Sunday, July 16, 2017

Soil, seed, or sower?

A Sermon preached on July 16, Pentecost VI, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 55:10-13, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

This is a well-known parable, which means that we are often very sure we already know what it meant and what it is supposed to mean for us. Yet Jesus told parables to make us think, to make us reflect ….. not to listen to on automatic pilot. And in the section we left out this morning, verses 10 – 17, he even says “The reason I speak (…) in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” (Matthew 13:13) So if we do not want to be accused of seeing without perceiving, and listening without understanding, perhaps we should not always take the first meaning that comes to mind, not always the most obvious one. 

There are three main “actors” in the parable: the sower, the seed, and the soil – and some bit parts too: birds, rocks, thorns – we could make a whole play out of this! And people have – in the musical Godspell, there is a whole scene in which the actors enact this parable – with all the parts. But let’s concentrate on the three main roles. Who are we supposed to be? Soil, seed or sower? 

Most often, we think of ourselves as soil and we hope that we are good soil, that we not only hear the word but also understand it, and that we bear fruit. The last thing we want to be is one of the other patches of ground. If we are not so sure, we might ask ourselves, how can we make the soil of our hearts more fertile, more ready to receive the seed that Jesus calls the word of the kingdom?
How can we root out the thorns of worldly cares, worry, self-interest, and greed? How can we make sure that our soil has depth and is not so shallow that the grain quickly withers in the sun?  The gardeners among you will know that this is hard work. The soil has to be dug up to remove weeds, extra nutrients have to be added, good soil must be full of life.  

To be fully receptive to the word of the kingdom, we will need to let go of some of old grudges, our hard feelings – the spiritual equivalent of weeding is to forgive. To enrich the soil of our hearts we need water and nourishment: studying Scripture, especially in groups, communal worship, and most of all the nourishment we receive at the altar. To ensure the soil of our hearts is full of life, we need to live out our faith, to serve and help others, to share in their lives – and often their pain. That is what it means to hear and understand and to bear fruit.

Or are we the seed? Being flung out by the sower to land wherever he or she intends, in good and in bad places. If we are the seed, the word in action, then we do not have to worry about where we land. It is not our responsibility.  In the reading from Isaiah (55:10) we heard God say, that like rain and snow the “word be that goes out from my mouth; shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” That is a promise; it will succeed by God’s standards, even if for us the seed that lands next to the field, that does not take root and bear fruit, sounds like failure and waste. 

So if we are seed then we must be prepared to go where God sends us, even to places and people where we cannot imagine that they will even listen to, let alone understand, the word. It will be costly. In John’s Gospel (12:24) Jesus compares himself to a grain of wheat: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” He is talking about his sacrifice, his death on the cross through which first he, then his followers, and gradually the whole world is transformed – into the kingdom the word describes. If we are seed we must be ready to sacrifice, not necessarily our lives, but there are many other things we might need to give up and leave behind.

Or perhaps Jesus wants us to be sowers. The sower is often interpreted to be God or Jesus, and that is also a good analogy. God in Jesus flung the seed of the word of the kingdom wherever he went, and it found good soil in some places where others thought nothing good or holy could grow, both within the borders of Israel and beyond them, among Jews and Greek, among the pious and those called sinners, in men and women. Jesus sowed the word of the kingdom, wherever he went.  

When Jesus explains the parable, he does not say, “I am the sower.”  I think that at the end of Matthew’s Gospel what we call the Great Commission (28:19-20) is actually a call to be sowers. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We are to go everywhere, we are to sow the seed that is the word of the kingdom on all sorts of ground. It is not for us to worry about whether we think the soil we are walking over is good or bad, receptive or not. It is not our job to save seed for the places we think will be the most fertile, or the sort of people we think will be most receptive or deserving.  This seed is so precious, it has to be shared, and the supply is unlimited. Like the sower in the parable,e we must spread the word extravagantly and with generous abandon. 

Though sometimes, if I may add to the parable, it might be worth the sower stopping to try and clear some of the obstacles. It is not always deliberate or a conscious choice when people hear, but do not understand or fully receive the word of the kingdom. Jesus says that “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.” When you are sowing, make the message easy to understand. Use your own story of faith, tell people what Jesus, God, Church all mean to you – the less abstract and the fewer “in-words” we use, the better. We can no longer assume that people understand religious language, often they have no idea what we are talking about. 

“As for what is 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.” We can help here too, we can provide the water and nourishment needed to make the soil deeper and more fertile by inviting the people we meet to come here and join this or another suitable community of faith.

As for the thorns, “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” and power that choke the word. If people are hungry, thirsty, homeless, or hopeless they may not be able to hear the good news, because these immediate life threatening needs take precedence. It is then our job to find ways of both helping the individual in need, and changing the system where it is the cause of poverty. Establishing just structures is preparing the ground for the seed that is the word of the kingdom. As for those who succumb to the lure of excessive wealth and abusive power, that is where speaking truth to power comes into its own.

Soil, seed, sower – all three are good and important roles. I leave to up to you to decide which one is best for you now – perhaps we all need to be soil, seed and sower at different times on our spiritual journeys. Whatever role you play, be good soil, be good seed, or be a good sower, so that God’s good word multiplies and spreads and bears fruit – whether a hundredfold, or sixty, or thirty, does not matter – all are a sign of growth and transformation and that it is succeeding in the thing for which God sent and meant it.

With acknowledgement to Rev. Amy Richter for inspiration taken from her sermon "The Good Sower":

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