“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…”
“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed…
Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty…”
Matthew 13:3, 8
Jesus only speaks the truth, of course. Sometimes seed takes root and grows and sometimes it doesn’t.
I have known this to be so in my garden again this year. It doesn’t help that we find ourselves in a period of drought, of course, but beyond that? The chipmunks have had a field day with any seeds I have tried to plant and have managed to destroy flowers in pots and a few other well-on-their-way plants as well, including a sunflower which I had started inside and then transplanted outside my kitchen window, only to find it entirely gone the next morning!
Seeds are fragile (and it turns out edible) and powerful both at the same time.
They contain within them the almost unfathomable ability to multiply and they can last for generations and generations if stored in just the right way.
Seeds can be the source of life, of sustenance, and of hope itself.
And sometimes they just wind up feeding the chipmunks who share my yard with me, even though they are already more than well nourished by the birdseed which regularly falls to the ground.
Jesus only speaks the truth, of course. Sometimes seeds take root and sometimes they don’t and often we can see why they do and why they don’t.
And as for me, as I hear Jesus’ words today I realized that every example he offers as to why they don’t take root and grow applies to me in one way or another at some time or another, as I expect they do to all of us.
- For there are times I simply do not (or at least do not yet) understand ‘the word of the kingdom…’ and the evil one (like a chipmunk) just digs it up and carries it away. For the time being at least.
- And there are times when my initial reaction to hearing some of what is offered is all joy and then I step away and simply forget. Indeed, I am reminded that I can even write of it with clarity and conviction here and then simply forget that these words are meant also for me!
- And yes, there are seasons when it has been just too hard to push on what matters (think racial justice, especially in these last years) and I have backed off, seeking to avoid the angry consequences of staying the course.
- And without question, our cares can become heavy: the losses, the griefs, the hurts, have, from time to time, keep us me from seeing the ‘Sower’ as the extravagant one who continually yearns for our wholeness, for our growth and constantly gives what is needed to make it so. In this particular time in the history of the church, I imagine many of you know of what I speak. Add to this the individual losses we all inevitably suffer and it can become particularly challenging. It is in these times that I, for one, have been grateful for those around me who keep generously ‘scattering seeds,’ until I can see the abundance again for myself.
And with all of this, the Sower keeps on sowing. Keeps bringing life and promise. Keeps instilling hope. And keeps on speaking this truth also, that what God ‘plants’ does not come back empty. Despite all that would get in its way, even in you and even in me.
So as I am sure you have determined by now, while I know it is so that there are those in whom God’s good gifts never seem to take root, I am inclined to hear it differently than even Jesus speaks it now. Indeed, I find myself hearing it as a kind of tool for ‘examen,’ for wondering at how and where and why I may find myself on any given day or in any given season, somehow unable or for whatever reason, unwilling, to fix my eyes, my heart, my imagination, my hope on the Sower who just keeps on sowing. And on the promise that God will not fail. That what God sends out always, always returns in abundance.
I would offer now some rather random examples of this… just some things that come to mind as I think of the abundance today’s readings point me towards:
- As you probably know, my mother went on hospice care in early December of last year. It had been her decades old practice to send out a Christmas letter each December and it was clear that was not going to happen this year or for that matter, ever again. Many looked forward to her letter as she tried to share the promise of the season in a way that spoke with faith and joy. And so, my sisters and I wrote a letter in her stead. Our primary purpose was to let those 150 people know her health status and to ask them, if they were able, to send a message or a story. And the stories came and they came and they came. What a gift it was to be able to sit with her and to have her hear the impact she had on so many! Indeed, those decades of teaching were a gift she gave to the world which did not ‘return empty.’ More than this, our invitation answered in this way surely had the hands and the heart of God all over it as love given was love returned again and again.
- Last fall we started giving out books to children. Truth is, I was sitting in my office trying to come up with a new way to be in conversation about stewardship and I was living in that place where the ‘chipmunks’ were threatening at every turn. And then it came to me that we could give out books which had some kind of ‘stewardship’ theme and we could do this every month. (Very few of them have been ‘faith based’ in any explicit way, so we put together bookmarks with questions tying them to God’s love for us all.) Pretty soon, we were ordering 50 books for young children and the same number for middle school kids and older, and every month every book has disappeared as not only do children take them, but grandparents and neighbors and friends pick some up to share as well. Early on, we even had community members volunteer to help cover the cost of the books! We already know what joy this brings. We cannot help but wonder at the impact these books will have on our own children and on children we will never meet. And it is not unlike the Sower just tossing the seeds, wouldn’t you say?
- A few days ago I met a friend for lunch. She is one of the pastors at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church here in town. I arrived before she did, and so I took the time to just be ‘still,’ as I was listening then for how these words from Matthew speak. When she joined me, she commented that I seemed particularly peaceful, which I was. I told her what I was working on and she began to share what she preached on last Sunday, launching us into an animated conversation about Cain and Abel (a story I’m pretty sure I have covered in Confirmation class, but have never actually preached on!) It was such fun and elicited both laughter and wonderment in both of us. It’s hard to say when the seeds for that conversation (and this deepening friendship) were first sown, but what gift it is to see it all take root and grow!
So here is what I am wondering now:
- As you consider the promises in today’s readings, where and how have you seen God’s word ‘not returning empty?’ How have you experienced the extravagant abundance of the Sower?
- Indeed, how is that we can fix our heart on what God has done and continues to do in abundance this week? How can we turn aside the ‘chipmunks’ in the days to come?
- More than this, what would it mean to more closely follow One who simply scatters the seed, confident that at least some of it will take root and grow? Oh, what might it look like for us not to always be so closely measuring our ‘seed’ (our time, our attention, our money, our buildings, our staff, our volunteers) and to simply scatter it in the hopeful confidence that it will do good in ways we can only begin to imagine and may never even see for ourselves?
- Most of all, what would it mean for us to live more fully in the promise of Isaiah that what God sends forth always, always comes back in a harvest that is many times over that with which we began?