Our Gospel reading is well suited for the summer, because we meet Jesus on a boat this morning. I’d like to follow that example, honestly! With a crowd gathering to hear him, Jesus boards a boat, and that boat quickly becomes a pulpit as he tells them a parable. It’s a parable about formation and flourishing, about a sower and seed, and it seems straightforward at the outset. It seems to look like a map of spiritual growth, outlining the success of seed in different soils, but that approach misses the mark. That would be a procedure, not a parable.
A parable aims to engage our attention and open us to a new way of seeing. A parable is not like a fable with a moral; it’s meant to make you question your assumptions through story. The Jesuit Fr. Anthony DeMello used to often tell this parable about enjoyment and awareness of our life with God. He said that there was a raft full of folks adrift off the coast of Brazil, and the people on board were dying of thirst. They knew that the ocean water was undrinkable. However, they did not know that there was a strong river nearby pumping fresh water far into the sea. There was water to drink right under them, but they had no idea. In the same way, Fr. De Mello says, “We’re surrounded with joy, with happiness, and with love of the kingdom of God in our midst. But most people have no idea.” See, a parable brings unfamiliar concepts like the kingdom of God into familiar settings, so that we connect with God in the concrete circumstances of our lives. When we take time with Jesus’ parables, we grasp that grace is a reality to be seen, touched and tasted.
I admit that I had no desire to touch this parable this week, because I was bored with my own thoughts about it. This parable is a popular one, and I’ve heard it turned over a number of times with interpretations, as I’m sure many of you have. Besides, it’s a parable about a sower and seed, and I’m not a gardener, nor do I have any wisdom in the field, if you’ll forgive the pun. I know that nature is amazing, and that agriculture was the common imagery of Jesus’ day and age, but I couldn’t hear its hope for us for this day. Then, I went outside for a walk, and I noticed the dirt and grass under my feet. I remembered that we are made of earth, like the soil in the parable, and I recalled another insight from the book of Genesis: We are given a glimpse of God’s vision of wholeness and blessing in a garden. God’s Word brings forth life, creation, community, yet until I was ready to receive the Word as grace, this parable was as hard as rock to me.
I believe that’s why we can struggle with parables sometimes, because we’re skilled to consume information efficiently, to condense meaning, but parables resist that type of reading. They require patience and putting down our guard to listen. Reverence is a prerequisite for hearing parables. The parables of Jesus call us to reflect and reimagine our world in light of the world to come, using our here and now experiences to tell us about what is eternal. Jesus announces the kingdom of God, and we enter into that presence through parables, through prayer, through participation in works of love that are larger than ourselves.
The Word transforms whomever and wherever there is willingness to receive. The Gospel has inspired countless people and plans to share the love of Jesus Christ, and it’s ongoing through our ministry today. The witness of the Word can be seen in the Christian legacy of hospitals, schools, charities of various kinds throughout history, and it is still seen whenever God’s love is made manifest. It’s being seen locally as we assist those affected during this pandemic with food and household supplies. It’s being felt as we keep connected as a community at a distance. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, enjoys telling about his father’s encounter with Christ in a community of faith. It happened during the 1940s. Bishop Curry’s father was preparing to be ordained as a Baptist preacher, but Curry’s mother was an Episcopalian. While they were dating, he went to a service with her, and he noticed that they were the only African Americans in the congregation. When it came time for communion, he watched his beloved receive the body and blood of Christ alongside everyone else. He later said that, “Any church in which black folk and white folk drink out of the same cup knows something about the gospel that I want to be a part of,” and that experience inspired him to become a priest in our tradition. However we honor the Word in our actions, the seed of the kingdom is sown, even if we don’t see its growth in our own time.
It can be discouraging not to see any signs of life in the seeds we’ve sown, when we think of the time invested and the difficulties endured, but our witness is not determined by our output. Our identity is ultimately rooted in Christ. Look at the sower in Jesus’ parable. There’s no anxiety or irritation in his activity. He’s flinging the seed all over the place, where some is falling on the path, among the rocky ground or thorns, and I don’t have to be a gardener to know that’s not the most efficient approach. In fact, seed was a costly commodity in the ancient world, and a sower like the one in our parable would be regarded as a fool. Yet, in a similar way, the cross is foolish to this world, and our Lord poured out his life for the sake of us all. There’s no soil, no soul, that’s been overlooked. While we face fears and frustrations in this world, we trust in One whose resurrection has reshaped reality and our vision of a good life.
Our God, like the sower, is patient and generous, and the parable begins to bear fruit when we slow down and savor that grace abides in us. Grace defies exact definition, but it’s the enlivening, enduring love of God that makes our lives meaningful and memorable. What are some of those seeds of grace sown in you, and is there anywhere that they seem absent? When we are grounded in gratitude for God’s graces, we can imagine that the harvest may be as plentiful as Jesus predicts in the parable. The kingdom of God will always grow where hearts and ears hope to listen with love. With this truth in mind, I offer you this poem in closing entitled “Patient Trust” by Fr. Teilhard de Chardin:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability— and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.