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Seeds of Transformation

Sermon - 7/20/08
Rev. Toni Tortorilla

Sophia Christi Catholic Community Eugene and Portland
First Christian Church, Eugene

Matthew 13:1-13

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’

10 Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ 11He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”


            Jesus went out and sat down by the sea.  Isn’t that a beautiful image on this warm summer morning?  Can you picture being one of the disciples hanging out with him, talking, laughing, watching birds wheeling over the water, a couple of boats out there on the sea, another few along the shoreline.

            Then a crowd begins to gather.  Jesus sees the crowd forming and gets up.  Here is an opportunity to talk to people about the Kingdom of God—his favorite thing to do.  He welcomes their arrival, finds an empty boat, gets in, sits down, and begins telling them a story—a parable—about a farmer sowing seeds.

            Jesus uses parables to describe the kingdom of God.  It’s a challenging thing to do because we human beings have one basic frame of reference, that is the world as we know it.  We don’t normally have even the first clue that the spiritual dimension Jesus calls the Kingdom of God works differently than the world of ordinary experience.  So, through parables, Jesus is trying to describe something that is hidden, that is mystery, that reverses all our normal expectations.

            This parable of the sower is the very first parable he tells them.  It is the initial parable in all three of the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke--and sets the tone for all the others Jesus will tell.  It’s a foundational story for the early Christian community.  If you get THIS, you get the message.

            There is an Episcopal priest and theologian, Robert Farrar Capon, who wrote a book several years ago called Parables of the Kingdom.  In his exploration of this parable of the sower he talks about God-the-Farmer sowing the seed of the Word everywhere.  If we think of Jesus as the Word of God, this would mean that Jesus himself is sown everywhere in the world, even in those places where the Gospel as we know it hasn’t taken root, where Jesus himself isn’t actually known.

            The task of the disciple is not to SPREAD the word, Farmer God has already done that, but rather to seek that Word wherever it may be hiding, to know Jesus is there somewhere even when those around us are clueless, and to find Jesus, to find the seed of the Word, in all the places where it has already been sown.

            Just think of that for a moment.

            Our job isn’t to point it out to those who can’t see and can’t hear, but to know it’s there ourselves, and to love and tend it with gentle commitment even when others can’t imagine what we’re doing.

            Mother Teresa is an example of someone who lived the message of this parable.  She was often criticized for not speaking to governments and trying to change the minds and hearts of those whose policies caused so much death, disease and human misery.

            But she paid no attention to that criticism.  Her job, as she saw it, was to see Jesus in every person who was suffering, to care for their wounds, to take them in off the streets and give them love and tenderness, to care for the dying.  She looked for Jesus everywhere, convinced he was hidden behind the grimacing faces of the poor and buried under the dirt and grime of the street children. God’s good seed was everywhere. 

            We now know from Mother Teresa’s letters and private writings that she could not feel the presence and consolation of Christ as she went about her days, and yet she still continued to look and to listen for his voice because she understood with her heart that he was there in all those grimy places she met and tended his little ones. 

            All that good seed.  All that rich soil.  Hindu landscape.  The Word sown extravagantly and hidden from most eyes.  It took a humble and contemplative disciple like Teresa to see it and witness to its flourishing while the rest of the world—the great crowd on the seashore—stood blindly by.

            Think about the Word sown in all those places we might least expect to find it—in Board Rooms of huge corporations, on Wall Street, in the War Room of the White House, in the hearts of those who seem cold or angry, in violent situations that appear beyond redemption.  There are many other places we could come up with, but the point is that there is nowhere on earth that the Word of God hasn’t been sown and isn’t being sown!

            Many of the seeds don’t sprout.  They’re choked out or dried up by viewpoints and frameworks, philosophies and strategies that prevent that vulnerable and tender unfolding to occur. 

            But the seed is still there!

            If we look around we’ll find it in the most unlikely and even inhospitable places.  The Word of God is everywhere and astonishingly productive for those who have eyes to see.

            The world-as-we-know-it, the ordinary, common-day world of human experience is on a different wave-length entirely than is the world Jesus knows and tries to show us in his stories and in his life.  If we look at the world through Jesus’ parables we see a reality that often doesn’t make sense to us.

            A farmer sows seed on rocky ground and even on hardened footpaths, not just in the rich, fertile soil of his field.  This is a seasoned farmer, someone whose livelihood depends on not wasting seed—yet here he is scattering it willy-nilly in places he surely must know it won’t grow. 

            And though it would seem to us he’s wasting far too much seed, we learn that he actually has an outrageous yield from what little seed actually falls on good soil-- a yield of 30, 60 or 100 times what anyone in their right mind would expect.

            This isn’t the way the normal, everyday world works!

            The ways of the kingdom of God reverse human logic.  The vast plan in the mind of God is hidden, mysterious and incomprehensible to us.  Jesus keeps trying to tell the disciples (and tell us) to give up our rigid hold on ordinary consciousness, on the status quo, on the norms of our society and culture and to open our eyes, open our ears and our hearts to that deeper reality of his kingdom.  

            But it’s so much more comfortable for us to just pay attention to the mundane details of our lives, the goals we have outlined for ourselves, or even those outlined for us by culture, social status, gender roles, career path and day-to-day personal and family requirements.  By staying on that smooth and hardened footpath we can protect ourselves from sinking into the rich, loamy soil that might reach for the seed within us and end up changing everything about our lives.

            The ordinary “way the world works” is not the way the kingdom of God works.  We humans experience having at least some measure of control in the mundane world of everyday life.  But letting go that rigid hold on “reality” would mean relinquishing control of the God-seed within us to that rich fertile soil that waits to break open the outer shell of our identity.  Then we might truly see and hear the deeper mystery and the extravagant abundance all around us.

            This is the language of transformation and it can frighten the daylights out of most of us, especially when it threatens to become more than just a purely intellectual or flittingly spiritual consideration.  When we focus on the ordinary survival needs of ourselves and our family, we can protect ourselves from seeing and hearing the dangerous and transformative Word of God in our lives. 

            This is why the crowd gathered around Jesus on that seashore is so obtuse.  Ordinary consciousness wants nothing to do with the secrets of the Kingdom, because those secrets are all about letting go of the beliefs that cause everything to seem safe, relatively unchanging and normal.

            The disciples, however, are called to follow the mysterious and hidden spiritual path of change and deep inner transformation rather than stay the course of superficial normalcy.  They, then, are given access to those “secrets” of transformation, secrets of letting go into the mysterious process of disappearance and re-generation, secrets of the astonishing yield a few good seed might have when surrendered to the overwhelming fertility of God’s grand design.

            A frustrating thing about scattered seed is that so much of it seems to be wasted.  Those of us who have raised children know how many of our most-prized “Words of Wisdom” have gone unheeded throughout the years only to be “newly” discovered by our offspring In the form of “experiences that taught them a lesson.”

            As I look back over the last 43 years that have passed since the end of the Second Vatican Council, I am aware of countless seeds sown in Ecumenical circles throughout the world as well as in the hearts of my sisters and brothers in the Catholic Church that seem to have been wasted.

            So many of us felt something inside us catch hold of that seed, tend it an nurture it, and watch it grow into a whole wheat field inside us.  But as we look out over the larger field we call the Church, what happened to all that seed?  Where did it go?

            Some of it did wither and die during the long ascendancy of reactionary forces under John Paul the Second.  And a good deal of it grew in the brambles of persecution and was choked off early on when theologians developing various theologies of liberation were denounced and silenced in the 80’s and 90’s.

            And some of it lies dormant, yet intact, in the quietly developing scholarship of theologians yet-to-be-named and pastoral collaborations un-sanctioned and unseen that continue to grow in countless ecumenical crevices such as this one.  These are being carefully tended and protected by people whose eyes and ears have remained open to Spirit guidance in the fertile margins.

            Right here and right now we are participating in one such miraculous and Spirit-guided collaborative effort.  Last night I, a Roman Catholic woman and a priest celebrated Eucharist in your chapel.  And today I am filling in for your wonderful pastor who is on sabbatical.  This is evidence of seeds growing in rich, loamy soil and bearing fruit for the full communion of the People of God.

            Today in Boston three more women are being ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood.  In April the first U.S. woman was consecrated as a Roman Catholic Bishop. 

            The seeds of Vatican II are out there, the seeds of spiritual renewal and Christian unity—the seed of the future, seed of hope, seed of change, seed of transformation.

            It is so easy to become impatient, to give up hope that the seed will ever amount to anything! 

            But the beauty of this foundational parable—this parable that if we get it, we’ve gotten the message—is that the crop from that seemingly insignificant amount of growing seed will top all expectations.  Farmer God is telling us that the yields will be in excess of 30, 60 or 100 times what we would naturally believe possible.

            So take this to heart.  Keep tending those inner wheat fields of your own, and look for signs of them in others.  Every time you see or hear that some of those seeds are being crushed or seedlings burned to a crisp, remember that no one can destroy the over arching harvest because THAT is in Farmer God’s hands and the abundant harvest is assured.

            Keep faith.  Know the truth of the Kingdom of God.  And take to heart the message of this parable.  Look for God’s seed everywhere—because it’s there and the harvest will be beyond our wildest expectations.  


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