Monday, July 14, 2008

Seeding the Space We Inhabit

Scriptures for this Sunday include Isaiah 55:10-13, Romans 8:1-11, and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

More than 50 years ago, archeologists examined Masada, the fortress palace built by one of the Herods in the century before the birth of Christ, set dramatically on a twenty-acre mesa 800 feet above the surrounding plain, a nearly impregnable stronghold overlooking the Dead Sea. When the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem around the year 70 in the common era, they laid waste to Masada as well.

Among the surprises found in the early 1960s was a little batch of ancient seeds discovered beneath the rubble at the Northern Palace approach. Radiocarbon testing confirmed the age of these seeds. For four decades they were stored at room temperature, and in 2005 they were identified as dates, palm dates. Nicely enough, their Latin name is Phoenix dactylifera, and while I haven’t a clue what that second word means, these seeds certainly did rise from the ashes like the legendary phoenix known to all Harry Potter fans.

After preparation in a quarantined site, three seeds were planted. One germinated. Now, 26 months later, it shows normal development and has reached a height of 121 cm.

And I can’t get grass to grow in that one spot in my back yard…

In the first century of the common era, the Judean Dead Sea region was famous for its high-quality dates. Over the next two thousand years, those cultivars disappeared and had to be replaced by cultivars from Morocco, Egypt, and Iraq. Genetic analysis of Phoenix the fearless date shows similarity with those best dates from Iraq and Egypt.

How did Phoenix survive? Scientists say that high summer temperatures and low rainfall at Masada minimized the generating of free radicals, an important cause of aging in seeds—and in humans.

What little I understand about radicals, though, tells me that without them Jesus would have had no parable to tell. It’s the power of reactivity that radicals play their part in, and every seed planter knows that what we want out of seeds, what we admire in them, is that they do react. Jesus’s story of the sower is built on his having observed how seeds (and seedlings) react in different settings.

But at the heart of his story—I guess you could call it the kernel—is the message of the kingdom of God. When he explains the parable, he says that the seed is the word of the kingdom. God is planting this kingdom in every person who is ready to welcome it.

If you had been among those hearing this story in the first century, back when Phoenix the seed was still sealed in the pit of a date, you’d understand “the kingdom” to mean God’s reordering of all that was wrong and broken in the oppressive violent unjust world controlled by vain emperors and occupying armies, God’s kingdom of justice and peace foreseen by great prophets like Isaiah who saw in the future a servant who would accomplish the purpose of God and usher in that age of God’s rule. Sometimes, Isaiah and other prophets spoke of this kingdom as a restored garden, as it was in the beginning in Eden before man and woman stopped listening to their Maker. Jesus’s sower scatters seed so it will bear fruit in a great garden that yields to God such abundance that no one could go hungry ever again.

But now the seed falls in four kinds of places: on the path, on rocky ground, among thorns, and on good soil. In three of those settings, it germinates. Quickly. People react to this news that God is at work so near to them, closer than breath itself, yet hidden within their own experience so they have to discover how to work with God and not against God.

Can you hear how this story was a best seller in the early Church? It summed up the actual experience of apostles and evangelists who spread the news that in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, who had walked their streets and touched their lives, God had released into this sad old world a whole new order of being, a realm of right relationship with God and with neighbor and with self, had set loose like a dove from the ark the Holy Spirit to nest in each person, hatching gifts of the Spirit and stirring-up powers of the Spirit.

Apostles and evangelists knew the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise: they went out into the world in joy and were led back into their fellowship in peace. They were agents of God renewing the earth and God kept renewing them around the Lord’s table in the community of faith—but they couldn’t persuade everyone, couldn’t introduce everyone to the sacred space of their fellowship, and couldn’t help all their hearers recognize themselves as children of the Most High. For every one who learned to walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh, how many were there who listened and seemed interested, even eager, but never came through—never passed over from flesh-walking, to walk by the Spirit?

In this story today, it isn’t just Jesus telling a story: he’s telling their story, the apostles’ story, and, if we have ears to hear, we’ll catch him telling our story. And it’s all about how we receive God.

Sometimes we receive a word from God on the path, on the hoof. We hear it, we even feel it make an appeal to the heart, but we don’t stop long enough to invest the time it takes to understand, to connect that appeal to our own longing. We move fast, we’re distracted easily, and soon enough, poof, it’s gone and we’re on to the next thing.

Sometimes we’re on rocky ground when God chooses to come by. It may not dawn on us that that’s why God’s choosing to appear, let’s say in the honest interest of a friend who really wants to know how we are. We’ll gladly, joyfully, take that love and feel it a while, but we won’t let it get at the root of our restlessness because there are all those rocks to move around, aren’t there?

Sometimes our space is weedy with brambles and other invasive species that fill every square inch and occupy every moment. We’ll hear a word of grace in a space like this and give it an inch or two, a moment or two, but then what Eugene Peterson calls “weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun strangle what was heard, and nothing comes of it.”

Do you think this story needs much adjustment or translation, from first century to twenty-first century? I don’t think so. Jesus speaks about human nature, what the Word of God is up against that is within our realm, within our reach to work on. What’s wrong and broken in the world is certainly on God’s agenda. What’s wrong and broken in us is every bit as much God’s gracious concern, and aren’t we fortunate that this is God’s nature? And that it is God’s strategy: to build a peaceable world by setting-free peacemakers, to reconcile the ways of heaven and earth by releasing mercy within the reconcilers, to do all that the kingdom requires by means of incarnation, entrusting the mission to the likes of us who know that we bear the likeness of him.

Hear how important to God is the space that you inhabit. Given the nature and strategy of God, we cannot accept an explanation of this parable that takes away from us the power to change, the responsibility to be transformed. So no one today gets excused because they’re hard by nature, rocky by nature, weedy by nature.

And we don’t get to look longingly at the few really good souls we know who bear fruit and yield a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or thirtyfold, and say about them, “They’re just good soil. Some have it, and some don’t.”

That could be how this parable gets heard. Let’s not go there. Instead, let’s recover in our own space what we need: the detachment from anxiety that comes from cultivating a relationship with God, the understanding that comes from service and community, the rootedness and enrichment that come through sacrament and scripture.

How important to God is the space that you inhabit. How you tend it relates to how you will hear God, and how you will serve God. For whatever it is that makes us hard, or shallow, or rocky, or thorny in our welcome of God and our growth in Christ may make us that way in our welcome and love of one another.