When I picked up my granddaughter at kindergarten last Wednesday, she had in her hand a square of paper no bigger than a postage stamp. With tender care she showed me how it unfolded into what she called a “map” of how a flower grows. It consisted of three small illustrations of a flower, from first green shoot to full blossom. In the car she then asked me, “So how does a flower grow?” Like the guy in Jesus’ parable, I was about to respond with something like “ I know not how it happens,” but before I could attempt any kind of explanation, she had switched her attention to getting ice cream.
But I think the bottom line in the first of today’s parables is that “how” doesn’t matter. The scattering of seeds is our work. The growth belongs to God.
I’m reminded of the prayer of St. Francis. I have some of his words literally carved in stones scattered on the windowsill behind my computer:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Where there is injury, let me sow pardon
Where there is doubt, let me sow faith
Where there is sadness, let me sow joy
Where there is despair, let me sow hope
St. Francis doesn’t tell us how to water and fertilize those seeds of hope and love and joy; he simply directs us to sow them. Shortly before Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated, he wrote: “This is what we are about: we plant seeds that one day will grow… We lay foundations that need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities…It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.”
This parable of mysterious growth separates our responsibility from God’s grace —but just because “the earth produces of itself,” that doesn’t let us off the hook. We are called to be the sowers, the scatterers of seeds. And, as St. Francis knew, it matters very much just which seeds we choose.
Right now we live in a time of political and moral crisis that sows seeds of discord, hatred, fear, and doubt.
As followers of Jesus, we are tasked with sowing other seeds.
In the document “Reclaiming Jesus,” our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and other church elders across denominations expressed deep concern about our future. They wrote of the battle for “our nation’s values, heart, soul, and even democracy itself “ – Then they named specific, Scripture-based Christian beliefs, determined to reclaim what it means to be a follower of Jesus from those who profess to be Christian while denying the fiercely inclusive love of our Lord. In “Reclaiming Jesus,” these church elders urge us to scatter the seeds of faith: radical welcome for the stranger, protection and justice for the poor, racial justice, affirmation of women, truth-telling, servant leadership, love for and care of the earth. What growth comes from these seeds may not be evident even in our lifetimes, but our job is to plant for a future not our own.
In the world of psychology there is a phrase that I recently learned: Transgenerational Haunting. It has to do with how traumas that happened to our ancestors – our parents, grandparents, and beyond – can be embedded in our DNA and affect the way we react in certain situations. For example, my paternal grandmother lost a baby at a week – a healthy baby who picked up a staph infection in the hospital and died. She did not talk about it, but we all knew, and years later she wrote briefly about it. Transgenerational haunting helps explain my overwrought reaction to the art of Kathe Kollwitz, the journals of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and to every accident and illness that befell my children. On a far more dramatic scale, many of the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors carry psychic wounds having nothing to do with their own lives, and studies of African Americans show that racism harms them “in the most intimate of ways—seeping into their lungs, their blood, even their DNA.”
We can at least try to counter the personal damage that we may have inherited, and the current damage being done to so many vulnerable people, by heeding the words of St. Francis: Sow hope. Sow love. Sow joy. Sow pardon. Scatter those seeds. Because if there is Transgenerational haunting, then there is also Transgenerational hope, and even joy, and this is what we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren, to our neighbors and the strangers in our midst, and to all the generations that follow. In his poem “The Passing Strange,” John Masefield writes of how, if we are lucky, throughout life we gather
Of Life, so lovely and intense,
It lingers when we wander hence,
That those who follow feel behind
Their backs, when all before is blind,
Our joy, a rampart to the mind.
Whatever joy or hope or love we sow now will grow and blossom in the mystery of God’s grace, offering solace and strength to those who follow, in that “ future not our own” that Oscar Romero named. Murdered at the altar as he celebrated Mass, Romero never saw the effect of his work or his words, but he had faith in God’s promise. And if it seems there is no growth – like the carrot seeds I planted one year that drowned in a week of rain – then we sow those seeds again, and again.
So what should I have said to Anastasia when she asked, “How does a seed become a flower? How does a flower grow?” Later I cheated and googled the answer, reading about germination, nutrients in the soil (that’s why the earth produces of itself), and phototsynthesis, only to discover at the end of the article that even scientists “still don’t fully understand what all happens inside of a seed as it comes to life.”
Ultimately, we are simply called to sow those good seeds, and realize that like the man in the parable who slept and woke and the seeds grew of themselves, he knew not how, God’s grace will give the growth. And whenever the harvest is ripe, in this generation or in years to come, we’ll have more work to do.
May it be so. May it be soon.