I have often gotten into some fairly heated discussions with people over something that may seem kind of odd. I have gotten into discussions over whether we humans were truly capable of unconditional love. Most people would say, “Yes, of course people are capable of unconditional love! I love my wife unconditionally, I love my husband unconditionally, I love my kids unconditionally! It is silly for you to even ask this!” And these people are a little put off that I would say different. I guess being a clergy person; I am supposed to believe that people are capable of just about anything, including unconditional love. But if we look at the world, we see that unconditional love is sorely lacking.
I think we all would like to think that we are capable of unconditional love. I think we would like to believe that there are people that we would love, no matter what happened, but if we look at the world, we see that the opposite seems to be the truth. Divorces are running around 50%; half of the marriages that start with “I do forever” move to “I don’t any more.” I am sure that for the vast majority of these people who end up divorced, on their wedding day, would have said that they loved their spouse unconditionally. And yet, these people find that love is not unconditional and the trials of life are just too much and overpower love. So even where there was a sincere profession of unconditional love, in the end, we find that love between humans is conditional.
Some may say, “Well, look at the love between parents and children. We see unconditional love there! How can you say that THIS love is conditional?”
Unfortunately, I have heard stories about parents who have disowned their children. The child does somethi9ng or the parent learns something about the child and the child becomes a persona non grata. In a best case scenario, the child is just kicked out of the house. In the worst of cases, this love can turn into extreme violence.
We may want to say that these people who appear to turn their back on unconditional love are weak or morally bankrupt. We may want to say that if we were confronted with the same situation, we would rise above the situation and show unconditional love. We really want to say this, but I am sure most of us can think of times when we have used our “love” as a means of manipulating others. Or we withdrew our love until the other did want we wanted. We are as prone as others to putting conditions onto love.
Well, we may be thinking, “I KNOW there are situations and people to whom I would show unconditional love.” And even if this were true, even if there were people what you could love unconditionally, we still have an interesting situation. If we can be unconditional in certain situations, then we are, by definition, conditional in other situations! We are exhibiting “conditional unconditional love!” To my way of thinking, if there is ANY condition placed on love, then that love is NOT unconditional. Or to quote the great bard, Meatloaf, “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that!”
So why am I spending so much time going on and on about how we fall short of the mark many of us set for ourselves? I am doing this so we can truly see the miraculous in our midst! And today’s gospel of the Sower and the Seed helps us to see just what unconditional love is.
The way most of us have looked at this story is that of an allegory, Jesus even tells us what each part of the story means. And looking at the story from this point of view is not bad by any extent of the imagination! When we study the story in this manner, we tend to think about what kind of soil our lives may be and how the word of God is growing, or not, growing in our lives. And this is all well and good except for one thing: This view starts with the assumption that it is all about us. What is OUR soil like? Are WE a good medium for God’s word to grow? What can WE do to help God’s word to grow in OUR lives? And again, these are not bad things to be thinking about, but if we just focus on ourselves, we are missing something.
Let’s move earlier in the story. Let’s move to the very beginning of the story; “A sower went out to sow.” This is the very first thing that Jesus tells us in the story, and it is so often lost in the rest of the allegory. “A sower went out to sow.” Period. Not, “A sower went out and fount the most perfect field to sow.” Or even, “A sower went out and found some adequate field to sow.” No, just a simple statement: “A sower went out to sow.”
“And as he sowed, some seeds fell…”
So who is this sower, and what is it with these seeds? Well, of course the sower is God. But the seeds, now that is one we can think about for a while. Jesus likens the seeds to “the world of the kingdom.” This description is good, but it contains some religious buzzwords. Another way to think of the seed is that it is knowledge of the Gospel, and that is Gospel with a capital “G;” This would be the knowledge of the unconditional love of God for US, God’s people.
Whoa! There is that word again! “Unconditional!” “The unconditional love of God for Us.”
So what is happening here? As God, the sower, is going to spread his seeds of unconditional love; some of this seed is falling on the various types of soil. Some of this seed falls on the path while some falls on rocky ground. Some falls among the thourns while others fall on good soil. The point is, this seed is falling EVERYWHERE! God is not just keeping it all nice and packaged up until God arrives at the fertile field. No, the seeds of God’s unconditional love are flying all over the place! Those seeds are covering EVERYTHING!
To us this may sound silly. Why should God let the seeds fall where it is almost certain they will not grow? Why not hold back and sow those seeds where the reward will be the greatest? In our economy, this frivolousness does not make much sense. To us, and to our understanding of economy, this throwing seed willy-nilly just sounds foolish.
But our understanding of economy is not God’s understanding. To God, even the hard-packed path is worthy of love. God keeps spreading that seed in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, some of that seed will take root and grow. God doesn’t hold back and say, “You, Path…You are a lost cause and are not worthy of my love.” No, God spreads God’s love, even to the hard packed path.
Now, we may be temped to say, “Since god is spreading this seed everywhere, I can just go on, I have no reason to worry about the state of the soil.” Yes, God’s unconditional love is still there, but on the hard-packed path. That love has trouble taking root and growing. When our hearts are hard and our soul is rocky, it is so much harder for the good news of the Gospel to reach into our lives and produce a harvest. Or when we surround ourselves with distractions and diversions in life, the love of God can feel distant and tenuous. The love of God is still there, still falling into our lives, it is just that we often make it difficult for that love to grow.
So often, too, we forget that God’s love is freely given. We may feel like we have to do something to earn God’s love or be good enough to have God love us. We may feel that we need to be perfect Christians in order to receive God’s blessing. But we see that God’s love is spread across all kinds of soil. God doesn’t withhold God’s love until the perfect growing situations are found; God spreads the seeds, even when growth looks nearly impossible.
Or sometimes, we see where people place standards onto others, expecting that, only those whom THEY have decided are good enough, are loved by God. In situations like this, in situations where we pass judgment upon each other, it is not God who is withholding love; it is the judgment and prejudices of others that make life difficult.
I believe our gospel reading for today is asking two things of us. The first is to truly contemplate what kind of soil we have in our lives. Are we allowing the unconditional love of God to take root and grow in our lives? Are we surrounding ourselves with rocks and thorns that are stealing away our joy? Or are we doing the best we can to make our hearts fertile soil for God’s love?
And the second question it: Are we helping others to cultivate rich soil in which the seed of God’s love can grow? This second question is not just aimed at us as individual, but at us as congregations and denominations, at us as the human race. What are we doing to help others to prepare the soil of their lives to receive God’s love? How can we, as a community based in Christ, help the world around us to see that God’s love is not just for the few, but for all?
We may not be able to rely on ourselves to exhibit unconditional love, but we can rely on God. God’s love IS unconditional. God’s love is spread throughout our lives and throughout the world. The seeds of God’s love will fall, no matter what the growing conditions. And even though we may not be able to exhibit unconditional love, we CAN love, nonetheless. And it is through our love for each other that God reaches out and spreads God’s love to the world.
Through the death and resurrection of Christ, we see the ultimate in unconditional love: That while we were still sinners, Christ came to die for us. Not just the righteous, but the unrighteous too. And although we cannot hope to reach Christ’s level of love, we are the beneficiaries of this unconditional love. And this is the love we are called to emulate. We are called to the table through this love, and we are sent out into the world through this love.
I pray that we can be as extravagant with our love as our loving God. But I also know that we will fall short. However, just because we may fall short, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Just because our human nature will get in our way doesn’t mean we should not reach out to the world with the love Christ has first given to us! We are called to love and we are called to reach out. And we can be assured that when we reach out in Christ’s love, God will bless our endeavors and grow a plentiful harvest.