The Generous Gardener – Rev Dr Phil Wall
Reading: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
For those of you who can’t or don’t access our midweek video reflections, this week’s was a cracker. We saw displays of thanksgiving outside our churches, were challenged to share what makes us smile alongside some before and after the hairdresser images, witnessed my nephews attempt what some people have generously called ‘dance’ and, most impressively – and thanks to Marcia and Bethan – enjoyed a garden gallery. Encouraged to send in photos of their beautiful balconies, luscious lawns and vivacious vegetables, members and friends of both churches generously obliged and so we enjoyed images of hanging baskets and herbaceous borders; beautiful birds and buzzing bees; vegetable patches teeming with life, intrepid climbers and even a coconut tree from more tropical climes! Incredible. We will definitely repeat the gallery for all to see when we can gather again.
Anyway, whilst I generally join in the challenges each week, my gift for gardening is minimal at best and thus I left the photographic offerings to the experts and enthusiasts. With this in mind, when I read this week’s gospel lectionary passage, I thought now there’s a man after my own heart. [I’ve never realized how weird that saying is until now!]. You see, like me, the sower doesn’t really seem to display a deep understanding of how gardening or growing crops works. We’re told that he wastes most of his seeds on paths and rocky ground; that he allows birds to swoop in and eat more, and thornbushes to flourish and choke the young plants. It’s amazing that he grows anything at all – let alone the huge harvest we hear of at the end…which might be the whole point…but more on that in a bit!
As parables go, this isn’t my favourite. If I were to write a list of my top 10 parables – and you know I would – this wouldn’t make the top ten. It just seems a bit…well, I think the technical term is ‘meh’. A bit bland, obvious, even. The thing I usually love about Jesus’ parables is that they’re often so odd, shocking and dramatic. The Samaritan was the one who helped? The father ran to welcome him? The shepherd left the 99?! What the what?! Most of Jesus’ sideway stories seem to bemuse or amuse their hearers, whilst this one feels a little too on the nose. Of course, the explanation of the parable’s meaning – which many commentators think Matthew added later – doesn’t help with the lack of mystery.
Some people, Jesus apparently says, hear my message but don’t really understand it. Others don’t let it sink in or get distracted by worldly pleasures.
Others hear, understand it, and bear good fruit – just like that multiplying corn.
Sure. Yeah. Makes sense. We all know people who fit into those categories. Thanks Jesus. Next!
Except…except I just don’t buy it. Neither the form, nor the content seem to be very Jesus-y to me. I mean…okay I get the issue that’s being addressed as it’s the same one that we are faced with today. Why don’t all people respond positively to the gospel? Why aren’t more people interested in God, in Jesus, in church today? In some ways, it’s quite comforting to hear Jesus chatting about this even before the Church was properly up and running. And I wonder how you would answer that question. At both Castle Square and St. David’s Uniting, we believe that we’re friendly, welcoming, engaging churches who have a liberating, joy-filled message to share about a loving, generous God. So why are we faced with ageing, decreasing congregations? Why is any increase in numbers generally the result of other churches closing? Why are many of our own friends and family apathetic to a worldview that we believe contains beauty, truth and hope? Think about it…what would you say?
It’s tough, isn’t it? Maybe you’re one to point to the current flock of birds who come and eat the seeds; to blame anything and everything from good TV to cheaper cars – both of which have genuinely been cited as a cause of decline in Sunday service attendance – for stealing away the seeds of the kingdom. Maybe you think the rise in individualism and obsession with materialistic wealth are the thornbushes of today. Or maybe you enjoy a bit of self-flagellation every now and then and think that we’re to blame – that we’re either not sowing in the right places…or not sowing at all! Hmmm…
Well, the fun-loving Father of Presbyterianism, John Calvin, who in trying to close pubs and succeeding in banning dancing was really just ahead of his time when it came to social distancing, also struggled with why some people were not responding to the kingdom message he was preaching. A trained lawyer, Calvin rationalized that if, as many Bible passages suggest, faith is a gift from God, then God must choose to whom to give the gift and from whom to withhold it. Of course, for Calvin and his reformed pals, true faith was the get out of jail free card – the one thing that could save you from hell thus, fleshed out into its own rational, completely irrational, system, Calvin’s development of the belief in double predestination suggested that before our birth, God had pre-selected some of us for an eternity in heaven and the rest of us for an eternity in hell and nothing we did in life could change this. Fun! Calvin’s followers then sculpted this message a bit more to give us the acronym and summary of one particular branch of reformed theology – TULIP – which stands for:
Total depravity – humans can only do evil…any good they do is God working through them.
Unconditional election – whom God chooses to go to heaven or hell has nothing to do with our actions or choices.
Limited atonement – Christ’s death reconciled some, but not all, to God.
Irresistible grace – We can resist God’s grace or thwart his plan to save us (if we’re chosen).
Preservation of the saints – If you’re truly saved, you’re truly saved…you can’t do anything to change that.
Whilst some of us might assume that this branch of theology is the product of a bygone era when heretics were burned at the stake and the Pope was considered the Antichrist, I can assure you that there are members of many churches in our town – and even within our churches – who ascribe to this worldview and who, to be fair, can point to Biblical passages which seem to support their outlook. (Spoiler alert – we’ll be looking at one next week.) Personally speaking, I…well…it’s fair to say that, whilst acknowledging that it is a valid Biblical view to hold, I certainly struggle with it. After all, if this really was the Christian message then it is explicitly not good news for most people – for God chooses to damn the majority of humankind and there’s nothing we can do about it whilst Christ’s life, death and resurrection offer nothing for most people as it only achieved the reconciliation of a few – the elect – to God.
And this is where, for me, the parable of the sower redeems itself! You see the outlook of Calvin and his pals is one based on scarcity – a limited atonement; a reconciliation of the few – and the parable of the sower tells us that the sower is anything but tight. On the contrary, the sower is reckless, profligate even with his seeds. A logical mind like Calvin’s would have a fit at the wasteful nature of his sowing – throwing the seeds on paths, rocky ground, in thornbushes, as he does.
In fact, the parable is, from start to finish, one of extravagance. It opens with enough seeds for the sower to chuck about with wild abandonment and ends with a harvest of overabundance! This doesn’t suggest to me a God who is mean with inclusion, limited in atonement, restrictive in mercy, but a God who sows love along the hard paths and weed-infested parts of our lives; who embraces all creation with grace; who keeps ploughing away, assured that there’s always more seeds to spare and knowing that a bountiful harvest is coming. A God who dwelt amongst us and spent time with lost causes, well-known sinners and even religious hypocrites; who prayed for forgiveness for his murderers whilst on the cross and who, when risen from the grave, returned to his Father’s house where there are many, many rooms. A God whose Spirit paid no regard to boundaries of ethnicity or gender, social status or age when it came afresh at Pentecost and who can still be seen whipping around and within the most unlikely people today.
For me, then, whilst there’s some interesting questions about how we can make sure our soil – our spiritual disciplines, our church life – is rich for growth (in discipleship, numbers and otherwise) and how a few seeds can lead to a huge harvest, this parable doesn’t speak to me as to why some respond positively to the gospel and/or to church whilst others don’t.
What it does tell me, however, is that God is generous in love, extravagant in grace, wasteful in the sowing of the seeds of the kingdom throughout the world. And so, I wonder if Matthew, ever obsessed with heaven and hell, wrote down what Jesus said through a prism of scarcity. I wonder what the story might look like through one of abundance…
A generous gardener went to work in her wild, wonderful garden. She loved to feed the birds and delighted in their beauty. She loved the bees, the butterflies, even the snails too!
She tended to her rockery, then pruned her rosebushes, taking the fallen petals to the compost heap. Nothing was wasted in her garden.
She collected the fruit from the trees and smiled at a remembered game of hide and seek with her children.
She brushed by a bush that she hadn’t planned on planting and chuckled as she said ‘well, a weed is just a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered’.
She passed the growing vines and babbling brook on her way to the walled garden where she’d be meeting her good friend later.
She picked some blackberries – it was a bumper crop. Tomorrow she’d make a pie for the party.
For now though, she relaxes into her deckchair, unscrews her flask of tea, surveys her bit of paradise and whispers, contentedly to herself, ‘it’s good. It’s very good.’
 Calvin was, by no means, the first to come up with such a belief system. Indeed, one could argue that, though often implicit, it was the predominant view for all of Christian history.
 I hope those reading this sermon can hear the heavy dose of sarcasm which is at play here! And while I’m down here…for Avengers fans amongst us, think Thanos. Only more are damned and it’s for eternity!
 In our asking why churches are decreasing, we would do well to remember that the Church has not always been/is not always a sanctuary of welcome, love and good news. Take this excerpt of a sermon by another one of our forebears – this time a celebrated Congregationalist minister – Jonathan Edwards: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”History buffs might be interested to know that Jonathan Edwards was the grandfather of Aaron Burr – 3rd Vice President of the US and antagonist in the musical ‘Hamilton’.
 Given the contemporary social context, it may be of some interest that I can recall, at a training session with some of my more conservative colleagues in Cambridge, equating the double predestination worldview to a racist one for both outlooks arbitrarily treat one group of people as elect, chosen, special and the other as depraved, unworthy, damned; you have no control about which group you belong to as it was decided before you were born; and your actions and choices can have no impact upon this. Needless to say, I was immediately deemed a heretic and reminded that God can do what God wants!
 Sevenfold meant a good year for a farmer, and tenfold meant true abundance. Thirtyfold would feed a village for a year and a hundredfold would let the farmer retire to a villa by the Sea of Galilee!
 Jesus’ words in John 12:24-26 might cause us to reflect here. Certainly, the death of other church communities – painful as they have been – have also led to a flourishing at both Castle Square and St. David’s Uniting.
 Tragically, answers that are more frequently given when individuals are asked why they don’t go to church involve church being boring and the message irrelevant. When some 17-18 year olds were asked about their impression of church in one survey in 2006, their answers included ’Cardigans’; ‘Sandals and socks’… ‘Corrupt, having somewhat lost the plot’; ‘Marginally pointless, traditionalist, past its sell-by date’; ‘Unchanging, stagnant,’…’Car boot sales are better’ – Savage, S., Collins-Mayo, S., Mayo, B. & Cray, G. 2006. Making sense of Generation Y. London: Church House Publishing.
A Prayer for Today – Mary Robins
Although we are confined to our separate homes, we still approach you as one Church family, to seek your help and guidance in these unique, troubled and difficult times. Times that we have never before experienced and are finding it difficult to understand and cope with.
We ask your help for all those in need- the list is endless. In the words of the hymnist “I (We) need thee every hour”. We know that with you all things are possible, but we didn’t want to ask for too much so that someone else will get a chance.
We pray for those who are stricken with this deadly virus, and for all other sick people. We pray for those who care for them, whether in hospital, in care homes, or in their own homes. We are thankful for all their efforts and unstinting dedication over these past months and for the future.
We pray for the worldwide efforts of medical research staff to find a cure for this disease, which would benefit the whole of mankind. We trust that those efforts will soon bear fruit.
We pray not only for the leaders of nations who are wrestling with the big issues posed by this disease, but also for all those who accept leadership roles in our communities. May they help to take us through this crisis to a safer destination.
We pray for our families, our friends and those that we love. Please, Lord, keep them safe.
In recent weeks we have been so tragically reminded of the inequalities that continue to exist between the people of the world’s different races; a situation that has existed for countless generations. We pray that we will be given the wisdom and will, to right these wrongs now, so that all people may benefit equally from education, training, opportunity and the sharing of the world’s resources.
We pray for that world, that we may nurture those resources, use them wisely and sustainably, and in so doing conserve them for future generations.
May we have concern one for the other. May we sow seeds of tolerance, kindness and love, and trust that most of them will fall on good ground, to be followed by an abundant harvest.
Two cheerful gardeners, spotted at Castle Square last week,
making sure we don’t only have an abundant harvest of weeds!
Thanks Annette & Terry!