Jesus used parables to tell them many things. “Once there was a man who went out to sow grain. As he scattered the seed in the field, some of it fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some of it fell on rocky ground, where there was little soil. The seeds soon sprouted, because the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up, it burned the young plants; and because the roots had not grown deep enough, the plants soon dried up. Some of the seed fell among thorn bushes, which grew up and choked the plants. But some seeds fell in good soil, and the plants bore grain: some had one hundred grains, others sixty, and others thirty.” And Jesus concluded, “Listen, then, if you have ears!”
A sower went out to sow, and he threw his seed … everywhere! He threw it all over the place! Some went where it was supposed to go, some of it fell into the bushes, some went on the road. I’m not sure whether this sower knew where most of his seeds were going. He just wanted to get it out there!
Now … I don’t know a lot about farming. I remember many years ago in this church, my friend David Irwin was preaching at the wedding of his daughter to our then youth worker, and he told us how, at the onset of his own marriage, he had made a commitment that if he ever found himself in situation where he was feeling so angry with his partner that he wasn’t sure he could control his tongue or his behavior, he would go for a little walk outside in his garden. And he said, “I found, over time, that the outdoor life agreed with me”.
I have found, conversely, that the outdoor life does not agree with me at all! Despite the fact that I am, technically, the manager of a farm, I have come to accept that I am entirely ill-equipped for the rigors of rural living! I am useless when it comes to repairing farm machinery. I struggle to understand even the most basic irrigation systems (let alone an electricity system). If I had to kill things in order to survive, I wouldn’t. And when it comes to those fundamental farming skills such as sowing and reaping, I am completely hopeless!
I do have vague memories of planting seeds in a pot at some point, but even that was a long while ago. I can’t remember now whether I was helping one of my kids with a school project or whether it was one of my own school projects. The only thing I do remember is that there was a strict routine to the way it all worked. It involved turning over soil, planting neat rows of seeds, carefully covering them back over, patting down the soil and administering water. I don’t remember exactly what came after that. I think things were supposed to grow. What I do remember though is that it was a rather meticulous art!
That’s how it was taught in school, at any rate, though obviously not at the school that the guy in the parable went to. He didn’t follow any of those carefully laid-out procedures. He just reached his hand deep into his seed-bag and started throwing stuff around! And a lot of it fell on the road. Life is like that. Sometimes you pour your heart and soul into someone or something and all your best efforts achieve absolutely nothing. The seed just bounces along the path!
Johnny was a guy we tried to help out many years ago. We knew he had a history with heroin but he assured us that he was no longer on the stuff and he appeared to be clean and so we gave him a bed in the back room that’s attached to the rectory, and I helped to get him a job washing cars and things seemed to be going ok. But then things started going missing, and then we had a serious break-in where Ange had her camera stolen (the one she received as a 21st present) and she had her jewelry stolen (that had been left to her by her ancestors) and there was only the one obvious suspect.
We confronted Johnny with this and he was horrified that we suspected him. “Do you really think I could do this to you after all the kindness you have shown me?” he asked. And he cried, and he pleaded his innocence, and I believed him, and we embraced. And then two days later the police came looking for him and they lifted the mattress of the bed he was sleeping on and found all the receipts from the pawn shops – hundreds of them – for all the stuff he’d stolen from us and from others during the time he’d been with us.
Sometimes you throw out your best seed but it just bounces off the road. It goes nowhere. The birds eat it.
Speaking at rallies (like the one I’m going to this afternoon) almost always make me feel like that. We’ll be marching in support of the suffering people of Gaza today and I’m not speaking at today’s rally but I’ve spoken at plenty of them and the experience always seems to be the same!
You know me – I work hard on my speeches, and when I speak out about the suffering women and men of Gaza I put my heart and soul into it and, even if I do say so myself, I’m a pretty good public speaker and the people I’m marching with always appreciate what I’ve got to say and yet, in terms of getting the message through to the people we’re trying to reach – namely, the politicians who make the decisions that determine the life and death of so many of these people … (bounce, bounce, bounce) … you can hear those seeds bouncing along the path!
Perhaps one day some politician is going to come up to me and say “hey Dave! I heard what you had to say at that Gaza rally and, by God, you’re right! Our government should be doing something more to stop the bloodshed! We’re going to change our policy!” But I’m not holding my breath.
A sower went out to sow, and not all of his seed went along the path. Indeed, in some cases there seems to be a powerful and sincere and almost immediate response!
Funerals have that effect on people I find. People are never more soberly aware of the real priorities of life than when they are at a funeral.
We had quite a gut-wrenching funeral at Holy Trinity on Friday. And I spent a solid two hours with the family and friends after the funeral because I always appreciate that time after a funeral as people are often working through issues at that time where they want to talk to a priest!
I have lots of good conversations with people at gatherings like that and yet I find for the most part that the clarity we receive on occasions like that – that stunning awareness of how your great career advancements and your house renovations don’t really add up to all that much compared to the really important things of life – doesn’t last!
It’s as if the propaganda-coloured glasses are removed for a moment and we see things as they really are, but then the day of the funeral passes and the alarm goes off in the morning – ‘I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go …’ – and so we say to ourselves ‘oh well, … life is for the living’ and we shut the word out!
And I mean no disrespect to anybody in particular who was a part of this last funeral gathering or any other funeral gathering I’ve ever been a part of for it’s just the way things work. A lot of seed falls in that shallow ground. Things sprout up and look very promising but the hearer “has no root in himself”, as Jesus puts it, “but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” (Matthew 13:21)
The other great force that stifles the word of life, of course, is the lust for money and power. This is the seed that falls amongst the thorns.
Again, you might wonder why it is that the sower bothers to throw seed in the direction of the thorn bushes but He doesn’t seem interested in discriminating. The seed takes root and begins to blossom, but …“the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” (13:22)
G.K. Chesterton put it so well when he said “we could have a really good argument over whether or not Jesus believed in fairies. But we cannot have any debate over whether or not Jesus believed rich people were in big trouble”, and yet it tends to be the wealthy and the well-to-do that are the core constituency of our Anglican churches in particular in this city!
I still can’t really work that one out but I think it is important that I keep reminding myself and the rest of us of the inherent contradiction between the ‘blessed are you poor’ message of Jesus with the ‘blessed are we rich’ demographic that we’re familiar with!
It chokes the word – that’s the problem! The word cant’ come out! It can’t be spoken in its fullness because it’s too confronting and it’s too counter-cultural and yes, I’d really love to do more to engage with my Muslim neighbors and to support those people in the Congo and look after my ageing parents but I’ve got troubles of my own! I’ve got these extensions to complete and a job to do and there are bills to be paid and … <choke> …
And some seed, of course, falls in the good soil!
And the temptation at this point, I think, is to get caught up in thinking about ‘what sort of soil am I?’ Are the seeds that are hitting me just bouncing off – having no effect whatsoever, or am I shallow in my faith? Will I survive the trials ahead? Am I the good soil that’s going to produce a bountiful crop for the Kingdom of God or will my irrepressible lust for wealth be my undoing?
And while I certainly don’t want to suggest that such forms of sober self-examination are ever unhelpful, I think the trick in this story is actually to find ourselves not in the soil but in the sower, distributing the seed.
This is the parable of the sower. Yes, it is also the parable of the seeds and the soils but fundamentally it is a story about a sower, and a sower who just doesn’t seem to accept sensible and logical boundaries when it comes to knowing where to put in your effort!
A more sensible farmer would have focused his efforts on areas of the field where you were most likely to get positive results but not this guy! This guy just doesn’t seem to be overly concerned about where the seeds fall. This guy just wants to get as much out there as possible! And quite frankly, when you think about it, the only real alternative is to be a spiritual prostitute!
Someone said to me once, ‘You priests are no different from prostitutes. You give yourself, body and soul, to someone but you charge a price, and the price is change. No change, no love!’ We can’t be like that. We can’t charge a price. We can’t give ourselves only to people who we know are going to make a meaningful response. Our calling is simply to give, and leave the response in the hands of God. Sometimes the response is great and sometimes you fall flat on your face while your seeds bounce uselessly along the path!
It’s not our fault when that happens – that’s one of the liberating pieces of encouragement that you can mine from this story! Sometimes the soil is good and sometimes it’s shallow, and sometimes the seed sprouts and looks very promising and other times it withers and dies, and that’s not really something that we have a lot of control over. Our job is just to keep on sewing the seed!
And we can’t tell where the good soil is anyway! We all know of people of whom we expected great things, but where we ended up being very disappointed. On the other hand, sometimes you get a wonderful surprise.
I mentioned that guy, Johnny, already today – the guy who stole cameras and jewelry from us. We never did see any of those family heirlooms again but we saw him again – about ten years after the theft! He showed up at my front door one day. He said he’d driven around the block countless times, summoning up the courage to come and see me as he wanted to apologise. And he told me about the years he’d spent in prison since I’d seen him, and he told me how his time with us had been the turning point, and how he had found faith. And he introduced me to his family – to his partner and two lovely children.
It seems that all those years earlier a seed had been planted (so to speak), and while I haven’t seen Johnny since, he did promise that he’d join us here for church one day, and I’m not discounting the possibility that that seed might still have a few more shoots to sprout!
A sower went out to sow, and he threw that seed around – some fell on the road, some went in the shallow soil, some fell into the bushes, and some hit good soil and generated some amazing fruit! Those who have ears, let them hear!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 13th of July, 2014.