18 June 2006
Step by Step
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
I always think of this Sunday as a kind of pivot, a turning-point in the Church's year. During the first half of the year, which begins on Advent Sunday, we remember the facts of our faith, if you like, the events on which our faith depends – Christ's birth at Bethlehem, his ministry, his passion and death on the Cross, his resurrection, his ascension and the coming of the holy Spirit. Then last Sunday, Trinity Sunday, we remembered God as three and as one. And now, for the rest of the year, we go through the “Sundays after Pentecost”, or Ordinary Time as it's often called, and we focus on our walk with God. It's basically about where what we really believe comes up against what we say we believe; how our faith does, or perhaps should, inform our behaviour, our lifestyle, our very character. The old preachers called it things like “growth in grace”, or, perhaps, “growth in holiness”.
And like all growth, it's a very gradual thing. You don't see overnight results. It's rather like the sower that Jesus talks about here, he just sowed the seeds, and then he'd go off and get on with his life and allow God to do the growing. Jesus tells us elsewhere, of course, about some of the results of that sowing – how some seed fell on the path, and not a lot happened, except providing bird food. Some fell on stony ground and sprung up all right, but its roots didn't go deep enough, so when it got as hot as it was last Monday, the wheat all withered away. Some fell in the weeds, and although it started to grow all right, it got choked by the weeds and never got very far. But some seed, as we all know, fell on fertile soil and grew and sprouted and brought forth fruit, thirty-fold, sixty-fold or even a hundred-fold.
Now, in this story, Jesus doesn't go that far. He is talking about the sower here, not the seed. And he points out that the sower's job is to sow the seed, end of. And then go and get on with his life while the seed grows and develops and finally is ready to harvest.
Of course, the sower will prepare the ground before sowing the seed, going into the field with a plough, and a harrow, and perhaps dressing it with fertiliser, but once that has been done, the seed is on its own. First of all nothing much seems to happen. Then one day the field shows a bit of green, and a few days later, it's green all over. A couple of weeks later, and you can tell what crop has been planted – in this country, mostly wheat, oats or barley, although there are plenty of others – and a few weeks after that, the field starts to change from green to golden. And then, when the time is right, the farmer will harvest the field.
And you can bet anything that there'll be a lot of whingeing going on, too – either it was too wet or too dry, in which case there won't be enough seed so he won't earn much money, or it will have been absolutely perfect, with huge yields – but everybody else will have had huge crops, too, so the price will be very low. If there's one person it's impossible to please, it's a farmer!
So isn't it just as well that this isn't true of God!
Jesus, we are told in our Gospel reading, taught almost exclusively in parables. This, I think, is partly because the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God, simply won't go into words, so you have to use parables and analogies to describe it.
But, of course, analogies in the parables only go so far. There are times when Jesus wanted to make a different point, so he tells his stories slightly differently. He often uses the illustration of a farmer sowing seed, simply because that's something his listeners were familiar with. I expect that the first time he did, there actually was someone sowing in a nearby field, and he said, “Look at that guy, sowing his seed!” And perhaps, gradually, he went on telling tales about that farmer. Perhaps he gave him a name. We know he had two sons, and there are a couple of stories about them in the collection, too.
So this story of the sower is making a different point than the more familiar one does. It's talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, how the Kingdom grows, gradually and almost imperceptibly. Nobody can actually stand there and watch it grow – the concept of time-delay cameras hadn't been invented in Jesus' day – but you see the results. Nobody knows how it happens, how a tiny seed almost magically grows into an ear of wheat, but just because we don't know how it works doesn't mean we don't profit from the results! The farmer harvests his crop, even if he has no idea how it grew, other than the fact that he prepared the field and sowed the seed.
So what does this have to say to us today? How does it affect us?
I think it is about not stressing out about being Christians. All too often, we fuss because we're not, perhaps, living as we have a mental image that Christians live. We worry about sin, and wonder whether we can ever please God, who we reckon is like the farmer and never quite satisfied!
Of course, in some ways, we're quite right to be concerned. We do need to be aware when we're not walking in God's way, and when we find that that has happened, to admit it and to come back to God. But it's not to stress over. We don't have to grow ourselves!
A couple of weeks ago, you may remember, we celebrated Pentecost, remembering how God sent the Holy Spirit into the Church. And part of the work of the Spirit in both the Church and in our lives is to grow us. We produce fruit, and as I'm sure we all know, the fruit of the spirit is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."
We don't have to strive and struggle to produce those qualities in us. Foster them, sure. Encourage them, most certainly. But not struggle. If we are God's people, trying to live a Christian life, using the “aids to Holiness” of prayer, Scripture reading and Sacrament, then gradually these fruits will become apparent in us. In some of us more than in others, probably, but that's not our problem.
Similarly, when we are the sower, when we are telling people the good news about Jesus, we don't have to “hit people over the head with the Bible”, as it were. We don't have to pressure them to “make a decision for Christ”. Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit came, we would be his witnesses – not “we must be”, or “we should be”, but that “we would be”. It would happen automatically, it would be part of being a Christian. Obviously, some of us are called to be evangelists, and that is rather different; most of us aren't, though. We are called upon to explain our faith when it arises, but mostly, we are witnesses to the Kingdom of God by the way we live.
Many, if not most, seeds aren't formally sowed. Sown? Sowed? Don't know which is right. Anyway, the vast majority of seeds are sown by animals, or by birds, or by the wind. And likewise, I don't suppose we know, half the time, that we sowed a seed in someone. Maybe we learn, one day; other times, we'll never know. And that, maybe, is as it should be. It is up to God, not up to us.
The farmer, in Jesus' story, doesn't know how the seed grows. He doesn't know how a tiny mustard-seed can become an enormous tree – apparently wild mustard can be a huge problem in the Middle East, rather like rhododendrons in this country or kudzu in parts of the USA. But how does it happen? I'm not sure even our scientists can explain it all that accurately, even today. And back in Jesus' day, nobody knew. It was like magic. They knew, obviously, that if you sowed wheat you wouldn't expect a crop that was nothing but weeds – you may remember, Jesus told a story about that, too. They knew that you wouldn't get figs off a grapevine, or thistles off a fig tree. But they didn't know how the sun and the rain could cause a seed to grow. They didn't know why you could plant, say, a bean seed upside down, but the root would still grow down and the shoot would still grow up. But they knew that this was what happened.
They knew to prepare their ground, sow their seeds, and then get on with life while they waited for the harvest – and they knew, that no matter how much they didn't know, they could harvest the crop and use the seeds to make delicious things like bread and beer.
And similarly, we do not know how the Kingdom of God grows within us. We don't know how the Holy Spirit helps us to grow in love, joy, peace, and so on.
All we know is that it happens. And that as we continue our day-by-day walk with God, as we go on being God's person, so, gradually, the Kingdom of God will grow within us.
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