Back in April, I decided to reseed my front lawn….not the entire front lawn, but the stretch of lawn that lies between the street and the sidewalk. That narrow section has always been an eye-sore. It looks like a worn down soccer field with lots of divots and bare patches. When I mow the lawn, a huge cloud of dust gets kicked up and covers me because there are so many areas that are just bare dirt. In the past, I’ve tried reseeding it, and the grass has grown – for awhile – but it never seems to last and before the end of the summer the lawn looks the same as before….like a worn down soccer field.
And I’ve spent a lot of time over the years pondering why the grass doesn’t want to grow and I’ve come up with a few possible reasons: It might be that the grass doesn’t get enough sun on account of the large maple tree that stands in the centre of the lawn. It also might be that the soil is contaminated from all of the road salt that’s used during the winter months. I think the most likely reason are the high school students, it’s always convenient to blame teenagers, those groups of soon-to-be adults who travel in packs and walk not on the sidewalk but on my lawn on their way to the high school just around the corner.
So back in the spring, with the high school closed due to the pandemic, I decided it was the perfect time to grow grass. The conditions felt perfect.
There would be no students walking on my lawn. It was early in the season, the garden centres were just opening up, I would buy lots of top soil – 40 bags in total, and invest in some high-quality grass seed. And I made a vow to myself that this time I was going to water the lawn every day. This was going to be the year when I would finally transform my patchy lawn into a lush blanket of Kentucky blue grass once and for all.
The parable that we read today isn’t a guide on how to grow grass… for that we don’t need Jesus, we just need to watch some YouTube videos. But when it comes to growing ou faith, we DO need Jesus, and Jesus often taught about faith by using parables.
Move 1: Parable
A parable is a story that’s used to illustrate a lesson, and a parable is most effective when the story is about things the listener can relate to. That’s why Jesus often uses illustrations that relate to farming in his parables… because many people back then relied on the land for their livelihood.
In our story today, we’re told that a very large crowd gathered around Jesus, it was so large that he needed to get some distance between himself and the crowd in order to address them, so he got into a boat and spoke to the crowd while on the sea.
Keep in mind these were still the early days of Jesus’ ministry… the 12 disciples had just been called and already…Jesus was attracting great numbers. From the first chapter, Mark writes that Jesus’ fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Jesus first gets noticed when he visits a synagogue and commands an unclean spirit to come out of a man…and people are amazed. From then on, Jesus can’t go anywhere without attracting a crowd.
Even when Jesus is not out in public, crowds come seeking him. Like the time when he was visiting Simon’s home, Mark writes: “the whole city was gathered outside the door.”
Just imagine how exciting it must have been for the disciples. They had a front row seat to all of these people who come seeking Jesus. Up until this point, not much was asked of the disciples – they just sat back and watched.
But to be a person of faith, let alone a disciple of Jesus, requires something more than being a spectator. You can’t just stand on the sidelines and passively watch and expect your faith to grow without getting into the game yourself.
For something to grow and keep growing… requires participation.
Move 2: Sow
Today’s parable begins: “A sower went out to sow.”
The only participant in the parable seems to be the sower…. he’s the one with the seed, and he’s key to the story because without him the seed doesn’t get sown.
One of the things that caught my attention is that the sower doesn’t seem to be very careful with the seed. It doesn’t say the seed was “planted,” but it says “some seed fell.” “Some seed fell on the path, other seed fell on rocky ground, other seed fell among thorns, other seed fell into good soil. Maybe there was an abundance of seed so the sower let some fall here and some fall there… there’s no concern for saving the seed or holding some back. The sower’s sole purpose seems to be spreading it wherever he goes.
It’s not until Jesus explains the parable do we see that the sower is not the only participant in the story.
Jesus says: the sower sows the word. The word can mean Jesus’ teachings or instructions or actions or even Jesus himself. The word is wherever Jesus reveals God’s love through word or deed.
Just like the seed that falls wherever the sower goes, the word is spread wherever Jesus goes. Jesus doesn’t turn anybody away or hold anything back… what he offers is given freely and to everyone.
But it turns out there are others aside from the sower who participate in the parable. The sower participates by giving, but for every giver there needs to be a receiver. Those who receive in the parable are the hearers. The hearers are the other participants in the story.
But there’s a catch. While all the people according to Jesus “hear the word,” and this is something he repeats four times, in only one instance does the word accomplish what it’s intended to do.
Move 3: Hearing the Word
Hearing is a verb or action word, but it’s often thought of as a passive action requiring little effort. Sometimes when I’m on a call with someone, I can tell they’re listening but not really paying attention. They’re talking with me, but they’re also doing something else. They’re multitasking… maybe watching the game on t.v. or reading an e-mail. And I can tell because whenever I ask a question… there’s a pause before they answer.
To give our full attention to something is hard, whether it’s to a book or to our children, it’s become harder over the years to give our undivided attention…. and I think the pandemic has even made it worse.
A few weeks ago there was an article in the Globe and Mail…it was on the front page of the Opinion section and it included a large picture of a hand holding a cel phone and a text message on the phone that read
“Put me down…” followed by ”NOW!” (all caps)
The author made the interesting observation that when it comes to alcohol, there are norms or rules that govern our attitudes and behaviours, shaping our understandings of where, when, how & why to drink… but there are no norms for our phone use.
Our phones might be convenient and sometimes necessary, but they also come at a cost. The author of the article argues. “The cost of phones can be measured in lost attention. And attention, our capacity to focus, is perhaps our scarcest commodity.”
He cites some interesting studies on the effects of phones.
In one study researchers prompted pairs of people with conversation topics, and divided them into two groups. One group, researchers left a phone resting, face-down, on a nearby desk. For the second group, the phone was absent. After their conversations, pairs in the “phone present” group reported far lower levels of empathy and trust than those in the “phone absent” group. The researchers concluded the “mere presence of mobile phones inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust.”
In another study, subjects turned off their phones and placed them either face down on their desk; in their bag or pocket; or in another room. Then they took a series of tests focused on reading, math and pattern recognition. Performance was strongest with phones in the other room; performance diminished with phones in bags or pockets; and performance was worst with phones on desks.
The researcher concluded:
“Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process – the process of requiring yourself to not think about something – uses up some of your limited cognitive resources.”
The funny thing is that 90% of subjects insisted phone location had no bearing on their performance.
Of course phones are not all bad. When I was a kid, if phones with GPS and Google maps had existed, there would have been a lot less yelling during our family summer vacation road trips as my dad drove and my poor mom had the thankless task of giving directions while looking at a huge fold out map.
But for all the conveniences phones provide by allowing us to stay connected, I’m not sure if they make us better people. In fact, a study found the more deeply caregivers were absorbed in their phones, the more likely they were to respond harshly to their children’s attention-seeking behaviour.
In 3 of the 4 examples from the parable, people hear the word… the word gets sown in them, but it doesn’t yield anything because their attention can’t be held long enough for the word to grow roots. When they hear the word, distractions take the word away. When persecution comes, they’re focus turns to troubles…when the cares of the world arise, their attention turns to money. They’re like chaff that goes blown around by the wind, there’s no root grounding them to the eternal.
But Jesus knew in order for seeds of faith to have a chance to take root and grow and one day bear fruit, it had to go beyond just hearing the word… it required accepting it.
Move 4: Accepting the Word
In the parable, Jesus says:
“And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and hundredfold.”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say:
“they hear the word and bear fruit” …but he says
“they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit.”
To hear the word is passive, to hear and accept is active because it requires our participation… and we participate by the intentional act of directing our attention to what or to whom gives life.
God’s presence is with us, God’s Spirit dwells within us, yet we can spend our days unaware of this presence… WHY? Because for much of the day, our attention is directed elsewhere.
Early in the pandemic last year, I found myself spending more and more of my days on my ipad reading updates about covid which left me feeling blue. So I decided to put away my ipad and only check the news 3 times a day. I also made a difficult decision (that I never thought I’d be able to do in my lifetime)… I canceled my cable subscription. It wasn’t that hard because there was no hockey or basketball to watch due to Covid.
Instead of watching a Leafs or Raptors game in the evenings, I found myself spending more time to just be…to read, to pray, to meditate. And what surprised me was that over time, I felt less distracted, less restless.
With no sports to distract me, I grew more comfortable with silence and being still. My attention didn’t wander as much but it felt like it could be held for longer periods. I started to look forward to my evenings after dinner as the day winded down and I could just rest in God.
How I used to spend my evenings by staring at a screen was passive. But spending the evening in the quiet of my own heart felt the opposite of passive, it felt like I was a participant, in a way it felt like I was preparing the ground of my own heart to receive God’s gift of presence just as the good soil awaits the seed.
And this is what I think Jesus is trying to teach us through this parable… like the sower who spreads the seed so generously and extravagently, the word, i.e., God’s love and presence, is made available to us…this is what Jesus’ death on the cross points to… that God doesn’t withhold anything from us but gives everything away. And the only question is: What are we doing to prepare ourselves to receive it?
After I cut the cable chord and started to be intentional about how I would spend my evenings and where I would direct my limited attention, I remember praying to God, it was a simple prayer. I asked: During this pandemic, I want to use this time to prepare myself to become more gentle…gentle with others but also gentle with myself. I prayed this because early in the pandemic I was feeling anything BUT gentle or restful or calm. But this is what my heart desired, and by being intentional about creating space so I could pay attention and become more aware of this divine Spirit that lives within me… I trust that in good time, the fruit of my life will reveal the root of my faith.
So getting back to my lawn. This past summer I’ve had to reseed it 3 more times. I’ve purchased another 40 bags of soil, more seed, more fertilizer, I even bought burlap to cover the seed so the birds don’t eat it…put up a poles and hung string around the perimeter so people don’t walk on the lawn.
And as the end of the summer approaches and before the students return to school and walk on my lawn, I can see some results… lots of new grass has grown but I still see some bare spots where the seed didn’t take and there are some divots that were dug up by a squirrel or skunk. In the past, I’d want to give up…but I’m not going to let myself get discouraged this time around because I’ve learned a valuable lesson when it comes to growing grass that I also think applies to faith. There’s no such thing as a perfect lawn and there’s no such thing as a perfect faith… there’s always work to be done if we want to see growth. And this is good news especially as it relates to faith because it means it is never too late to participate like those who hear and accept. It’s never the wrong season to work the soil of our hearts to make it good. It all begins by giving more and more of our attention to what or to whom gives life…by becoming more aware of the word that is being sown and the fruit that is being grown, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. Amen.