Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In a few hours, many of us baseball-loving Americans will be watching the final World Cup soccer match on our TV sets. So here’s a question for you to ponder as you watch: Is life more like baseball or is it more like soccer?
Columnist David Brooks asks that question in an op ed piece this week. Brooks explains that we often think of the game of life as being more like baseball. We see ourselves as involved in a series of individual activities and achievements. After all, in baseball, a team that performs the most individual tasks well, like throwing a strike or hitting a line drive, is likely to win the game. In the same way, we see our collaboration at work and at home in terms of our own personal wins and losses, in terms of our own straight-line efforts to “accomplish” a day.
Brooks then points out, however, that life is really more like soccer, because life, like soccer, is a game about occupying and controlling space. It is about team formations. It is a collective game with odds that are hard to control. According to Brooks, Germany beat Brazil so lopsidedly this week because Brazil did a bad job controlling space on the field, even though Brazil’s individual players were statistically better than Germany’s. In life, we are constantly absorbing our thoughts and even our life choices from the teachings and utterances of those around us. We depend on our networks of friends and colleagues (on and off Facebook!) We depend for our financial flourishing on the structure of the economy that surrounds us. We see ourselves through the eyes of our loved ones. We live and move and have our being within multiple systems of connection.
Brooks’ article is interesting in helping us to ponder the connectivity of our lives. It struck me, though, that one could pull Brooks’ metaphor a bit further in a theological direction. Perhaps that St. Paul is suggesting in our reading from Romans that Life in the Spirit is also like playing soccer. In Romans, when we hear Paul talking about “flesh” and “spirit,” it sounds to us as if he is separating body and soul. It sounds as if he is saying that our bodily desires and feelings are sinful and that it is only our disembodied spirits that can communicate with God. But that’s not what Paul is really getting at. For Paul, the “things of the flesh” are not necessarily only physical things. We are in “the flesh,” when we measure reality apart from the way that God structures it, when we forget that the space in which we live belongs to God. By living our lives in a straight line, consumed with our individual plans and bound by structures of our own devising, we are living “in the flesh.”
In the same way, we are in “the spirit,” not when we play around in the realm of ideas and thoughts, but when we play God’s game, in God’s structures, letting all the space around us be filled with God’s presence. Opposition to God, being “in sin,” is refusing to shape my life in accordance with God’s activity in the world. So what Paul is saying is that life in Christ is kind of like a game of soccer—where God owns the field. We play the position that God has assigned to us, free to use our brains and to make our plays with others, yet understanding that the space that we are trying to control is open to the movements of our Creator. Not only do the networks of people around us influence our thoughts and our actions—God’s Spirit, too, controls structures beyond our comprehension. God’s borders dwarf our borders. Our barriers are no match for God’s pervasive love. Our limitations cannot limit God’s possibilities. The mysterious and uplifting “team spirit” that fills and inspires us as we play, drawing all of our individual efforts together, is the Spirit of Christ. It is that Holy Spirit within us and around us that gives us the power to win the game.
OK, I’ve got to be honest with you. Now that I have the attention of the soccer fans among us, I’m going to have to stop with the sports analogies before I make a terrible blunder and have you all pulling out your hair over my incomprehension of the intricacies of the game. I don’t know much about soccer at all, so I am going to carry our theme of structure and space over into an area that has been concerning ME this summer: gardening.
Plants, like soccer players and like us, live and have their being in a certain context. Root systems spread out into the space available to them. They intertwine with one another. They share water and nutrients from the soil. It’s no wonder then that the tomato plants that I lazily stuck into some hard, unturned earth full of old ivy vines, tree roots, and invasive mint, have dropped their blossoms and have produced nothing but leaves. For gardeners, too, the trick is to fill and manage well the space.
Or so it seems on the surface. Did you know that there are fungi called mycorrhizae? They are found everywhere, in almost every ecosystem in the world. They are invisible, living in the soil, and they live in symbiotic relationships with 90 percent of plants on earth. The fungi penetrate the roots of plants and provide them with food and water from the soil. In turn, the fungi receive food from the plants. These fungi even link plants of all different species, as they “run” through the soil from one kind of plant to another, both living plants and dead plants. You might say that the fungi are like soccer players, passing the ball down the field. You might say that the fungi are like the Spirit of Christ, moving unseen throughout the world, sustaining and giving life, filling us with God’s presence, creating connection between the living and the dead. In the flesh, my tomato plants are hemmed in by hot bricks. But underneath, in the spirit, life flows forth like a stream.
In today’s parable, the Sower doesn’t worry much about where he is planting his seeds, does he? It seems as if he is not “managing his space” very well, doesn’t it? He throws those valuable little seeds out everywhere with reckless abandon: into the weeds, onto the path, into the rocks, as well as into the good soil. And yet, despite his wasteful way of planting, the Sower ends up with a harvest of extraordinary abundance. In some places, his grain comes in a hundredfold. I can’t even get that kind of return with MiracleGro! Jesus is showing us a picture of a God who is constantly pouring out God’s Word of Love into Creation—into fertile places and into dead places. God is constantly making connections that we don’t see, molding our hearts, working around and in and through the space that we fill ourselves.
On my same little patio with my blossomless tomato plants, there is another plant that lives “in the Holy Spirit.” Last year, I had my whole patio redone. I had the bricks removed, the gravel underneath scooped out, and a thick slab of concrete poured before the bricks were re-laid on top. Yet, this summer, right in the middle of that new patio, a little weed has sprung up through a tiny opening that is too small for my eyes to see. Unfertilized, unwatered, uncared for by me, this little weed is growing tall and strong through the concrete. The networks of fungi that nurture it must exist somewhere under that concrete, but they belong to the powerful and invisible networks of our Creator.
Assured by Resurrection of the love and power of a Living God, we have no need to burrow down into our hearts, looking for fertile soil. We have no cause to give up, either, when the harvest around us appears lean. We have only to strengthen our connections: our connections with one another and with our world but also our deep, unseen connections with God’s constantly creating Word.
So whether you are gardening or watching soccer this afternoon, look for the connections, the running roots and the running players, and see the unstoppable Spirit of Christ filling the field, ready to erupt in a shout of victory or a green shoot of life.
 David Brooks, “Baseball or Soccer,” The New York Times, July 10, 2104. Found at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/11/opinion/david-brooks-baseball-or ....
 Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2001), 130.
 Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 20-21.