That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’
‘Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’ (Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23)
There’s an interesting bit of synchronicity attached to today’s gospel reading. I got word just recently about the death of an old friend, Jennifer, and I’d like to dedicate these thoughts to her memory, because it was she who helped me to really understand this parable.
I can still hear the excitement and energy in her voice the day she called me some 25 years ago now. She was a city type, but had recently married a fellow named Tom, and the two of them had just moved into his family’s old homestead on the outskirts of Ottawa, and they were just starting to work the 100 acres of land. “I’m so busy”, she said, “but it’s wonderful. Tom says that a good farmer plants for the future, so that’s what we’re doing. We’ve got our kitchen garden for everyday use, but besides that, we’re planting fruit trees – pears and apples and cherries and plums – several varieties of each….we’re thinking about a hundred this year and another hundred next year. The following year we’ll put in grape vines, and then we plan to branch off into other kinds of fruit-bearing trees, like walnuts. I didn’t know”, she said, “that a walnut tree has to be decades old before it will bear fruit (and she gave me some astronomical number which I can’t really remember now, but in any event, it was enough that she understood that she would never live to see the day that the walnut trees would produce anything). But that was their commitment; that was their shared vision of how things worked. Her husband had been raised with the outward-looking belief that what he did today with his energy and resources would ultimately benefit someone else at some undetermined time, years down the road. He didn’t have to know who. It was simply a deliberate, thoughtful, and generous investment made for unknown people in an unknown future.
We detect that same sense of hopeful generosity in the parable of the Sower. In it, here comes God, strolling through creation, patiently scattering to the four winds, showering every corner of the earth with the abundance of the Word, connecting us with the miracle of creation and re-creation, with the promise of increase, & with unfailing providence. And perhaps that’s where we are tempted to stop listening, and turn away from the rest of the parable because we think it doesn’t really apply to us. We, after all, are ones in whom the Word has already taken root, so all that stuff about rocks and pathways and birds and thorns doesn’t really have anything to do with us……or so we think.
Like most of his parables, this one too is all about context. The disciples to whom Jesus spoke were, in a sense, pioneers – the original ones in whom the first seeds of the gospel message had been planted. The seeds had taken root, and seeing this, Jesus had commissioned them to go out two by two and become sowers themselves. “Out you go”, he had said, “and tell everybody the good news of the Kingdom”. And they did – but then something happened that they didn’t expect. As a result of their efforts, many people had embraced the gospel, but paradoxically, it sometimes seemed as if their life-giving seeds of faith and hope simply fell to the ground, to be ignored and trampled on. At other times, people seemed to hear and embrace the message, but in the heat of life’s adversity it just seemed to wither up and collapse. In still others, the gospel seemed to take root, and it would appear to blossom gloriously for a bit…. but then the flowers of faith would choke and die in the shadow of other competing ideas or beliefs. As far as the disciples were concerned, there was something wrong with this picture.
And so they came running back to their Master, indignant, frustrated, disappointed, their voices raised in protest. “This just doesn’t add up. Why should we invest our time and energy sharing this great news, when half these people don’t even get it? If we’re not getting the results we want, aren’t we wasting our time? It seems like our efforts are simply going down the proverbial drain”.
Well now – doesn’t that sound familiar? That’s our yardstick too, isn’t it? Results. A more deeply-ingrained principle in our society would truly be hard to find. We simply need to see return for our effort, and in most cases, the sooner, the better. That’s how we measure success: everything is outcome-based – even when it comes to planting seeds of hope and faith. It’s just all too tempting to get discouraged when the person we invite to Church doesn’t come, or when nobody really seems to notice the Christian witness we show in our lives. And how enticing it is to fall into the trap of believing that it is all up to us – that God is somehow just sitting back in a big easy chair, disconnected from the whole process. So I think we share this dynamic with the disciples – we extend the message just as they did, but want to see the results in terms that we can understand, and we feel both disappointed and deflated when we don’t. And isn’t that especially true for us now, in a time when the future of the church and the Christian faith as we know it seems to hang in an uncertain balance? As a priest and archdeacon I find myself dealing with the self-imposed anxiety we collectively feel over this on an almost daily basis….when what we really need to do, I think, is take the long view – like a farmer who plants walnut trees.
Jesus too seems to take it all in stride – and suggests that our human preoccupation with outcomes, and our insistence on keeping score, is neither useful nor accurate. God provides increase in God’s own time, in God’s own place, and in God’s own way…..which for the record, is often in a way we can’t even begin to imagine. All that is really asked of us is to generously sow the seeds; to tell the story and live the truth, to use our talents and gifts generously in the service of the Gospel….and then relax, because the outcome belongs to God, not us. The kingdom that we hope for and give witness to will flourish – often in spite of us. And not only that, it will flourish in ways and proportions that we can scarcely comprehend. Perhaps the best prescription that can be written for the church in this unsettled time is to keep on sowing seeds of faith, and then to get out of the way, trusting that God knows what God is doing with God’s church and God’s world.
I mentioned last week that I had recently attended two services of de-consecration as churches that were built by pioneers in the late 1800’s were closed. What the bishop always calls to mind on those occasions is that the people who built those churches trusted in an unknown future. They couldn’t possibly have anticipated the cultural, scientific, economic, political or demographic shifts that would come in the next century – and I daresay, neither can we. The Good News is, we don’t have to. Our responsibility, and our joy, and our privilege, is to be disciples who simply sow the seeds of the Gospel – wherever and whenever we can – joyfully, generously, and with abandon. For that’s the way God will re-create the Church. I don’t know about you, but that’s where I’ve decided to place my hope and trust, believing that the seeds of faith and hope that we plant today will flourish in unimaginable ways in the divine economy that we know as God’s Kingdom.
For faith in the future we give thanks and together say Amen.
The Venerable Nancy Adams