21st Sunday after Pentecost / Martyr Longinus the Centurion / Gal. 2.16-20; Luke 8.5-15
F/S/HS. Dear brothers and sisters, our Gospel this morning—one of our Lord’s most well-known parables, fondly called the Parable of the Sower.
This past August I and another priest spoke at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Seattle, on the subject of Holy Marriage. At the conclusion of the conference our Dean, Fr. Alex, stated that if any couples wanted to talk with us two priests about personal matters in their marriage, 15 minute blocks of time would be set aside for such conversation. Both Fr. George and I had approximately 7-8 couples avail themselves of those 15 minute blocks of time.
As I was saying good-bye to my last couple, I noticed a young woman—in her mid-twenties—waiting to see me. I’ll name her Natalie. Natalie shared that she and her fiancé Jacob were getting married this coming summer.
Natalie and I spoke for nearly an hour, a conversation directly related to this morning’s Gospel lesson. Natalie’s life, Natalie’s faith journey, I think you will agree, portrays many valuable lessons for our own life, our own journeys of faith.
So Fr. Daniel, I want to ask about my relationship with Jacob. But first I want to ask you about something—Jesus’ parable of the Sower? I was curious to see where Natalie was going. His parable portrays a sower who sows the word of God into human hearts. It portrays four different kinds of ground, four different hearts, upon which that seed fell. The first three don’t fare very well; the seed that lands on those hearts never roots and never matures. Only the fourth person hears the word of God with a noble and good heart, and keeps that word in their heart unto bearing fruit with patience. So my question is this: Do you think it’s true that the parable is about four different kinds of people? Because that’s the interpretation of so many of our church fathers.
Share more, I prompted Natalie. It sounds like you think there might be another interpretation? Natalie nodded. Yes, because I just discovered another interpretation, from the saint that you mentioned during your second talk. I looked at Natalie inquisitively. St. Nikolai Velimirovic, she blurted out rather excitedly.
I just discovered St. Nikolai about a month ago. Both Jacob and I are very taken by him. He says that the deeper truth of Jesus’ parable is that all of us go through different seasons of our life where, during one season we are the wayside ground; during another season the stony ground; then the ground choked by the thorns; and hopefully there are seasons of our lives that reveal our soul to be deeply rooted in that good ground, where our lives do indeed yield a noble and good fruit.
I asked Natalie. So, what season is your life currently in? What ground are you? Natalie’s countenance suggested that she welcomed my question.
Well, I hope and I pray that I’m not caught up in self-delusion. Because currently Jacob and I are the fourth ground, that good ground. We feel loved by God, and we love God. We feel noble and good inasmuch as we are very connected with our Church—it’s up north, in another town. Our worship services mean so much to us. And we’re involved in various roles in our church. I meet regularly with two different elderly women, where we pray and study together, and I do some housework and cook for them. And Jacob and I teach a children’s class together. So it feels like we’re in a season where our lives are indeed bearing a noble and good fruit.
Natalie paused. Her eyes grew moist with tears. All of this started about a year ago, shortly after I met Jacob and after I read a book about the life of the artist, Vincent van Gogh.
I raised my finger and shook my head with amazement. Natalie, when I was a little older than you, during my protestant seminary years, during a painful season in my own life, it was a research project on van Gogh that so helped restore my own faith. But tell me, how did van Gogh help your soul hear the word of God unto a noble and good heart?
Well, she began, a tear now running down Natalie’s cheek, I discovered van Gogh’s painting The Sower. The first time I saw it, I was riveted. I couldn’t take my eyes from it; it seemed to make its way down into my soul. Before long I found myself prayerfully meditating on it. That immense sun behind the sower as he goes about his sowing, shining brilliantly upon him and all the earth. Somehow, I don’t know how exactly, that sun and the sower, and those radiant yellows, helped me discover a precious gratitude to God, for His grace and mercy sown to all of us.
Did you know, I interrupted Natalie rather excitedly, that van Gogh wrote his brother Theo, to tell him that that sun did indeed represent God’s brilliant light and love being sown into all the world. So your interpretation is very much in keeping with van Gogh’s intent. And did you know too that at one time in van Gogh’s life, not many years before he painted The Sower, he was a missionary in Belgium, in an area called the Borinage, a very poor mining district populated by suffering and impoverished miners and their families.
No, I had no idea, Natalie said, no idea at all that van Gogh had been a Christian. Now my eyes watered up. It’s a long story for another time, I told her. But please, continue with the The Sower.
Yes, the longer I meditated, the more my heart started filling with prayer and with gratitude for God’s love for me and for our whole world. I had the distinct impression that van Gogh was trying to render in paint God’s love and His light being cast here and there and everywhere, into every human heart. To use your word about van Gogh, Fr. Daniel, I came to realize that my own life was quite impoverished, and that something needed to change.
And so I committed to making those changes. I started reading the Scriptures, and the lives of the saints. I returned to Church and the Divine Liturgy. During Liturgy, I often close my eyes and experience God’s love and light being cast about, by Jesus the Sower. And the Chalice: It’s full of that love and full of that light!
I smiled again, so enjoying Natalie’s narrative. She paused. Her gaze grew more somber. But it’s not always been this way, Fr. Daniel. I grew up Orthodox, but left the Faith when I was a junior in high school. That next year, my senior year, I went to Camp St. Mary. The experience was one of those mountain top highs. I did great … but for that summer only! Then I fell away, yet again. I was that first ground, where the devil comes and snatches the Word of God right out of your heart.
Looking back on my journey, I didn’t have any roots. I was that second ground, that rocky ground. And even if I had roots, they would not have penetrated my rocky heart.
It says about that second ground that temptation comes, causing you to fall away. That’s what happened during my college years, years where my faith was so very shallow, where I was swept away by the winds of many a temptation. I started hanging with a crowd that did not profit my soul. I got into stuff that was pure temptation. Pretty bad stuff. I was introduced for the first time to pornography and hard liquor. Both messed me up pretty good.
And then that third ground—I don’t know which was worse, the second or the third ground. I was a business major and went on to get an MBA. I got a really successful job out of college, here in Seattle, at an accounting firm. I made a lot of money and started accumulating nice things. Every Liturgy, at the Cherubic Hymn, when I hear those words set aside all earthly cares, I’m reminded of that third ground and the many ways that the riches and pleasures of life seduced me, seduced me for a period of nearly three years, up until about a year ago.
All I cared about was saving for a nice house. I bought a new car, a Volkswagen Beetle, a really cool lime green. I cherished my cloths and all things fashion. I bought a super high fidelity stereo system and became totally immersed in the Indy music scene. Went to concert after concert here in Seattle, and down in Portland.
And then I met Jacob, and had that experience with van Gogh. And returned to my Orthodox Faith. I wish Jacob could have come today. I know you would really like him. He challenged me. He is simple of spirit. Very frugal lifestyle. He’s a convert to the Faith. He loves God dearly and is very dedicated to our church. His life was so deeply rooted compared to my pleasure-seeking life.
So now to my original question, Fr. Daniel. As Jacob and I prepare for Holy Marriage, how do we remain steadfastly rooted in that fourth ground? How do we continue to nurture a noble and good heart? Just then Natalie’s phone dinged. It was her father, who was outside St. Nicholas awaiting Natalie, to pick her up and take her back home. She told me that she sold her VW Bug and purchased a used Toyota Corolla, and that it was in the shop! So she had to get ride from her father.
Natalie and I prayed together. Keep doing what you are doing, Natalie. Remain close to God, stay in the boat, and partake frequently of the medicines of the church, Confession and Holy Eucharist especially. Continue to read the lives of the saints? Do you have a favorite saint or two, I asked her. Yes, St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, and St. Maria Skobtsova, she answered quickly. Wonderful, I responded. Pray for their intercessions. And pray to our Panagia, that she guide and bless your journey with Jacob unto Holy Marriage this next summer.
Sisters and brothers. So many valuable lessons for our own lives embedded in Natalie’s story. As we ponder those lessons, as we prayerfully ponder this morning’s Gospel, let us heed our Lord’s words from our Gospel, He who has ears to hear, let him hear (v. 8). F/S/HS.