Titus 3:8-15; Luke 8:5-15
In last Saturday’s football game at McMurry University, the home team was behind at half-time even though they were favored to win. The coach had noticed that the players had not seemed to enjoy playing during the first half and told them to remember to have fun in the remainder of the game. He reminded them that ultimately that was why they played their sport: to go out there and have some fun. Well, they did have fun in the second half as they came from behind to win.
In just about any area of life, we can get into trouble when we forget why got into it in the first place. It is so easy to become distracted and confused to the point that we become blind before the most obvious truths. It is tempting to get so caught up in matters of secondary importance that we simply miss the point, not only of an activity, but of our lives.
With His explanation of the parable of the sower, Jesus Christ instructed the disciples to think of themselves as plants that have grown from seed cast upon the ground. Why would someone throw seed on the soil? In this context, it was done in hope that they would take root, grow, and bear fruit. That is the most obvious reason that someone plants a garden: in order to enjoy the growth of healthy plants. And that is why we have all embraced the fullness of Orthodox Christianity: to become mature plants that bear good fruit for the Kingdom of God. In other words, we have come to Christ and His Church for the fulfillment of our most basic calling as those who bear the divine image and likeness. We want to be united with God in holiness. We want to find the healing of our souls. That is in no way selfish, for doing so requires dying to self out of love for our Lord and our neighbors in so many ways.
Just like we can easily get distracted in any tense and frustrating situation, we usually find it very hard to remain focused on what is necessary to grow spiritually and bear fruit for the Kingdom. Some are quite enthusiastic about the faith at first, but then fall away when the new wears off and they realize that growing in holiness is a long, difficult road that requires sacrificial commitment for the long haul. Others last longer, but are overcome by “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” which they allow to dominate them, to become more real to them than the joy of sharing more fully in the life of Christ.
The world as we know it is full of distractions, and who does not have to devote significant attention to matters as pressing as sickness, paying the bills, and challenges of all kinds in our families and in our world? To use the imagery of the parable, if gardeners wait until they have no distractions or problems of any kind, most of them will never even begin to prepare the soil. But even if they do prepare the soil and then later allow themselves to become so distracted that they do not water the plants and protect them from weeds and pests, they will likely never have healthy plants that bear good fruit. Just like athletes enjoying playing their sport still have to concentrate on what they are doing, gardeners who take pleasure in their work must pay attention and refuse to become distracted.
The same is true for us, if we are to abide in Christ, share more fully in His blessed life, and bear fruit for the Kingdom. Instead of allowing whatever is going on in our lives to separate us from Him, we must make our daily cares points of contact with Him, opportunities to gain strength for living faithfully with our challenges. That is just as true when things are going well as when they are going badly. Even as we must not fall prey to the temptation to allow enjoying good times to become a false god, we must not allow even the darkest and most difficult problems in our lives to lead us to despair. A garden neglected by someone who is too busy having parties to care for it probably looks just like a garden neglected by someone who is too sick to tend it. The result is the same: dead plants that ultimately dry up and blow away. And no matter what it is that keeps us from preparing the spiritual soil of our lives, from pulling out the weeds of our souls by the roots, and from receiving the nourishment that we need in order to flourish in the Christian life, the result will be the same.
In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul reminded St. Titus to instruct his people not to waste their time with foolish distractions, such as arguments over pointless things with contentious people. He wrote, “And let our people learn to apply themselves to good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not to be unfruitful.” Addressing real problems that we can actually do something about is far more spiritually beneficial than getting worked up about nonsense or matters that we cannot change. In today’s world of constant news and social media, it is tempting to get caught up in ceaseless worry about all kinds of things and to define ourselves in terms of how popular culture divides us up as this group against that group. And it is often much more appealing to brood about our own persistent personal problems than to turn our attention to serving God and our neighbors.
The problem, then, is how little time, energy, and attention we will have left to offer to the Lord for the healing of our souls and the fulfillment of His purposes for the world. Just as gardeners so overcome with worrying about other matters will probably not provide adequate care to their plants, we will not give adequate care to our relationship with Christ if we are so obsessed with other things that basic spiritual disciplines become afterthoughts that we admire, but do not practice. People who do not sacrifice so that they can advance in any endeavor probably will not make much progress. If we are not sacrificing other objects of our attention in order to pray at home and at Church on a regular basis, to share our resources and time with the poor and lonely, and to fill our minds with the Scriptures and other beneficial spiritual reading, we really cannot expect to become healthy plants that bear good fruit in the Lord’s garden. If we are not struggling to keep our mouths shut when we want to speak in anger or judgment, to turn the other cheek when we are insulted and to forgive our enemies, and to gain the strength to overcome our many addictions to our self-centered desires, we cannot really hope to find healing for our souls.
Gardeners do not earn a good crop by their dedicated labors, but their diligent work opens their little plot of land to the power of the natural world. Faithful Christians do not earn the healing of their souls by conscientious practice of the spiritual disciples, but that is how they open themselves to the gracious divine energies of our Lord. Amidst all the other appealing things that we could be doing, we must invest ourselves each day in what we know it takes to participate more fully in the life of Christ. We must refuse to be distracted from the one thing needful of hearing and obeying the Word of God, for He is the One in Whom we will find the fulfillment of our most fundamental desire as human beings: to be united with God in holiness.
If we stay focused on Christ, and do what it takes to unite ourselves more fully to Him each day, then we will be like the good seed in the parable who “hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.” No, that will not happen by accident, but by persistently turning away from all that would threaten to keep us from bearing good fruit for the Kingdom of God. It will happen by persistently investing ourselves in what it takes to flourish in the garden of the Lord.