Sowing seeds

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the church where I am now the vicar.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

Jesus’ parables often talk about seeds; wheat seeds, mustard seeds, even weeds; and while that made his parables relatable to country folk who knew about growing things, I suspect the reason for it goes far beyond that.

Seeds are beginnings.  Hold a seed in your hand, and you’re not just holding what you can see; you’re holding the potential for everything it might grow into.  Nestled into that tiny package is all the information required for something much larger and more complex, along with a store of energy to give it all a kick-start.

So these parables of seeds that Jesus tells; they’re all to do with beginnings.

And while, at this point in the life of the parish, you and I might be tempted to focus on the beginnings which have most impact on us personally; new vicar, new relationships and so forth, I think this morning’s parable invites us to think about the new beginnings we might provide – or at least offer – to others.

Suppose we read it as if we – this parish – are the sower.  What would it mean for us to go out to sow?

One way of looking at it, is that it would mean creating opportunities for the word of God to reach its destination in the human heart, there taking root and flourishing as a new, or perhaps renewed, relationship with God.

And I think the parable gives us several things to think about, in that regard.

First is that if we’re talking about connecting human hearts and the word of God, really we’re talking about relationships.  The evangelist haranguing passers-by on the street corner is generally ineffective, not because people don’t hear the word; but because he doesn’t forge any meaningful connection with the people.   He’s yelling at them, but – in terms of this parable – the seed isn’t finding any soil.

Part of our job, then, as sower would be the forging of relationships outside the already existing parish community, and with the wider local community; because it’s in the context of real relationships that we’re going to be able to offer the opportunity of new relationship with God in a meaningful way.

It also strikes me that we don’t know ahead of time which people are going to respond well; just as the sower scatters his seed all over the place, and some lands among thorns, and some on the path, and so on; we need to be prepared to form relationships across the breadth of the people we encounter.  We know some of them will never go any further, but that’s okay; relationship isn’t a limited resource.

This is part of what I meant, in the email that went out with the pew sheet on Friday, when I said that we could even be playful and creative in exploring the potential God has created for us to unfold together.  Sometimes trying new things, or different things, leaves people concerned that if it doesn’t work, it will have been a waste; a waste of our time, energy, and resources.  But when we’re talking about exploring potential it’s the only way to do things; because we can’t know ahead of time which seed will give us nothing, and which will reproduce a hundred-fold.  So we give things a go, and then move on from the things that don’t work without regret.  We tested their potential in the only way we could.  And hopefully we learned something, and maybe even had some fun, along the way!

(It’s worth remembering that Jesus himself didn’t have a great success rate, if by success we mean everyone who heard him teach becoming part of his new community of believers.  Most people heard his teaching and walked away.  So we can hear this parable in part as Jesus saying to his disciples, “The numbers aren’t the point.  What matters is that some people respond, and the only way we can get to that point is giving as many people as possible the opportunity to respond.”)

Now, I only moved into this suburb two weeks ago.  I have, at this point, no particular agenda for what this looks like, in practical terms, for us.  I don’t know you, I don’t know the people around us, and I don’t know what points of connection are already available and just waiting for us to make the most of them.  But over the coming months, as we get to know one another, and as we begin to think about the future, the rest of this year, next year, and beyond, those are the sorts of questions I’ll have in mind; and I encourage you to be thinking about them and reflecting on them with me, as well!

But there are also, I think, some clues in this parable as to how we might do this in a way which ends up with better-than-random results.  Look at the three reasons Jesus gives for the seeds which don’t bear fruit; lack of understanding, trouble or persecution, and other priorities in the life of the person.

Each of those things are realities in life, and they’re realities which we can’t entirely remove.  But they are things which we can cushion a bit.

Here’s what I mean.  Take lack of understanding; that’s overcome by good teaching.  So as we think about how we provide relationships in which people can encounter the possibility of relationship with God, we also need to be thinking about how we can teach those people, so that they can develop some understanding; understanding of how to live as a Christian, how to pray, how to get the most out of the Scriptures, and so forth.  One thing I’ve picked up already is that there are many teachers in this parish; the skills and insights of that profession can be brought to bear, as we think about how to make sure that the people who encounter something of God with us, don’t do so with lack of understanding.

Or take trouble or persecution.  We can never make trouble go away; it’s a feature of human life.  But we can provide a certain amount of resilience.  We can be a resource for practical and emotional support, and we can help people to develop their own network of resources, which will help people to navigate their troubles without falling away.

Or take the “cares of the world and the lure of wealth.”  Here I think the answer is that people need to be presented with a vision of the reign of God which is so compelling, so inspiring, that the cares of the world are exposed as having relatively little worth in comparison.  Here we need to be sure that what we offer people isn’t a watered-down gospel, one with no real power to change their lives; but that what we offer is the fullness of all that God lavishes on us.

So here are the four things that this parable suggests as matters to take into account, in our life together:

  • Authentic relationships with the community around us, in which we can offer the opportunity for relationship with God.
  • Sound teaching which makes sure that what is on offer can be understood and practiced.
  • Personal support which offers resilience in the face of trouble.
  • A compelling vision of the reign of God which inspires and motivates people to commit to the gospel as a way of life.

None of that will mean that every seed will sprout and bear much grain.  But if we want to be effective in sowing, and see as much harvest as is within our scope to bring about, those are the things this parable brings to our attention.

And if we do this, it will be worth it.  We will see a harvest of people who respond to God’s offer of relationship, discovering faith and hope and love as they do.

As I said earlier, seeds are about beginnings.  We don’t need to feel that we have all the answers right now.  It’s enough that we have the attitude of a sower; someone who wants to go out into the world and make a difference; to plant something worthwhile and see it grow to full maturity.  That’s enough of a beginning for God to work with.  And I suspect that for us, it will be enough for us to be thinking and praying about, to start with, too.

The Lord be with you.

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