The Sower: Perspective from a Contemplative Posture

What follows is a sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19, Year A), reflecting on St. Matthew’s Gospel, 13:1-9, 18-23:

The Sower:

Perspective from a Contemplative Posture

       There were 49 of the kids.  I counted each and every one, after they swarmed down the stairs onto the beach, followed by a few adults seemingly more interested in staying out of the sun than truly monitoring the children.

We had gone to spend the morning on the beach, on the shore of Chesapeake Bay, to rest and be together.  We had built sand castles, played in the water, gone for a long walk to see what shells we could find—but above all to rest and breathe a bit.

Lisa and Evelyn had gone to take a few crackers to the sea gulls, leaving me to sit by our bag.  I took advantage of those few minutes to pull my knees up closer, close my eyes, and breathe deeply.  In my mind and heart, things began to float up to the surface: final thoughts on the sermon I would give the next day at the wedding, questions about deeply meaningful conversations around finance and stewardship, ideas for conversations next month at my meeting in Houston and Snowmass.  And, gratefulness…so much gratefulness.

 

Then, I heard them swarming behind me.  And I felt them, with my eyes closed, as they pounded the sand and ran on either side of me to plunge in the water, laughing and throwing footballs.

Another lady resting in a chair twenty feet away was showered with water and sand.  She jumped up, gathered her things, and walked up on the beach, cussing with each step.  Evelyn’s sand castle didn’t make it very long.  Three of the young boys stomped it to bits, while I sat watching five feet away.  They never acknowledged that it might be mine.

Suddenly, one small boy appeared next to me, taking a seat on the sand.  He was only a couple feet away, wide eyed and excited.

“Do you think I could go swimming?” he asked me.

I simply looked at him with a strange expression, wondering why he was asking me with the other four dozen people all around with whom he obviously had arrived.

“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” I told him, immediately wondering if he could even swim.  I watched him as he jumped up and ran into the water to join the rest.

After a few minutes, I saw Lisa and Evelyn walking up on the beach.  Evelyn’s face fell when she saw her sand castle, and I gestured to the masses all around me.

“I think it’s time we go,” I said to them both.  By the time we walked to the car, I was smiling with gratitude…because they had written my sermon for me!

 

Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables.

 

For a while now, I have been writing colleagues, describing a particular contemplative posture that underlies the various practices we may explore.  Beneath the particular ways of praying, the certain meditative practices, there is a particular posture that, honestly, is the deep, spiritual river that flows under all Christian life.

 

The earliest experimenters in Christian practice, those who went out into the deserts, those who became the first monks and nuns, and those who drew other seekers into their orbits like bright shining suns, used the language of nepsis, of watchfulness.

 

They understood the tension that exists in life when we are bombarded by distractions, by anxiety and fear that snakes its way into our field of view—that swarms around us as we try to breathe.

This posture of watchfulness was of paramount importance to them, because it gave rise to—it enabled—a further development of their awareness of God’s grace.

In the 7th century, a monk named Hesychios of Sinai described this posture:

Just as a blind man from birth does not see the sun’s light, so one who fails to pursue watchfulness does not see the rich radiance of divine grace.[1]

This contemplative posture enables us to see what we need to see in our spiritual life.

 

Now, look what is going on in this text.  It’s remarkable.

Jesus has taken time away to sit by the sea.  Remember all the times he encouraged his disciples to do this: to slip away, to find quiet places, to realize that this deeper atunement to God in silence was, in reality, the grounding of their ministry.  It’s not an accident that Jesus went into the Garden to pray before the authorities came to take him away to be tried before Pilate and crucified.  He knew what grounded him.  He knew what posture he needed to take to face what was before him.

So, here he is, taking time away to sit by the sea.

But it doesn’t last long, does it?  The crowds all swarm around him, blocking his view, dampening his watchfulness.  And what does he do?  This is very important:  He gets in a boat and rows out a bit from shore…

 

In this one little act, he’s teaching us a great lesson: sometimes, we must change our position in order to maintain our contemplative posture.  We have to pay attention, and shift a bit, so that our posture continues to enable us to hold the perspective we need…

To put it one way: rigidity isn’t the answer.  That’s why in Buddhism, so many of their essential principles focus on not grasping—onto ideas, onto a sense of permanence, etc.  To put it another way, as we have mentioned before, as Fr. Thomas Keating describes, the posture of prayer can be understood as grasping with open hands.

 

Jesus moves from resting by the sea to take his position in a small boat offshore as the crowds continue to grow.  And it is from that position that he teaches them—in parables.

And what does he teach them?  A parable about what it means to be grounded, of the importance of paying attention to your posture so that your deeper spiritual awareness, your watchfulness and your discernment and embodied practice (the intersection of nepsis and diakrisis) can take root and grow.

 

Listen again to this portion of Jesus’ teaching and let this importance of a contemplative posture sink in:

As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

 

It is the underlying posture that enables the growth to occur, for this deeper awareness to take root.

 

The struggle for us—as it has always been—is that we want to grasp onto certainty.  We want to maintain the illusion of control.  In such times of anxiety and fear, we so easily look toward figures who promise us what we think we need: certainty and control.  But these are so easily manipulated…and then there is shame and embarrassment and further protecting of our egos that cannot stand to be proven wrong…this painful cycle.

 

Jesus offers us another way: this fluid movement of ourselves that maintains not this sense of control and grasping, but this contemplative posture that places us the position to receive God’s grace.  To grow into the full statute of Christ, as our Baptism reminds this morning.

Think about it: it’s why Jesus calls this parable “The Sower,” even though so much of the focus is on the different situations of the seeds—because the focus is always on the persistence of God’s grace that finds us receptive when we practice this contemplative posture.

 

I love how Richard Rohr describes this dynamic movement in his book The Naked Now: Learning to See how the Mystics See.  Listen to his words:

If your religious practice is nothing more than to remain sincerely open to the ongoing challenges of life and love, you will find God—and also yourself.  Keeping the heart spaces and the mind spaces open, sometimes even “in hell,” is the essential work of spirituality.  The great Cardinal Newman said that “to be human is to change, to be perfect is to have changed many times.”[2]

 

It’s this movement, this dynamic movement in our lives that enables us to maintain this contemplative posture…that opens our hearts to receive the fullness God has in store for us.

In those times of change, we come to see the persistence of God’s presence.  We experience our roots sinking deep down into something other than our ego and grasping agendas.  And that, my friends, is heaven indeed.

[1] Hesychios the Priest, “On Watchfulness and Holiness,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Texts, Vol. 1, translated and edited by G. E. H. Palmer, Phillip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1979), 163.

[2] Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009), 96.

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