Sunday, July 10, 2011

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

As Christians we believe
that God has spoken a word of grace to us,
and we are invited to respond to that word
by bearing the fruit of the Spirit.

In our Gospel reading,
God’s word is depicted as seed
that is scattered widely across on the earth
so that some falls on the path
and some falls on rocky ground,
and some falls among thorny weeds,
with only about a quarter of it falling on good ground.
These different sorts of soil
reflect different sorts of responses to God’s word,
some of which produce fruit and some of which do not.
The seed that falls on good ground produces an abundant harvest,
“a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold,”
by a process that seems to be natural and even effortless.
We might think that Jesus is saying
that while all people might not be good soil
in which his word can take root,
if you are good soil, then the fruits of that word
will be readily apparent;
if you are good soil then you will produce spiritual fruit
with the same ease with which seeds sprout from good soil.
And if you are finding life difficult and full of struggle
then maybe it is because you are not good soil.

This is not, however,
the implication that we should draw from this.
In our second reading, Paul also speaks
of how we live in response to God’s word.
Here the metaphor is not
that of the seed germinating in the soil
but of a woman laboring in childbirth:
“We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains
even until now;
and not only that, but we ourselves,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves.”
Paul speaks of “the sufferings of this present time,”
to which all of creation is subject,
and makes clear that
even those who have received God’s word with joy –
those who are “good soil” –
still share in that suffering.
Put in terms of our Gospel parable,
Paul is saying that we may indeed be the good soil
on which the seed of God’s word has fallen,
but we still groan along with all of creation
in our bringing forth fruit,
just as a woman must labor
in bringing forth her child.
The process of bearing fruit is not always,
and maybe not ever,
an effortless process.
As Jesus reminds us in John’s Gospel,
even the seed that falls to earth
only sprouts by means of a kind of death:
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24).

I dare say we all have those moments
when we find ourselves groaning,
awaiting redemption,
asking ourselves and asking God,
does it really have to be so difficult?
We might even have those moments
when we ask ourselves
whether the sheer difficulty that we experience
in trying to be faithful to God’s word
might be a sign that we are not, in fact, good soil,
but are rather the rocky path,
or the shallow earth,
or the weed choked thicket.
We find ourselves unemployed,
and our faith wavers.
We groan under the burden of
a debilitating physical or mental illness,
and we wonder whether God has abandoned us.
We suffer the loss of someone we love
and we ask ourselves whether we really trust
that God is a God of life.
If we groan in our suffering,
does this mean that our faith is shallow
and our souls choked with weeds?

Paul seems to say, “no.”
Suffering in this life
is something we share with all of creation,
and why some suffer and others seemingly do not
should never be taken as a sign of who is and is not
the “good soil” that receives the word.
In fact, we have no idea why life’s sufferings
seem to be so unevenly distributed
and I suspect that the answer to this question
will remain a mystery to us in this life.
Paul, it seems to me, is trying to get us to shift our question.
He is trying to get us to ask not,
“where does this suffering come from,”
but rather “where is this suffering leading.”

We can see our sufferings
either as the last agony of one who is dying
or as the laboring of one who is bringing new life to birth;
our groaning can simply be a cry of despair,
or it can be a calling out to God.
The difference between the good soil and the bad soil
is not that one suffers and the other does not,
that one groans and the other does not,
but rather that the good soil suffers and groans
in faith, and in hope, and in love,
trusting that the trials and sorrows of this life
are, in a mysterious way that we cannot now clearly see,
the birthpangs of the good soil,
laboring to bring forth the fruit of eternal life.