Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Today, one of the best known stories in the gospels. If the parable of the sower leaves you cold at first, that’s a good sign in a way, because it means you live a life that enjoys a measure of food security – if we were in some sub-Sahara region, this story would have a certain punch. So imagine you are one of the crowd Matthew’s gospel describes on the lakeside, listening to Jesus. Almost certainly you are poor, and you probably live off the land (plus some fishing on the lake). The soil isn’t the worst in the Mediterranean, but growing is still tough: you get three or four kilos of grain for every kilo of seed you sow. If it’s a good year, you have all the bread you need and you can sell the surplus; you’ll still be poor, but you’ll have a few months of security. If it’s a bad harvest, you’re in trouble. If the crop fails, you starve. So you are careful about how you sow the seed, to give it the best chance.
Now you are also a Jew, and there are stories you’ve heard from your mother’s knee about how it will be when the Messiah comes. One story talks of bumper harvests. Wouldn’t that be a sight? You go to hear Jesus, the wandering rabbi, and he tells a story about the worst farmer in Galilee who throws the seed just anywhere – on the baked earth of the path, on the rocks, in the thorns. What’s wrong with him? Is he drunk? You know how this story will end: a tiny crop, and serve him right, but pity the family that depends on this bucolic buffoon.
But no: the madman’s tiny amount of well-sown seed produces a miracle harvest – some seeds yield a hundredfold, even the worst thirtyfold – a harvest beyond your dreams, as though the Messiah (whoever that might be) has really come at last. So what can this be about? ‘If you have ears,’ says Jesus, ‘then hear.’ And he pushes off.
Back to here and now. If you’re new to all this, you are very welcome, and you are quite like the people in the crowd on the lakeside. But if you have years of Christian faith behind you, then you are more like another group of people in the story, an audience within the audience. The reading as we get it this morning leaves out eight verses which tell us who these people are: after telling the story, says the writer, Jesus gets together with his team, the disciples; they ask him what the parable is about and he gives them the explanation which forms the second part of our reading. These are not people hearing the message of Jesus for the first time; these are people who are charged with helping spread the message of Jesus. In the terms of the story, they are sowers.
So the question for each of us is this: ‘Where do I see myself in this story?’
Are you among the crowd hearing Jesus, perhaps for the first time? If you are, ask yourself: ‘What is this story saying to me?’ It’s a story about God doing something incredibly generous in you. What might it be? It could be anything, some little thing that has great potential to bear fruit. Is it some gift or talent you’ve got? Or a person you have just met, some new development in your life you haven’t really thought about because you reckon there’s nothing in it? What might it be?
Now ask: ‘What might stop me responding to this generosity from God?’ Jesus gives three possible answers when he explains about the seed falling on the path, on the rocky ground, and among the thorns. First, I may just not understand what God is saying to me – no fault in that. Or I may not be letting it take root in me: you can really enjoy church on a Sunday, but something stops any of it sinking in too deep. Orother things may choke the green shoots of whatever God is trying to grow in me, things like ‘the lure of wealth’ or ‘the cares of the world’.
That’s a hard one. ‘The lure of wealth’ – quite an issue round here, where for some more never seems to be enough – being greedy, you can see that’s not good, but what about the idea that cares, real things that worry you, are getting in God’s way; that is tough. Again, it’s hardly your fault, but it is true that you can be so choked with anxiety that you can’t receive the very thing that might help. Still, no-one need despair. We can change, just as dry earth can be watered, and stones or thorns can be dug out.
Where do I see myself in this story? For some here, the honest answer is: I really belong among the disciples, even if I don’t want to be; the seed has borne fruit, I have received a lot from God, and now it is time to give, to be a sower of God’s word. This is quite a thing, the idea that God might use something you or I say to speak to someone else.
Don’t be distracted by the parts of the church the world gets interested in. Tomorrow, our representatives in the General Synod vote on legislation to permit women to be bishops; then, later this week, our (male) bishops take part in the Lords’ debate on assisted dying. These are both immensely important, but neither is the definitive voice of the church. The church has a very low centre of gravity, and its life and potency depends on places like this. By now, I hope the message is getting through that here in the Richmond Team Ministry we are developing a Mission Action Plan. One of its three aims is to make our churches centres of community in Richmond. Much of the thinking so far has been about how we use our three remarkable buildings. But for its first three centuries the church had no dedicated buildings at all. The church was then what it remains now, the people God, a thing of flesh and blood before brick and mortar. What might it mean for us to be at the centre of community in Richmond, or wherever our different centres of gravity lie for most of the week? Here I am speaking to – what? – forty-odd people. In the next seven days, if we each meet an average of just ten other people, that’s four hundred lives we shall touch before we are back here next week. Four hundred lives, any one of whom might need a seed sown, a word from God spoken through one of us. Sometimes it may be a word that never mentions God, but God will be speaking through it.
Where do I see myself in this story? In the general crowd, or among the disciples? Soil and seed? Or sower? If the answer (however reluctant) is ‘sower’, none of us is the sower-in-chief. That is God, the crazy farmer who sows the seed all over the place, whose ways are not our ways. Though we share in the sowing, it’s God’s call where the seed goes. It is not for us to decide who is the ‘right’ kind of person to receive God’s attention; or ours. We only need look at ourselves and those around us this morning to see what unlikely people God seems to care about, and to love beyond our dreams.