A sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 15, 2017
Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York
As many of us would like to be during the summer, Jesus was at the beach. 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. This situation is not unlike what we experience in our personal lives as well as in the church. Things go wrong, sometimes dramatically, sometimes in minor ways, and our enthusiasm can be undercut when things turn out not to be as well founded as we believed. Jesus’ world is the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom partakes of reality as stark as that of anyone’s world.
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. The Kingdom of God is here in the middle of our ordinary reality, and Jesus has sympathy with the difficulties we find in the real world. But in that reality, the Kingdom is abundant good. We share the bountiful love of God, even when things don’t work out in the most comfortable possible way for us. In fact, the opportunity to be generous, gives those who provide 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 any struggles or 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 the everyday 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.