The image of the seed being watered by the rain of heaven and nurtured as it springs forth and grows is a delightful and encouraging image. Especially for us in Australian winter as we wait for seasonal and life giving rain for the replenishment of a landscape become burnt and barren in so many parts of the country. We are a people of hope and dependence on the generosity of God.
"For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it." Isaiah 55:10-11
Our readings this week (RCL Isaiah 55:10-13; Psalm 65:9-13; Romans 8:1-11; and Matthew 13:1-9,18-23.) begin and end in joy and abundance and are perfect for this time of year when we see, hear, smell, breathe in the very renewing grace of God all around us!
We begin with the wonderful words of the prophet Isaiah and then the psalmist who remind us that God's promises of renewal and plenty came down the generations of humanity in the language, imagery and very real and practical blessings of nature. The Hebrew world view was that blessings were very real and tactile - one was blessed with long and healthy life, many children, fertile livestock, and productive fields; that it was God's intention that there be plenty.
This world view and theology is undoubtedly in the background of the parable of the sower and the seed. The parables of Jesus often took an agricultural flavour and this is one of seven parables in Matthew's gospel about seeds and sowing seed. This is the only one that has its meaning spelt out so it suggests that despite the common theme that there was and is something a bit challenging about this parable. When Jesus spells out the meaning of the parable he likens the seed to hearing the word of the kingdom. It is important for us to remember that in Jewish understanding that the world was created through words – the words of God. “When G-d said, ‘Let there be light’ these words became the creative force that brought into being what we know as light. The same thing applies to each and every detail of creation. Creation however was not a onetime event. According to Kabbalah, the words of creation are being spoken by G-d continuously... As human beings, we have been invested with the power and the purpose to act as a partner in creation.” (Shifra Hendrie The Kabbalah of Speech chab.ad.org)
This is a parable all about God, for God is in the seed, the sowing, and the amazingly abundant harvest. And this is also a parable all about our response to the word of invitation to life. Which takes us deep into the meeting of God's unfathomable grace and forgiveness on the one hand and on the other hand that there are still consequences to our part in the journey of life. That is, how we respond or do not respond to the invitation of God to grow in our hearts and minds and lives has consequences in our life. It is not simply that God says that he will judge those who do not accept his word but that if we do not allow the word of life, kingdom of God, the creative power of God, the seed, to grow in our hearts then God cannot produce the growth! Whilst God is gracious we need to co-operate with God's grace in order for there to be growth.
All farmers know that a good start to the year is not the same as money in the bank! A great deal can happen between seeding, growing, harvesting and selling! And this parable points to some of the pitfalls in the journey. Here three problems are identified - seed that falls on the path, the rocky ground and the thorns.
The word that comes to those who are on the hard path, who cannot and will not hear the word of God - in whom the seed does not get a chance to begin to take root - are among those who cannot hear, whose hearts have grown hard. It is not that God does not care for these but that God cannot grow in the heart that does not desire the presence of God – at least a little bit.
Then there are those who are likened to rocky ground, those who initially respond but then give up on themselves and on God. How often have any of us been tempted to give up for a time? Who have found the journey too hard, too convoluted, too demanding or vague. There may well have been times that we have felt like we might be a bit rocky ourselves.
And then the thorns which choke out the wheat - where there is competition for priority and space. Most of us probably relate to this with all that competes to grab our attention and demand our commitment. Later we will hear the parable about the farmer who chooses to let the wheat and the weeds to grow side by side until harvest time. Which suggests that we should not hear too harsh a judgement here because other parables have different outcomes for the seed fighting with weeds.
What we most need to hear in this morning's parable is the gracious work of God: that the seed which falls in the good soil grows thirty, sixty, a hundred fold - unheard of productivity in those ancient times. God, if given the smallest of chances (even the size of a mustard seed according to another parable), will produce abundantly in our lives. And we need to hear that we have a part to play, that how we respond to the word, how we tend our faith, how we decided again and again to continue with the struggle, that this all has an impact too.
And as so often St Paul has something to say about how we get from one state of getting it wrong to entering more fully into the holiness of the life we are called to. Paul talks about setting our minds on the Spirit and that this will bring life and peace. If we translate this language to our parable of seed then we might think about how do we tend the seed or the spirit in our life?
The seed we tend is about how we allow and co-operate with the creative word of God to take root deep in our souls and hearts and minds – our innermost and eternal being. We might allow ourselves to play with the image of the sower and the seed. The sower seems to be extravagant and quite reckless in how much and where the seed is sown - do we see and hear all the opportunities we are given including those that come in surprising form and places? Not all seeds make it to the growth phase and even less to the harvest - is there a task of weeding or sorting out of ideas, priorities and practices that will lend to the greater flourishing of what remains? Enjoy the inner wondering and allow ideas to take root trusting that if they are not of use they will wither away.
This seed, this word of life, needs also to be tended in how we relate to each other in our personal relationships, in the family of God, in our community, and in the wideness of the world. Some people bring seeds of hope and healing, others tend the seed already in us, and others are weeds that we need to protect ourselves from. And we most certainly have a role to play in nurturing others. As gardeners, parents, farmers we know that growing things need tending - nurturing, building up, protecting, occasionally some weeding or correction, and mostly love. In order for the grace of God to work in us we need to co-operate by loving and caring for ourselves better! At least some of the time we need to pray in the language of love rather than duty, we need to read Scripture playfully and curiously as well as seriously, we need to read other works of life and gift, we need to recreate in the sunshine or rain or the pleasure of dark nights, we need to take time out from work to simply be and let the roots of God's spirit burrow deep down into the very heart of us.
And we might also reflect on how to nurture the growth of the seed in others. Whether that is a word of encouragement or occasionally a word of correction; a smile of enjoyment and shared work; a celebratory coffee and cake; a book voucher or the loan of a valued book; a letter, phone call, conversation over the hedge; or coaching and teaching others some skill or activity that they have an interest in and we have some knowledge of.
And we need to honour and take care of the seed of the living God in our creation. How we garden, farm, invest, recreate and live either honours the seed of God or dishonours it. So let us enjoy the rain and sunshine of heaven trusting that whatever comes will bless us on our way as we grow into the fullness of who we most truly are.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come and nurture your living word in us.