The Deep Soil (Matthew 13:1-23)

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Before arriving at the famous Parable of the Sower — the Gospel reading for today — we are first given Isaiah 55:10-11 to contemplate. Though Isaiah’s words were written approximately 500 years before Jesus spoke the Parable of the Sower, his parable calls to mind Isaiah’s prophecy so beautifully that it isn’t hard to imagine he might have deliberately intended it that way. Isaiah writes:

Thus says the LORD: Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.

My word shall not return to me void, says the Lord through Isaiah. And so Jesus begins to tell the crowds what “the kingdom of God is like…” It turns out that the nature of this kingdom is best revealed through parables, and in one of them, a sower goes out to sow seeds. The sower can be God, and the seeds can be the seeds of his kingdom, the little seeds that God plants in our lives that we have to look for and really notice to find. They are always there; do we see them? Do we notice them? 

But Jesus says this is what the kingdom of God is like. It is like these small seeds. He tells the people that some of the seed fell on the byway, and the birds came and ate it. Some of the seed fell upon the rocks and sprouted immediately in the shallow soil there; but because the soil there was shallow, the sprout had no depth of root, and so it withered when the heat of the sun came. Some of the seed fell among the thorns and brambles, and these choked it after it sprouted and had grown a little bit. 

But — and here, here at last is the seed that will not return void to the Creator — some of the seed fell on good, deep, rich soil. And it formed deep, strong roots in that good, deep soil. And maybe it grew a little bit slower than the seed that had sprouted in the shallow soil. Maybe it was more deliberate and unhurried about it all, taking its time to grow toward the light. But as it took its time it grew steadily, and quietly, and became strong as it slowly but inexorably felt itself pulled toward that light. It knew it would get there in good time, because it knew where it belonged. It belonged in the light, but only after it had been able to form good, strong roots in that fertile soil. 

One day it arrives in the light, and it’s too firmly established for the birds to eat it, and it has deep enough roots to withstand all the heat, nourished by water and nutrients from the cool and stable earth that is the ground of its being. And it is too grounded in the soil and too drawn to the light to be choked off by any thorns. And this seed, Jesus tells the crowd, grows to maturity and bears its good fruit a hundred or sixty or thirty fold. My word shall not return to me void, says the Lord. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

His Eye is On the Sparrow (Matthew 10:26-33)

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday we finally move away from John’s Gospel, where we’ve been for the majority of the fifty-day Easter season and the special Sundays immediately following it, and settle back into Matthew for the majority of this Year A of the lectionary. Here, Jesus is speaking to his disciples’ fears and worries in a time and place when life was lived close to the edge, and proclaiming your faith in Christ and his message could easily lead not only to rejection but arrest, torture, and death. This is still the case today in many places in the world, as the United Nations lists Christians as the most persecuted religious group across the globe today. 

But you don’t need to be persecuted for your faith in Christ, as so many Christians now are, in order to be deeply reassured by Jesus’ message in this reading. He says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even the hairs of your heads are all counted. So do not be afraid.”

Sometimes, we can wonder where God is. Horrible things happen in the world. Sometimes horrible things happen to us or those we love. Sometimes the daily, unremarkable challenges of life simply leave us feeling worn down, or inadequate, or weak and unable. But if we are open to the small signs in our lives, the gentle whispers of life, the simple gestures of love in the world, the call of a bird and the rustling of the wind, the delicate beauty of a flower and the time it takes for the sun to rise over the horizon, we can feel God’s presence within us and around us. We can know that, as the scripture says, God was there “in the still, small voice,” the whisper of sound. 

Last night I was reading about the remarkable story of Walter Ciszek, S. J. A Jesuit priest who had been sent to minister to Byzantine/Eastern rite Catholics in Poland in the late 1930s, he was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, at some point after the Russians overran Poland in 1939. He spent eighteen years as a Soviet prisoner. Fifteen of those years he endured under a sentence of hard labor in the Siberian salt mines, living in the same gulag that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made famous with his book The Gulag Archipelago, until the U.S. government finally secured his return home. 

To lose one’s faith and connection with God in those circumstances would have been understandable — even, perhaps, expected. Instead, as he wrote about in his books With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me, his inner life of spiritual contemplation with God became his only constant and the one thing that sustained him. He sensed God abiding with him and his fellow prisoners in the labor camp, and he chose to offer up his life and his hard labor there to God. He also risked his life to minister as a priest to his fellow prisoners, leading secret Masses, hearing their confessions and offering them sacramental absolution. At any time, any one of them could have reported on him for their own gain and turned him in to meet his death. He returned home to America in 1962. 

As I look out my window and I watch the birds gathering food, building nests, and living quiet simple lives of Creator-endowed grace from moment to moment, I can think of Jesus’ words about the sparrows to his disciples. And I can know that just as he watches them in the fields and trees, and just as he watched Walter Ciszek in the gulag, and just as he watches all of us — I know he watches me, too.

“Why should I feel discouraged

Why should the shadows come

Why should my heart be lonely —

When Jesus is my portion

A constant friend is he

His eye is on the sparrow

And I know he watches me” 

(lyrics Civilla D. Martin)

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck