Homily preached by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, priest-in-charge
Church of the Intercession, NYC
July 12, 2020
Text: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is a crucial moment towards the beginning of the movie, “A Few Good Men.” Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is sparring with Jo Galloway (Demi Moore) over legal strategy while practicing for a softball game. He attacks her with the full brunt of his arrogant, misogynistic, snarky personality and believing that he has successfully humiliated her, he walks away from her in disdain. That’s when she calls after him with a question: “Do you know what a ‘Code Red’ is?”
Then follows a silence that lasts at most three seconds; it’s a rare quiet moment in a movie filled end to end with Aaron Sorkin’s jittery, crackling dialogue. In this interlude, Kaffee turns back to face Galloway and for once he has no words, the expression on his face tells us that she’s flummoxed him, he has no idea what she’s talking about. Seeing this clearly, she says to him, “What a pity”; then she turns her back on him and leaves. This is the opening that the rest of the film needs: that tiny crack that appeared in Kaffee’s rock-hard, obnoxious façade is where the seed is planted that grows into both his personal struggle for growth and the culture transforming triumph that concludes the film. Sometimes, people need to be cracked open before they can begin to grow in the right direction.
It is in that kind of crack where we meet today’s gospel, which is likewise about silence, struggle, growth, and reward – we Christians call this process and its result, “bearing fruit,” and that is the theme of the parable of the sower and the seed. Compared to some of Jesus’ more opaque parables, I’ve always thought this one easy to understand. For one thing – Jesus does something here that he hardly ever does: he explains the parable himself! The sower represents an evangelist who brings the gospel to people, who then respond to that gospel message according to the state of their soul, which Jesus compares to different types of farm soil: hard path, rocky field, thorny patch, or rich soil. The resulting crop – deeds done and souls won to the glory of God – comes up in direct relationship to the quality of the soil – the soul – into which the word is planted.
That’s simple enough. But underneath that surface layer of the gospel is a network of complex connections that Jesus does not explain; he leaves those for us to discover as we attempt to live out the parable’s message, which is far more difficult than understanding it. As soon as we do, questions arise; for example, if you happen to have a “rocky” soul filled with hard places that you know prevent the gospel from taking root – what do you do? Resign yourself to living with of shallow roots that can only result in a lifetime of bearing bad or no fruit, or can this condition be reversed? Rocks in a patch of ground that a farmer wishes to be sow must be addressed: they can be removed or pulverized, then they are no longer obstacles to planting and rooting. Mineral rich rocks when ground to dust can even have a beneficial effect; they can be the super-charging ingredient that will result in a stronger crop. So it is that the rocks in our character, when similarly altered, can fertilize the growth of the gospel in us – it’s the strength we get from them that enable us to stand up to pressures that might have buckled us, or to hammer away at situations we encounter in life that we would never had the strength to fight otherwise.
Let me give you one example from American history, that of the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. An entitled, cheerfully optimistic, overconfident youth, FDR had his big rock – his smugness – crushed to bits by polio, but it was his sunny optimism, an obstacle at first, coupled with that confidence, now bridled to fit a new, tough reality, that together gave him the drive to continue his political career despite his paralysis; then those combined with his new-found strength, born through his struggle with polio, molded him into the man that could lead our country and the world through the Second World War.
Now this is important: that struggle took place largely in private, behind closed doors, in the silence of FDR’s soul. Smashing rocks in your character and growing deep roots in your soul that will enable you to stand tall in storms and remain intact under pressure are silent, private processes, a fact often lost on our privacy-deprived age, where our lives are too often played out in the glare of social media or TV lights, making it impossible for true strength of character to develop. The results are all too common these days: a world populated by flimsy psyches and weak characters that are easily damaged, even destroyed, by any opposition or a single tough challenge.
But when those struggles are permitted to take place out of public view, the results can be amazing. We can see this in nature. The oldest living multi-cellular organism on earth, according to many scientists, is a stand of quaking aspen trees in Utah named “Pando” that is believed to be up to 80,000 years old. The trees that make up this single organism cover 106 acres; they all share and are generated by one enormous root system. Remember – roots have tremendous strength and will destroy anything in their path, including huge boulders, building foundations, and, as anyone who has ever tried to repair a sidewalk severely damaged by the oak tree on the front lawn knows: the roots always win, they are that strong. Those roots are always born through a struggle.
A different kind of struggle is necessary to overcome a different kind of impediment presented today’s parable: thorns, what Jesus tells us are the “cares of the world and the lure of riches”; which can choke, sicken or even uproot germinating gospel seed.
I think of myself here, and the year and a half I spent dealing with stage four cancer that not only threatened my physical life but the state of my soul. When you’re sick and scared, the toughest temptation to resist is that of giving up, on everything: on life, even on God. For me, an ordained priest at the time, this struggle took the form of my coming very close to quitting the ministry – thank God the folks at St. Philip’s strongly prevailed on me to not resign, but to stay on the job, and to let them accommodate my physical weakness and frequent absences, all while praying me through the process. It worked – I’m here, thanks be to God, twelve years later – but, it wasn’t easy. Sticking with my call despite those thorns that were out to choke me took an intense personal struggle with myself and with God.
Back to the parable. What of the seeds that fall on a path, that Jesus says are eaten by birds before they can take root? When I hear this, my mind envisions not a well-trodden, hardened path that seeds can’t penetrate, but rather what we do when we’re on a path, any path – that is to say, we move. The fact of the matter is, that when we are traveling along a path, we can do two things that can block the gospel from taking root: we can focus only on our destination, which can prevent us from seeing or hearing anything around us, or we can go too fast, speed, which can cause anything to bounce off of us. Nothing can take root when you’re moving.
Let’s consider the Apostle Paul. Raised as the Pharisee, he matured into a zealot who was completely focused on wiping out Jesus’ disciples. He had just witnessed and consented to the stoning of Stephen. He was rushing to continue his violent religious purge when Jesus literally stopped him on a path – the Road to Damascus – knocked him down, and forced him to listen, to confront the God whom he was persecuting. The Bible doesn’t say this, but my strong suspicion is that Jesus had been trying to get Paul’s attention for years; had Paul had listened at all, Jesus wouldn’t have had to produce the special effects, the blinding light and thundering voice. But Paul’s monomaniacal focus while traveling at high speed in the wrong direction were preventing him from receiving the gospel. Jesus had to blind him for three days, is a sign of the struggle that needed to take place in the depths of his soul. And although his was a relatively rapid conversion, it wasn’t instantaneous: he had to be sidelined – in effect silenced – before Jesus could complete the work of sowing and rooting the gospel in him.
Now, one of the major transformations that is wrought in us when we convert to Christianity and submit to the sacrament of baptism is that we are grafted onto the mystical body of Christ, an vast network of believers, each with a different function in the body, but all of whom are supplied by the Holy Spirit with the mind, heart, and strength of Christ, as we struggle in life and with each other to grow and bear Christ’s fruit in the world. That network is what sustains us as Christians and as a church.
Here’s another illustration from nature which in Jesus’ time was not known at all; we’re just beginning to understand this now. For hundreds of millions of years, after plants appeared on land and from way before the time we invented the world wide web, another world wide web has been functioning silently underground. We call it the “mycelium layer,” and connects the roots of trees, many different kinds of plants, fungi and microbes to various other kinds of underground life forms in another incomprehensibly vast communication network, using moisture and temperature sensors, sophisticated chemical and electrical signals, and more. Hidden under our feet, there is constant activity and struggle – plants, for example will attack each other by releasing poisons or join with each other in alliances to survive; they can even share resources in response to the communications they receive from this web. What we see on the surface of the earth is the result of what is going on below.
So it is with us. We too, are connected not only mystically, in the body of Christ, but in myriad other ways – by family relationships, social ties, social media, cultural and national practices, political movements, and much more. We too, act in response to these signals: what we see on the surface of our human world is still the result of what is happening underneath – how we are receiving and growing the seeds of the gospel.
After that seminal encounter with Galloway in “A Few Good Men,” Kaffee discovers that a Code Red is an off-the-books disciplinary action, often brutal, designed to strengthen a military culture that had been so perverted from its original high aspirations that it resulted in abuses, injustice, murder and coverups. Bad fruit was growing from that culture’s rotting roots. But when the cracks appear in Kaffee, new, strong roots grow – strong enough to destroy a rock-hard justice resistant culture. These days in our society, we are similarly in a state of Code Red: the aspirations of our country that were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence have been perverted, also resulting in abuses, injustice, murders, and coverups. But that culture is in the process of cracking, and new seeds are taking root. As Christians, we must stand continue to do whatever Jesus asks of us, in order to make ourselves and our world suitable soil for the gospel. Even though we are still in a perilous Code Red state, the seeds of the gospel, the roots of justice, and the strength of the body of Christ, are all able to transform our hard, rocky, thorny, souls into rich soil that can be sown to bear excellent fruit. In Jesus’ name,