St Thomas’, Salem—Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, Romans 8:9-17, Psalm 65:9-14, Isaiah 55:1-5, 10-13
One of the petitions that we sometimes use in our liturgy during the Prayers of the People is offered on behalf of “those who do not yet believe, and those who have lost their faith.” There is, to be sure, a certain note of faith and optimism in this petition, because we say “those who do not yet believe.” But if you’ve ever prayed that prayer intentionally on behalf of a specific person, then you know that it’s often more an act of the will than an act of faith. The classic example of this in Christian history is St Monnica, who prayed constantly for her son Augustine over some twenty years before he finally came to faith. Others have prayed longer, and gone to their graves without ever knowing the joy of seeing their prayers answered. Such heartfelt and extended prayer can easily seem . . . well, wasteful—wasteful of the time and spiritual energy of the person doing the praying.
But there are other examples in our experience of time and resources poured out in ministry for which there is no immediate and proportional payoff. A concerned young man reaches out to befriend an “at risk” teenager, hoping to provide some structure or stability, to be a role model, only to have those efforts persistently scorned or rejected. It seems like such a waste of goodwill. A middle-aged woman makes it a practice, in response to what she feels as a call from the Holy Spirit, to visit nursing home residents regularly and frequently. Yet, she experiences them as largely incapable of understanding and appreciating what she’s doing. It seems like such a waste of consecrated obedience and holy intention.
These scenarios certainly cause us to admire those who invest their lives with so little promise of return on their investment, but they also make us anxious. And our anxiety in turn, if we listen to it, tells us what we really value, what we really consider worthwhile and important. As members of this twenty-first century fast-paced society, you and I are conditioned to place an extremely high premium on efficiency and economy in our lives. We have computers that are ever more capable of multi-tasking, because we demand the same thing of ourselves, and for good reason: The demands on our time and the demands on our money are exploding. Yet, our resources are finite, and we are oh-so-aware of their limits. So we’ve got to be efficient, we’ve got to be economical, just to survive.
Now, with this dose of reality on the table, let’s try to overlay some theology on it, and see where the lumps are. In some sense, all theology is ultimately analogy. That is, we take experiences from our life in this world, and we make statements about God: “God is like…this or that.” Most of the time, doing theology by analogy serves us well. Most of the time—but not all. And one of the ways we can go astray is if we attribute to God the same qualities of efficiency and economy in his expectations for us as we have for ourselves.
Today’s familiar Parable of the Sower reminds us that God’s notion of what is efficient and economical is much different than our own. “A sower went out to sow,” Jesus begins the story. Picture a Middle-Eastern farm worker with a pouch slung over his shoulder, grabbing handfuls of seeds and tossing them, without very much precision, in every direction as he walks through a field. Now, as we hear this parable, we need to understand that Jesus wants us to identify him with the sower, and that St Matthew, the author of this material, wants us to identify the seed that Jesus is scattering with everything that we associate with the Christian message, particularly the essential core of our proclamation, summarized in such liturgical phrases as “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” or “We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.”
So we have this image of Christ scattering the seed, making his way methodically through the field of human life and experience, tossing the good news of God’s redeeming love in every direction, without too much concern for precision. Some of those seeds fall on the hardened soil of the path, and are eaten by birds without ever having the chance to sprout. Hearts that are hardened by sin and shame and regret and bitterness have a difficult time receiving God’s unconditional love. But the sower keeps broadcasting the good news anyway.
Some of the seeds fall into shallow soil, and sprout quickly, but there’s nothing for the roots to grab onto, so they wither away just as quickly as they sprouted. Some people respond to the proclamation of the gospel, but never count the cost of true discipleship, and they fall away from Christ. Yet, Christ keeps on scattering the seed anyway.
Some of those seeds fall in areas where there are already a lot of other plants growing. The older plants have a head start and choke off the growth of the new seed. Sometimes people respond to the gospel, but are distracted by competing priorities, and neglect to eat from the green pastures and drink from the still waters that the Good Shepherd leads them to. Still, the sower continues to scatter the seed—relentlessly, wastefully, inefficiently, and uneconomically.
And, of course, many of the seeds fall onto rich and fertile soil. They go on to germinate and sprout and grow and bear abundant fruit. Two thousand years after Christ walked this earth; his Church exists in every country on every continent. Millions upon millions of men, women, and children have found life and hope and peace as a result of putting their faith in him and coming to the living water of baptism, given without price, and quenching their thirst eternally.
I suspect that theology-by-analogy might never have led us to a God who takes the extravagant risk of sowing the seed of his word everywhere—in all places and among all people. God scatters the seed of forgiveness everywhere, without regard to who might be around and in the mood to repent and receive the gift. God scatters the seed of reconciliation everywhere, without stopping to notice whether the combatants have laid down their arms. God scatters the seed of vocation everywhere, even when nobody is willing to listen to his call and follow that call. God scatters the seed of hope everywhere, even in places where despair seems to have a chokehold. God scatters the seed of glory everywhere, even when the only thing visible to the naked eye is misery and squalor. God scatters the seed of his word in all types of soil, including those that are virtually guaranteed to waste the seed. But there’s more. The Psalmist reminds us that God not only plants the seed, but waters it: “You visit the earth and water it abundantly.” And St Paul reminds us that God also tends the newly-sprouted plants through his indwelling Spirit.
What encouragement this gives us! St Paul, writing to the Romans, but speaking to us as well, teaches us that, as Christian disciples, we are, as he puts it, “in the Spirit.”
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
With this knowledge, we can be confident that our faithful efforts, wasteful and inefficient as they may seem, are not in vain. Wasted energy is the veritable power supply of the Kingdom of Heaven! The prayers of a wife for her unbelieving husband, a young man extending himself for an at-risk youth, visiting nursing home residents who are unresponsive—these are all more precious than gold in God’s sight. God takes the extravagant risk of sowing His word everywhere—wastefully, and without very much regard for precision. The prophet Isaiah tells us that it’s all a matter of perception:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not again but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purposed, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
So be it. Let’s keep scattering the seed. Amen.