Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany - February 20, 2022
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Gen 45:3-11, 15 + Ps 37:1-11, 39-40 + 1 Cor 15:35-38, 42-50 + Lk 6:27-38
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I speak to you today in the name of the + Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
It’s been said that you can count the seeds in an apple but not the apples in a seed. When planted in just the right soil and climate, seeds will sprout of their own accord, with the potential to produce an almost endless yield! One seed…thousands upon thousands of apples.
In the gospel today Jesus preaches on just what such an endless yield looks like in the lives of those in whom the seeds of love have begun to bloom:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
Many consider this to be the most radical, beautiful, and difficult of Christ’s teachings – demanding the impossible. We protest, “Do you know what my enemy has done to me?” “How am I expected to show kindness to those who hate me?” “And I find myself uttering not prayers but curses to those who have treated me unjustly!” It is a great idea, and a theoretical ideal we can pretend to strive for, but there have been more than a few times in my own life when my prayer to be forgiving is much like St. Augustine’s prayer to be chaste: “Give me chastity, Lord! But not today!”
Why?! Why not forgiving?
Because I’ve still got some good old-fashioned cursing to do! I’ve got to whip up a storm in my heart and relive that insult they hurled, and I’ve gotta’ tell myself how its gonna’ be the next time I see them! I’ve got to indulge that sweet poison of revenge in my heart…that fury racing through my veins. The same fury that reminds me I’m still alive – No! Not just alive! But that I am still powerful against the insult, the onslaught, the put-down. And so, I sharpen my verbal sword, searching the vengeful corridors of my heart for just the right word, the one I know will cut through their arrogance and pride, the one that will take them down to size. The one that will show them!
“Give me a forgiving heart, O Lord, but not today!”
I am a mere human, not a god. You are asking too much of me. And so, for the moment, Lord, lets you and I part company, until I have sorted this matter out. Since I cannot ask you for permission, I’ll be back to ask your forgiveness.
And then I will have attained the best of both worlds: to refuse the forgiveness of another, while assuring myself of your forgiveness for me. My anger is satiated. My ego is quelled. And my God is forgiving. Perfect.
And so, the world goes on looking less and less like the vision of the Kingdom Jesus holds out for us today. The seeds of forgiveness, mercy, and blessing are suffocated by the invasive species of hate, revenge, and cursing. The life-giving vision of the Kingdom is suffocated by the death-dealing poison of rage and retaliation.
And yet, the beautiful imagery Paul holds out today in his First Letter to the Corinthians, reframes how we might think of Jesus’ “difficult” teaching. Here, Paul holds out the image of the resurrection, comparing the spiritual body with the life-giving yield that generates from an otherwise perishable seed.
And as for what you sow, [he says] you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. …So, it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. What is sown in dishonor, is raised in glory. What is sown in weakness, is raised in power. What is sown a physical body, is raised a spiritual body.
Here, Paul eloquently makes the case that while the spiritual body is indeed a “body” and not merely an ephemeral spirit, it will look entirely different from the physical body laid to rest in the ground. As different, in fact, as a stalk of wheat is different from the seed from which it sprouts. “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.”
And this, I believe is true, not only of the physical resurrection of the body, but of all the little resurrections we experience in our lifetimes – those moments where the life-giving yield of grace, peace, and forgiveness, rise triumphantly as Christ rose from the tomb of death, hatred, and revenge.
As I reflected on these scriptures wondering how they might inform one another, I recalled a long-ago friend of mine named Mila, who I knew from my early days of lay ministry in the 1990’s. Mila was a Filipina immigrant, considerably older than me (probably in her mid-50’s at the time), and a deeply pious Catholic. She had worked for years as a pharmacist but ultimately left the industry because of her experience of pharmacology as ubiquitously profit driven and corrupt.
Yet, she possessed a keen sense of the healing arts, growing in her sizable garden all manner of medicinal plants, herbs, and organic vegetables, that she would combine in balms, tinctures, refreshing drinks, and nutritious vegetarian meals packed with flavor. Mila had taken me under her wing, ensuring I was well fed on the job and spending lots of time, sharing scripture, theology, and herbal remedies with one another.
One day, amidst our many conversations, Mila presented me with a plastic Ziploc bag of old flower seeds. She had portioned off the seeds from a larger bag she kept for herself, explaining to me that her mother had given these seeds to her many decades ago.
And now, she was inviting me to plant them at my own home and simply observe. “Will these still grow?” I asked, somewhat skeptically. After all the bag she handed me hardly looked like seeds. It was more like a clump of dry, brown, disintegrated flower petals. I could hardly discern individual seeds at all. In reply to my skepticism, she simply pressed the small zip lock more firmly into my hand and smiled, patting me on the shoulder as if to offer reassurance. The twinkle in her eye made me curious. And not a few days later I found a little patch of soil around a birdbath, and making a small trench in the ground with my index finger, I spread out the contents of the bag and covered them gently with the loose soil.
As I stood up again, holding an empty Ziploc I stared for a long while, as if I might see some sprouts begin to peer above the surface of the soil. Then, seeing nothing but dirt, I wagged my head with great suspicion as I walked back into the house. Days passed as each morning I would peer down on the birdbath from my bedroom window. Just dirt. Until one morning I thought I noticed something – very small. Was that…? I ran down stairs and out the back door to indeed find a hint of green sprouts beginning to emerge from the dark brown soil.
Later that day at work I was excited to tell Mila of my new discovery. She smiled proudly. Over the course of the next several weeks the sprouts indeed became stalks and the stalks grew leaves and buds and then flowers. And I had myself a garden of Black Eyed Susan’s. When they had grown tall enough and abundant enough, I clipped a few stems, collecting them into a bouquet and hand delivered them to Mila that afternoon. She received them with a warm silent smile, and a tear just ready to brim over her eye. “Thank you,” she said, finally. It’s like a gift from my own mother (who had long since passed away).
“My mother and I did not have a close relationship,” she went on. “She was a difficult woman, you know, and we were often estranged. But shortly before her passing she had gifted me these seeds. And until now I was unable to plant them. There was just too much pain, too many hard feelings. I didn’t want to be reminded of her.”
By now, Mila was scurrying to find an old vase which she then filled with water and snipping the bottom of the stems placed them in the vase. As she gently arranged them, with more tenderness than would seem practical, a great hush fell between us. And I knew to be silent. After a moment or two I quietly stepped back, intuiting the sacred space she now inhabited, fussing gently over her bouquet, much as a mother might gently fuss with her daughters hair – if for no other reason than as an excuse to relish in her maternal love.
And after some time of observing her, I realized it was not the bouquet she was rearranging with such intensity…that was just an excuse – something for her to do, while she rearranged the garden of her own heart. Years of anger, and hurt and resentment melted away before my eyes. When she was finally through, she looked at me with a broad smile. And a gentle peace I had not seen before washed over her countenance.
“Lunch?” she invited after another long pause. “Would love to!” I said, realizing she wanted the company more than the meal. As we ate together under the afternoon sun on a small bistro table in the middle of her garden, she finally talked to me about her mother – about how she struggled, probably with mental illness, and still tried, in her own way, to be a good mother.
She shared with me so many things she loved about her mother despite it all, and perhaps most poignantly how, on this day, she forgave her. In the course of our conversation, she asked if I might stay a bit longer to help her plant the remaining seeds she had held for so long, ready, as she was to receive this gift her mother had given so long ago.
And clearing a patch in her garden, we both knelt down, and together planted the dry, wilted remains of resentment, hurt, and anger – that she kept locked up for years in a Ziploc bag as much as in the recesses of her heart.
I smiled when I first noticed a small stone in the corner of the patch, dedicated to her mother whose ashes were interred beneath us. What is sown in the ground is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. What is sown in the ground as decay is raised as new life. Her harvest of Black Eyed Susan’s was abundant that year, watered as they were, with the tears of her forgiveness. And each flower proclaiming in its silent beauty, the breaking of the Kingdom yet again in the world.
I have wondered since then about my own bag of seeds – the one I hold close, zipped up in the recesses of my heart. Dry, seemingly dead seeds of resentment and anger that I refuse to release. And I realize that Jesus’ vision of the kingdom – one of love and forgiveness prevailing over hate and resentment; indeed, one where blessings rather than curses abound, is not so hard as we might let ourselves imagine. It turns out, we don’t have to strive for anything at all. But like that Ziploc bag of seeds, we simply have to open up and let them go.
In fact, I have realized since, it is much harder not to do so. It is much harder, indeed, takes much more energy, to hold on to the poison of anger and resentment, than to let go those seeds and bury them in the rich soil of God’s mercy. The light of Christ, and the life-giving water of the Spirit will do the rest.
Sisters and brothers, the kingdom is not so far as we may think. A bouquet of flowers. A patch of Black Eyed Susan’s.
Search your own heart. Look deeply into the Ziploc bag you’ve tucked away for too long now. There is a Kingdom of love and mercy lying there in decay, and awaiting, but for your release, that they may bloom with infinite potential. And infinite love.
And may God, the All Merciful, bless you and bless the sweet, gentle, garden of your heart.
+ The Three-in-One and One-in-Three