Saturday, July 15, 2017

We Plant the Seeds in Hope: Reflections on Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23 (RCL Proper 15A, 16 July 2017)

We Plant the Seeds in Hope
Reflections on Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

RCL Proper 15A
16 July 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

                  13.1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.  2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.  3 And he told them many things in parables, saying:  “Listen!  A sower went out to sow.  4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.  5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.  6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.  7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.  9 Let anyone with ears listen!”

                  18 [Jesus said to his disciples,] “Hear then the parable of the sower.  19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.  20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.  22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.  23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

            On the southwest corner of our neighbour George’s yard, where the sidewalk meets the lane, there is a tall flowering plant.  You’ll find a picture on the cover of today’s bulletin.  The variety on the corner is Verbascum Thapsus, but it has a number of more common names:  Aaron’s Rod, Lady’s Foxglove, Donkey’s Ears, Bunny’s Ears, Candlewick, Feltwort, Flannel Leaf, Jacob’s Staff, Lungwort and, my favourite, Cowboy Toilet Paper.

Click here to learn more about Verbascum Thapsus.

            The plant was brought to North America by European settlers in the early 1700’s and has made its way across the continent.  The settlers used various parts of this plant for herbal medicines and teas, particularly as remedies for the symptoms of various respiratory illnesses.  In Roman times the dried stalks were dipped in pitch to make torches.  Indigenous peoples also quickly found the plant useful.

            But what interests me is two of its other qualities.  First, mullein is not a fussy plant.  It’s a plant that will grow in almost any soil, a quality that aided in its rapid movement across North America.  Second, mullein is a patient plant.  The seeds of the mullein can lie dormant for seventy to a hundred years, if necessary, before sprouting.  When it does sprout, it spends its first year close to the ground.  Only in the second year does it send its stalk skyward and blossom with small yellow flowers.

            Those who gathered around Jesus two thousand years ago understood his parable of the sower very well.  They knew all too well the challenges of sowing their crops in the variety of soils that Jesus describes:  hardened soil, rocky soil, thorny soil, good soil.  Some of his listeners had no choice but to sow their crops in soils that were not suitable for abundant harvests.  After all, the good soil, the most productive soil, was often in the hands of wealthy land owners who were not overly generous with the bounty they reaped from their fields.

            In some cases a family might, over a number of generations, transform marginal soil into soil that could produce a harvest that would sustain the family.  For example, ancient fields were often marked not by fences but by low walls made of the stones pulled from the soil and moved to the boundaries.  Oxen played their role by leaving their manure to enrich the soil.  The stubble from harvested crops would be re-worked into the soil.  Farmers might not have the luxury of being fussy about the soil they had, but they could be patient enough to transform it over the years.  And then, who knows, it might bear ten-fold, twenty-fold, thirty-fold.

            Seventy years ago this parish came into being to serve the growing population of Vancouver as it pushed towards the Fraser River.  Those were heady times.  The war was over and wartime restrictions were giving way to peacetime bounty.  Participation in a religious community was an expectation that most families met.  Trust in social and political institutions was high.  The seeds sown by the Diocese of New Westminster and the parishes that sprang from those seeds were quite productive.

            But then came decades when the seeds of the good news seemed to fall on hardened soil, on rocky soil, on thorny soil.  Some congregations seemed to flourish, while others seemed to diminish quietly.  Some congregations would have a flash of brilliance, while others remained stable.  The reasons for flourishing, diminishing, flashing and maintaining are complex.  But there are two factors I think stand out.

            Fussy congregations tend to face more challenges than ‘un-fussy’ congregations that are prepared to thrive in whatever ‘soil’ they find themselves in.  What I mean by this is congregations who do some homework to learn about the communities where they serve and then invite, welcome, orient and integrate their neighbours seem to have some depth and maturity.  They recognize that the ‘soil’ in which they live will have an effect on their community life and ministry, but they are not afraid of such changes.

            Impatient congregations tend to become discouraged more quickly than congregations that are patient.  Patient congregations know that preparing the soil and planting the seeds of the good news of the kingdom take time.  Growth, whether in numbers or in spiritual maturity or both, is not achieved in a short time.  There will be some disappointments as well as some joys, but it is in patience that we create a community of faith that can ‘take care of the neighbourhood’ God has given us.

            So here we are, two thousand years after Jesus shared the parable of the sower with those who gathered around him and seventy years after our congregation came into being.  We, along with our sisters and brothers in the faith, have shared the good news that God’s kingdom has come near in Jesus.  Our words have fallen on hardened hearts, on rocky hearts, on troubled hearts and on hearts eager to hear the good news.  We have experienced times of growth, times of decline and times of uncertainty.  But we have good seed that can transform barrenness into fruitfulness, despair into hope, self-centredness into generosity.  

          What we need to do, in this time and in this place, is to be like the mullein,  Verbascum Thapsus.  Let’s not be fussy and learn how to sow God’s seed in the soil around us.  Let’s be patient and trust that the seeds we plant will sprout and the good news of the kingdom will flourish.

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