Sermon preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill (Washington, DC).
July 13, 2014
His name was Donald Sheehan, a long-time adjunct professor of English at my alma mater, Dartmouth College. He was a wise old man, and he looked the part. A long white beard, tweed jacket with well-worn elbow patches, dozens of index cards scribbled with his latest thoughts – stuffed in the left pocket of his never-ironed shirt. He even had a dog: a trusty old black lab, usually found curled up on his office floor.
By day, Donald Sheehan was a renowned English professor, whose freshman seminar on Rene Girard’s theory of violence was one of the college’s most popular courses. With a gripping, soft-spoken tone, he unraveled the mysteries of human desire, imitation, rivalry, and scapegoating that lay at the deadly core of civilization.
By night and on the weekends, Donald Sheehan had another life. It was nothing scandalous, so don’t get any wild ideas.
Outside the office and the classroom, he was Subdeacon Donald Sheehan, a leader in the local Orthodox Church. He was one of the world’s foremost scholars of theologian Pavel Florensky, a Russian priest, scientist and mathematician, who was dubbed the DaVinci of his generation. Florensky’s life was cut short by the Bolshevik revolution, but not before he authored his great work, The Pillar and Foundation of Truth.
Donald Sheehan had a study group that read Florensky’s masterpiece, chapter by chapter, every Tuesday night on the second floor of the college library. I was a Russian major, interested in diplomacy and the foreign service, but also with a curiosity about theology, so one of my other professors encouraged me to go. I was petrified as I stumbled into a room full of faculty and grad students, having understood almost none of what I was reading.
But then, much to my surprise, Don invited everyone to stand and pray.
Before any study, before any discussion about whether Creation, as a physical manifestation of the feminine Divine Sophia is in fact the fourth hypostasis of God (yes, Florensky argued for a Trinity, plus one), before debating whether the ancient orthodox liturgy of friend-making (adelphopoesis) was historical evidence of the holiness of gay marriage (yes, Florensky wrote about that too, nearly 100 years ago).
Before any debate about the influences of secular philosophy or the blending of science and religion, Before anything, the group stood and sang, in meticulous four-part harmony…
Come Holy Comforter, The Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere and fillest all things.
Treasury of blessing and Giver of Life: come and abide in us,
and free us from every impurity and save our souls, O Good one!
And so began my journey with Donald Sheehan, who would be my thesis advisor, mentor, and spiritual companion all rolled up in one. He introduced me – a proud, Pennsylvania Protestant – to the desert fathers and the spiritual traditions of Orthodoxy. He taught me to pray the psalms (all of them) and the Jesus prayer – that monastic shorthand for prayer without ceasing: with every step, and every breath, offering the words: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And so when I became the intern at the Episcopal campus ministry Center, I invited Don to speak to all of us students there. He opened his session with a question that I remember still to this day: “Is there anything we can do, in order to receive the grace of God?”
Ready to show off for my professor, I just about raised my hand and shouted, in true Protestant fashion “No, it’s a free gift!” We’re saved by grace through faith, not by works! Martin Luther would have been proud.
But Don had a different answer. “Yes,” he said, “We can. The daily spiritual practices of the church, the ascetic path – prayer, fasting, study, service – prepares our hearts to receive the Spirit.”
“Listen!” Jesus said, “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up, and you know how the rest goes….
This Parable of the Sower is deceptively familiar to us, especially since Jesus gives us a seemingly straightforward explanation. God is the sower, the seeds are the Word of God (grace, for short), and we are the soil. There are several soil options: rocky, thorny, bird-infested, or good. And we know which one we want to be.
But the fact that Jesus is telling this parable at all means that some in the crowd – and some of us – have soil that is not in the good and fruitful category.
I expect there might have been some mean snickers, judgmental grins and snarky comments in the crowd listening to Jesus that day, pointing fingers: rocky, shallow. But I expect, too, that some people found the words of Jesus cutting to the core of their soul, speaking an uncomfortable truth about the way their own hearts had become choked by thorns of wealth, whose faith was more shallow than they cared to admit, whose lives had been derailed by temptation, over and over, with every bit of goodness snatched away before it could take root.
I wonder what kind of soil we are here today. Rocky, thorny, bird-infested, good. Anyone want to raise their hand and confess?
It would be tempting to categorize ourselves and others as permanently good or bad, ready or not ready to receive God’s grace, fruitful or not so fruitful, worthy or not so worthy. And we could imagine all kinds of reasons why some of us have good soil and some do not. Christian history is full of the deadly wreckage of this kind of thinking; saved, damned; righteous, heathen; holy, sinner; and the list goes on.
But I have to believe that Jesus tells this parable not to judge, but to inspire us toward better soil; hearts more ready to receive the seed of the Gospel, more hospitable to the grace of God. If you’re like me, all those soil types feel so familiar; at different times, different places.
If this is true, if the parable is meant to move us, then there is another wrinkle to this story; we are not just the soil, but the soil-tenders, gardeners of a sort… acting on ourselves to become more rich, fertile, open, alive. We can see the state of our dirt, and do something about it. We can soften the path, prune the thorns, add depth to our lives with God.
But, before we do too much soul excavation and fertilization, we need to remember the most important part of this parable. Seed is sown everywhere; not just on the good soil. It is free. It comes to us as God’s gift, no strings attached. It falls on us, ready or not. And it keeps falling, over and over again. The seed of the word of God, the grace of the Holy Spirit, is alive! The initiative to grow comes from within it … and the seeds of God are powerful ones.
Like other stubborn seeds that manage to grow between the cracks of the sidewalk, that take root in the shallowest of soil, the seed of the Gospel can strike us with such power that it changes everything, so much so that we might say we are born again.
And we know that even sturdy plants that grew up from seeds in the best of soils – seeds that bore fruits a hundredfold in their day – can still be undone, by a flood that washes their roots away, wind that renders them feeble, weak; human violence that cuts them off in a tragic end.
Despite the seeming simplicity of this parable, the clear categories of good and bad — we know that the seed of the word of God grows in ways we cannot fully control. It may take root in us despite the poor condition of our soil; and good soil is no guarantee that the fruits will last forever. We are all of us rocky, dry, bird-infested, shallow AND good.
And yet, if this parable is true, the work of our lives is to cultivate, more and more, an openness, a readiness for the presence of God. With all the uncertainty in our lives and our world, with all that is beyond our control, the best we can do, the best chance we have for the fruits of the Gospel to flourish in and through us is to tend our hearts, day by day, inching closer to better soil.
How do we do this?
That’s what Subdeacon Don Sheehan was trying to teach me with his question many years ago: “Is there anything we can do, in order to receive the grace of God?” Yes, there is a well-trod path of spiritual practice, a treasury of wisdom, teachers that have probed the depths of the human heart, prophets who have led the way in transforming this world – and themselves.
We know what makes for good soil: pray, study, serve, give, fast, listen, care, forgive, love, tell the truth, confront evil, confess our faults and each time we fail stand up and begin again. It was Martin Luther King who said “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”
And that struggle, a joyful struggle, every day is what will – more often than not – prepare our rocky and shallow soil for yet more of the grace of God; prepare us to be more faithful in our work as Christ’s hands and feet in this world.
But we have to actually do these things.
It’s not enough to want good soil, we have to work for it.
In my day job, I am the Executive Director of Kids4Peace – a global interfaith youth movement that is working, with all our might and by God’s grace, to bring a measure of peace to Jerusalem, and to divided societies here at home. We are now more than 500 strong, youth and families, driven by the values of our faith; Jews, Christians and Muslims – working together, side by side, to create a world more like the one God intended, where all can live with dignity and hope.
These last few weeks have been so difficult for us. Our prayers have been mixed with tears, and fears, and anger. Our Jerusalem chapter of Kids4Peace is a community of Palestinians and Israelis, from all parts of the city and the neighboring West Bank. Our youth and staff are personally linked to all sides of this conflict.
After the deaths of Eyal, Gil-Ad, Naftali; Muhammad Dudeen, Mohammad Abu Khdeir, we have watched vengeance spread through the streets, fires burn, rockets rain down, hatreds fester and erupt in a deadly, fear-driven reality that has consumed now over 150 more lives in Gaza, whose names we have already forgotten. It is madness, a spiraling of violence, a mimetic rivalry like the one Rene Girard described, like I read about in Don Sheehan’s class, seeking resolution through the destruction of the other, no matter the cost.
Many voices have risen up against this escalation of violence. And while denouncing violence is good, it is not good enough.
Thomas a Kempis, the author of the spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ said this: “All men desire peace, but very few desire those things that make for peace.”
Just as it is not enough to wish for good soil, it is not enough to wish for peace. We need to work for it, day by day, week by week, with all the effort of our lives. We need to offer an alternative to the violence that we deplore.
In Kids4Peace, we see this happen: courageous Palestinians and Israelis step toward each other, not in a naïve harmony that papers over the unjust realities of the status quo, but in honest, painful, loving conversation where hard truths are spoken and heard.
Kids4Peace is not a one-time encounter, not a carefully-crafted photo-op or idealistic mountaintop experience. It is a way of life. When kids come to their first summer camp at age 12, they are beginning a six-year, year-round commitment to a program of interfaith dialogue, leadership development and nonviolent action. More than that, they are growing up together; week by week, across real and imaginary borders, struggling to know and understand and love and trust their supposed-enemy enough that they can live differently in this world, as friends and partners.
It’s a community of people like Nitzan, a Jewish girl whose father, a bus driver, was nearly killed by a suicide bomber in the second intifada. Like Nizar, a Muslim boy beaten and arrested by the Israeli police in a nonviolent protest outside his home. Like Michael, a young Israeli from a posh settlement looking for an alternative to his friends who shout “Death to Arabs” at every soccer match; like Amin, a Palestinian from the Qalandiya refugee camp desperate for an alternative to throwing stones.
This past Wednesday, more than sixty youth and parents gathered in Jerusalem for an interfaith iftar; breaking bread together, as one family, at the end of the day’s Ramadan fast; at the end of a day of rockets and bombings. They spoke and listened, prayed and cried together, seeking strength for the work ahead. It was a small step, but a brave one, in a world that is driving them apart.
They are cultivating in their communities, and in themselves good soil, places ready for the gift of peace to take root and grow. Each year in Jerusalem, nearly 200 families apply to join this community, but we can take only 50 of them, limited by finances alone. With enough support, Kids4Peace could be ten times bigger, not 500 strong but 5,000.
There is so much soil in this world that needs daily cultivation – in Jerusalem, countless places of violence, poverty and injustice around the world, and here at home. We know the change that is needed, but what will we do? With enough support, and enough work, by enough people, strong communities of peacemakers and justice-seekers could be the loudest voices, the one shaping the agenda in Jerusalem, and beyond.
It is an ambitious goal, but it is possible to do as we move from desiring change to doing change, from wanting good soil to creating it. The work of peace, like the life of faith, like the cultivation of good soil, is a struggle for the long haul. And we continue, with only one guarantee – that the grace of God will continue to be sown in us, powerful seeds of the Spirit coming our way, over and over again, until that day when the whole earth will be made new.
That’s what I learned – and still learn — from Donald Sheehan, now of blessed memory.
May it be said of us, that when the sower went out to sow, the seeds fell on good soil.
Fr. Josh Thomas