On Friday night, I, some of my fellow volunteers, a partner, and some apprentices had the privilege of sharing an extra meal with Mammysa, her family, and Rose. Mammysa and Rose lovingly bent, chopped, and stirred many dishes, just for us. We ate new (to us, anyway) and exciting Congolese food, shared good conversation, and later there was lots of laughter and dancing. Their hard work brought us all together to delight in a need we all share: a need for food, for survival. It was one of those times I sat back, amazed, at what a meal can do to break down the many barriers that the world tries to create. Their simple, caring actions brought us all together, in unity, to share in joy that has depth and complexity that I often selfishly do not fully appreciate.
I would like to quote from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World, which was first introduced to myself and my fellow volunteers by the courtesy of Hannah. It reads:
In a world full of too much information about almost everything, bodily practices can provide great relief. To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone. In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.
I have yet to find a quote that more accurately defines life here at Jubilee than this one. Often, when going about my daily tasks, I have to remind myself of this insight: that my faith is more than just words, that my faith is words put into action. I have to remind myself that, while living this simple lifestyle, my actions are often simple. A task is set for me, and I complete it. I bend, I chop, I stir, but mostly, I sweat. (And I most certainly do not think that sweat requires some sort of lucid theology.) However, the results of such actions are not simple. That’s where there seems to be a gap in the theology.
There is a profound difference between a simple lifestyle and a simple life. The lifestyle here at Jubilee is simple, of course. It’s stripped of all of the extras, of the extraneous, of the unnecessary. Everything seems to have a purpose, and it falls neatly into a system. Another task, another action. However, that does not mean that life itself is simple. What I mean by that is this: in choosing to take on one of the world’s many needs, that means you take on the sufferings of the ones you try to help. You do the very best you can, always: by bending, chopping, and stirring. But somehow, life becomes messy. People are messy. Needs are messy.
That’s what’s interesting about the parable of the sower, found in Matthew, chapter 13. Jesus paints a simple image of four different kinds of faiths: the kind eaten by birds, the kind that falls on rocky ground, the kind that is choked by thorns, and the kind that falls on good soil and produces a crop of “a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.” It’s a seemingly simple image, but then you realize it’s not only talking about the basics of gardening (which we all know well, especially by now). It’s talking about the Kingdom of God.
Interestingly, I have often read this passage with discouragement and confusion, which usually leads me to think about how much of the Bible seems beyond my understanding. And then I read it again. And again. And again. Immediately, phrases like, “the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in their heart,” and how Jesus explains that some seeds never take root and therefore wither away, and how others are choked by the deceitfulness of wealth, and still others are never given the chance to embrace the soil and its nutrients. The negative outcomes of this parable outnumber the positive outcomes literally three to one.
I often selfishly wonder why there are so many negative outcomes for the helpless seeds. They go where the Gardener puts them, so why, why do they not bear fruit?
Despite these misgivings, the more times I read this parable and the more time I spend here at Jubilee, the more encouraged I become (although I still have many questions). In the little time I have spent in Jubilee’s garden, I have witnessed more love, compassion, and companionship than I think I have anywhere else. These plants literally bring people from across the world together. Among the plants, we share a common language: earth, work, sweat, and dirt. If we, humble human beings, put this much care and effort into such a place, wouldn’t the Gardener—the one with a capital “G”—put “a hundred, sixty, or thirty times” as much effort? Wouldn’t the Gardener, the Creator of the universe, take what is sown here, when we gather together to enjoy the fruits of our mutual labor, the complex result of our simple actions, and multiply it by “a hundred, sixty, or thirty times”? And, ultimately, if we are creators made in the image of a great Creator—with a capital “C”—are we not also gardeners made in the image of a great Gardener (again, with a capital “G”)? The final question that must be asked is this: Can we do some Weeding to advance the Harvest?
I firmly believe that, yes, indeed, the Creator, the loving God of the universe will. I believe this is so because of the passage we read earlier from Isaiah, chapter 55 verses 10 through 13:
“As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and
bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbrush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.”
It’s in the beautiful imagery that nature provides that this all comes back together. We work hard, our actions simple. But the results are not simple. The results are, quite literally, the fruits (and vegetables, I suppose) of labor. The fruits are what gather us all here today. The hard work, the simple actions: “This will be for the Lord’s renown, / For an everlasting sign, / that will endure forever.” Here, the word of the Lord will not be eaten by the birds, it will not fall on rocky places, nor will it be choked by thorns: it will fall on good soil, and produce a crop—“a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what [is] sown.”