By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Spring is coming – the sure signs are there, the song birds again singing in the new day, the sound of geese returning day and night, snow drops and the first crocuses already blooming in our garden, and a sure sign, Anne Miechielsen wandering about in the garden, here this past week for the first time in a while, anticipating what might come forth this year, getting ready to turn the soil and make it abundant with blessing. As the gardeners turn their attention again to the soil, so are we being called to return to the ground of our being and to attend to who we are.
In our first reading today [Genesis 3:9-19], we heard about God’s response to the disobedience of man in the garden of pleasure, the garden of Eden, Paradise.
To Adam he says, Because of your disobedience, cursed is the ground because of you, in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you… It reminds us of the reality of our suffering in this life, of the pain we experience in trying to earn a living or to make our way in this life. It speaks plainly of the reality for all of us about the very ground of our being – not everything springing up in us is helpful, and spiritual fruitfulness, the growth of what is good, takes a certain effort. We are dust and the coming season of Lent calls us to return to that dust, to the ground of our being.
But this “condemnation” by God is not an act of cruelty, or a hatred towards us from a God that is annoyed at us, but an expression of his love for us. We are human, of the “humus”, the soil, of the creation, and the pain and suffering we experience is to humble us, (a word also derived from “humus”) to make us remember that we are but of the soil, of the earth, creatures, not God.
God has providentially arranged things, for our good, so that the suffering we experience when we direct of our loves in the wrong way, can move us away from what is hurtful. In the same way that we have pain sensors in our hand to make us withdraw from a hot stove, the suffering that comes from sin, moves us to stop, to seek help, even to pray to our God that we might move away from sin and towards the ways that brings us peace, the love of God and of our neighbour.
In the Gospel this morning [St Luke 8:4-15], Jesus speaks about this soil, this ground, that is our soul. In the Parable of the sower who went out to sow his seed. Jesus makes a number of statements of fact about why some seem to respond to God’s word and some do not, why God word flourishes in some people and less so in others.
Jesus is making statements of fact, spiritual realities. But by implication he is also calling us to a kind of engagement with our spiritual growth.
- Jesus is saying “don’t be the kind of person like soil on a well-worn path”, in other words don’t follow in your life the path that is well trod, doing just what everyone else in the world is doing – think about your life and its direction, step aside, be different.
- And Jesus is saying “don’t be like the person whose heart is rocky”, impermeable to any change, not allowing the Word of God to take deep root and bear fruit regardless of the external circumstances, not allowing the Spirit to water us inwardly.
- Jesus is saying don’t be like the person whose heart is so indiscriminate about what we put into our minds, or what we think about, that we simply allow everything to grow up in us, and to become continually distracted and what is true is lost in the midst of the confusion.
Jesus tells us that the seeds of God’s word will grow and bear forth fruit abundantly if the soil is good. He is telling us to look at that soil, to return to it, that humus, that is our soul, that there are some things we can do to make our lives more fruitful if we return to the dust, the ground of our being.
We are to be engaged in God’s project of saving us, of growing in holiness, of being more fruitful.
This is the backdrop to the Church’s annual call to enter into a Lenten discipline. As I mentioned last week, this is not something you must do for your salvation, the Church is not claiming a Lenten discipline is a teaching directly from the Apostles. But the spiritual disciplines are clearly in Scripture – fasting, prayer, reading Scripture, charitable works – are Apostolic in origin, they’re there in the Bible. But doing this at the same time and together is simply something over the centuries that has been found to be helpful for us as a Church to do together, we can encourage one another and draw closer to one another as we commit ourselves to growth together.
If you’re from a more Protestant background, you might wonder if this is works righteousness? No. It is an act of loving obedience to our Lord who tells us how to give alms, who tells us how to pray, who tells us how to fast, and shows us by his own example, by going into the wilderness to fast for 40 days, or onto the mountaintop apart to pray. Or it is to follow St Paul’s teaching, who says, the Scriptures are good for our training in righteousness [2 Tim 3:16], or St James who says, “If anyone among you things he is religious, and does not bridle his own tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” [James 1:26-27]
In the Epistle reading today [2 Corinthians 11:19-31] St Paul is held up as an example of fruitfulness.
He begins with a kind of slap in the face to wake up Christians who are just sitting back and being formed and shaped by bad teachers without thinking for themselves. There was a particular context for this, but his opening remarks could also be a description of the sort indiscriminate receiving of the teachings of world from all the media, news, television, movies, books that the world produces:
For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face.
Paul’s life, was a continual struggle to understand the Word of God, to hear the Spirit of God speaking in his heart, and to live it out to the fullest. He discovered that Jesus was calling him to action, and to will the good that he knew, to love his Lord and his Lord’s beloved flock. He attended to spiritual discipline and saw in all his struggles and sufferings an opportunity for the purifying of the very ground of his being, the soil that is his soul. He is an example to us of incredible fruitfulness, and through his writings St Paul continues to bear more and more fruit.
Lent is a spiritual adventure, a call to a more lively engagement in our Christian journey, we’re promised a greater fruitfulness if we return to the dust, to the ground of our being and attend to that soil.
I will give some more explicit suggestions of some possible ways of engaging in Lent in the article found here.
This morning and every Sunday morning, Jesus gifts us in the Church, with the means, through the liturgy, to make the soil good. Jesus will enrich the soil that our soul this morning, he is calling us now to cast out the thorns and weeds that have sprung up, repent of our sins and believe in him. He says,
Hold fast my word in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.