July 16, 2017

Brief synopsis of the readings: Through Isaiah, God reminds the people that just as rain and snow fall from the heavens and make the world fruitful before returning to the heavens, so too do does God’s word go forth and not return without “achieving the end for which I sent it.” In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus spoke to the crowds and told them about a farmer who sowed seeds. Some seeds fell on a path and were eaten by birds; some fell on rocky ground and couldn’t grow. Other seeds fell among thorns and the seeds were strangled. But some seeds fell on rich soil and produced “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” He finished this teaching with these words: “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

Several decades ago I had a conversation with a doctor: he told me that his favorite patients were farmers. When I gave him a puzzled look he explained that most of his patients expected him to cure whatever was wrong with them, regardless of their issue. But, he told me, farmers understood that there were some problems that nobody could fix. They knew that even if they perfectly tilled their soil, if they perfectly planted their seeds, if they perfectly weeded their fields, they were still not guaranteed a perfect crop. They knew that no matter what they did, they were still at the whim of rain, wind, and other variables they couldn’t control.

The understood that they weren’t God. But more importantly, they also knew they weren’t powerless. Generations of farmers learned, and passed along to their children, how they could best farm, how they could raise the odds of yielding the best possible crop.

But that said, the farmer Jesus described was a lousy farmer. Any farmer who spreads seeds where he knows it won’t grow is either incompetent or careless. I’m fairly certain that some of you who are reading this garden as a hobby. I don’t get it myself but putting work into preparing soil, planting seeds, weeding, and waiting provides a sense of accomplishment and joy. And any gardner will tell you that throwing seeds out the window and expecting the crops to sprout up spontaneously not only won’t work, it won’t be satisfying. Cooperating with the process, tilling, watering, weeding, gives meaning to both the process and the result.

When I think of this, I think of a word we Catholics don’t often use: karma. When we think of karma we tend to think of it with a fuzzy sense of “if I do good things, good things will happen” but don’t carry it much further than that. When I was in college I saw a commercial from the Christian evangelist Jerry Falwell. He offered to send a series of cassettes on how to live a successful and prosperous Christian life and he titled the first lesson “The Law of Sowing and Reaping.” I couldn’t resist, not because I agreed with him, but because he offered it for free and I was curious (after a year of sending requests for donations he gave up and stopped writing to me). Rev. Falwell used these readings to tell me that if you live a righteous life you will be rewarded with good things. Conversely, if you live a life that isn’t righteous you will be punished with bad things.

I laughed when I heard this because I knew that it wasn’t true. I knew many people who made good decisions and paid attention to their moral compass but still couldn’t catch a break. A few years later Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote his excellent book When Bad Things Happen To Good People out of his grief over the death of his 14 year old son. Clearly the equation of sowing and reaping doesn’t work in the small run.

Years later, as a hospice chaplain, I had a conversation with one of my colleague chaplains. In addition to her work with hospice she also taught a comparative religion class at San Diego State University. In the course of a conversation about karma she asked me (knowing my background) how I defined karma.

I recognized at that moment that both of us believed Rev Falwell’s definition was laughable, but I also recognized that I really didn’t have an alternative. And at that moment I recognized that karma isn’t local, it’s global. And this is what I told her: “When I do something that is kind, or generous, or good, I get to live in a world that is just a little bit kinder, or more generous, or better. Everyone else receives the same benefit, but that’s OK. The fact that everyone else gains the same benefit takes nothing away from the benefit I gain.” She thought it was a good answer, and to be honest, so did I.

I’ve spoken about this before, but when we read Scripture we can’t see these readings in terms of “what does this mean for me” but instead “what does this mean for all of us.” I’ve spoken about this before, but the redemption Jesus gave us on Easter isn’t individual. I have little patience for “accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savoir.”

When God speaks through Isaiah and Jesus we’re not taught to make good decisions because good things will happen to us right now. Instead we make good decisions because this will advance the Kingdom that God intends for all of us. It calls us to recognize that we all benefit when one person benefits (and we all suffer when one person chooses poorly).

It calls us to not sow seeds well because we are guaranteed prosperity, nor does it call us to sow seeds irresponsibly because it doesn’t matter what we do. Today’s readings call us to sow seeds responsibly because we all do well when each of us does what God asks us to do. We are called to be a part of a greater whole.

As I was looking at these readings I remembered seeing the 2000 movie Space Cowboys. It’s a great movie and if you haven’t seen it you should. The movie describes four retired astronauts from the 1960s who are called to return to space to fix a satellite. In one of first scenes we see Hawk (played by Tommy Lee Jones) who flies World War I biplanes for hire. In the scene a teenage boy (with his girlfriend in tow) announces it’s his birthday and wants a ride that will scare the hell out of him. Hawk gives him a ride that includes barrel rolls and steep dives and he vomits all over the cockpit. The teenager apologizes and offers to clean the plane but Hawk waits until the teen’s girlfriend approaches and praises the teen for an outstanding ride. This gave the teen the opportunity to look good in front of his girlfriend.

Spoiler alert: Hawk dies in the movie. I hope I didn’t ruin the movie for you but it makes an important point. He did an incredibly kind thing for a teenager who he probably knew couldn’t repay him. But hopefully this teenager benefitted from this experience and, given an opportunity to be generous in another situation, took it. Hawk’s decision to make this teenager look good instead of embarrassing him made the world just a little bit better; it benefitted the teenager, the teenager’s girlfriend, and Hawk. They all got to live in a world that was a little bit better.

When we sow these seeds, we know they will be fruitful.