Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sowing and Not Reaping
Mt. 13:1-9[1]
There are some vocations that I think by definition can be incredibly discouraging. I would think that being a police officer can be one of them. Depending on where you work, you may spend most of your days working with the most troubled and violent members of the human family. I think teachers must also face this challenge. You go into teaching out of a sense of idealism about making a difference in the younger generation. And unless you’re very fortunate, you may wind up spending your days trying to teach kids who are much more interested in everything but learning. I would think it would be very easy to become cynical about the prospects of making a difference in the world.
I know for a fact that the same thing applies to ministers. Like teachers, many ministers go into the ministry out of a deep sense of idealism about making a difference in the world. They go through a seminary program that raises their awareness about biblical mandates regarding social justice, and about the joys of deeply spiritual worship, and about the latest strategies for reaching the neediest people in the community. And they get into the church and find out that people can be more interested in which hymnal they’re using, or in making and enforcing ever more specific rules on everybody else, or in keeping all the “squeaky wheels” in the congregation happy. And they work hard each week with the Scriptures trying to discern a fresh and inspiring message, only to wonder, week after week, if anybody is listening at all! Ministry is definitely a vocation that by definition can be incredibly discouraging.
But the reality is that the same thing can be said for Christian living. Most of us embrace the faith in some sense or another out of a feeling of “ought-ness” or a vision to make a difference in the way the world works. And you identify with a congregation and a denomination and find your way onto the session, only to find out that the leaders may spend more time fighting about d├ęcor and money than attempting any kind of mission to save the world. It can be incredibly discouraging. But you find your niche in mission and you keep going through the motions month after month and year after year, until you wake up one day so incredibly discouraged from a lack of results that you wonder if you ever really believed in God in the first place!
To some extent, the parable of the sower addresses this aspect of the Christian faith. When we seek to go out and make a difference in the world—whether in church service or in another vocation—we’re very much like the sower, planting seeds as we go. Now, planting seeds these days is quite different from planting seeds in Jesus’ day. These days we have it down to a science when and how and what kind of seeds to plant. In Jesus’ day, planting seeds was much more like life. You scatter seeds all over the place, hoping some of them will take root and grow and bear fruit. In spite of that difference, most farmers still know what Jesus was talking about—the quality of the soil makes all the difference in the quantity of the harvest. These days we can even get crops to grow on bad soil; In Jesus’ day, you had to just make do with what you got.
Of course, Jesus wasn’t really talking about agriculture. Among other things, he was trying to warn those who followed him out of a sense of personal commitment to the vision of a world of justice and peace and freedom that he inspired in them that not all the seeds they planted would bear fruit. There are lots of times when sowing does not lead to reaping. [2] Instead of rejoicing while “bringing in the sheaves,” we find ourselves just sowing and weeping and sowing some more. Despite some of the lofty sounding promises in the Bible, you just can’t always count on results, no matter how hard you try. Obedience doesn’t always mean rewards, even if the Psalmist seems to say it does. Faithfulness doesn’t guarantee results. Sometimes we find ourselves sowing and not reaping.
One of the notions that drive religious perfectionism is the idea that obedience automatically brings rewards. If we do what we’re supposed to, if we live like we’re supposed to, then our lives will be free from suffering and all our dreams will come true. Just the very action of identifying ourselves with faith and the gospel means that we’re on Jesus’ side and we will go from one success to another. But this pipe dream doesn’t live up to reality. In fact, it oftentimes leads to discouragement and even bitterness. As Henri Nouwen put it, the very expectation that our faithful sowing of seeds ought to lead to reaping a harvest leads to the resentment of bitterness when the results fail to appear.[3] That’s why he said that we must sow our seeds in the hope that there really is “light on the other side of darkness.”[4] That means that, even though we find ourselves sowing without reaping, we keep right on sowing those gospel seeds, seeds of mercy and kindness, seeds of love and justice, seeds of peace and freedom. We do it because one day some of those seeds are going to bear fruit.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/10/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible VIII:306. One of the difficulties faced by Matthew’s audience who were sowing gospel seeds was the fact that “the Messiah had been rejected by his own people.”
[3] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 76. He says that laboring on the basis of “expectations of concrete results, however conceived, is like building a house on sand instead of solid rock.”
[4] Nouwen, Wounded Healer, 76: “Hope makes it possible to look beyond the fulfillment of urgent wishes and pressing desires and offers a vision beyond human suffering and even death.” Cf. also Linda McKinnish Bridges, “Preaching the Parables of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel in Ordinary Time: The Extraordinary Tales of God’s World,” Review and Expositor 104 (Spring 2007): 340

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