About 18 years ago, my father asked me if I had considered being ordained as a priest. I remember the occasion vividly as I was packing up to come back to Australia after a holiday in the UK. We were casually chatting when he simply asked me if I had ever thought about it. And I remember staring at him before saying ‘no’ quite firmly with a big grin at the laughable nature of the suggestion. And yet, here I am in spite of my best intentions. It was 10 years later before I was asked again by someone else. On that occasion I didn’t laugh because by then I was ready to think about it as God had let the seed sown by my father, germinate until I was ready. Sadly my father died before this took place.
This story told by Matthew is in all the Synoptic Gospels but Matthew’s is the longest version. The inclusion of the explanation in Matthew (v.18-23) is thought to belong to early Christian tradition rather than to Jesus himself. It was offered in response to the times and challenges faced by those early disciples who were experiencing rejection and failure in their communities and in the wider world at the time. Not much different to us really.
The image of Jesus going out of the house and sitting on a boat to preach instead of in the synagogue is vivid. The crowd stood on the beach getting wet feet as they leaned in to hear what Jesus was saying.
He told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen!’Matt. 13:3
This story and its many insights require us to sit and listen; and think about how we see our world and how we are responding to what is happening around us.
Do we see the world as beautiful, or dangerous, or challenging, or exhausting, or engaging, exciting or….? What are your descriptions for where you are at the moment? How you see the world will shape where you see yourself in the story of the sower.
I suspect we have all been in all these places at one time or another. And all of us will still experience these emotions whether we are disciples or not.
The story is remarkable because Jesus asks us to think about failure and reflect on our apparent failures as Jesus’ disciples because simply following is not enough.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’.Matt.7:21cf and also 12:50; 21:31
To do God’s will is to bear the fruit of righteousness and to offer a response worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven. (Matt. 22:11-12) Remember the parable of the Wedding Garment.
A disciple is not someone who listens to Jesus’ teaching, turning up on Sunday for a comfortable occasion. A disciple is someone who obeys Jesus, whose life is continuously orientated towards Jesus in thought, word and deed; who understands the radical implications of Jesus’ interpretation of God’s law (Matt.5:17-48), and who engages in Jesus’ own ministry of healing and preaching, loving and working prophetically for justice for one’s neighbour (Matt.10).
Given Jesus’ failures, it might seem the sower is scandalously ineffective in their sowing of the seeds. The wasteful sowing in places where no harvest could possibly be expected to grow is, however, an opportunity for us to look differently at what we are being urged and invited to do.
The seed, the Word of God, being scattered wastefully to all and sundry in foolish places is the story of Jesus; precious seed being sown in places we would not normally expect to find the Messiah and the hope of the Risen Lord. Jesus was friends with tax collectors, drunkards and gluttons, prostitutes, with women in general, the poor and the disposables in society. By any stretch of the imagination, Jesus in his lifetime was a failure, socially unacceptable and his teaching was trashed and crucified along with him as his disciples deserted him and denied him.
Our own rocky grounds where we decide to give up, our destruction by others who deal badly with us and then leave us to perish, the fears and concerns consuming us for our loved ones, ourselves and the wider world can all make us prickly, resentful, and turn us away from God as the world is too hard for us to cope. Keeping going is often difficult. We recognise failure is part and parcel of life and discipleship.
God does not force or coerce us, but instead relies on the freedom of those in the parables and those listening to participate freely.
It is a strong claim made by our egos that somehow God cannot do without us and unless we get the job done, there will be no Kingdom, no disciples, no success, because none of us like to think of ourselves as failures. So we either don’t start, or we burn out and blame others including God.
However, I think God is very familiar with the world’s definition of failure, and with human failure and does not accept it or use it to persuade us to discipleship.
The sower sows on the edges of the fields to provide the harvest, the gleanings for the widows and orphans when the main crop is taken by the farmer (Leviticus 19:9, 23:22, Deut. 24:19, Ruth 2) allowing for others who are less secure to be supported. The sower sows on well-trodden paths with little soil and mostly hard ground, but birds eat the seeds which are then dropped in other, far off places where they flourish without attention or distraction; the thorns become the incentive to change our lives as God’s Word often speaks more clearly to us in the storms of life when we have nowhere else to turn and when everyone else has given up on us; and finally, the focus on success in human terms is itself food for our egos and a distraction from God.
A church not failing enough is perhaps a church not taking enough risks for God. We are not farming God’s Word if as disciples, we are only sowing in safe places. Discipleship is not for the faint of heart. It is not susceptible to careful planning. This parable emphasises disorder and reminds us we cannot control the world around us, and mostly we cannot control our own lives either. Birds have a mind of their own, as do weeds, pests, droughts, fire and floods. Good farming, like discipleship is found somewhere between orderly planning and things we cannot control. Discipleship is no stranger to failure. We are invited by our God, to risk loss including our lives in this shared venture.
Last week I spoke about Jesus’ yoke, from the voice of Wisdom. Paul reminds us of this as he encourages us to work together:
I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow. Because of this, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but the only one who is anything is God who makes it grow.1 Cor. 3:6-7
Discipleship is a wonderful adventure inviting us to share God’s word as a farmer plants her crops, with a clear vision of the world’s fickleness, a willingness to fail, with hope for the future, resilience and the deep trust with God’s grace at least some of our work will perhaps bear fruit. We just need to get things started; it is God who will make things grow.
Lord be with you.