Lent 2022: 2nd Sunday of Lent

Seeds Planted on Fertile Soil
By Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, Executive Director at CMEP

“But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.”
(Matthew 13:23)

Many years ago, when I lived in Jerusalem, I was shocked that the Jericho Road into the “wilderness” was a desert full of rocky soil. I grew up on the east coast of the United States and our wilderness was wooded terrain with lots of trees and hidden beasts like black bears and wolves. Or at least that’s what I feared when I was a child! The soil of the Middle East shocked me. The rolling hills of the Judean wilderness do not have fertile soil, but rather rocky sandy terrain where it is difficult for anything to grow.

Some of you may be horticulturists who will challenge my assertion about plants not growing in the desert as there are some incredible desert flowers that defy the harsh conditions and bloom into beautiful colors and specimens – such as the crown anemone (most likely the lily of the field mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 6:28), the tumbleweed gundelia, or the toxic Golden henbane. Despite these exceptions, Jesus was clear in his parable of the good sower that seeds planted in good soil will “bear fruit and yield plenty.”

Clearly, in the Scripture, the parable of the good sower provides a metaphor for someone who “hears the word and understands it,” but what does this story teach us about our work for peace and justice in the Middle East?

I believe this parable is about what it means for us to be “good soil” – ready and prepared, in a posture of willingness to embrace God’s good news for all people – a message of love, acceptance, justice, and reconciliation. There are times in my life I can look back on and acknowledge that the soil of my heart was hard and rocky, unreceptive and not loving towards those who hold opposing views. What does it mean for someone to be loving while not compromising on holding fast to core values and practices of human rights and justice?

This question became very profound for me several years ago. I was working for an international development organization and often led multi-narrative experiences in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories for conservative Christians from the United States. We sought to have speakers and guests from across the spectrum related to Israeli politics and Palestinian perspectives. No one voice, thought, or idea is monolithic within either society. Our goal was to honor every person’s individual experience and narrative while still addressing the devastating effects of the occupation, the repercussions of settlement expansion, limits to mobility for Palestinians living in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, and other such realities.

One speaker’s views and perspectives were antithetical to my own. I abhorred his politics and views toward the Palestinian people. At the end of his presentation, I couldn’t even shake his hand. My heart was hard, I was filled with rage and grief that Palestinians in the audience had been asked to listen to his racist stories and perspective. After the meeting, I was overwhelmed. First, I asked forgiveness from the Palestinians in the room. How could I have welcomed a speaker who reinforced so many false narratives about them and their people? My second thought was an overwhelming conviction that I was not living out one of the core teachings of Jesus. Love your enemy.

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

This Lent as we reflect upon what it means for us to be fertile soil upon which seeds can be planted, and grow, and prosper – what does it mean for us to hear and do the word of God that calls us to “love our enemies?” What does it mean for us to love all people – even those with whom we completely disagree? I believe the transforming power of God allows us to transcend human limitations – so that we can become people who love boldly, while not compromising on pursuing truth, goodness, reconciliation, and justice.

I believe a part of the answer to what it means to love our enemies is to enter into the paradox of both loving people with whom we disagree while working to respond to injustices they may perpetuate. This can look like sitting across a table from someone who holds positions different than your own. This might mean acknowledging and seeking to learn from disparate narratives, while still advocating and working for policy changes that promote human rights. Loving your enemy might not have a visible manifestation, but could mean looking at them with compassion and not harboring hatred in your heart.

I have many friends who are Israeli and who are committed to spending their lives and resources to bring an end to the occupation of the Palestinian people. And I also know many Israelis who hold similar views to the man in my story. How do I respond to them? What does it mean, as Jesus calls us, to love them? I hope and pray over the past several years my heart has softened while at the same time, my commitment to justice and human rights has never wavered. I do not believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a zero-sum game. But rather any solution to the injustices of the occupation will also be a solution that is in the best interest of Jewish Israelis as well.

This Lent, my prayer is that we at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) might be a place of fertile soil – where love for all people is held as a core value as we seek to live out God’s love and justice in the Middle East and the world.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

God, make us good and fertile soil.
Soften our hearts and root out any hatred within us.
Give us perspectives of love toward all people.
Help us to hear your word and to understand it.

Help us to understand and pursue both your love and justice,
To not be afraid, but courageous in our efforts toward peace.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Amen.

____

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace and an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). Cannon formerly served as the senior director of Advocacy and Outreach for World Vision U.S. on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC; as a consultant to the Middle East for child advocacy issues for Compassion International in Jerusalem; as the executive pastor of Hillside Covenant Church located in Walnut Creek, California; and as director of development and transformation for extension ministries at Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois.