To join with us by watching our online worship, please click here.
Usually around my birthday in May I make a trip to the garden centre and buy some bedding plants for my baskets and gardens. This year I headed to Italy right at that time and had a little bit going on, so I was late with my visit to the garden centre, and I actually didn’t get there until a few weeks ago – the week that my usual spots were closing for the season. It wasn’t so bad because I got 50 to 70% off all my bedding plants. I got home with my deeply discounted and somewhat sad looking plants, and planted them all. I should have thought to look in the garden before I left because I found what happens every year – tomato plants! – Growing from seeds from tomatoes that fell from the vines last year. Most years I even find tomato plants growing from the crack between the sidewalk and the driveway. The tomatoes growing from the concrete driveway always reminds me of this story – that would be seed spread on rocky soil to the extreme. That’s the modern version of the parable – the seed that falls in the crack on the driveway.
According to the parable, the first seed group falls along the path and quickly disappears into the beaks of birds. In the retelling of the parable for just the disciples, this seed group represents persons who hear but fail to understand the message of God’s reign.
A second seed group lands in rocky ground, where there is little dirt, and quickly sprouts, only to wither under the scorching sun because nourishing roots are lacking. In the parable’s explanation, the second seed group represents people who are receptive to the message and even delight in it, yet their initial enthusiasm does not survive adversity or questioning.
A third seed group finds its way to a patch of thorns, which prevent growth to maturity. There is not enough room for them to flourish. In the parable’s retelling, the thorns represent experiences that hinder persevering faithfulness: anxious concerns and greed, of the kind that Jesus has cautioned against in his previous teachings.
All is not lost, though! A fourth seed group, benefiting from its location in favourable soil, the GOOD soil, bears fruit, with yields of stunning proportion, as much as a hundredfold.
The parable keeps our attention on the activity of the sower and therefore on the good-news message of God’s reigning presence in the world. On the one hand, the repeated images of failure lend realism to the work we do as church and ring all too true in our time: many will not be receptive to the message we are called to speak, and some will not persist in faithful practice. Yet the parable also reassures Jesus’ first followers and Matthew’s readers—both the disciples back then and us today —that if we persevere, even against the odds, what we do matters. What we say and how we embody the gospel in practice and live out God’s message of love will make a difference in the world. What we do will bear fruit, whether in individual lives or in our faith communities or in the wider society. So: keep on keeping on!
Each fall we have a day long meeting of our church Council, for planning and reviewing purposes. Planning the year ahead and the focus of our ministry based on the successes and also prevalent needs in the community. This past year Nancy told this parable at the Council day – and as a Council we reflected on it quite a lot. I remember one of our Council members noting that even when the seed is spread on the path, and the birds take it away, it is not lost. That seed might just be carried to a different location where it might land in more fertile soil. So actually – the seed does flourish – just not where we can see it.
Seeing the potential benefit of this example that I had previously thought of as the ‘less than ideal’ growing circumstances, made me see also the potential benefit of the seed on rocky soil – perhaps that short lived growth was enough for the animals that fed on its leaves, or for the critters that found shade beneath it. It made me think about the things in my life, relationships, jobs or hobbies – that have been short-lived but served a good purpose, or taught a good lesson, or led to the next good thing.
What about the seed that sprouted and grew up amid the thorns? If we were to look for a potential benefit, what might it be?
For those of us who are parents and grandparents, who have watched our children or grandchildren or nieces or other children grow, and been part of their raising and learning and becoming of themselves, we might relate to this sowing seeds and hoping and nurturing them and watching them grow and flourish or not. Those values and life lessons that we want to impart, that we think are important for successful living – and we hope that those particular ones land on good soil. Tomorrow my youngest daughter, Heather, will move to Ontario in anticipation of starting university there in September – and so this has been on my mind this week. Have the seeds that have been sown in her been enough for her to be successful as she ventures out on her own? Were they the right seeds? Did they land in the right soil?
This brings us back to the parable. The main character in the parable, of course, is the sower. The sower scatters the seed carelessly, recklessly, seemingly wasting much of the seed on ground that holds little promise for a fruitful harvest. Jesus invests in disciples who look similarly unpromising. He spends his time with tax collectors and sinners, with lepers, the demon-possessed, and all manner of outcasts. Yet he promises that his sowing of the word will produce an abundant harvest.
It is tempting to consider ourselves the good soil, but in reality, we can probably find evidence in our lives of several kinds of soil in our own lives and in the life of our church. If there is any hope for the unproductive soil, it is that the sower keeps sowing generously, extravagantly, even in the least promising places. Jesus’ investment in his disciples shows that he simply will not give up on them, in spite of their many failings. We trust that he will not give up on us either, but will keep working on whatever is hardened, rocky, or thorny within and among us. We trust in his promise to be with us to the end of the age.
As those entrusted with Jesus’ mission today, to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, to spread God’s love and grace wherever we go, we might consider the implications of this parable for how we engage in ministry. Sometimes we are tempted to play it safe, sowing the word only where we are confident it will be well received, and only where those who receive it are likely to accept it in the way that we are hoping. We might stifle creativity and energy or resist new ideas for fear they might not work — as though mistakes or failure were to be avoided at all costs.
Jesus’ approach to mission is quite at odds with our play-it-safe instincts. He gives us freedom to take risks for the sake of the gospel. He endorses extravagant generosity in sowing the word, even in perilous places. Though we may wonder about the wisdom or efficiency of his methods, Jesus promises that the end result will be a bumper crop.
And back in my garden – those tomatoes from last year, whose seeds found their way through the weeds and through the crack in the driveway to grow again – they are flourishing. They survived the winter and were completely ignored and not watered until a few weeks ago. They still got the water they needed and the sunshine they needed to be plentiful. What appeared to me last year to be a lost harvest, the tomatoes falling into the dirt – a missed opportunity. They withered away. From our human point of view, it was a missed harvest… but this God of ours keeps throwing opportunities our way, growing and bearing fruit from last year’s withered away harvest, surprising us once again. We may encounter setbacks and challenges – we may not always be the good soil, but God never gives up on us – God’s love for us is persistent just like the extravagant sower.
This story reminds us that we all participate in sowing seeds of hope and love in the world. As we engage in ministry and share God’s love through our own lives, we can be extravagant and take risks, knowing that God’s love can thrive in unexpected places, just as God’s love persists in our lives, shaping us and others in ways that we may not always comprehend. So let us be faithful and extravagant sowers, trusting that the harvest will be abundant.