At our cottage in Nova Scotia, a few summers ago, we planted a tiny seedling of a pine tree. It was on a whim because we did not want to leave it to die. Every summer, we have returned expecting it to be gone: eaten by deer, toppled by wind, or the result of some other misfortune. And yet, it is still there. A little crooked, not growing much yet, but a solid little seedling finding its roots.
Now I am not much of a gardener, as a few of you will know. I don’t live with a gardener either. But I understand the joy of sowing and tending and watching something beautiful grow from that work. I could see the beauty in the resilience of that little seedling: what was it saying to me about enduring against the odds? Sowing something – whether flowers, or art, or meals, or even joy is satisfying because it has purpose. Do this work and something wonderful will result.
In this time of great uncertainty and upheaval, we may have to look harder for meaning. That is what comes of asking the big questions – ones about equity and fairness and how to make society better during dangerous days. A protest serves many purposes, but it is also about attaching meaning to a problem that feels overwhelming. For all those grieving deaths during the pandemic, we need to find meaning to process our sorrow: what does this mean for the world as we understood it before we’d ever heard of COVID-19, which, frankly seems like a really long time ago?
The search for meaning is what puts the world in order, gives us our place in it.
This is what Jesus is talking about in the parable of the sower. And if you don’t think it applies to you, I will draw your attention to Jesus’s opening line: let anyone who has ears, listen!
The parable describes the fate of four seeds as examples of how people hear the Word of God. First there are people who just don’t get it, who can never understand it, and what is sown is snatched away by, the gospel says, “the evil one.” Then we have the seed that falls on rocky ground – the person who hears the word and makes a big fuss over it, but when following the gospel gets tough, abandons it. That seed has no roots and withers. The third seed lands in the thorns, and the sharp stings of life get in the way, and it produces nothing. But the fourth seed, planted in deep and solid soil, this is the person who hears and understands the word and makes it matter for something. This the person who has found true meaning in life.
Now let’s go back to those seeds once more. You may recognize a person or two in those descriptions. You may recognize yourself. The first seed is especially problematic because it is divisive. Is Jesus, who never gave up on anyone, really saying that whoever doesn’t share our beliefs is evil? I’d argue that is our cue to understand how Jesus meant this parable to apply: he was speaking to all those listening, not as a collective, but as individuals. How were they individually hearing the word of God? Did they see themselves as one of those seeds? Or more honestly, were they all of them?
Some days, we choose not to hear the lesson in the gospel. On other days, we mouth the lesson and then do something else. Or, we know the lesson, but life gets in the way. And some days, those special days, we draw life from the deep soil of the gospel, and find meaning in the world, and make a difference. It may be responding with grace to someone who is having a very bad day. It may be a positive ripple we start in our own family. It may be something to help save the world in a big way. But if we truly listen, that is where the gospel leads – to a deep and solid foundation upon which even the most uncertain environment or scenario makes sense.
It is this search for meaning that defines us. It is how the gospel flourishes within us. This is how we overcome adversity, face illness, grieve a loss, respond to a disaster: we find our purpose within that confusion, disappointment, and sorrow. But Jesus does offer us something perhaps more powerful: free will, free thought, and reason. Jesus says, I will prepare the earth, I will water the soil, I will show you the way: ask the big questions and I will help you find answers. Be the seed that endures in good soil, and I will help you flourish.
We all have gardeners in our lives, who come along and help us with our search for meaning. Pastor Elina and Pastor Ed have been that presence in my life – wise counsel and kind friends. I will miss having them as colleagues nearby, although I expect our conversations to continue.
I leave this week for Nova Scotia, and two weeks of isolation. I imagine I will spend some time pondering that little seedling, with the potential of a tree still to be discovered. I hope to listen as well for the lessons of resilience and faith and hope that I find there.
That is my hope for all of you over these next weeks. May you tend the seeds of your lives well. May you help others find meaning. And may you know that you are never alone as the gospel flourishes within you.
Note: special thanks to member of St John, Alexander Rade for his photo