I don’t know why it is, but in the last couple of months, possibly after turning 65 in April, I’ve been remembering the way I was when I was a young man. I had lots of opinions then about lots of things, and I made lost of lists: my top five or ten books, records, movies, places I wanted to visit, things I wanted to do, successes I planned to make. I made lists with people too. One summer I was living in a dormitory at my University and I remember sitting with three or four male friends ranking and rating other friends, people we knew, according to various criteria I would prefer not to share, because they say so much about how narrow and shallow and egotistic and insecure I was as a young man.
There were other lists that I kept on my own: I remember opening my wallet and pulling out my driver’s license, credit card, student body card, library card, gymnasium pass, Social Security card. I don’t remember what else was in there, but I spread them all out on my desk and looked at them as though they contained secret of my identity, a summary of who I was, tickets for a prize I thought I needed to collect.
So see this kid quick to make judgments, issue summary statements, offer evaluations, sum up. But know under all these judgements this there were
as a tremendous insecurity such fears that I wouldn’t fit in, couldn’t make the grade. I wanted so badly to be someone, but I was scared I would be nobody.
Fast-forward some years later when I was at seminary and a professor gave a sermon in our chapel about the parable from the Gospel of St. Matthew that we just heard. He pointed out that, if we were God’s ground, we could not help ourselves. We could not, if we were shallow, deepen ourselves. We could not, if we were stony ground, clear ourselves. We could not, if we were caught with distractions, clarify ourselves. We had, as one confession used to say, no health in ourselves to save ourselves.
And by that time I knew enough about myself to know I was a pretty mixed bag, a field which varied from dry to deep, with diversions and distractions, not much discipline and not enough dedication: I wasn’t the best bet for a plentiful harvest, and if you were making a list of likely places for good growth to take place I wouldn’t have made the top 10 on anyone’s list.
But then I thought of those people gathered around Jesus when he told the story of the sower and the seed which fell on various kinds of ground for the first time. There may have been some who live too close to the highway, got too distracted too easily; others might have been hobbled by bad habits or lack of discipline, lacked the tenacity or vision to lead new beginnings rooted in their ground. Still others would have gotten caught on various thorny issues, lost focus, lost hope, given up too soon with all the distractions that modern life is full of, there were probably some people there who made too many lists. Yet the disciples of Jesus, gathered around the Lord that day at the crossroad heard that story and they still followed him into God knows where: and then and now that gives me such a surprise of joy.
Because those first disciples are such a rag tag bunch, concerned about the wrong things, showing reckless courage when they should just be patient, being fearful when they ought to be faithful, speaking out too soon on the wrong topics when they could have learned to listen to a new way. None of them are not great ground to seed a faith that will change the world
Yet this is to be the foundation of our family of faith. They are, as Paul puts it, God’s field, and what a mixed up ground it is! Yet that gives me tremendous hope and joy and courage; because if they can make it, then so can I. And so can every one of us!
For God plants his seed in our lives; in all the circumstances where we live and move and have our being, at school or at home or at tea, in every community: For these raw towns, ranches of isolation, dysfunctional families, desperate friends, are places where, to quote Auden, “we must learn to love one another or die,” and where we must let ourselves be loved as well. That’s where the answer comes, because the seed is the love of God, and that can make miracles happen everywhere.
St. Paul says, to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. Only a young person or a very silly disciple would think that they could make a list of how the world worked and what in the main mattered. That’s so deadly, but so many of us do try to make a success of it, to get the winning ticket, the right prizes, to be anything but what we are. And God comes to love us as we are, to cast his seed amongst our barren busy fields that we may give good growth, and God does not work alone.
So we come here to be together with God, to look for life and peace and growth.
For the spirit breathes us together like love, inspires us to work for the common good, makes us see new beginnings and learn new options beyond our old and desperate ways. That’s what it means to be church! Go back to those earlier disciples and see how they’re changed: Christ forges them together to the community who can learn from God and one another, who can serve God and one another. It is the same with us.
Through good grace and God’s love, we come to see that we are not alone, in our many misunderstanding, and our little lost lists, in the juvenile judgments and those strange finalities which we follow to make us safe from others who might scare us, those sad compulsions to keep us separate from the people who could save us, who can redeem us from such isolation, connect us to community. But we are past that here. We are here to be the church, God’s great harvest, God’s good friends.
For what blooms from those many seeds, cast with such love by our Creator God, given out to people in every field of life, to the lame and the lost, the lonely and the loud, those guilty of depravity or distraction or deception, is nothing less than love, and that can open the soil, can change the world, can give us hope. The seed of God’s love can land in the center of each of our lives and gives us both growth and grace as we grow together, travel together, turn to the Son together, move to the light together. For in coming to be Christ’s Church we have found a common font of purpose that will let our very ground be renewed by God’s grace.
So in looking back to that shallow little boy all those years ago, I feel a little bit of embarrassment and a surprising lot of joy. I thank God for friends and favors I found along the way: companions and comrades who helped me clear my fields, weed my distractions, deepened my compassion and grow my understanding to help me find my way home.
It was those people, God’s friends and messengers, both then and now, both inside and outside the church, who help me to come to know the body of Christ, of which by grace, we are members. Those angels of good news open my eyes, my mind, my heart, the ground of my being, to God’s grace. And all of them together with God help me clear land, fertilize fields, deepen capacity and understanding, make me show up for the gift of a good harvest.
It is the same for all of us. For God still casts his seed wide all over the world, every day in every way, in all our soiled history and hope, to make strong green growth where Christ’s compassion and love blooms brightly: for that is what it means to be the church, to be his body, the church, a loving community renewed by faith where common ground lifts Christ’s life, rising into new beginning, to a world where the harvest will be gathered with wonderful grace and great joy. And this is our hope, for we are the body of Christ.