Promoting Growth

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 55:10-13, Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14, Romans 8:1-11, and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

Deep underground, in an island in Norway, about 800 miles from the North Pole, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. You may have read about it or heard about it in the news. To insure biodiversity and to protect against any kind of widespread disaster or global crisis, the vault serves as a seed bank where duplicate copies of seeds from all around the world can be kept safely. More than 10,000 seeds are kept there, stored in four-ply sealed envelopes, then placed into plastic tote containers on metal shelving racks. The storage rooms are kept at 0 °F, which delays the seeds from aging. It must be quiet there in that cold, underground space-aged cavern.

While I understand the reasoning behind keeping the duplicate seeds safe, and I get the importance of the whole venture, it does seem a little strange that such extravagant lengths are gone to in order to keep seeds from doing what they’re created to do: to grow.

The Gospel today is about seeds and the various things that can stifle growth.

The Parable of the Sower is a straightforward story. Jesus tells the parable and goes on to explain it. The seed is the Word of God that comes our way. It comes through the hearing of Scripture. It comes through our individual reading, or through Sunday school, or confirmation classes or other times of Christian Formation and Education. The Word of God is thrown at us sometimes through non-biblical literature, sometimes through the words or actions of people who influence us, sometimes through a movie or a game. Some of us grew up in families in which the seeds (the word and teachings of God) were sown in our lives carefully, with prayer and attention and care. Others of us grew up catching an occasional seed here or there, or perhaps nurturing the Word of God in our lives through independent or self-study. But however it’s come to us, the important thing, says Jesus, is whether that seed is able to take root in us. The important thing is whether the seed eventually grows, flowers, and produces.

In some, the seed barely takes hold and then there’s some kind of trial or challenge. Through church history and in other parts of the world today there is still religious persecution, and this can stifle the seed. Sometimes in our culture the challenge comes through almost overwhelming pressures, through loneliness or depression or addiction. And so, the seed withers, and dies— or almost dies.

Jesus says there are others who hear the Word of God, they receive the seed, but then they get distracted, they get caught up in what Jesus calls the “cares of the world,” or the “lure of wealth.” That seed, too, dwindles or dies.

But then, there are those for whom the seed takes off and grows. It is like, as Isaiah puts it, “the earth brings forth and sprouts seed for the sower and bread for the eater”…We “go out in joy, and [are] led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before [us] … burst into song, and all the trees of the field … clap their hands.”

But I wonder if we don’t sometimes do the equivalent of building a seed vault like they’ve done in Norway. God has planted within us seeds—yes, the Word of God, but often that Word is not full-grown, and it exists deep within us as idea, a gift, a skill, or a desire. Maybe we didn’t really recognize it when we first received it. Maybe it has been in the dark too long and hasn’t been allowed to flourish and grow. Maybe it’s too cold where this seed is. Maybe we have been too scared to let it grow, or it was unsafe for it to flourish, and so we decided that it needed protection and safeguarding.

How might Jesus be inviting us into a larger garden? How might God be, even now, promoting new growth within us and around us?

Yesterday we celebrated the life of Nancye Suggs, and a part of yesterday’s sermon continues today. Nancye was incredible at seeing things in each of us (seeds of possibility) that with the right encouragement, some care, some watering, could blossom into new abilities, and gifts, and achievements. We would honor her best by allowing those things she touched to grow, and by continuing that practice with each other.

When we look at each other, what lies dormant or hidden away? When I meet a new person, or perhaps look closely at someone I’ve known for years, what might I see that God is asking me to encourage, promote, water? Are there ways that we can work as good trellises, propping up each other to that the storms of life don’t topple us over?

In the First Letter to the Corinthians, Saints Paul talks about something our garden guild knows very well—it takes a crowd to help a garden grow. It takes a handful to grow a church. Paul taught and encouraged the church at Corinth. Another disciple known as Apollos also taught and encouraged. Other teachers and leaders came and went. But the Corinthians began to get bogged down in following only their favorite teacher. They divided into factions, with some wanting only one kind of encouragement, and others wanting only another. But Paul reminds them that no matter who helps tend the garden, (Paul planted and Apollos watered) “God gives the growth.” Paul says, “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose … For we are God’s servants, working together” (1 Corinthians 3:7-9).

Yesterday, I quoted a short line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” but today there are words from that same poem that speak of all those who have planted, watered, and tended, who have gone before us. Whitman writes,

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

In other words, we give thanks for those who have planted whatever good there is in us. Others will come, even as we are sent, to water, to weed and support, but God gives the growth, and God will continue giving the growth.

Thanks be to Jesus Christ who sows love in us, who sows mercy and forgiveness, and who sows seeds of eternal life, that we may grow for ever.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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