Earlier this week, I had a chat with someone in the Village who asked “How do you respond when people say to you that they don’t need to believe in Christ because it is enough to try and be a good person?”
Today’s reading suggests that simply striving to be a good person will not necessarily lead to human flourishing; nor will even believing in God. Rather, it is being in relationship with God – receiving God’s grace, trusting in that grace through dark times, and generously bearing that grace to others – that enables us to thrive.
Let’s start with what Jesus is trying to teach us in this reading about the nature of God. David Lose writes, “God is not worried about whether there will be enough seed or grace or love. God may want our hearts to be good soil but nevertheless hurls a ridiculous amount of seed even on dry, thorny, or beaten soil… you get the feeling this God would probably scatter seed-love-mercy-grace on a parking lot! Why? Because there is enough! And, ultimately, because God believes we are enough. Enough to save ourselves? No. Enough to deserve love, dignity and respect? Absolutely.”
Lose continues, “The fundamental and unifying element in all of God’s hopes for us is that they all spring from God’s unconditional, even reckless, love for and acceptance of us right here, right now, just as we are. There is enough. You are enough. God will never give up on us. God’s love is unending. Period.”
Take that in. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are on your spiritual journey – God is pouring out grace for you. You don’t need to be perfect. There is nothing you need or can do to deserve God’s love. It doesn’t matter what you are struggling with, how many times you have fallen down or failed. God’s love is relentless. There is absolutely nothing you can think, say, or do that will keep God from pursuing you.
One of my favorite poets, Denise Levertov, expresses God’s love in relation to us this way:
To live in the mercy of God.
To feel vibrate the enraptured waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down to clenched fists of rock.
Swiftness of plunge, hour after year after century,
O or Ah uninterrupted, voice many-stranded.
To breathe spray. The smoke of it.
Arcs of steelwhite foam, glissades (glee-sades)
of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—
Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world.
Vast flood of mercy flung on resistance.
From God’s side of the relationship, God is ALL IN. 100% Totally and completely wanting the best for you. Even knowingly flung on our resistance. That’s it. We are often the rocky soil, the unrooted, undisciplined, distracted, impatient, the scorched, the choked by weeds – and still God does not give up on us. The Divine Sower keeps scattering the seeds of grace in every condition, in every situation we find ourselves in, including personal crises, national crises, and global crises. God’s grace, God’s generosity, persists. It’s who God is.
We get to receive. We get to receive!! To know our God as a loving God we must slow down enough to receive God’s grace. It’s not enough to simply know (point to head) this.
We have to experience it. And that’s why prayer – especially contemplative prayer – is essential, foundational. Slowed down, open hearted, silently expectant being with God. Allowing God’s loving gaze to come upon us. Allowing ourselves to lovingly gaze in return. This is what allows the seeds of God’s love to take root within us. Just like any intimate relationship, it is in quiet moments of simply being together that we can feel the gift of God’s love.
Belief resides in the narrow, confining, often biased realm of the mind. Relationship expands and resides in the safe, open, loving realm of the heart. And when we allow the seeds of God’s love to take root there, then a transformation of our oft broken selves can happen and from there we have access to a well of grace that gives us what we need to follow Christ’s vision to transform the world. Believing in God often ends with what we think God will do for us; Being in relationship with God is far deeper – it is about a mutual self-giving, ever-dynamic, ever-expanding love that calls us and equips us to care not only for ourselves, but for the world.
As we experience God’s grace, we can’t help but allow it to pour through us for others. And even though sometimes hidden or even locked behind a fortress of our fears, it is in our human nature to give. Freely giving loosens something in our hearts that enables us to flourish. To grow spiritually, a sure path is to follow the way of the Divine Sower, by exercising heartfelt generosity. (As I look out, I see so many of you, so many generous people, who have already learned this lesson)
Striving to be a good person is obviously not a bad thing. Setting an intention for a good outcome also can yield some terrific results. But, we are offered so much more in relationship with God. In today’s parable Jesus warns of the cares of the world and the lure of wealth; of shallow faith that recedes when tested. Who among us thinks that we can wisely, safely, joyfully, and generously navigate such a world as ours without going to the well of God’s grace? Why would we want to set out on such a treacherous path as this life can be without first receiving what God so generously gives us, the gift of love?
So much of what causes pain, struggle, and even violence in this world comes from one of three things: (1) Wounded people who did not get the love they needed early in life, or (2) people who were convinced at some point along their journey that they were not worthy of love or (3) people who look out at the world and judge that others are not worthy of respect or love.
In contrast, the love God offers is constant, unfailing, and does not discriminate. God’s love can heal what the frailty of human love has broken. And just like in any other relationship, to receive the benefits of what God wants to give us, we have to spend quality time with God. Sages throughout the ages tell us that the best way to do this is through prayer, sharing in Christian community, and service.
By participating in a healthy Christian community, we have ways to mediate God’s love to others – to reach out to the wounded, to those who think they are unworthy, to those who would discriminate, and especially to those who are discriminated against. As Christ’s body in the world, we are called to an extravagant love, to not give up on others, to not give up when the going gets rough. Remember that Jesus says when two or three are gathered in his name, He is present. The community of faith is another way God is present to us to help us not give up.
The problems that we face today – global warming, racism, gun violence, even whether or not to wear a mask – will NOT be solved solely by scientists, politicians, individuals with a good intent, or those who believe God will somehow magically fix everything. The conviction, discipline, creativity, and faithfulness needed to address such overwhelming issues can be nurtured and sustained not merely by human effort or mere belief. Rather, it is through a life in community that marries contemplation – receiving God’s love – with action for the kingdom – that we can flourish, even if we don’t succeed. It is in a co-creative partnership with God, that we can live into the vision of God’s kingdom, a realm where all flourish.
It seems natural that we want and even expect that our good efforts will bear fruit in our own lifetimes. Yet a biblical vision offers no promise that our good efforts will bear fruit that we will see. Moses never made it to the Promised Land. Though this may seem disappointing or even crushing, it may help us temper our expectations when it comes to personal struggles or the long arc of justice. The vision Jesus offers suggests that seeds planted in our lifetimes may come to fruition in later generations. It is not in meeting the goal that we receive our reward, it is in being on the path with God and each other that sustaining grace flows. Just as God does not give up on us, we are called not to give up on those personal challenges, other people, or big issues (like racism and global warming) that may not be solved in our lifetime. As Mother Teresa says, “God has not called us to be successful, but to be faithful.”
The Parable of the Sower reminds us that things are happening that we cannot see. God is at work below the surface. God has planted the seeds that we are called to water. It is God’s garden, God’s design that we are called to support. We need to remember our place. We need not despair or give up if the results are not immediately apparent to us—or if some of our efforts produce no gain that we can see. After all, as disciples of Jesus we are here to serve God, to be instruments of God’s grace. It is God’s mission, not our own, that we are called to follow. We need to remember who we serve – not our own ends, but God’s.
In a world that is filled with as many challenges as ours is, it takes more than trying to do good on our own, it takes more than even belief in God, to be able to not only survive, but to thrive. Why leave God’s offer of extravagant love on the table? Why set out on a course of individual striving, when God offers companions on the journey, the beloved community, the body of Christ in the world today? And why settle for mere belief, from living only from here (pointing to the head) when the living God wants to take root here? (pointing to heart) Through relationship with the One who offers an extravagant love in prayer, in beloved community, and in service to the world , abundant living awaits.