St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401


  • The Fruits of Love – The Rev. Michelle Meech

    July 16, 2023

    It’s the Parable of the Sower this week – where Jesus gives us a metaphor to illustrate God’s love, as given to us through the teachings of Jesus. God’s love is offered to us through teaching or acts of compassion or simply because we breathe and this love bears fruit. The problem, the parable tells us, is that fruit will not always be the result because, often, either the soil has been hardened so the seed cannot penetrate, there is not enough soil to sustain life, or what does grow gets choked by weeds. So, no fruit.

    It’s a powerful metaphor.

    Women Sowing Seeds, unknown Bengali artist

    If we read it through one lens, we see the judgmentalism of Matthew coming through. Keep in mind, Matthew and his community have been disconnected from the synagogues in Antioch, Syria where they have been formed by the belief that Jesus was the messiah. Matthew is obviously suggesting that not everyone will be the good soil and offering his readers a reason as to why Jesus was rejected by others. The inference is clear: we are the good soil because we believe in Jesus as the messiah. Therefore, be good soil! Believe!

    To be clear, however, Matthew isn’t the only Gospeler to offer this parable. It’s found in both Mark and Luke and in the Gospel of Thomas which, of course, is not in the canon of our Christian scripture. So, it was not created by Matthew for his purposes. But in the larger context of Matthew, it is very obvious he is referring to the Jewish leadership in Antioch.

    It is a very accessible metaphor and, as I said, a powerful one because it wields this judgment. So that, even if we don’t know the context of Matthew’s Gospel, the story leaves us wondering: Are we the rocky soil? Are we the hardened and barren path? Are we thorny and weedy? Or… we have in our mind’s eye who we have already decided is the hardened, rocky, or weedy soil. And suddenly, we have a way to use scripture to draw a line in the sand – who’s in and who’s out. Which is something we do all.the.time.

    But if we read this parable through another lens, it illuminates less about us and more about God. And that is, that God is always, always, always trying to reach out to us, to get seeds of wisdom and love to grow in us. God’s love is never ceasing. God’s love is unbounded, limitless. God’s love turns our judgmental need-to-know-who’s-in-and-who’s-out way of thinking on its head. God’s love is something that we cannot fathom, yearning to wrap its arms around even the most hated, disgusting thing we can think of. God’s love desires nothing but our liberation:
    Liberation from our own psychological and spiritual pain.
    Liberation from abuse and oppression.
    Liberation from whatever holds us in fear so that we may know our true identity as beloved children of God.

    And then, God’s love gives us agency to turn around and offer whatever we can to others who are in need.

    This is the spiritual path of Christian healing. And it offers us even more insight into this parable because, if we read a little more deeply, we realize that we have all been in all of these places from time to time. We have all been so deeply wounded that we find is hard to let love in. We have all been so thinly spread by the ways of the world that we have nothing left to nourish the love God has given us. We have all been so confused by our own self-judgmental thoughts that they choke out the love that has been planted inside of us.

    So, the parable isn’t saying, this person is bad and that person is good. The parable is saying: Sometimes your heart and mind are open and your soul is shining through and your ability to hear the word of God is more present and it will grow inside of you, nourishing you and the other people in your life. And sometimes the “world is too much with us.”

    And there is still another lens through which to read this parable. Because this parable is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke we know that it was an important teaching offered by Jesus. And we know that Jesus used parables all the time to help his followers understand exactly what he meant when he was teaching them about the Kingdom of God.

    The nature of God is mysterious – like a lemon seed on a counter. You can never quite grasp it because it slips from your fingers as you try. You can see it. You know it’s there. But it’s illusive and slippery. Another way to think of this is to recognize God’s nature as Truth – truth that is startling and bright. Poet Emily Dickinson says that the best way to tell truth is to tell it on a slant.
    She says:
    “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
    … The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every [one] be blind –“

    The Gospel Truth is, indeed, a difficult truth to really take in and to fully commit to enacting in the world. If it were easy to grasp, the Kingdom of Heaven would be realized, Christ would have come back again, and this mortal coil would be over.  God’s peace would be reigning and there would be no oppression. Everyone would be liberated and we would live in equanimity. And so, to help us hear the Truth, our teacher Jesus uses parables. He teaches people by using extended metaphors that are grounded in every day life.

    He’s not exactly talking to us, however. He’s talking to first century, illiterate peasants who were being ruled by an occupying force – the Roman Empire. Their everyday life was one of oppression under Roman rule. Which is an important piece to remember if we’re going to understand Jesus as the Christ, to truly know what it meant to these people that this person Jesus was going to lead them to liberation.

    For us, we tend to like to put Jesus in a purely spiritual box. But the kingdom Jesus was talking about – God’s kingdom – was one of real life liberation from real life oppression. Actual social justice. The peace of God that Jesus was talking about was much more practical than a mystical sense of peace, or of feeling good. It was a balancing of power and an overturning of the systems.

    That is not to say that there is no spiritual component to this. Not at all.

    Jesus taught us how to pray, how to confess, how to heal… how to be in relationship with God. Because this is what leads us to truly care for ourselves so that we are able to care for one another rather than living a self-serving, isolated life.

    And this is the real point of today’s parable: if leading a spiritual life is just about feeling good, then we’ve missed the point.

    To help illustrate this, we might glean a little from the missing verses in today’s Gospel reading:  verses 10-17. What we miss is the disciples questioning Jesus about his choice to use parables.  When questioned, Jesus responds saying:

    The reason I speak to them in parables is that seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.

    In other words, he was trying to find another way to reach people because plain language was not going to work. These were people who were tired and disheartened. For nearly 100 years Rome had become a military presence in the area, gaining full control about 25 years before Jesus started teaching. For nearly 100 years these people had been hoping that the Romans would leave, that someone would come to liberate them. Many just gave in to despair, losing hope and accepting the circumstances. Or finding a way to profit from them. For nearly 100 years, the Jews had heard leader after leader, speech after speech, promise after promise. None of them knew what life was like without Roman presence. It had become the air they breathed. So, Jesus used a different way of talking to them to get them to see that the way things were was not how they should be.

    According to New Testament scholar William Herzog, who wrote Parables As Subversive Speech, the “vast majority of the population, about 70 percent, were peasants who worked the land and lived in the towns and villages that dotted the countryside.” That is to say, they provided the labor. They didn’t own the land. They just went with the land, as animals of a farm might go with the farm should it be sold.  (Herzog, pgs 63-64) The Pax Romana for these people was everyday, debilitating oppression.

    When we talk about healing as Christians, when we talk about nearness the Kingdom of God, we must realize that we are not just talking about our personal spiritual lives. We are not just talking about recovery from our own psychological demons. We are not just talking about being liberated from our own physical ailments.

    Healing, liberation, the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God… these are words and phrases that must always be both-and. Yes, they are about our own healing AND they are about the physical, tangible liberation of all humanity. Indeed, of all creation.

    Jesus tells us: 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.”

    In other words, it’s not just ourselves who benefit from our healing, but it’s all the people to whom we learn how to minister and love.

    You and I, we are church because we are called out of this world to inhabit another space, alongside the world and its ways. To be in the world but not of it. My ethics professor John Kater put it this way: “To be a Christian is to stand at the crossroads, seeing the Reign of God and the ways of the world at the same time.”

    And as we heal, we become healers because we more clearly see the Reign of God. As we are liberated from our own demons, we become liberators of other people because we more clearly understand the sinful ways of the world.

    Once we know God’s love, we cannot stay there, coveting it. We must continue our healing so that we have the stamina and the wisdom to keep coming back to the world, inviting others into the Reign of God and doing the much-needed work of changing systems and behaviors and hearts.

    So let us be church – for ourselves and for the world.