On Granite and Growing
If I had had the chance to pick today’s Bible readings, rather than relying on the lectionary, I don’t know that I could have selected readings that would be more appropriate texts for reflections after a week spent in the natural beauty of Yosemite National Park.
I saw the strength of God attested in massive granite peaks.
I saw the pastures of the wilderness overflowing with wildflowers.
I saw the river of God rushing with powerful, earth-shaping water.
I saw the bounty that results from seeds scattered in good soil.
I could almost imagine the mountains bursting into song, and the trees clapping along with a stirring, syncopated rhythm.
It was beautiful.
All of this beauty, however, much like the poetic language in our readings, can be overwhelming. How do we absorb, much less hold onto such enthusiasm? Glacier-carved granite cliffs, and snowmelt-watered meadows are stunning… but most of us don’t get to live there. It’s hard to maintain the prophet’s and psalmist’s sense of wonder and majesty once you get back from vacation.
Actually, to be honest, it’s hard to maintain the wonder even when you’re there.
Because… mosquitos, and 95 degrees, and rude strangers pushing past your kids on slippery, cliff-side hiking trails, and sweaty crowds pushing for a spot on the shuttle when you just want to get back home after a long, tiring day.
Don’t get me wrong. I had a genuinely wonderful vacation, but it was not a departure from reality. My feet still got sore; the kids still got whiny; we all still got irritable at times. Which is why we reminded each other of a certain slogan several times a day:
“Attitude is Everything.”
Attitude determines our experience. With the wrong attitude, we can miss what is right in front of us. Even in a place of stunning natural beauty, we have to open our eyes and pay attention in order to see it.
In the same way, even with the words of the only teacher who has ever seen God face to face, we have to open our ears and pay attention in order to hear the teaching.
Jesus’s final comment tacked onto the familiar parable of the Sower alludes to this necessity. “Let anyone with ears listen!” Fresh from my “attitude is everything” excursion in Yosemite, I heard this exhortation with new ears. Jesus is drawing our attention to “how we listen” as the interpretive key for this parable about what is required to nourish spiritual growth.
Growth is something that matters to our community. It is central to our mission statement – that we are “a safe place to grow in faith.” And the orientation toward spiritual growth is what has excited many of us (including me) about being part of this congregation’s ministry.
But looking for growth can also be dangerous if we lose the receptive attitude of careful listening.
To make that more clear, I want to take a moment to re-insert some important context that was skipped in today’s lectionary reading. In the verses between the parable itself and Jesus’ interpretation of the parable for his inner circle, the disciples question why Jesus teaches the crowds using parables.
His answer is kind of shocking: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” (Matt. 13:13)
This answer is shocking because it sounds like Jesus WANTS the people to be confused and to miss out on what he is teaching. But how can that be? Jesus is the Savior who came to reveal God to us so that we could be restored to right relationship with God. Why would he intentionally confuse the people he had come to save? Jesus’s words don’t make sense unless he is explaining the need for a deeper kind of listening.
One commentator offers this reflection on the function of confusion in parable teaching: “What if Jesus knew that what separated his hearers from the kingdom was not a lack of knowledge per se but something else having to do with the state of their souls? In that case would it not make sense for him to withhold some information, if in so doing he could draw their attention to this other, deeper problem?”
If Jesus’s goal is not just to convey information, but rather to open our eyes to what it is that separates us from God, then confusion has a purpose. It makes us lean in, and listen harder, seeking the source of separation.
So, what is this deeper problem? The problem that stops us from hearing and receiving the teaching Jesus offers? What might be the attitude that focuses our attention on distractions or minor irritations when there are (literally or figuratively) stunning granite cliffs and roaring waterfalls witnessing to us about the God we say we want to know?
The parable of the Sower and Jesus’s interpretation of it offers us some examples of the distractions:
“The enemy” – which we can recognize as personified evil, or as lies (about what is truth, or about what matters) that lead us away from the growth God wants for us.
Or, trouble and persecution – which can demand too high a price for faithfulness (although Christians in North America are not likely to face religious persecution).
Perhaps more likely and insidious are the things that choke off our desire for God… the cares of this world, or the lure of money and consumeristic, material values.
Whatever the source of our distractions, or the nature of the lies that entangle us, we all know that fear and frustration, don’t we? The fear of our own fragility. The sense that our roots are shallow, or that our growth is vulnerable to choking weeds. The awareness of how easy it is to have ears, but not really hear.
And when we get close to that fear, we want to DO SOMETHING about it. I have heard any number of sermons on this parable exhorting the listeners about what we have to do in order to “be good soil.” What we need to weed out of our lives, and how to grow deep roots…. But while the disciplines proposed in these sermons were mostly good things to practice, the core message was: “this is what you need to do in order to grow.” In other words: “it’s all up to you, so get it together or God’s seed won’t grow in your heart.”
And I think such interpretations miss the point of Jesus’s call to deep listening – to a listening that draws our attention not to a formula for good soil, but to the profound problem that separates us from God.
In fact, the search for a good-soil-formula may actually BE the problem that separates us from God. Because believing there is a formula means that we can be the source of our own growth…. And that delusion has been the source of humanity’s separation from God since the Garden of Eden.
In contrast, our first reading from Isaiah models an attitude of trust in the one who produces the growth:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10 - 11)
The prophet in this passage is addressing a community in exile, a community that is in desperate need of salvation, but one that also knows they CANNOT save themselves. The only way for them to see the renewed growth for which they long is for God to accomplish it. And, so, the prophet speaks a message of comfort that calls them to trust in the power of the One who created the mountains and the trees.
The evidence that God is the one who gives growth is there, if only they have eyes to see it.
But attitude is everything. The attitude of deep listening requires trust in the God who plants the seed in our hearts – because only God can produce growth.
And trust requires us to accept that we are not in control of the growth. We cannot dictate the shape, or speed, or direction that it takes. We can’t instruct the Sower on where to scatter the seed, and we can’t mandate the scope of the harvest.
What we can do is embrace whatever growth God gives us. In a few moments, we will join in singing a prayer that our hearts would be good soil. When we do, I want you to be conscious that this is a prayer – a petition for God to do the work that God has promised to do in the way God chooses to do it.
We cannot make our own hearts good soil. Just as we cannot make our church grow, or make our children believe, or in any other way direct the work that belongs to the Creator and the Sustainer of our faith.
We can pray, and we should seek to obey God’s commands, and to follow the teachings of Jesus, and to open our eyes to look for the harvest that God has promised… But all of that is a CONSEQUENCE of the faith that God gives us through Christ. God is the one who sows the seed, and God has promised us that God’s word shall not return empty.
I know it’s hard to let go of the expectation that WE have to produce the harvest, and the desire to dictate what the crop should be. But what we have to do is to keep leaning in, and trust in the God who knows how to produce new growth.
And when we get distracted, because I know we will, let us remembers to look at the mountains and the trees. They are bursting with the witness that this Sower really does know how to bring about astonishing growth.
Thanks be the God.
 P. Mark Achtemeir, Expository Articles, Matthew 13:1-23.