Getting above the fray

There’s a Chinese proverb, one version of which goes like this: -If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk/ if you want to be happy for a year, get married/ if you want to be happy for a lifetime, plant a garden.

Today’s readings use images of gardening and growth to describe the joy that God takes in us humans. The images are in harmony with this summer season in general, and with this particular year when many are returning to their gardens, or starting new ones, seeking to connect with living things and find both beauty and nourishment.

Yet these images are also metaphors about how God nourishes us in Holy Scripture, and how that scripture, by its very nature, bears fruit.

One of the blessings of this time is the way God’s word occupies the centre stage in our worship. So I thought I would talk this morning mostly about our reading from St. Matthew and about what’s involved in receiving the word in a way that is fruitful.

I used to be in a faith-sharing group with Hans Kuhnigk, an immigrant from Germany. He and his wife had endured that country’s wartime and post-war scarcity, so, unsurprisingly, his suburban house, unlike the somewhat antiseptic homes of his neighbours, was surrounded by a thicket of gooseberry bushes and fruit trees in addition to the perennial flowers and the vegetables he planted every year. “The important thing,” he would say, “is not to fertilize the plants—you need to feed the soil.”

This is pretty much what Jesus is saying in the parable we just heard. The sower goes out with seeds—those miraculous little things that can do so much—and what happens to them next depends on where they land.

The disciples are mystified at first, and then Jesus explains that he is referring to how different people receive God’s word.

What makes it possible to receive God’s word in a way that allows it to take root, grow, and bear fruit?

For us, and other peoples of the Book, this might be the question as we face so much anxiety and such an uncertain future.

What’s our goal here? When Jesus explains the parable, he likens the seed that grows in good soil to the word that a person hears with understanding. Now, one way to think about this is to picture ourselves in endless Bible study. I’m not sure about that. Because Jesus also told us that unless we were like little children we wouldn’t enter the kingdom of heaven. And little children are not advanced theological thinkers or scholars with Greek and Hebrew.

Last week, Dean Bertrand pointed us to Jesus as the locus of rest and refreshment we need during this unsettling time. And we might remember that during his public ministry Jesus walked that talk… he was continually withdrawing for times of communion with God. That would certainly have needed discipline. As his ministry moved through Galilee and beyond, the crowds grew, didn’t they? The demands on him were non-stop. Yet he made it a priority to stop. That’s not selfishness. It’s a fundamental wisdom.
Just this morning, one of Richard Rohr’s daily meditations crossed my desk describing how a person who wishes to do good can keep their bearings during a time that might be more hellish than heavenly:

“True contemplation is really quite down to earth and practical. It does not require life in a monastery. It is, however, an utterly different way of receiving the moment, and therefore all of life.”

Notice that this is the first clue: being in the moment is essential. He adds,

“In order to have the capacity to move the world, we need some “social distancing” and detachment from the diversions and delusions of mass culture and our false self. Contemplation builds on the hard bottom of reality—as it is—without ideology, denial, the contemporary mood, or fantasy.”

In other words, we need to do what Jesus did and pull away from the fray. In holding this as a model, I think it’s important to say that we are not Jesus personified, and we are not all of us monastics. Yes, Jesus spent time in prayer with remarkable consistency. However, I think it’s important to expand our notion of what a prayer practice might look like for you or me. If we are potentially plots of good soil, we certainly come with different chemistries and personalities. What will feed one might throw another out of balance. Nor should we think of ourselves as “spiritual soil” without any earthly component. What we eat, how we sleep, how much we move, how we manage our time and our possessions, our friendships and our family connections, are all part of the depth we need to be in any way receptive to the living word of God. And sometimes those basics are what needs our first attention, as does recovering to health if we’re injured or sick. (cf Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).

Beyond those, ask yourself what nourishes your soul. Not all “spiritual practices” look terribly holy on the surface. The test is, can it lift you out above the fray, not so much out of time as by expanding the present moment (what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the “flow state”).

Yes, one person might keep an intentional meditation time daily out of doors, and another might say the Daily Office or read portions of a scripture or another uplifting book. Yet another might draw …or paint …or write …or build things, or knit, or sew. Or garden! And yes, scholarly work and indeed any work can be a devotional practice of great love and joy. Music. Yoga. Tai chi. You will know whether your practice nourishes your soul, just as you really do know whether what you eat is providing your body with what it needs. You do this by noticing the effect on you, over time.

And when you do find a practice that’s right for you, now, let yourself be faithful to it, and develop some momentum.

At best, you might come to a point of connection with God that confirms the wisdom of your practice.

Here’s an example. A friend of mine (who allowed me to share this story) received a confirmation while praying on exactly the passage we’re discussing today. We were in a small group learning Ignatian prayer, and the last step is to close the prayer giving thanks for the time you have spent with God’s word, and then address yourself to God (or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit) with whatever question or thought is on your heart.

When we met, my classmate reported that they had gotten nothing from this passage. Nada. But they were determined to follow all the steps. So when it was time to speak with God, all their frustration poured out. As they told it, at first they just sat there. How could they talk to God about nothing? But they imagined Jesus sitting on a chair next to them, and turning to him they said, out loud, “Jesus, this passage drives me crazy. I can’t begin to guess WHAT kind of soil I am. Whichever one I’m reading about at the time seems to be the one. I’m such a hypochondriac. I just HATE this teaching of yours.”

Then, they told us, it was quiet. Until, not in words they could hear with their ears, but in clear words that formed themselves inside (this is a real thing, it’s called a locution) my friend heard Jesus say, very gently, “There’s nothing wrong with your heart.”

Experiences like this need to be discerned over time. You judge them by their fruits. In this case, those words served as a touchstone for my friend through many difficulties. Even sharing this story years later gives me joy.

If we can take a lesson from it, it’s that God loves us to turn up exactly as we are. Call it being childlike, humble, honest, authentic. Real. “Just As I Am” is a well-known hymn for those of the mission persuasion—it’s really an altar call. Yet the call is not simply to the altar, but to offer ourselves to God, make ourselves available without worrying about perfection. And God will bless that intention. As Saint Paul writes in Romans, “If Christ Is in you, though the body is dead because of sin the spirit is life because of righteousness.”

Thanks be to God.

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Preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal.
Readings for this Sixth Sunday after Pentecost ( July 12, 2020): Isaiah 55:10-13; Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

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