Hespeler, 3 September 2017 © Scott McAndless
Mark 4:1-9, Acts 2:37-42, Psalm 126:1-6
h, there you are. You’re the new sower that we hired, aren’t you? Glad to have you working with us. Let me just say I hope you work out better than that last guy. What a sloppy worker he was! I mean, you wouldn’t believe this guy. We gave him a bag with like a hundred seeds in it and sent him out into the field. And what does he do? He starts throwing the seeds all over the place willy-nilly. They’re all flying around and about twenty-five of them fall on the path. Yes, you heard me right: on a hard packed path where nothing can grow. And what happens: they just sit there, wasted, until eventually some birds come along and eat them all. Twenty-five seeds just wasted! Do you realize what seeds cost these days and yet apparently this guy thinks that they are for the birds.
Oh but wait a minute because that was only the beginning. He’s still flinging the seed everywhere and another twenty-five seeds fall on the rocky ground. Now I know that might seem alright at first because these seeds sprout up almost immediately. The rocky ground turns green with life but just when you see them growing and you start dreaming of all the crops that you are going to be able to reap what happens: the sun rises and it burns hot. The crops that grew among the rocks didn’t take enough time to put down a decent root system and they can’t stand the heat. They all turn brown and die. More seeds are gone.
Then, to cap it all off, this so-called expert sower just happens to fling the next twenty-five seeds right among the thorns. Right in the middle of them! Now even I know that you can’t grow any good crops in there and, even if you could, who is going to go in there to try and harvest them? Not me, I’ll tell you that! So those seeds were effectively wasted too.
So, you look like a smart young person. I’m sure you can figure out what all of this means: this guy has just thrown away seventy-five of the precious one hundred seeds that we gave him. Do we look like we are made of seeds? No, I’ll tell you, we are not.
And, of course, that also means that out of all the seeds we gave him, only twenty-five of them ended up in the good soil. And, sure, those seeds grew and produced – in fact, some of them thirty, some of them sixty and some of them even a hundred times as much in the way of crops. So, when we had harvested it all, we did end up with 1,580 grains, but that is hardly the point. Think of what was wasted on the way to that harvest!
But now you’re here. I can see that you are the kind of worker who will be much more careful at what you’re doing. So here are your seeds. Off you go… What? Oh yes, I know that there aren’t very many seeds in your sack. In fact, I know exactly how many seeds you’ve got there. I gave you exactly twenty-five seeds. That is a much as actually grew with the last guy. The other seeds we gave him obviously didn’t matter. Just don’t be wasteful like him and I’m sure that we’ll all get along and it will all turn out just fine.
I can’t shake the thought that that is exactly the lesson that we would take from Jesus’ famous parable of the sower today. Jesus told the story (as he told most of his stories) to illustrate what the kingdom of God is and how it works. In particular, he seems to have been trying to show people how, on earth, the kingdom of God grows. But when we hear it, being conditioned by modern society with ideals of production and constant growth, our attention jumps right to the end of the story.
At the end we hear that the seeds that were planted multiplied and produced many more times the grain than was planted. That, we assume, was the whole point of the enterprise: producing explosive numerical growth. We usually want to apply that directly to the church, of course, and may even assume that what Jesus was trying to say was that the church should always be expanding in size – multiplying in size thirty, sixty and even a hundredfold.
But if you look at the story that Jesus told, that couldn’t have been his only point. He is talking about seeds in this parable – seeds that are cast into the ground. Do you really think that punch line of a story about seeds would be, “the seeds grew”? That is like telling a story about a driver who drives someplace or a cook who makes a meal. The ending is just expected.
No the interesting part of the story – the part that would have caught people’s attention – was the part that looks like failure to us. Jesus spends much more time describing how it happens that seeds don’t grow when they are sown than he does describing growth. And indeed, the way that he tells the story, three times as many of the seeds end up not growing than end up growing. So why did Jesus direct our attention where he did?
Well, if Jesus was telling this as a parable of the kingdom of God (and I think he was) then I think he was trying to tell us something very important about the kingdom. It was, of course, a story about growth because the seeds that are planted in the good soil do experience some tremendous growth. So one of the applications of this parable would be to say that we ought to expect that growth – all kinds of growth – should be a sign that the kingdom of God is present.
To apply that to the church, yes, we should expect that growth should be a regular dynamic of the church. The church should grow and should be a place where people grow. Now, that may not always mean numerical growth or growth in membership. That is certainly something that many churches in many places struggle with these days. But, over the long term, as long as the church is a place where people are experiencing personal growth and so long as the commitment to mission is growing, the church should naturally be a place that is drawing more people unto itself.
But, as I say, Jesus spends a lot more time talking about the seeds that don’t grow so I suspect that he might also be trying to teach us about the things that get in the way of the growth of the kingdom of God. The sower in his story is wildly wasteful. As we have noticed already, he literally wastes three-quarters of his seeds by throwing them in places where they cannot grow and produce. I suspect that many of the listeners who heard Jesus tell this parable, most of whom would have had firsthand farming experience, would have remarked on this point. I mean, I know that no matter how careful you are at sowing (even with modern farming equipment) you cannot prevent having some of your seeds land in places where you don’t want them to be, but this guy truly is ridiculous.
It is so exaggerated that I think it just might be Jesus’ point. I think he is saying that the kingdom of God cannot grow if we are not sufficiently wasteful in the ways that we share it. Unfortunately, that is precisely the lesson that we most often resist in the life of the church today.
For example, it is not uncommon for the leadership of a church that is heavily involved in mission and outreach to the community to run into lots of criticism from the congregation for such an emphasis. This happens because church people notice that the people in the community who are served by that mission are unlikely to show up and add to the membership of the church. Statistically this seems to be how it works. Very few of the people who are given help by the church – food, clothing, counselling and so on – will ever show up and participate in the life of the church.
I mean there are exceptions to that and it is wonderful to have such people in our churches, but it is true you are very unlikely to grow the church very much by adding the people who are the primary focus of the local mission. They are just not very likely to come. And so church people will complain: “Why are we spending so much time and effort and money supporting these people in the community who won’t ever come to church and who, if they did, likely wouldn’t be able to help support the church anyway?” It’s like casting seeds on the path, they’ll say, it is all wasted.
I have also heard people talk about ministry to young people in much the same way. Youth ministry can be expensive after all. You may have to pay youth leaders. You usually need to make a fairly large investment in terms of money and space and energy to create programs that will attract young people. And that often creates a problem for the church folk because there is no guarantee that those young people will remain and become a long-term part of the congregation. In fact, it is kind of unlikely.
After all, the younger generation today are more mobile than any previous generation in the history of our society. They will likely move as they pursue educational and employment opportunities and as other things change in their life. This is especially true for many of our churches that are located in places where there are no post-secondary education opportunities. It is also true (and this is something that is true in all denominations and all theological wings) that young people today are more likely to drop out of faith altogether than were any previous generation.
So a lot of church folk today look at youth ministry and don’t see it as a very good investment – it seems highly unlikely to bring much return in the way of growth – and so they will not make it easy for those church leaders who want to make it a priority. They feel as if youth ministry is just throwing our seeds on the shallow ground where we might see some short-term growth but it will never last.
In fact, generally speaking, if you put any energy and resources in the church into efforts to communicate and connect with people who do not come to church, you will likely get pushback from the people who do come. After all, the vast majority of people you reach out to in those ways will not come and will certainly never become regular attenders. They already have lives that are filled with so many other things. They are like seeds that fall onto ground where they are surrounded by weeds and thorns. Why would you spend anything to invest in that?
Those are just a few examples but there are many more. People just seem to make this assumption that the key way for the church to grow is to put the most money and the most energy into taking care of the people who are there and, if there is going to be any attracting of new people, those people who are wanted are people who are just like the people who are already there. The assumption seems to be that you need to spend all your time taking care of those seeds that have already fallen on the good soil. After all, aren’t they the ones most likely to grow and produce good fruit?
I believe that Jesus told this parable of the sower for a number of reasons, but one of the reasons was to counter those very kinds of complaints. His promise was that the kingdom of God will grow, but in order for that growth to occur, a certain wastefulness is actually necessary. You have to sow broadly. You have to share liberally and even extravagantly without thinking about what you’ll get back for your investment. And if you attempt to cut back on the sowing that seems wasteful – the seeds that fall on the path or on the shallow ground or among the thorns – you will actually impinge on the growth that God wants to make happen even on the good soil, the growth ofappen, the grown th grown the the growth ing that seems wasteful — the mise ss eople who are not going to tment the kingdom of God among you.