The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Seeds growing to fruition
I hate to admit it, but until this spring, it had been 37 years since I’d put in a vegetable garden. Back in Vermont, where I lived back then, all you had to do was throw the seed in the ground and wait. The soil was fertile, and it actually rained. The real work was in hacking back the jungle that surged out of the ground.
Well, it’s different here, but I’m still amazed at how life comes out of dry seeds, water, and dirt. Tomatoes, chiles, and cucumbers are already forming, and I’ve been using herbs for weeks. Coming up out of the earth is green, flavorful, nutritious and life-giving life. If that isn’t proof of God, I don’t know what is.
Jesus knew that. He often used agricultural metaphors, as he does today. It sounds like Vermont: scattering seed, we sleep and rise night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, we know not how, and then lo and behold, the earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. The kingdom of God is like that, Jesus says. Working within, grace is like a small, underground seed that takes on a life of its own, eventually growing to fruition.
We were talking about this last week when I was meeting with other CREDO faculty to create a new wellness conference for recently ordained clergy. We thought about how we would probably never see their ministries come to fruition. But we could imagine it. We hoped that our wellness conference would be like a seed for them, eventually bearing fruit in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people’s lives over a number of decades.
Perhaps your faith journey has been something like this. A seed might have been planted in you in your childhood church, or through the wisdom of a grandmother, or because of some powerful but fleeting moment that opened your heart. What was the seed of faith for you? Whatever it was, it began to take root and develop an inner life of its own. As it grew, perhaps you learned to question a purely material life, or the corrosive nature of worry and resentment. Maybe it pushed you to prayer, study, or even a different kind of work. It has surely borne fruit.
Have you ever wondered what your life would have been like had you never allowed the seed of faith to be planted in you, and had you never nurtured its growth? What would be your state of mind? How would you relate to others, to nature, to suffering and the certainty of death? By contrast, what has been the fruit of this seed that has grown in you? Can you see the effects of grace, over time?
The way in which this growth takes place is, as I’ve often said, a kind of alchemy between our effort and the work of the Spirit. In my garden, I prepared the soil, I planted seeds and watered them. Nothing would have happened had I not. But God caused the seeds to sprout, to push up through the earth, to form vegetables. And neither the growth, nor the specific fruit it produces, is under my control. My chiles may end up hot or mild.
Just so, we have to pray, to focus our minds, to change our habits if we ever want the fruit of God’s life. Nothing will happen if we don’t do some soul-farming. But we cannot produce the fruits on our own. As Jesus said, we sleep and rise night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, we know not how. Neither do we know the specific outcome of this growth. God may lead us here or there; we can’t predict.
Recently I’ve been reflecting on the same process in our parish. Over nearly 30 years, I’ve seen seeds of faith grow to fruition. Way back, for many years, we put a great deal of emphasis on prayer and personal spirituality. We started contemplative prayer groups, held retreats and quiet days, and encouraged members to take on a rule of life to order their spiritual practices.
This time of intense focus on spirituality was a seed that we were planting. I’ve always said that those who pray - whether at home or in our contemplative group - are the heart of the parish. They are what keeps us all grounded in the Spirit. Every time one of you centers yourself in God and seeks spiritual growth, more seeds are planted. It’s like a field that is constantly being renewed with new seeds, all the time, and we all benefit.
But the Spirit has a life of its own, and didn’t stop there. If it did, we would have been nothing more than a random collection of prayerful individuals. The seeds of individual spirituality grew into something new and unexpected - an emphasis on community. 6 years ago, we sought and found an associate priest who would help us develop programs, celebrate with parties, and strengthen relationships between members.
But the Spirit hasn’t stopped there. If it did, we would eventually be nothing more than a happy little club of like-minded people. I believe that the seeds of spirituality, having sprouted up as a more connected community, are now growing to full maturity. First the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. What will that full grain be?
Your Vestry and clergy, and many of you now, are seeing it as the intention to mature in our mission to the world around us. Not content with individual prayer alone, not content with a community that is more internally connected, we are going to the next stage. We are moving out beyond our walls. Now many of you have done this sort of thing among us for years. But aside from our Food Pantry, outreach has not been an overall parish initiative; it has been done by individuals and small groups. We now have the beginning of a parish-wide movement outwards, where all of us can get involved.
Many of you attended Thursday night’s conversation with Senator Dede Feldman and others while I was still in Florida. I look forward to hearing about it. It was the first of a series of conversations we’re calling Who is My Neighbor? A month from now we’ll be bringing in social workers, parishioners who know our Food Pantry neighbors, people who work with the homeless, and clergy of other congregations whose commitment to service has been mature for a long time.
We will be listening, discerning, waiting for the Spirit to move among us, cooperating with the nudges we sense. As we move with the Spirit, as this alchemy begins to work, we will be led together into greater service. And this will be a sign of further maturity in the faith.
Sometimes when I am with a gathering of parishioners or new members, I ask what it is about St. MIchael’s that they value. Why are you here? All I used to hear was “This is a deeply spiritual place, and my faith is strengthened.” After awhile, I began to hear “This is a wonderful congregation, and I love being a part of it.” These things are undeniably at the very center of our parish. They always will be.
A few years from now, when we gather a group of parishioners or new members, I believe they will say “I am here because of the spirituality, because of the community, yes, but just as importantly, because of the mission that we carry out in the North Valley to the underprivileged. I am here because the whole congregation clearly cares about the world outside its walls.” And when our members consistently say this, we will know that mission and service are just as much at the center of our identity as spirituality and community.
All of this is by the grace of God. We prepare the soil, we water, and we weed; but it is the Spirit who causes both the growth and the specific outcome. We bring in speakers and facilitate conversations; but it is the Spirit that will motivate you to experiment with new forms of mission. But most importantly, it is the Spirit who will produce strong and healthy fruit in the lives of our neighbors whom we serve, fruit we may never, and need never, see.