A sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 12, 2020
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Jesus was at the beach, as many of us would like to be during the summer. Today’s Gospel says he “sat beside the sea.” Then it got way too crowded, so he got on a boat and started to tell the people stories.
The parable of the Sower is well known, though people today may not be as well-acquainted with the behavior of seeds and plants as Jesus’ first hearers would have been. The image is of a farmer or farmhand planting grain in the spring. Today, this is done with large machines that plant all the seeds in precise rows at a very high volume per minute. A farmer in ancient times had to do all this by hand, reaching into his bag of seed and flinging the seed across the plot of ground. The skilled and careful farmer would be sure that most of the seed fell on the good soil that had been tilled; the less careful worker might have more of his seed go astray.
Some waste was the norm, as Jesus’ listeners knew full well, so it’s not as though they would think that some seed landing on a footpath, or rocks, or thorns, meant that the farmer was not realistic, or even a particularly careless fellow. The last section of today’s gospel reading has an allegorical interpretation of the parable. It is portrayed as being in another context at another time. Certainly, that allegory is a common way that this story has been interpreted, but there is good reason to believe that Jesus first presented the story to be listened to and understood literally, on its face as a story about the familiar world.
The farmer sowing seed is a familiar bit of reality, and in that reality, we can see the real difficulties of life—the complete loss when birds take the seed before it can sprout; the immediate hope in seeing seed quickly sprout followed by disappointment at the equally fast failure of the weak seedlings on the rocky ground. We know these things in our own lives and our own country: brash promises about health and well-being by a president who negligently scatters all the seed of public commitment to sacrifice for the common good on the hard path of his vanity and dreams of magical commercial re-awakening, so that the seed of possibility of public health is snatched up by new and uncontrolled infection. The good soil of solid public health measures like contact tracing and careful monitoring has been neglected. At the same time, he has sown among the thorns of fear and racism, inciting people who are fearful and angry to act on their worst impulses, to choke out all truth and good will.
But the focus of this parable is not on the thorns and troubles pressing in on every side. The bulk of the seed landed on good, fertile soil and the yield was amazing! A hundredfold, sixty-fold, even thirty-fold was several times higher than the yield Jesus’ hearers reasonably expected from their crops. And that brings us to the point of all this: The Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is here in the middle of the reality we are living in: God shares our difficulties and faces the evils of this world with us. Jesus’ life is in our real world; he faced times and rulers as harsh or harsher than our own. But in that reality, the Kingdom is abundant good. We share the bountiful love of God, even when things don’t work out for us. In fact, we have the possibility to live through these times with a spirit of generosity, helping one another, being there for those who are hurting the most. The opportunity to be generous gives those who provide it a bit of the bounty of the Kingdom—though we should always take care that what we do is for the sake of others and not simply to make ourselves feel good. By giving, the church can become God’s Church, but it is not the success of that institution called Church that is the yield of the Kingdom. The love of God, always supporting us and giving the opportunity to serve God’s people—that is the Kingdom of God, and the bounty of life, and the reality of our lives all at the same time.
This summer, our New Testament epistle readings are from the letter of Paul to the church at Rome. Paul doesn’t use the term “Kingdom of God,” but what he preaches is very much about the same kingdom I have been talking about. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Despite the power of sin, and of corporate evils and personal shortcomings, there is no condemnation. For Paul, as well as Jesus, the overwhelming joyful news of God’s coming is in the midst of the difficulties of the real world. The gifts of God—and the possibilities for us in this world, transformed by his kingdom—are enormous, unlimited even. If difficulties cause someone to stumble, to lose confidence or even to do bad things, she or he is not condemned or lost. Each of us is the child of Christ and part of his body. Paul continues: “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. … But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
You are the field in which the seed of God’s kingdom is planted and also the agents to nurture that Kingdom. It is through God’s spirit, and not by our strength or talent that the Kingdom grows. Accept the gift of the spirit of Christ in you, and rejoice in God’s bounty: Thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold.