Sowing the Seed
Sowing the Seed, 16 July 2023
A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
(Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9,18-23)
Recently I met up with an old Sunday School teacher I haven’t seen since the early 1980s. My family left the area near Stockport where the Church was located when I was 5, and I was so young when I went to the Sunday School that I don’t remember it- or the Church- at all. But Mandy, the teacher, was staying near Salisbury a few weeks ago and made contact with my Mum, and the 3 of us met up here in the Cathedral Refectory. Although I don’t remember the Sunday School, I do have a book they gave me, that I loved all through my childhood- a glossy picture book of one of Jesus’ parables. As I still have it, later, after we’d met, I texted Mandy a photo of the words they’d written at the time in the front inside cover, when they gave the book to 5-year old me. Mandy is heavily involved in lay leadership in the Methodist Church, and so I had quite a lot in common with her to talk about- and she was quite surprised- and pleased, I think! – when we met to discover that I am now ordained! She included the photo of the book in an article she wrote for the Church magazine, along with the words “We may never know what seeds we have sown.”
The sowing of seeds is very much the theme of our Gospel reading this morning. And it’s highly appropriate, I think, on a day that we say farewell to our departing Year 8 choristers, and look forward to how seeds sown here, during their time with us, will bear fruit in their lives in the future. Jesus tells a parable- a story- that his audience would have easily been able to relate to and understand. A Sower goes out to sow. Some of the seed falls on the path, where it gets eaten by birds, some on the rocky ground where there isn’t much soil to grow in; other seed falls among thorns that choke it, and still other seed falls on good soil and ultimately brings forth a harvest.
Jesus’ original audience would have been able to relate to this story on many levels. Its setting reflects the world in which they lived, which was often harsh. In first-century societies such as that in Galilee, most of the population scraped a living together off the land. They were themselves literally sowers, subsistence farmers who survived from one day to the next, living lives that were precarious. Jesus tells this story to encourage them, his followers, in their spiritual growth and sharing of the gospel, in an often hostile climate which did not readily receive the message of the coming Kingdom of God and its radical, counter-cultural values of love, justice and peace.
Planting and nurturing seeds, for these farmers, was an act of trust. The land these they worked was often difficult, not least in hilly Palestine, and as a task it was very wasteful. Each individual family would have only had a very small area to farm. They would be sowing seed on terraced hillsides where it was impossible to avoid some falling on pathways, rocks, or on the thorns that were difficult to control. From their point of view, it was also wasteful in that, under the unjust political regime of the time, they would have had to hand over most of their produce to rich Roman landowners, which, with growing families to feed, kept most people in poverty. Yet somehow, by God’s grace and through their hard work and persistence, the harvests came, and people, by and large, managed to survive.
The harvest, in Jesus’ parable, though, is huge- much, much larger and more abundant than any of these farmers would have individually been able to produce, which would normally have been about seven to tenfold, if things were going well- not up to one hundredfold as in the parable. This is the sign that Jesus is talking to them, not just on the surface level of a story about a particularly successful farmer, but on a more enigmatic, spiritual level too. Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower to encourage his followers to keep going, even if they can’t yet see the fruits of their labours. Keep on planting, he is saying. Sow lots of seeds, even if a lot of them seem to die. Be bold, reckless even, in your sharing of the Gospel and in your love for people. He’s telling them the story to give them hope, that this deeper spiritual growth- for themselves and others- will be their experience too.
“We may never know what seeds we have sown.” Each of us, I think, can point to ways in which seeds sown early in our lives have borne fruit later on. Whether it was a word spoken at the right time, a book, as was the case in the example I mentioned about my Sunday School teacher at the start, an idea or experience we had or that was given to us early on, or people who have inspired or encouraged us, all of us, I hope, can remember things- however small perhaps or seemingly insignificant at the time- that have informed the course we then took. Perhaps it was habits and patterns that took hold, or a chance word spoken by the right person at the right time, that set us in the way that we would go.
Often, the growth that then ensues is in secret. It might take many years to come to fruition. Many of our efforts will feel fruitless, at least initially. This is the reckless, abundant way of the kingdom. Originally, the word parable in Greek simply meant a comparison- and that’s what many of Jesus’ parables are. The kingdom is like this, like that. Jesus speaks of the work of God in terms of natural processes- like, in this case, the growth of a seed. To understand how God works, he’s saying, there are any number of clues in the world around you- not suddenly and dramatically, but subtly and slowly, from the very depth of being. God works patiently like the seed coming to fruition in the darkness of the soil- from the heart of being gradually into the life of the everyday. We may want to see the result of the harvest instantly, but we may have to wait a long time, or we may never know the results of the seeds we have sown. While the planting is bold and abundant, the growth of the harvest is not sudden, but takes place slowly and steadily over time, and in ways that we can’t always see.
This week, the politician, barrister and human rights activist, Shami Chakrabati a former director of Liberty, an advocacy group promoting civil liberties and human rights, gave a talk here at the Cathedral, in the context of our current art exhibition, To be Free. Speaking about the place of faith in the public square, she reflected that human beings are a complex mixture of many facets, emotion, rationality, faith and logic, to name but some. Human beings are not robots. Many of the most important decisions we make in life, she said, are not calculated ones- who we fall in love with, the vocation we choose to follow. To my mind, this makes our sowing of seeds even more potentially significant. When we sow the seeds of the values of God’s kingdom- by giving our love, our dedication and attention, our time or energy, we may never see the results, and we may face challenges, but we may unknowingly be influencing the course of someone’s life in some way that will become significant for them, however seemingly small.
“We may never know what seeds we have sown.” As we give thanks for the seeds that have been sown, and that are still coming to fruition in our own lives, may we be bold, reckless even, prodigious in our love. And may we sow lots of seeds and keep on planting, in the lives of those with whom we have to do, or for whom we are responsible- as slowly but steadily, and often unseen- God gives the growth of the harvest.