July 16, 2023
When I read the gospel, my first thought was, wow, is there a better text for a monastic and Sunday assembly community located in the middle of a prairie? Seed wisdom upon seed wisdom!
I’d like to offer up three sources of seed wisdom for us today.
First, we have the wisdom of both the Hebrew and New Testaments.Isaiah and Matthew offer up powerful images of God’s word growing abundantly and filled with promise and possibility.
“My word…shall not return empty” the prophet says. He likens the journey of faith to rain falling to earth, becoming seed, giving way to sprouts, eventually becoming bread that feeds our bodies. As he speaks this truth, the prophet is reminding us that when we too sow seeds, we are joining the long process and doing our part in trying to bring to blossom or even fruit the word that came to us as seed.
Of course, as we read his promises, we are aware of seasons of plenty and seasons of drought. We know our efforts for justice and mercy, goodness and grace run up against all kinds of forces that would snuff the life out of us. In faith, however, we hold on with hope to his prophetic, and long, view that God’s word of abundance will thrive.
Matthew’s wisdom can feel a bit harder to access. It is rooted (no pun intended) in the arbitrary nature of seed planting of first century life. We can wonder why the writer shares a story in which 3 out of 4 seeds don’t make it. But, reflecting practices his listeners knew, he offers the truth that EVEN IF all that comes to fruition is one seed; even if drought or pests or thorns or rocky soil consume the bulk of the seeds; a little seed on a little good soil can take root, and from there good things can grow. If we are able to tend to the small number of tender shoots in the good soil, more seeds will be produced. With grace, in time, a field of plenty will grow.
Secondly, there is the Wisdom of the Prairie (also known as the gospel as revealed through the passion and words of Holy Wisdom Prairie volunteer Julie Melton and Director of Land Management Amy Alton).
This “good news” includes the truth that as part of an ecosystem – our lives flourish through interdependence and balance. The signs of climate catastrophe fill our news every day, while every day the prairie reminds us that we depend on what Native Peoples call “all our relations”, for our survival. At the core of interdependence on the prairie is mutuality, Julie explained included bees and flowers not only depend on each other, but have evolved together over time.
Upon my request, she sent me to a website that suggests that even though the first pollinators accidentally spread pollen while feeding on flowers, over time, bees and flowers have coevolved for mutual success. This includes behavioral and physiological adaptations to gather and transport pollen more efficiently, such as flight muscles can create sound vibrations to dislodge pollen from flowers (called buzz pollination) and pollen collecting hairs, or specialized hairs on a bee’s body to carry pollen back to the colony.
Even more fascinating, plants, we now know, can “reach out” to bees through such means as ultraviolet ‘invitations,’ as bees can see ultraviolet light but not red light;
or changing color at different stages of development, attracting pollinators when they need them most;
or establishing contrasting patterns of flower shades, tints, and tones that further direct pollinators toward floral rewards such as nectar or pollen, much like the nighttime runway lights of an airport.
As one learns some of the detailed working of the prairie, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the possibilities across the entire biological, relational and spiritual landscapes of our lives.
This mutuality is not just metaphor, not some existential truth removed from our lives. It is a reminder that like the bees and flowers, we are endowed – at a cellular level – with both the need and possibility of mutuality. We have evolved biologically, psychologically and spiritually to learn from others, even our opposites, to grow not in spite of each other, but because of each other; that we are shaped and dependent upon the other groups and communities that form us in ways we’d never understand by ourselves.
Nowhere is this more true than in progressive Christian communities that wrestle with both ancient texts and the historic actions of the church. Indeed, even this week, some of us had conversations about the power of the liturgy of the hours to shape us, even through psalms or other biblical texts that irritate or anger us. In relationship with each other, our sacred texts, and our respective traditions, we crave mutuality as the source and seedbed for vibrant and holistic life.
Mutuality is all around us, the prairie wisdom tells us. For those who have ears to listen or eyes to see.
Thirdly, in company with the texts and with creation all around us, we each come this morning with the wisdom of our own experience.We come with our own personal or familial seasons of drought and famine, of abundance and threat, of harvests of plenty and those life experiences that were pest infested ‘could have beens.’
And, we come with the knowledge of those people and experiences that planted seeds of faith in us. These experiences are not insignificant, in fact they are living testaments to both God’s word and God’s world.
37 years ago – in the summer of 1986 – I came to this very property for a weeklong retreat. I had never been to Madison, had never heard of St. Benedict’s and had to borrow the money to pay the bill and make the trip. What I didn’t know then was that seeds of faith and vocation were planted that would come to fruition many years later. It was because of the leaders I encountered here that I decided to go to seminary and begin my lifelong vocation as a pastor; it was because of experiences I had here that I first encountered practices that would save me in moments of vocational crisis and despair. It was here that relationships were formed which continue to shape my life today – not in abstract ways – but in daily relationships, activities and commitments. Just as importantly, many of those seeds did not peak through the tender soil of my life for more than 15 years.
As you sit here this morning, we are invited to look back with awe at seeds that have come to fruition in our lives. And to pray with humility to notice the small seeds taking root right now as we sit here. To live in the awe and wonder and grace that is beyond our ability to describe…
Some of our seed trajectories stand out with clarity and grace. And we say thanks.
Many of them are still in the process of being revealed. And we pray for guidance for when and how to tend.
Some that we thought long dead might just return to us unannounced, much like the random squash or tomato that grows from last year’s compost mixed into this year’s garden. And we laugh with holy humor.
May we be sustained by the hope of the prophets, never giving up on planting God’s word in the world.
May we remember the inefficient optimism of the gospel, remembering even a few small seeds bear much fruit,
and May we live with the attentive love of both the poets and botanists, humbly learning the new things God is doing in our part of the field of grace.