Fifth Sunday after Trinity
By Bruce Pennie
Readings: Genesis 25 19-34, Psalm 119 105-112, Romans 8 1-11, Mathew 13 1-9 and 18-23
I was watching Gardener’s World on the TV on Friday night. There was a piece about Birmingham. Famously, Birmingham has more miles of canals and waterways than Venice. Birmingham has 35 miles to only 26 miles in Venice. I don’t think even the most ardent Brummie would claim that Birmingham’s canals, a legacy of the early part of the Industrial Revolution, are any way as picturesque as those of Venice. However, a group of people are working to improve the canals. By introducing planting, predominantly of native flowering plants, into pockets of land along the canal edge, they hope to not only improve the visual impact but attract pollination insects, invertebrates and birds. Apparently, they have even now got some otters there. Anyway, in the programme, what they showed was a group planting out what looked like a whole pile of herbaceous perennials. What they didn’t comment on, was the fact that they were planting into a beautifully prepared bed. The actual planting was very televisual and wouldn’t have taken long; but that is not where the work was. It wouldn’t make for good telly – but I’m sure that a group of people had been working hard for ages to get the plot ready: picking up the rubbish – everything from discarded shopping trolleys and beer cans to bags of dog poo and used syringes and needles. Then they would have had to dig up all the weeds, digging out the roots and discarding the broken bricks, before adding compost to get to the stage were the cameras could come swanning in to film the fun bit – actually putting the plants in. But that is not the end of the work. They commented that the planting was ‘low maintenance’, but ‘low maintenance’ is not ‘no maintenance’. Without ongoing care and attention, it would not be that long before the plot reverts to what it had been before.
Unlike those listening to Jesus speak, I guess few of us have much personal experience of agriculture. Even if you don’t know much about gardening, the points he makes about the conditions in which seed can grow and thrive are fairly easy to grasp. Unlike most of the parables in the Gospels, we are treated to an explanation of this one. The usefulness is not just to unwrap this parable, but to show how we should approach the other stories he tells. As we do so, we often find that there are multiple different lessons wrapped up in one story. A little effort spent wrestling with a story can often reveal new perspectives. To that end, it can be useful to think through the story from the perspective of different characters or probing into the background of the story.
The Gardener’s World film shot started with “A group went out to plant” – with no mention of the preparatory work that had gone into the plot, nor of the work in raising the plants to get them ready to plant out. Likewise, Jesus starts with “A sower went out to sow”. That makes me wonder. Who was the sower: the owner of the farm, or a hired hand? Had he cleared the ground himself – moving the stones to the edge to make a boundary wall, digging out the shrubs and thorns, digging over or ploughing the soil, adding compost or manure? When we come to interpret the parable, who is the sower? Is God the Father the owner of the farm and Jesus the sower with me as a single seed becoming a stalk of wheat? Or am I the hired hand acting as sower? And if so, do I have a role in preparing the ground before the sowing? And after the sowing, do I have a role in tending the crop? We have re-seeded a patch of our lawn this year. Much of it has come up OK – but there are bare patches where we have gone over it and re-seeded – with some netting to try and keep the pigeons off.
When I see a Street Preacher standing on a soapbox preaching the word to the passing crowds – who are clearly not listening - I see a sower deliberately casting his seed onto unprepared ground. The chance of any of it germinating, let alone producing a crop, seems beyond remote. But what then am I doing? What are you doing? Clearly we need to be sowing seed; but where and how? If this parish is the field, and I, standing here as a visiting preacher, am the sower then I am wasting my time unless someone has gone before me preparing the soil. That is where the secret of success is – that is where the hard work is. Planting out pot-grown herbaceous perennials is only one part of transforming decaying industrial eyesore of a canal. It may be the bit that makes good telly, but it is only one small part of a much bigger effort. Sowing the seed is only one part of the process of producing a crop. Preaching the Word is only one part of growing the church: Yes! a crucial part, but only one small part. When throwing handfuls of lawn seed around, it may look very dramatic, but most of the work of gardening is dropping small quantities of seed into well prepared seed-trays, and then nurturing them carefully until it is time to plant out into a well prepared border. For most of us, that may be a more accurate picture of what we are trying to do.
The rules around the lockdown are generally being relaxed; we have come through the worst of the 1st peak in Covid infections and Covid related deaths. But the pandemic is not over. We watch anxiously as restrictions are re-imposed in Leicester, Germany sees a surge in cases and infections begin to soar in many countries which had previously seen relatively few. A new phrase has entered public debate: ‘The R Number’; the number of people that, on average, an infected person will pass their infection onto. If ‘R’ is less than 1, the number of infections will decline; if above 1, the number of infections will escalate and we will see a second peak. In terms of spreading the Word of God, rather than virus particles, declining church attendance suggests that collectively we have had an ‘R number’ of less than 1 for some time. Each person who comes to faith probably has several people influence them along the way, so it is difficult to say that person X was brought to faith by person Y. Yet, if on average, and over the whole of our lives, each of us brings just 2 people to Christ, and those 2 people do the same, the Community of Faith doubles in each generation. Surely that’s not too tall an order. For Covid, our aim is to keep the ‘R number’ below 1. Christ sets us a target of R at 30, 60 or even 100. Now there’s a pandemic we would welcome. Even an R of 2 would be welcome. We can rely on the farmer giving us good quality seed. We need to be out there: preparing the soil, enriching it, sowing seed and nurturing it. May God give us a great harvest.