everybody would long ago have committed suicide.” (p.181)
The Lord is inviting us to clear and till the ground so that as much of the seed as possible can fall on the best ground possible in us. Our spiritual lives are our willingness to be cleared and tilled so that God can dwell within our whole selves. This parable invites the question: Into what kind of soil does God’s voice fall in me and what am I called to do about that? What kinds of seeds am I allowing God to plant in me today that will grow into a crop at God’s bidding?
Humility reminds us that the seed and therefore the fruit, does not originate in us. In humility we become passive to a process taking place within us that we cannot define or control, allowing God to work rather than dictating to God what our lives will become. We give ourselves over to the work of God. The most difficult part of my spiritual growth is not the part that I can do myself, but the surrender to God of what only God can do in me. The work is to exclude self-consciousness and simply focus on God rather than myself.
Whenever we remember to thank God with our whole hearts, whenever we serve the needs of others with no regard for recognition or reciprocation, whenever we deeply desire for God to soften us and make in us a growing place, then we are tilling the soil and preparing it for the seeds of God’s word to take root and flourish into everlasting life.