A sermon for a virtual visitation at St. John, Town Street, (Columbus) on July 12, 2020.
Text: Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23.
“A sower went out to sow. The seeds that fell on the road were eaten by birds. The seeds that fell on rocky ground died for want of soil. The seeds that fell among weeds were choked. But the seeds that fell on fertile ground grew and bore fruit.”
This little story is disarming in its simplicity. But it is also disturbing. We can sense that it has to do with the kingdom of God, but we want to have a better idea of what it means for each of us, personally. It’s no surprise that the fledgling church, dealing with persecution from outside and faithlessness inside, applied Jesus’ mysterious and unsettling teaching to its own spiritual challenges a generation or two later. So they said ‘these seeds are the cowards among us; these seeds are the uncommitted among us, these seeds are the worldly and greedy among us, and these seeds are the true saints among us.’
There was and is nothing wrong with this interpretation. The parable of the sower readily lends itself to such a reading. But if we put that reading to one side, a very different message emerges. The parable of the sower is not about our failure as followers of Jesus, or our suffering as followers of Jesus. It’s not even about whatever holiness we may dare to claim as followers of Jesus. It’s not about us — it’s about God: God’s infinite and irrepressible generosity, sowing the seeds of mercy and restorative justice everywhere, knowing some of the seeds will find room and opportunity to germinate and grow, producing spiritual fruit for everyone. Taken on its own, this parable exudes energy and hope.
When I was on the faculty of General Seminary in New York, I had an assigned seat — they called it a stall — in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, where I would participate in daily Morning and Evening Prayer and the Eucharist. Right across from my stall was a small stained glass window of the divine sower, depicted as a young farmer joyously casting seed right and left and obviously walking at an exuberant pace. This seemed to me to capture the true spirit of Jesus: undaunted, youthful, eager to serve.
Let’s sit with this for a moment. We are all living through an extraordinarily hard time — some with more exposure to health risk than others, some with more exposure to prejudice and hatred than others. But we are all hurting one way or another.
Every week, the bishops of Province V, which comprises the fifteen dioceses of the Episcopal Church in the eastern Midwest, have been meeting for an hour via Zoom. Last Wednesday we ended up talking about an attempted lynching near Bloomington, Indiana, which is located in the Diocese of Indianapolis. It was an intense and grieving conversation.
Since then I have been thinking a lot about how difficult it is for any of us, whatever our position in the church, to know how to be effective followers of Jesus in such a time as this. It may be even more difficult to know how to grasp the abundant optimism of today’s parable. Not only because our capacity for hope is compromised, but perhaps also because we feel guilty if our hope has been stirred — as if hope dishonors the pain of people worse off than ourselves.
But we are, in fact, called to hope. As today’s passage from Isaiah reminded us (Isaiah 55: 10-13), God’s word will never return to God empty, but will succeed in the thing for which God sent it. That word is Christ, who lives in us and lays claim on us, finding in our hearts no utter wasteland, but at least one place where he can germinate in us.
So if we take the parable of the sower at face value, Christ, who is both sower and seed, is everywhere, in each and every human being, however hardened, angry, or fearful he or she may be, scoping out in each of us a place where justice and mercy can take hold. We are his field, and he will find in our complex and thorny landscape the perfect spot to plant himself.
Be warned that this may well be the place where you are weakest, most ashamed, and most afraid. We each know where that place is. And, as Paul has told us, that is the very place where Jesus has chosen to come, so that out of our own weakness, in union with him, through the mercy that has been shown to us, we might become signs of hope. Let us have the courage to go there, as to the empty tomb, and meet him there.
So back to Isaiah, who declares God’s promise to us as the one who gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater — the seed of hope and the bread of heaven:
“As rain and snow fall from the heavens
And return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth,
Seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word that goes forth from my mouth;
It will not return to me empty;
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed,
And prosper in that for which I sent it.”