Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Trinity: The Parable of the Sower – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 16 July 2023 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes. (Romans Ch 8: v 1 – 11; Matthew Ch 13: v 1 – 9, 18 – 23)
Picture the scene: the Sea of Galilee, its cooling waters giving some relief from the summer heat; beyond, on the far side, the Golan Heights rising steeply and enclosing its eastern edge; on the near side, somewhere close to Tiberias, a crowd has gathered on the shore around Jesus as he sits to gather his thoughts. Then he steps into a boat, not to go somewhere more congenial and less congested, but to have a platform to address the crowd from. It is a quirky idea, which he has used before and was clearly effective: being at a slight distance lends authority (provided you can be heard), which is perhaps why preachers like pulpits, being well above criticism.
Appropriately he chooses an agricultural image for his storyline. A sower went out to sow. This is not, of course, a mechanized process: he has a pouch or a basket and scatters the seed broadcast by hand, so to an extent it falls randomly over the terrain and some of it ends up in unfruitful places, which Jesus gives examples of (stones, brambles, rocky soil). This is necessary wastage if the good, productive ground is going to be covered too, and a decent harvest produced.
As it happens, my only sustained agricultural experience occurred at more or less the same place as the setting for this parable. In my youth I spent some time harvesting grapes and bananas at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee, where its waters come out into the Jordan Valley. In May the burgeoning bunches of grapes have to be pruned, which is a pity because it involves cutting into the lovely cone-shaped bunches and rather spoils their look. But it has to be done if the grapes are to ripen properly and reach their full potential; some, as it were, have to fall by the wayside.
So Jesus is making a simple point in this parable. On our route to becoming full, productive and fruitful members of God’s Kingdom there are many adverse factors to be overcome: our pride, wilful independence, our capacity to be deflected by others’ hostility or allurements, our lack of commitment, or sheer idleness – to name but a few. If we are to engage fully with the world – with life – these problems, or others like them, are bound to come our way. But we are not to fret too much over them, or despair. The emphasis of the parable is on the power of God to transform, from the frustrations of sowing to the glorious harvest, the land bringing forth its bounty.
This is exactly what St Paul is telling us in today’s Epistle, from Romans. For all our efforts, he says, even if we are super-religious, we cannot make our own way to God. He knows that, so He came to us, as one of us, precisely so that we need not fret about all the obstacles and hindrances we find on our route. He puts us back on the right track. In theology parlance, God has redeemed us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Paul’s words, “If the spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies.”
Often this will involve waiting, by which I don’t mean loafing about or idling our time away. It is, rather, the maturity of faith and strength of character that allows us to wait – with patience and in expectation – on the unfolding of God’s will and purposes. A lover of nature is prepared to wait for hours for an animal to appear or to catch the moment when the first egg in a nest breaks open and its chick appears. That is waiting, not aimlessly but with an informed focus and expectancy. Time-lapse photography is a short-cut to that; but for those waiting for exam results at the moment there is no short-cut, nor for people waiting for the outcome of an operation. There are times when we can actively progress our affairs, and others when we can only wait and, trusting, put ourselves in God’s hands.
I was told of some passengers on a railway journey who became concerned about a small boy in the carriage: he seemed quite content, but clearly had no one with him, neither friend nor responsible adult. So after a while one of the other passengers started to engage him in conversation, which went like this:
“Where are you travelling to?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, where have you come from?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“Well then, aren’t you worried?”
“No, I’m not worried at all.”
“My dad’s the engine driver.”
As so often, the Psalmist has the final, and the finest, words:
(Psalm 62: 5-6) [O] my soul, wait thou still upon God:
for my hope is in him.
He truly is my strength and my salvation:
he is my defence, so that I shall not fall.
(Psalm 55: 23, 25) O cast thy burden upon the Lord and
he shall nourish thee:[and] my trust shall be in thee, O Lord.
(Psalm 27: 16) O tarry thou the Lord’s leisure:
be strong and he shall comfort thine heart,
and put thou thy trust in the Lord.