The way I read the Parable of the Sower is how our Farmer God sows seeds of extravagant love & grace into the heart of each person.  God scatters these seeds everywhere, in places where we can’t imagine they would take root. And once the seed is planted, according to the Talmud, EVERY blade of grass has its own angel bending over it, whispering,  “Grow, grow.”  

With all that divine attention, one would think that when those extravagant seeds of love and grace fell on the soil of our hearts, we would automatically become loving, forgiving, compassionate, selfless, patient, grace-filled, love-filled human beings.  Apparently it’s not quite that simple.  Apparently, there is some tending necessary on the soil of our hearts.

The word heart appears over a 1000 times in the bible.  Marcus Borg’s book, The Heart of Christianity talks about the heart as our spiritual center.  What this parable is getting at is whether we have open, receptive hearts or stony, closed hearts. The heart at its deepest level, can be turned toward God or away from God, open to God and thus other people or closed to God and others.   Remember when Moses was trying to lead the ancient Israelites away from Egypt?  Each time Pharaoh decided to let them go, do you remember what happened? Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.  We all have a propensity toward having our own hearts hardened, and the work before us is tilling the soil of our heart until it becomes receptive again.

It is interesting to reflect upon what opens and closes our hearts on a daily basis. I find that my heart can be closed one moment (usually in traffic), and in the next it suddenly opens.  I remember a hot, hot day in Issaquah standing in long line at Costco on a Saturday afternoon with the throngs of other hot, grumpy shoppers.  Eventually, Angie & I decided to divide and conquer because we also needed, had to have, a stracciatella & pistachio gelato, which is only served at the Issaquah Costco.  So I went out to stand in another long, hot, grumpy line of people.  I debated whether we really needed the gelato because the line was long, and I was hot, tired, and grumpy. Marcus Borg writes in his book: “When I stand in a supermarket checkout line and all the people I see look kind of ugly, I know my heart is closed.”  I was definitely leaning toward the closed, stony, hardened heart.  Ahead of me were two little girls who apparently didn’t know each other.  One little girl said to the other: “Hi!  My name is Chloe.  I’m three.  How old are you?”  Other little girl responds:  I was three last time.  Now I’m four.”  In an instant, my heart melted, and it didn’t matter how long the line was or how hot it was, because the people in front of me transformed into beautiful children of God by this one little transaction.  And the children shall lead them.

We are in the 4th week of this sermon series looking at the book: An Altar in the World by BBT.  Today we are looking at The Practice of Encountering Others.  What if encountering others were as simple and easy as the exchange I witnessed at Costco.  What if we just went up to someone and said, “Hi I’m Cathy.  I’m 48.  How old are you?” And what if the other person also responded with an open heart.  “I’m 49.  I was 48 last time.”

Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story from the writings of the Desert Fathers:     Once, two elders who were living together decided that they should have a quarrel like ordinary men.  Since they had never had one before, they were not quite sure how to begin.  So one of the elders looked around, found a brick, and placed it squarely between him and his brother in Christ.  “I will say, “It is mine.” and you say, “No it is mine.”  This the the sort of thing that leads to a quarrel.”

Are you ready? he asked his brother.  “I am ready.” his brother answered.  “Okay.  “It is mine.”                                                                                                             “I beg your pardon,” his brother said, “but I do believe that is mine.”                “No it’s mine,” the first monk said.                                                                              “Well, if it is yours, then take it.” his brother said.                                                     Thus the two elders failed to get into a quarrel after all.

When we live with closed hearts, we live with a protective shell around us that needs to be broken open, a “hatching of the heart.”  The soil of our lives needs to be continually cultivated and tilled to keep an open heart ready for seeds of compassion to be planted.  It means letting go of hurts we have sustained over a lifetime; letting go of resentments and grievances; not holding on so tight to our ideologies that it diminishes a potential encounter with someone who holds different values. Imagine if every name you were ever called, every test you failed, or every disappointment you ever experienced still affected you as deeply as when it happened. You would be too paralyzed by pain to get out of bed in the morning.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes this in her book on this chapter of Encountering Others:  The wisdom of the Desert Fathers includes the wisdom that the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self- to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.  All you have to do is recognize another you “out there”- your other self in the world – for whom you may care as instinctively as you care for yourself.  To become that person, even for a moment, is to understand what it means to die to yourself.  This can be as frightening as it is liberating.  It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.

Because Pope Francis is visiting our country this week, I would be amiss not to mention his visit.  He has such an inviting, gregarious, disarming way of encountering people – AND SPEAKING TRUTH!  And Pope Francis suggested in a homily given on his first Pentecost as Pontiff that the word “encounter” is central to the way he thinks of Christian relationships. In the homily Pope Francis encourages the faithful to be fearless in the ways in which they look beyond their own needs and wants to those of others. He says that “in this ‘stepping out’ of ourselves it is important to be ready for encounter.  Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, he says, we must do what Jesus does: encounter others.”

The Practice of Encountering Others Denounces Exclusion and Isolation and proclaims the goodness of human relationship.   Pope Francis: “Today, when the networks and means of human communication have made unprecedented advances, we sense the challenge of finding and sharing a ‘mystique’ of living together, of mingling and encounter, of embracing and supporting one another, of stepping into this flood tide which, while chaotic, can become a genuine experience of relationship, a caravan of solidarity, a sacred pilgrimage.

Philosopher Enrique Dussel, who also hails from Argentina, explains that two people encountering one another involves action, a give and take. More importantly, it involves openness to mystery and relationship. To encounter another person is to realize that no matter the depths to which we may get to know each other, the well of mystery will never be exhausted.

The Practice of Encountering others moves us to walk the journey of our lives tenderly holding each other’s hands knowing all the while that it is Christ who is our veiled and shining companion.