Sermons That Work

Everybody Knows the Old Bit…, Proper 10 (A) – 2005

July 10, 2005

Everybody knows the old bit about optimists and pessimists—how a pessimist says the glass is half empty and an optimist says the same glass is half full. It’s a familiar platitude. But did you ever stop to think about how terribly important the issue here is? It really matters how you understand that glass. What if someone asks you to share whatever is in it? What if you wondered whether you were blessed or needy, rich or poor? What about choosing to live gratefully and generously, or resentfully and selfishly?

One perspective (the glass is half empty) easily inspires one way of living; just as the other perspective (it’s half full) inspires a radically different way. Yet they are both based on the same objective facts: the same glass, the same stuff. It matters how we see things. The parable Jesus just told us has at its heart this notion of perspective, of how you see things.

One place to start is by remembering that, these days, this parable is about us. That is, we are the sowers, we are the ones called to “go out to sow,” to try to live as our faith calls us to live, to try to share our faith in word and deed with those whom God puts in our path; to share the love of God so abundantly given to us.

And that means doing stuff—it means action. It involves reaching out to people; it involves serving, and caring, and risking—all sorts of things like that. However, if we try to do this, if we try to offer ourselves, our time, our energy, our caring, to others, then before very long, (like, pretty much immediately), we’re going to wonder whether it’s worth it; we’re going to wonder whether anything of value or meaning is going to come from all of our efforts.

We will wonder that because we will notice—and that right quickly—that a whole lot of what we do is wasted. Nothing much comes of it. Isn’t that right? A lot is wasted. Hold on to that thought, we’ll come back to it after another look at the parable.

The first people who heard this story knew all about a sower going out to sow. They saw it happen, they did it, year after year. They knew that seed was usually sown by broadcasting it. That is, the farmer would walk along and toss it out in every which direction. The land was plowed later, after it had been sown. This means that when you were tossing out the seeds, it was virtually impossible to tell what sort of soil it was landing on. It all looked pretty much the same from the point of view of the one who was out there planting. (What’s more, if you stopped every few yards to take a soil sample, the whole town would probably starve.)

So, everything that Jesus said about problems—thin soil, rocks, fat birds, thorns, weeds, whatever—this was old news to them. That was the way it always worked. Much, probably most, of what you sowed was wasted. They knew that.

Now, if the important part of this parable were about the soils, and the difficulties that come with planting anything, and the dangers involved, and the seeds that would be wasted, then there was no big deal here at all. There was nothing new or interesting in it—the folks listening already knew all about that.

However, there is one thing that was really shocking to the first people who heard this parable. That was the yield, the harvest. Seven or eight fold was hoped for. Ten fold was phenomenal, and anything above that was simply unheard of.

Yet even the poorest yield in the parable was beyond their experience—and the greatest almost beyond comprehension. To promise this sort of result was more than optimistic—it was to live in a whole different order of creation; it was to operate out of a whole different vision.

To sow with this sort of hope and vision is to have the perspective of the Kingdom of God. With this vision you don’t mind the rocks or the birds or the thin soil or whatever else may get in the way. All of that stuff just doesn’t matter. It is swallowed up in the promise of the whole enterprise. This perspective, the promise of a vast harvest, is the heart of this little story.

After all, we already know that much of what we do is wasted. We know that very well. We already know what it is like to try and try and try to care and to make a difference and not get anywhere, or not be noticed, or not succeed, or (perhaps worst of all) not even be appreciated. We know what is it like to reach out a hand and pull back a bloody stump. We know all about that. If the parable is about that, then it doesn’t have much new or interesting to say to us, either.

Instead, remember that the point of the parable, and the point of what we do, is that, by the grace of God, the harvest will be great beyond measure, great beyond belief, great beyond imagining. What God will make of our efforts is more than we can imagine. Much will be wasted, but that’s all right.

And the one who sows—that’s us—does not need to worry about that. The one who sows is simply called to scatter the seed—to love and to serve—and to trust. The rest will be taken care of. This is not because of our abilities; it is but because of the power of God.

This perspective of hope and confidence is the gift of the parable. There is a carefree abandon to this image. We are to love and to serve in broadcast fashion—knowing full well that most of what we do won’t amount to anything, that bad things that are going to happen—but trusting, none the less, in the incomprehensible abundance of the harvest. Certainly, much will be wasted, at least as we see it. Maybe even our very favorite seed, our best, most self-sacrificing good deed, our smartest remark, our greatest insight, will end up on a rocky path, or inside some fat bird. But that is not ours to control; it is not ours to fix; it is not even ours to worry about.

Each one of us individually, and our parish itself, all of us together, have at our feet fields to walk and seed to sow. We are called to do that. This parable is a gift to lighten our step and extend our reach. It gives us the wonderful gift of perspective. So we can wave at the birds and smile at the weeds—they are not our concern.

For the love we offer in the Lord’s name is the word of the Kingdom of God. And that word, God promises, will not return to God empty—but it shall accomplish that which God intends for it; and it will prosper in the thing for which it is sent.

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Christopher Sikkema


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