Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Feast of San Isidro
“Other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain.” (Mark 4)
The gospel this morning is chosen especially for the feast of San Isidro, and is the familiar parable where Jesus tells of a sower who scatters seed on a variety of ground, but only one of which yields a fruitful harvest. The seeds sown along the path, or on rocky ground, or on shallow soil, or among the thorns yield nothing, but the seed sown into good, deep soil bears thirty, sixty, even and hundredfold.
Now, there are any number of meanings you can ascribe to the good, deep soil—it might be a metaphor for faithfulness, or learning, or hard work, or any number of things. But the one I want to explore picks up on last week’s theme of simplicity. You may recall that I invoked the maxim then that in anything at all, perfection is attained not when nothing more can be added, but when nothing more can be taken away. Thinking about matters of faith, I suggested that what is important is not elaborate religious ritual and practice, but the simplicity of the relationship between Christians given through Christ in Word and Sacrament: “One Bible and two Christians” is all you really need.
Simplicity, however, is not a simple matter. Indeed, the French poet Paul Valéry once remarked, “What is there more mysterious than clarity?” So today I’d like to come at the idea of simplicity from the direction of personal character. Let’s suppose, that what Jesus had in mind when he talked about seed falling onto deep, rich soil, was the planting of seed in persons whom we would describe as having a real depth of character.
San Isidro, I think, gives us a positive example of what this looks like. Isidro was a farm laborer who lived long ago near Madrid, Spain. He worked for a large landowner, but before going to the fields each day he made it his habit to go first to one of the churches in Madrid to attend mass.
And Isidro seems to have been one of those people who very much took to heart what he heard there. Motivated by Jesus’ call to serve the poor, he regularly shared what little food he had with those who had nothing. Legend has it that he frequently invited the hungry home to eat with him and his wife Maria, and their small stew pot miraculously never ran out.
Even the animals were recipients of his generosity: one winter day when he was on his way to the mill to have a sack of grain ground, he came upon some birds vainly trying to scratch the frozen ground for something to eat. So he opened the sack, sharing some of the grain with them, but then when he reached the mill, the sack was once again full.
Isidro, it seems, was a man whose character achieved a correspondence between his conviction and action. What he learned at church, he put into practice in life. It would be easy for us to hear these stories, however, as mere morality tales, and miss what seems to me is a deeper point. Isidro achieved in himself a distillation of what is important in life that gave him a depth of character in which conviction and action were in harmony and continuity. He is an example of someone who had pruned away the innumerable distractions and preoccupations of life, and was left with what in religions terms we might call discipleship and service; or in more secular terms, commitment and action.
This pruning away of whatever it is that unproductively distracts and preoccupies us is, in my experience, one of the hardest challenges of life. It is, for example, so easy to brood on the hurts and slights we receive from other people, that we become unaware of the gifts of love and friendship that are extended to us. Or we become so concerned with how we wish our children or our parents would act, that we overlook who they really are to us. You fill in the story for yourself: each of us has some story to tell of becoming distracted and preoccupied, so that we overlook what is really important.
I mentioned several weeks ago that I was going up to Fort Collins, Colorado, to participate in the 50th anniversary celebration of the installation of the Casavant organ at Colorado State University. Now, that may not sound like any big deal to you, but that instrument had a huge impact on my life, especially through my father-in-law, Robert Cavarra, who as the professor of organ oversaw its installation.
Dad Cavarra had thought a lot about music, and what separates the great from mediocre. For him it was not about showmanship, or flamboyance, but about clarity and musicality. And as his student, I learned a lot from him about distilling one’s thinking to get beyond distraction and preoccupation down to the essentials.
Let me give you an example. I don’t know how much you know about the organ world, but it’s a real subculture. Organists love to travel around and visit various instruments, and most of the time, upon sitting down at a new instrument, an organist will pull on all the stops to see what the instrument “has got.”
Dad Cavarra thought otherwise. Many a time, I saw him sit down at an organ that was new to him, put his finger on middle C, and then pull on a single stop: the 8’ principal (8’ means that when you play middle C, you get middle C). He would quietly listen to that one note, and then pull on the 4’ principal (which sounds the note an octave higher), continuing to listen. Finally he would pull on the 2’ principal (which in turn sounds the same note, two octaves higher). What he was listening for was whether the three pitches were three separate blobs of sound, or whether they became fused more subtly into a single sound. He could tell, just based on that test, whether an organ had been built with the kind of care that created a truly fine instrument, or whether it was a distracting smorgasbord of competing and sometimes conflicting sounds.
I know it’s a bit of an esoteric example, but my memory of Dad Cavarra testing out a new organ is for me an image of what we have to do for ourselves in cultivating our personal character. Have we done the hard work of sorting out the continuity between our convictions and actions? Are we a harmonious, balanced assortment of skills and commitments? Or are we at odds with ourselves, incongruous and conflicted, going in six difference directions at once?
Rowan Williams once said, in addressing a group of ordinands, that our vocation is the residue that is left, when all the games of self-deception have ceased. That is the simplicity toward which the spiritual life that we are together pursuing in this place tries to direct us: to find here at church (like Isidro himself), the guidance in God’s Word, and from one another, by which to sort out who we are, and what our deepest convictions and commitments are going to be. And then, as we go into the fields of our own life, to go about fulfilling them by the way we conduct ourselves in our labor, our living, and our loving. May we, like San Isidro so many years ago, receive the gift of such clarity! Amen.