Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
With two millennia of practice, Christians have nearly perfected the art of explaining away Gospel demands. Excuse-making is, after all, a human strong suit, and it’s not easy to stop doing what you’re really good at.
A modern variant of the “that’s nice, but it doesn’t apply to me” excuse stresses how different our lives are from those of first century peasants. Farmers, shepherds, and fishermen are, for many of us, abstractions invisibly at work somewhere beyond our personal experience, black boxes in the grocery store supply chain, while the few among us who farm or fish for a living know better than to throw precious seeds along a rocky path, leave ninety-nine percent of the stock loose and unwatched while searching for a stray, or toss nets over the oarlocks and hope for the best without benefit of engines, fishfinder, or radio.
In contrasting my busy, technologically sophisticated modern life to sentimentalized myths of agrarian simplicity, I construct all the distance I need to miss the point – and missing the point is, after all, the unacknowledged point of much contemporary scripture study. I like to imagine that I would never be so wasteful and inefficient as the benighted peasantry of Jesus’ time.
Unlike them, we happy moderns have technology to control the planet. A woman in Chicago sits at her laptop and talks to a friend in Johannesburg. An NGO’s senior executive redirects emergency medical supplies to an Asian conflict zone from the air-conditioned comfort of a European office. An airman launches Hellfire missiles from a Predator drone flying over Afghanistan, then drives half an hour to watch his kid’s baseball tournament in Nevada.
Technologies are tools that can be used poorly or well, depending on the setting and intention. I write this scripture reflection on my own laptop in Atlanta for you to read on yet another device linked to the worldwide web. Do you know me? Do you have any notion of my circumstances? Does is matter? Email and Facebook keep me in touch with friends and “friends,” but the gnostic temptations of social media can make us at once better and worse than we truly are.
More importantly, the control power technologies afford is always limited and often illusory, its promises lost in a thicket of unintended consequences.The undeniable benefits of the industrial revolution are legion. It’s a shame, however, that the carbon-based energy platform upon which those benefits rest feeds (some would say “drives”) the current rise in global temperature. What does is profit humanity to wound the planet for centuries come in exchange for longer, more comfortable lives now?
But this week’s lectionary readings never really were about human technology, efficiency, or control, but about the extravagant inefficiency of God’s grace. For all the “dearest freshness deep down things,” Creation is an enormously inefficient mess.
It’s said that JBS Haldane, the endlessly witty twentieth century evolutionary geneticist, quasi-mystic, and prophet of the post-human, was once asked what aspect of the Creator might be learned from the study of nature, to which he supposedly replied, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” Though the story is most likely apocryphal, Haldane – or his publicist – made a rather perceptive theological point for an atheist: if God intended humanity to stand at Creation’s pinnacle, an awful lot of time was wasted on Class Insecta.
But that’s the way of God’s love: love is patient, love wastes time.
God tosses great handfuls of seed and then waits, as a farmer must for the rains to come, for the seeds to sprout, for the crop to return seed to the sower and bread to the eater. There’s a lot of work in between, those steps: cultivating, manuring, pruning, and keeping away pests who, after all, are hungry, too.
Paul compares all Creation to a pregnant woman approaching labor, waiting for the groans and pains through which a child is born. As a physician, I’ve met many pregnant women and see them as mentors in patience. With all that can go wrong in a pregnancy, it’s a miracle babies are born at all.
“Thy life is a miracle,” Edgar tells his despairing, blinded father, the Duke of Gloucester, in King Lear, though getting Gloucester to understand this takes time, suffering, and patience. That’s the way of life. Anyone who has tended a garden or attended a birth knows that life’s a miracle, something Miracle Max in The Princess Bride warns should never be rushed or, “… you get rotten miracles.”
But there’s at least one more miracle to consider in the parable of the sower, a rare recorded instance where Jesus offers post-parable analysis to a targeted audience. Even when I set aside my concerns about how poorly the sower is managing his seed resource, even when I attend to Jesus’ conspicuously non-literal reading of his own words, I’m still likely to imagine myself – or at least want to be – the seed that’s fallen on rich soil, bearing thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold.
To be honest, however, I am more likely the seed fallen along the path, already snapped up by birds, and counting myself fortunate to perhaps pass through a bird’s system with another chance to grow. Or I’m the seed on rocky ground, praying, “Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.” Or I’ve grown among worldly thorns, hoping to stand long enough for reapers to separate me in the fall like wheat from weeds.
I grow – if at all – “where Jesus flang me,” and discover once again my abject dependence on God’s mercy. For God is patient, God is kind, and will tend even to the plants that sprout among the cobblestones or down in the sewage ditch.
Now that’s a miracle, and I count myself blessed to know so wasteful and inefficient a Creator.