Sermon by Rev. Craig Lemming - Jul 12, 2020

A Fallow Time for the Spirit: Water, Light and Shade Your Spiritual Garden

Sermon by the Rev’d Craig Lemming
For St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
Sunday, July 12, 2020 – Proper 10, Year A

In the Name of the One, Holy, and Living God of Sabbath Rest. Amen.

I would like us to meditate on a passage from Deep is the Hunger – Howard Thurman’s collection of “Meditations for Apostles of Sensitiveness” from 1948. You may want to read along with the words I will share on my screen, or you may want to close your eyes as you listen to me read them. Either way, I invite you to allow Dr. Thurman’s words to sink deep into your hearts.

“There is a fallow time for the spirit when the soil is barren because of sheer exhaustion… The general climate of social unrest, of national and international turmoil, the falling of kingdoms, the constant, muted suffering of hungry men and starving women and children… all these things may so paralyze normal responses to life that a blight settles over the spirit leaving all the fields of interest withered and parched. It is quite possible that spreading oneself so thin with too much going “to and fro” has yielded a fever of activity that saps all energy, even from one’s surplus store, and we must stop for the quiet replenishing of an empty cupboard. Perhaps too much anxiety, a too-hard trying, a searching strain to do by oneself what can never be done that way, has made one’s spirit seem like a water tap whose washer is worn out from too much pressure… Whatever may be the reasons, one has to deal with the fact. Face it! Then resolutely dig out dead roots, clear the ground, but don’t forget to make a humus pit against the time when some young or feeble plants will need stimulation from past flowerings in your garden. Work out new designs by dreaming daring dreams and great and creative planning. The time is not wasted. The time of fallowness is a time of rest and restoration, of filling up and replenishing. It is a moment when the meaning of all things can be searched out, tracked down and made to yield the secret of living. Thank God for the fallow time!” [1]

I’ve been listening “with the ear of my heart” to many of you this week and I have discerned notes of spiritual fatigue in the timbre of your weary voices. The arduous spiritual and emotional work that we are doing so faithfully, day in and day out, made me wonder if our spirits need what Dr. Thurman calls “quiet replenishing.”

To borrow from the exquisite poetry of Lucille Clifton, you and I are made of starshine and clay. [2] And because we are dust,[3] because we are earthen vessels, [4] because we are clay, I believe that we find ourselves in the symbol of soil that Jesus uses in his Parable of the Sower. [5] Sometimes our soil is so downtrodden, so “trampled by incessant feet” [6] that the Word of God cannot sink into our stomped-upon, packed-down, impermeable clay, and those seeds that God is trying to sow in our hearts are snatched away. Sometimes our soil becomes so cluttered with rocks: with too many sensationalized opinions masquerading as “news,” too much mindless entertainment, too much shallow small-talk, that there is “no depth of soil” for God’s Word to take deep root in our hearts. Sometimes we allow what Jesus calls “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth to choke [God’s] word and it yields nothing.” All the cares of world right now are overwhelming and the ever-widening gaps between the super-rich and the super-poor reveal thorns of greed that are crowding out the good, the true, and the beautiful. To cultivate that “depth of soil” that the Word of God requires to take deep root in our hearts, we must accept Howard Thurman’s invitation to resolutely dig out dead roots, clear the ground, and enrich the soil of our lives with the humus of past flowerings in our gardens. We actually need this time of fallowness for our soil to rest and to recover; for our soil to be restored and replenished. This Great Pause invites our soil to be deepened and enriched as we search out the meaning of all things and seek to hear and to understand the living Word of God sown secretly in our hearts.

Let’s take a short detour here to consider the wisdom of Janet Jackson and Toni Morrison as we reflect on the “past flowerings in our gardens” that might help restore our soil to fertility. Yes, you heard me right – that Janet Jackson who was not only influenced and inspired by Prince, but who critics believe gave Prince’s Minneapolis sound a distinctly feminine and distinctly feminist spin.[vii] In 1997, before cellphones, social media, Minneapolis, or even the internet was part of my life, the day Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope album arrived in record stores in Harare, all I remember was the infectious excitement of landlines ringing with friends calling to find out if they’d heard “the Hidden Track.” You see, the final song on her album titled “Special” abruptly ends and famously segues into Janet’s Hidden Track titled “Can’t Be Stopped.” You’re probably wondering what this has to do with today’s Gospel. The lyrics of that final track remind us that,

“You can’t run away from your pain
Because wherever you run
There you will be

You have to learn
To water your spiritual garden
Then you will be free.” [8]

As creatures made of starshine and clay, our soil needs water. For me, listening to inspired and inspiring music, praying the Daily Office, taking a daily walk with Penelope, and meditating on Holy Scripture are ways to “water my spiritual garden.” Taking Janet Jackson’s lyrics to heart, I invite you to ponder how you might “learn to water your spiritual garden” during this fallow time for the spirit.

As I think about how sunlight and shade are both required for spiritual gardens to flourish, I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s wisdom. In her stunning collection of selected essays, meditations, and speeches titled The Source of Self-Regard, Morrison writes, “Literature, sensitive as a tuning fork, is an unblinking witness to the light and shade of the world we live in.” [9] In this fallow time for the spirit, I invite you to ponder the literature you’re studying – books, podcasts, magazines, social media, documentaries, or news articles. How is that literature enriching your soil so that God’s Word can take deep root and flourish in a spiritual garden that is unafraid to be “an unblinking witness to the light and shade of the world we live in”?

Jesus ends his Parable of the Sower by explaining that the seed sown on good soil represents “the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit.” The etymology of the word “understand” [10] teaches us that when the Word of God takes deep root in our soil, we bear the Spiritual Fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, [11] and we are literally “standing in the midst of” God’s Kingdom. In this fallow time for the spirit when our soil so desperately needs to be restored and replenished, we must learn to water our spiritual garden, to allow for plenty of light and shade, so that the Word of God taking root in our hearts will find that “depth of soil” right “here on this bridge between starshine and clay.”

Before I close with a video of Lucille Clifton’s divine poetry, [12] I want you to know that I will be praying with you that we may not so much seek “to be understood as to understand.” To know that we stand in the midst of the Holy One who raised Christ from the dead to give life to our mortal bodies through the Spirit who dwells in each of us. [13]

Amen.


[1] Howard Thurman, Deep Is the Hunger: Meditations for Apostles of Sensitiveness (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1973), 89-90.

[2] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50974/wont-you-celebrate-with-me

[3] Genesis 3:19.

[4] 2 Corinthians 4:7.

[5] Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

[6] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44214/preludes-56d22338dc954

[7] https://web.archive.org/web/20091116213353/http://www.slantmagazine.com/music/music_review.asp?ID=1921

[8] https://youtu.be/7xUWueDpuG0

[9] Morrison, 126.

[10] https://www.etymonline.com/word/understand

[11] Galatians 5:22-23.

[12] https://youtu.be/XM7q_DUk5wU

[13] Romans 8:11.