That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen! Hear then the parable of the sower. 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; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was 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, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus is having a problem that we would all love to have–that when John and I preach on Sunday morning the crowds would be so great that I would have to sit out on a boat to avoid being consumed by the growing congregation on the shore. But while I know that this is not the problem of many churches this Sunday morning, in this church, like so many churches, there was once the problem of not having enough space.
As a student at UTC, I learned that church growth is a slippery concept, that it’s elusive and can’t be simply tracked back to one reason or cause. We want facts, though, things that we can do or change, forces that we can control. We see that some churches prosper when led by certain preachers, or that those churches with a certain theology or worship style attract people, packing worship services with excited young adults, and we begin to wonder what we’re doing wrong.
I grew up in a church that didn’t grow much, but was a consistently strong church for a long time. Most Sundays, the church which could hold around 400 people was nearly full. For a long time, this was the only type of church that I knew. And I think it was one particular minister that contributed to the church’s strength in numbers. So I found myself quite intimidated when that minister invited me over for lunch when I graduated from UTC. This woman was larger than life, surely the most intimidating model for ministry that I could imagine. And she was a woman minister at a time when they were quite the rarity. Anyway, after lunch I asked her what words of advice she had for a young woman seeking a call to a church. I asked something like, “As far as having a successful ministry goes, your time at Canberra City can’t really be beaten. What’s your secret?”
She said, as she looked me dead in the eye with a gaze I had to look away from, “Radhika, you have to know what is in your control and what isn’t, and when it comes to being a minister, there isn’t really that much that is in your control.”
In this woman, I saw a man who had earned the right to pat herself on the back, but then I realized I was face to face with a woman who knows the wisdom of the parable of the sower.
In this parable, we hear about a farmer who has gone out to sow seed. The farmer seems careless, sowing seed along the path where birds would eat it up, on rocky places where the plants would sprout quickly but with shallow roots that the sun would scorch, other seed scattered among thorns that would outgrow the plants and choke them out–seed going all these places besides its intended destination, among the good soil.
This parable describes a farmer, but certainly not a farmer who knows what he’s doing. There is no mention of plowing the field, irrigating or fertilizing it. The farmer carelessly sows seed without thinking much about the maximum yield of his field, depending on a miracle for any kind of harvest at all. Modern farmers don’t depend on miracles; they plan ahead, plowing, irrigating, and fertilizing–minimizing waste by sowing with some precision, recognizing that minimizing waste means maximizing profit.
But Jesus admires this less economical farmer, and he interprets his parable far away from the crowds so that only the disciples hear, the disciples, who, in a way, are like sowers, sowing the Good News of the Kingdom of God. To them, those who would soon be entrusted with spreading the Gospel to all the earth, Jesus offers a parable about a farmer who sows seed… and leaves the rest up to God.
My minister knew that Canberra City Uniting Church remained steady not because of her, but because the seed she sowed fell on good soil, in a urban location with great parking. That though she and the church did their job of casting out seed, the harvest was plentiful because of many factors that were completely out of their control.
Like modern farmers, we do our best to control everything that we can. We maximize the soil’s fertility, adding in Miracle-Gro ourselves, doing our best not to leave too much of the process up to chance or up to God.
When churches seem to be successful, the temptation is to take credit for a job well done; and when churches seem to struggle, we assume we have done something wrong, we haven’t planned enough. We want to maximize our yields, minimize our waste, and with the opportunity to control more and more, to know more and more, we run the risk of forgetting that ours is a vital, but ultimately small, part of the great miracle God has been doing in our world since the dawn of creation. Our seed must be sown or there will never be a crop, but by no means is the harvest all up to us. We must sow the seeds, but we must also trust that what will grow will grow and what doesn’t is out of our control.
Friends, our world is changing, and I, like many of you, am worried about the future of the Church – perhaps more so after reading NCLS and Census data.
I worry about the world we are living in–what, according to too many Christians is a culture of violence and greed, filling young men and women with apathy, cynicism–eating up seeds of hope and truth like birds to seeds sown along the path.
I worry about the soil–that too many in our communities are unresponsive to the Gospel, as hardened to the church as the rocky places that have no use for seeds of faith.
I worry about the shallow faith of others who have not left the Church but have left the denomination for preachers offering clearly-communicated moral lessons at best and a gospel of prosperity at worst. I worry about what will come of, what seems to me, a shallow faith or the lonely faith of those who are “spiritual but not religious”. When the sun comes up, will their belief be scorched and wither into nothing?
I worry about the thorns of our world–knowing what forces will take over to strangle humanity should the faithful fade away. A world left to ambition, the reckless pursuit of wealth with no regard for the common good–surely without the Church, too many would be left to the thorns that grow up and choke, first the poor, the oppressed, then us all.
But look at the reading. Jesus doesn’t call our attention to the seed that is lost. “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop–a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Let anyone with ears listen!”
Jesus entrusted twelve people with the future of the church, twelve people who launched a campaign that changed the whole world, while our denomination in Australia is consumed by worries. This image of the sower is not an image of worry. So why does our church seem consumed by worries?
More and more, either having experienced rejection or just fearing it, we are reluctant to reach out to people in love though we so desperately want to–as though our hands are cold despite our warm hearts. We are reluctant to reach out in love, to cast seeds of hope, to invite friends to worship in our communities of faith. We are reluctant, as though we already knew how our offer would be received, though the only thing that guarantees the rejection of what we have to offer is keeping the seed in our hand, never casting it out into the world.
But rather than cast concerned eyes on our world wondering where all the good Christians moved off to, the parable of the sower calls you to trust that you are not the Lord of the harvest–that the state of our communities, like the state of the sower’s soil, is not yours to worry over. So, rather than split hairs of theological principle, the parable of the sower calls you to sow seeds of love. Rather than worry over members lost, the parable of the sower calls you to sow seeds of grace and mercy over new ground–worried not over where it will land–concerned only with casting as much seed as possible–leaving all the rest up to God.
What does casting seed look like in this day and age? It’s using Facebook to talk about church and inviting people along. It’s volunteering at Playgroup and Mainly Music and English Conversation and being unafraid to talk about church and Jesus. It’s being thoroughly welcoming of anyone who crosses our path – even the ones that don’t look like the demographics we have here. There are a myriad of ways to sow seeds – but you have to actually sow them!
The parable of the sower demands that you sow seed. Don’t complicate matters any more than that–just sow seeds of love–and leave the rest up to God. That is what it means to be faithful.
Let us pray. Holy God, in a changing world that seems reluctant to accept the gifts we the Church have to offer, grant us hope enough to go on casting seed and grant us the faith to leave the rest up to you. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.