Seeds of Goodness
One of my favorite definitions of “ego” is the one I learned at a 12 step meeting. EGO - the letters EGO stand for Edging God Out. When you edge God out of the equation you begin to think you’re solely in control of how circumstances unfold, for better or for worse. Whether we convince ourselves if we do this than that will happen, we edge God out. Or the flip side of that coin, when we convince ourselves that this or that won’t happen, couldn’t possibly happen, so we do nothing, we edge God out. Ego. Like a chess master, we begin to make choices and decisions and anticipate our next move, convinced we can steer our life to go exactly where we want it to go. Or we convince ourselves we have no control at all, so we sit idly by, forgetting that we check out completely, we’ve stopped listening for how God is working.
In this morning’s scripture, you might have noticed that we skipped a whole lot of verses. The good folks who put together the lectionary (which is the three year cycle of assigned scripture readings) edited out a big chunk of scripture. What’s usually edited out are words of judgment, and no one likes a “judgy” Jesus, making it easier on the preacher. But this week I’m up for the challenge, so here’s what you missed.
The disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables, which if you recall, are never a straightforward teaching moment, they’re more like riddles: stories that wake up the listener, stories that have multiple meanings. In the same way we cannot edge God out of the equation of our lives, we cannot edge God out of the teachings of christ which will speak to each of us differently at different times on our spiritual journeys.
Jesus goes on to separate people into categories. This is where it begins to sound like judgment. There are those who have been given the secrets of the kingdom and those who have not. He says, “Whoever has- will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables.”
Even his answer to that is confusing, like a parable. But Jesus goes on, clarifying and drawing from the prophet Isaiah:
Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.
But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.
What is that allows some of us to hear and others to fall deaf? Or more accurately, what happens in those moments of our lives when we’re able to hear, and those other moments, when we’re deaf to what God is doing and saying.
Jesus continues, “The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
The worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. The worries of this life are rooted in fear, and deceitfulness of wealth are rooted in greed. Both are rooted in Ego, and the inability to trust.
The word of God which Jesus speaks, and in John’s gospel Jesus becomes, are the seeds of God, the wisdom of God, the potential of God within and around us, the kingdom of God. Fear and greed, both edge God out, cut off our ability to hear, to perceive, to understand, to grow.
Fear leads to a kind of stuntedness, keeping us underground, if we’re talking about seeds. This happens especially when life falls apart, When the job is lost, or the stock market crashes, or the PHD no longer seems relevant, or the children grow up, retirement sets in and you begin asking, now what, and whatever you’ve built your identity around, your sense of self worth, when dependent on who you once were in the eyes of the world, when that comes to an end, our sense of self worth can crumble with it, and worry sets in, because all we’ve once known no longer works.
Greed on the other hand, or egotism (excessively conceited), leads to taking over a garden, choking all the other plants in our way, incapable of cohabitation with those more vulnerable.When we’ve convinced ourselves we’re entirely and unilaterally deserving of our own success, we become vulnerable to different kind of fear which leads us to narcissism and loss of empathy.
According to Jesus, without God, the word of God and the secret of the kingdom, which are planted as seeds, we are incapable of growth. Which is why we are continuously called to living a life with less ego and more of God.
The true seed within us is the living presence of God’s image implanted in the soul. “There is something in the soul which is only God,” wrote Meister Eckhart (theologian, philosopher and mystic 1260-1328).
As belonging to God we’re called to tend to that soul. Which takes time, water, light, and more time. it takes practice, prayer, listening with humility. It takes curiosity, an ability to admit we can’t possibly begin to know all there is to know about how God moves and works and cultivates and grows us into becoming.
All of which is not solely for our own benefit, but for the good of the collective. Only when we begin to cultivate our own soulfulness, can we begin laying seeds of our own into the world, on behalf of God, with God’s help, never relying on the outcome or the result. We don’t tend to our own should in a vacuum but in communion with all humanity.
We don’t live in monasteries but in the world, which means that politics, morality, race, immigration, religion and the future of our country are just a few of the many seeds being cultivated. Many of our conversations around these topics lead to anger and frustration, shaming and blaming, until eventually someone walks away or worse.
If change is going to take place, if God’s people are going to hear and see as part of the ever rowing kingdom, it will only be by letting go of ego. God is at play in every difficult conversation we have, and if we can learn to stay in conversation, loving (in Christian love) our neighbors and our enemies, than we begin to tend to the soil the soil with God’s help. If we can remember that in every word we speak is an opportunity for God to speak, if we let go of the outcome and stop convincing ourselves that we can change anyone’s mind, we can let God do what God does, which is beyond us. Once we enter into discussion convinced it’s our job to change someone else, we’ve already lost. On the other hand, the more in touch we are with the truth that lives within, the more we can expand into places of compassion, empathy, and understanding. Why would we do that when we’re convinced that the other person is bigoted, hateful, racist and wrong? Because by convincing yourself that there’s no hope for them, you’ve edged God out of the equation. And maybe when Jesus teaches to love our enemies, he’s telling us to keep laying seeds, keep tending to the garden, keep cultivating and trust that God will do the rest.
Barbara Brown Taylor, who writes about this parable, tells a story of her own seed planting. She did everything right, cultivated the soil, and carefully planted seeds, and waited, and waited, finally leaving town for a few days, and excitedly saw that while she was gone things began to grow.
Then I left town for ten days and when I returned the garden was full of healthy young plants. So far I do not recognize any that I put there. The mint I worked so hard at getting rid of was back, along with a thicket of tomato seedlings that must have come in with the compost. There are also some wild violets and the beginnings of some morning glory vines.
The rest of the plants are a mystery to me. Since they appear all over the garden I do not believe they emerged from my carefully placed seeds,
Preparing excellent soil is clearly not the whole story.
We must, all of us be careful not to edge God out of the equation; either convincing ourselves that our small actions won’t possibly make a difference, so why bother (fear) or that we can make such a difference we convince ourselves that we will change the minds of every person we come into contact with who we think is wrong. We edged God out, when we convince ourselves that if we just argue enough, shame enough, or shout enough, we will control the narrative (greed).
When we trust that God is here, and when we do the work of attending to our seeds and soul planted by God within, we can branch out into ways of compassion for the sake of those around us. Whether hungry or lost, we can carry with us with no expectation of saving the world singlehandedly, with no fear of being ineffective. God is at play, God is at hand. And to think otherwise is pure ego.
Like the garden of Brown Taylor’s, which was a complete surprise to her, there is always something greater than ourselves at work. She finishes that story by writing this:
I have not decided what to do about them (those strange seeds sprouting up in my garden) yet. On one hand, I could reassert my will. I could consult my seed packets and rip up everything that does not match the pictures on the fronts. I could supplement my thin crop with some gerberas and marigolds from the feed store. I could even give up, letting the mint grow back and forgetting my brief fantasy of a garden.
On the other hand, I could continue to tend this strange plot with its random mixture of weed and flower. My definition of a "weed," after all, is anything I did not plant. Wild violets are really very lovely. So are morning glories, especially when they grow up beside dandelions and buttercups. What if my job is not to select the seed but to prepare the soil? What if my call is to give myself to the work without getting too attached to the results?
Since I am new at gardening, I do not know the answer yet. Maybe there is not one answer, but many, depending on the gardener in question. One thing is for sure: some sower was here ahead of me. There is more life hidden in this rich earth than I could have asked for or imagined. All I had to do was bend down and look.