Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, July 12 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

The gospel reading for today is a parable which occurs in all three of the synoptic gospels—Mark, Matthew, and Luke—in very similar form. While Matthew has many parables unique to his version—and uniquely problematic, as we’ll see when they start occurring in the fall—this is shared material, apparently a parable widely remembered in the very early Christian communities.

Jesus’ parables themselves are, and are meant to be, weird little stories, almost always featuring people behaving in peculiar ways, and their meaning is often deliberately opaque. They are designed to make us uncomfortable, and to make us think, and perhaps it is unsurprising that it was very early in the history of the text that people started trying to tame them, make them neater and more easily understandable—as with, for instance, the appended explanation, almost surely the work of a later, though still very early, editor. I was very taken with that explanation, in which the story of the sower becomes a direct allegory for various sorts of people in a Buzzfeed quiz sort of way, when I was seven years old, and spent some time trying to decide which category I might fit into—this, I suppose, is the advantage of a non-religious upbringing, that you can easily imagine yourself as faithless or apostate with no particular anxiety. But I do not think that Jesus actually encourages us to think in neat categories. I think he tells us stories so that we will think in story mode, so that we will work with images whose boundaries are unclear, with narratives shapes which may have more than one meaning at a time. So I’d like to sit with the story alone for a while, and see where that takes us.

The sower, then. There’s disagreement among scholars as to just how eccentric his farming style was, but there is no question that it was abnormal. It is true, and every gardener knows it to be true, that many seeds will inevitably be lost —“one for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow,” the old English saying has it, and to some extent the story simply reflects this ordinary reality. Not all your seeds will grow, indeed many will not, this is one of the facts which growers must take into account, and feeding the birds and the worms is really not a bad thing, it’s just not as immediately useful for our own purposes. Nevertheless, our gardener here certainly seems to be acting in ways which will maximize his losses—and that is shocking behaviour, in a society of subsistence agriculture. The emphasis is not on the exact nature of all the unsuitable places he scatters the seed, but rather that he is scattering it in an apparently thoughtless and random way, and even those scholars who’ve speculated that the normal procedure of the time would have been to start with wide scattering, but come back later and plow the seed in, thus giving it a better chance of success on difficult ground, must acknowledge that that particular gardener fails to do so.

And yet, out of this wild scattering comes an extraordinary harvest—a nearly impossible harvest, in fact, many times beyond what the best and most experienced farmer could expect in the most fortunate of years. As with many of Jesus’ other parables, what would seem like foolish behaviour in the sensible world proves to be the best image for the work of the kingdom, and indeed the means of grace and the hope of glory. When we, limited human beings, plant actual seeds in the actual dirt, hoping for a useful harvest, it is reasonable to prepare the ground, to choose carefully where we will plant, to dig the seeds under and to water and weed around them.

But God’s life is more like the life of the great wild natural world itself, where seed springs up, or not, wherever it happens to land, and is broadcast by wind and scavenging animals, where different strains hybridize in an uncontrolled sort of way, and where some seed rots in the ground because some of it must, if the ground is to thrive, as our own bones may become a part of the growth of later years. The world does not abide by our standards or our desires. Just so the Word is scattered—scatters willingly in self-offering—into every part of our world, whether we approve or not, thrives in unexpected corners, hybridizes with improbable human endeavours, breaks through the pavement over and over, and all our failures and losses somehow, in the silence of earth, become part of that greater, stranger, wilder, ever-renewing life. The indiscriminate joy of the sower may not be good human agricultural practice, but it is the great and impossible practice of God. In us, too, dry and stony and useless as we are—that love and that presence thrown constantly upon us, like sun and rain.

And to the extent that we can, we are called to emulate this—not with actual seeds, but with our care and concern and love. Toss them into the world, into places where nothing good seems able to grow. Throw love at the thorn-infested world, knowing it will be mostly rejected or misunderstood. For nothing is wasted, no love is ever a waste, even if we don’t clearly see the outcome, even if the miraculous harvest is not apparent now or in our lifetimes. A seed which feeds the birds or the soil is not wasted except from our own limited perspective. It is all a part of the dance of creation, the dance of the Trinitarian God.

Paul is trying to get to this, though he gets somewhat tangled up in talk about the “flesh” — a word he means to use to signify the life which is bound by the values of a sick society, the values of self-interest and competition and status and exclusion, all the strategies of our crooked little hearts, not the physical body, but sometimes he himself seems to forget this and talks as if the body itself—which is, after all, another part of God’s good creation — were the site of our problems. Leaving that difficulty aside, though, what is being contrasted here is finally the constrictions of our lives when we tie them to social calculations of value, the hoarding of our souls as if care were a non-renewable resource, against the dangerous freedom of God’s indiscriminate love. The God who loves the short-sighted, impulsive Esau, and the deceitful and selfish Jacob, and that whole dysfunctional family tree, the God who loves us too, in spite of all our failures.

Of course, we are not the infinite spring of compassion which is God, and our resources can be stretched thin. Many of us are so stretched right now, I think, after months of lockdown, job loss, and anxiety, in the midst of a re-opening which is often confusing, and sometimes seems to be driven more by the abstraction of the economy than by human concerns, watching the distressing news from around the world, afraid for friends and relatives, seeing basic concern for others become a strange political football, wondering how to be. And people can be frustrating, unreceptive, damaged, uncaring, our efforts may achieve hostility or simply indifference. Sometimes we have only a tiny handful of seed to scatter, sometimes we feel there is nothing at all, that the pain and anger of the world is too much, that we are too tired to keep throwing love into the face of sadness and oppression for no apparent result, all our seeds carried away by the crows.

But the spirit which brings life out of the dead land, which spoke the green world into being, the spirit which brought the living Christ from the sealed tomb, is never used up, is always there, an infinite stream of life and love. The spirit which reaches down to our smallness. The great unnecessary, unending casting of the Word into the world, so that we may go out again, and once more sow those seeds, that life, in the fields and pathways that surround us.