Proper 10 / Year A
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the Seeds is surely one of his best known stories. I like to think of the various soil conditions as not being reflective of different types of people – some being influenced by the evil one, others being unable to stand tall and stay true under pressure, and still others being so caught up by the cares of life they are unable to contribute much, while there are some whose receptivity marks their lives with fruitfulness and abundance. Rather than consigning each individual person to one of these four types, I recognize how each soil condition is a part of my own make-up. There are parts of me the evil one works on. There are parts of me that withers under duress. There are parts of me too preoccupied with “stuff” – both material and emotional. And there are parts of me that are faithful and productive. I suspect you can see the same in yourself.
Think about the farmland Jesus describes in his story. In terms of the categories of soil, fully 75% (three out of four) are bad. Only 25% is as it should be. But this is only in terms of categories. In terms of actual acreage, most likely 95% of the soil will receive the seed and produce a rich harvest. Only a small percentage will be lost to scavengers, rocks, and weeds. And if we are like the soil, this means most of us do much more good than harm. We give to life more than we take. We are marked more by faithfulness than by failure.
In Jesus’ story, he is the sower, we are the soil, and the seed is what he gives to us. It tells us each of us is full of potential. The question is what happens to the seeds scattered on you? How does it fall on you, turn into grain, and become a harvest? And who benefits from the harvest produced by your diligence? These questions are not easy to answer in normal times, but in these days the answers feel even more elusive than ever.
Today is what some of my colleagues are calling the 18th Sunday in Coronatide. We are isolated and many of us are alone. Most of our long established ways of contributing to the common good are not now possible. We sense we are less productive, less fruitful, and less aware of all God makes possible in and through us. We are more on edge, more confused, and more frustrated.
Yet somehow, God is still God and Jesus is still sowing seeds, and we still are farmable. Yes, these difficult times have beaten us down. Yes, we are not at our best. And yes, the weeds of our cares and concerns are taking root and spreading. But there is still much about us open to God’s gifts and much about us remains capable of producing something good, even in these times.
A recent survey learned 75% of employees feel overwhelmed and significantly less productive due to working from home and pandemic-related concerns. We are having a harder time focusing, distractions abound, and worrying about things beyond our control is draining our emotional energy. We have made bread and finished projects around the house and face-timed with family and friends all over the country. We have done everything we can think of to stay busy and distracted, yet things are not getting better and our patience is wearing as thin as our motivation. We just don’t feel like we are making progress and we are tired of feeling unproductive.
Peter Bregman’s father passed away recently. Upon reflection he began to notice the grief he is experiencing at a very personal level is not so different from what all of us are experiencing in this time of pandemic, economic collapse, and cries for sweeping change in our society. Bregman writes about his insight in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review:
I find myself a little lost. I’m scattered. Unfocused. Struggling to be productive. To move forward on anything in a meaningful way… I really don’t like feeling all this. It makes me anxious.
My instinctive drive to push past it kicks in. To plan a to-do list and schedule my way to productivity and achievement and forward progress.
That, I know how to do. It’s my comfort during uncertainty.
But I also have an opposing impulse, a quieter voice, one that feels deeper, more profound, and even scarier: Stay unproductive.
At least for a little while. Feel the sadness, the loss, the change. Sink into the discomfort of not moving forward, not getting things done. In a strange way, not progressing may be its own form of productivity. Something fruitful is happening, we’re just not controlling it.
In this moment, being unproductive seems important. I think it’s what I must feel — maybe what we must feel — to allow for growth. To allow ourselves to pause in the liminal space, to linger with a question that this moment begs us to ask:
How can I allow myself to be changed?
Not, how should I change. Or how must I change to keep up with a changing world. And certainly not, how can I not change and preserve the way things have always been…
Can you allow this change in your world — deeply personal and vastly global — to wash over you, shift your worldview, change you? Not with your discipline or drive, not from a self-directed, strategic, goal-oriented place, but from a place of openness and vulnerability. Not from willfulness but from willingness.
And in that pause and openness and vulnerability, can you listen — without defense — to the voices you hear and the nudges you feel? Can you find the emotional courage to follow your inklings, step by step, toward what, even just maybe, feels right?
I hear in this something of today’s parable. We are in a time unlike any other in our collective lives. We cannot produce nearly as much of what we used to create, if we can produce it at all. We just can’t. And this wears on us. It erodes our reserves and stresses our ability to be true to how we want to be judged by God, our fellows, and ourselves.
Since living with you in Suffolk I have observed something of the rhythms of the planting seasons. Corn is seeded starting in mid-spring, but not all at once. The planting season is spread out so a harvest will begin in June and extend into the fall. When autumn comes a different seed is sown – winter wheat. As its name suggests, it does well in a cooler season, a time not conducive to corn. Once winter wheat is harvested, seeding corn or some other crop begins again. And then there are those seasons when, at the farmer’s discretion, nothing is planted at all because the planter recognizes the need to allow the land to rest.
We all need emotional courage because being willing to be changed means we must accept and admit that we are not in control and we don’t know. Two things many of us spend our lives scrambling and acquiring and competing and succeeding and workaholic-ing to avoid admitting. It’s disorienting to let go. To realize — to admit — that our control is really only a sense of control.
All of this is to say the Sower is still sowing, but it is not the same seed as before. The season of Coronatide will not allow for it. So God, in divine wisdom, is sowing a different seed in our lives. And, for some of us, God is simply allowing us to be quiet for a time, allowing us to pause, to reflect, to discern, and to rejuvenate for a day to come.
What new seed do you sense God is scattering in the field of your life? What might this new and different harvest look like? How will it bless you while serving others? Where are you feeling attacked, under pressure, and emotionally disabled, the soil conditions Jesus describes in his story? What will you do to open up more of the soil that is you to be the person you long to be in these times?