Reckless waste or generous giving?

Address given on 12 July 2020

Readings: Psalm 68; Isaiah: 10-13; Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

Like many others, I suspect, the Rectory Garden has emerged from lockdown in a rather tidier state than it was back in March!
There are now pools of sunlight where the sun has not reached for years, if not decades;
patches of wilderness have been transformed into borders;
dead wood has been cleared;
and the battle of the brambles has been won – at least for now!

And it’s against this background of newfound tidiness that, this week, I observed my wife seeding a new area of grass.

First she weeded the area – then she raked out the stones – then she levelled it – then she scattered the seed evenly over the ground and raked it in – then she watered it, taking care not to under-do it Or to drown the poor seeds.
All in all quite a meticulous operation.

And I suspect that’s the kind of careful attention that a farmer in first century Palestine would have given when sowing their precious crop seed.
With the threat of famine never too far away, surely they would take care only to scatter the seed on fertile ground, and keep it watered. The harvest was too vital to leave to chance.

So what would they have made of the sower in Jesus’ parable – who seems utterly careless – reckless even –
with the precious seed?

He seems content to allow it to fall on the path to be eaten by birds; or to fail on shallow, rocky earth; or to be lost among sturdier weeds. And only a fraction of the seed actually grows on to produce new grain.

I suspect that, to Jesus’ first hearers, so much waste would have seemed bizarre – and even quite shocking.

Don’t forget that the crowds only get the first part of this story – ending with “Let anyone with ears listen”! – almost as if he wants them to be disturbed, and to puzzle over what he’s said.

The explanation is saved for the disciples, later.

We perhaps tend to hone in on the other side of the story – and to wonder what kind of seed we are!
Are we one of those who with a tendency to be distracted from the following God’s call – or too fearful of what others think – or too slow to understand?
Or, is our halo gleaming bright, and the fruits of our labours only to plain for all to see?

A sobering thought perhaps, but don’t worry –
I’m not asking you to answer!

In any case, I’m not sure that really IS the fundamental point of this story.

What if it really IS about the sower, rather than the seed?

Is Jesus actually telling us something important about the nature of God himself?

Are we meant to be shocked by the profligate God who scatters his blessings even on the most unresponsive of us his, children, knowing full well that his love will be ignored by some and rejected others – and that only a few will respond with anything like the gratitude and obedience that is owed.
And in this, are we meant to recognise Jesus himself, who died for all humanity – whether they know it or not – because it is better to save a few at great cost, than none at all?

If that is the case, then what first appears to be reckless waste in fact turns out to be selfless generosity.

That’s not unlike the image in Isaiah – of the rain watering the earth indiscriminately, so that both crops and people can flourish.

No matter if the weeds are given a boost in the process –
this is no empty, futile cycle of rain and sun and cloud, rain and sun and cloud – because by it God’s purpose is accomplished: from that abundance flows life in all its rich diversity.

“You crown the year with your goodness”, the writer of our Psalm reflects, “and your paths overflow with plenty. May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing and the hills be clothed with joy.”
Through God’s generous provision, it seems,
not only do the crops flourish, but even the barren wilderness can be transformed into pasture.
So, is that what we’re meant to recognise in Jesus’ curious tale?
Is that a part of the divine nature that we are meant to imitate, in our own inadequate way?
And, if so, what might that generosity look like in practice?

I want to suggest three areas where that generosity of spirit might just inform the way we think and act.
Our generosity can be seen, I think, in the ways that we adapt, give, and welcome.

In recent weeks we’ve had to adapt, in the way that we shop and do much else, in order to protect one another. And we’re adapting now, in the way we worship together – to make it as safe as we can – so that worship can happen, and can be accessible to as many as possible of those who want to come.

Willingness to adapt, ungrudgingly, for the sake of others takes real generosity of spirit – it costs us – but is necessary for at least some of us to flourish.

In similar vein, the most obvious channel for our generosity is in our giving – what we do with our hard-earned pennies.

Quite rightly, we like to know that any charitable donations are used wisely – to be sure that we are making a difference in the things that are important to us.

And yet, for us in the Church, although there are things that we can instantly recognise and value – brighter, greener lights here; new carpeting at St Catherine’s; the ministry team we rely on– there are other areas that we just don’t see.

We also have to meet the relatively unglamorous costs of administration, maintenance, insurance and the shared burdens of the Diocese and national church – all those hidden things without which we’d gradually grind to a halt.

Generosity, in this case, comes from the willingness to give –
not just towards the things that we personally value,
or benefit from, but to the Church as a whole,
for the life of the whole. And we may well find ourselves funding, or being funded by, other Christians whose beliefs and practices are very different from our own.
That kind of generosity can be difficult,
on all sorts of levels, but it’s what we’re asked to do
as fellow members of the Body of Christ.
Then there’s the generosity of welcome.

And I’m not thinking so much of the events or social groups that we put on for other people – none of which can happen just now – but of the way we think about people who choose to come to us for reasons of their own – because we can now celebrate weddings and baptisms, for example.

It’s easy for us to be dismayed when families come here for a while, before a baptism, and then we never see them again.
Did we do something wrong – or was that always the intention?

It’s hard not to be irritated with couples who seem to treat this building as a glamorous backdrop for their wedding day, apparently without much thought for what it’s actually here for.

And yet, for all that, there are others for whom the impact of coming here – and of being welcomed among us – is profound.

Does it really matter then, if some of those people do soon forget what was here, or remain largely indifferent to it, IF even one person finds God’s love here and responds?
I’m pretty clear in my own mind what Jesus would have to say.

With any of these “life events”,
as with the public, social groups and activity days that we’ll hopefully return to before too long,
what we are doing is sowing seeds – making connections with people so that they can more easily connect with God.

As with Jesus’ parable, some of that seed will remain dormant, only to burst into life much later;
some will never do much at all;
and some will amaze us – or someone else – with their growth.
We simply don’t know what our efforts will lead to – that’s God’s province.

What we can do is “prepare the ground” in the way that we transmit the word of God – taking care over what we do, and the warmth with which we acknowledge others.

We can strive to share God’s gifts as liberally as the rainfall – without pre-judging anyone’s response, our own included.

And then we have to trust –
that God will accomplish his purposes,
through us and those unknown to us,
and at the time of his choosing.