In a conversation on Monday, the person that I was talking to told me about a notice that was posted by Rev Richard Baxter, minister of Duncansburgh Macintosh Parish Church in Fort William. It read:
“We could now open this church building for private prayer – but we won’t.
Why not? Because if you came here to pray, we’d have to make you wash or sanitise your hands at the door; instruct you to wear a mask; ask if you had COVID symptoms, underlying health problems, or got a flu jab – and turn you away if the answer to any of those was ‘yes’; tell you which seat you could sit in; warn you not to sing; make sure you left by a different door, then clean and sanitise every surface you touched.
Alternatively you could sit in an armchair with a cup of tea; sit on the Parade watching the birds; walk along the sea front and talk to God just as easily.
You don’t need special words, a special place, special objects or special people to talk to God. He loves you and He’s listening. So just do it. This church building is still shut. The ears of Heaven are not.”
The job description of prophet contains among other less than enviable tasks the ability to speak a life-giving word of hope when everything seems to point in the opposite direction. In our reading from Isaiah today, we see the prophet doing this particularly well. In a few short verses, he’s able to conjure up a world where the impossible seems possible. Over 15 chapters Isaiah has been trying to provide his fellow exiles with a much-needed perspective on their situation, exiled away from their homeland.
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion … Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”.
The prophet is helping them to see their broken world with a new positivity. What a wonderful image is conjured up by:
“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Many of us can relate to the idea of exile much better than we could a few short months ago. For the last three months, we’ve been exiled from our families, from our friends and from many of the activities that we ‘usually’ do and places that we ‘usually’ go to – including our Churches. Many people are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic as an exile and few would disagree with the idea that we’re ‘living in a strange land’ and many are struggling with “how we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?”. With the news dominated by COVID-19 it’s very easy to lose sight of the fact that many in our world have been living in exile for a lot longer than three months. So how might Isaiah’s words offer hope that there’s a bright future for us and for all those who’re experiencing exile?
Our Gospel this week is probably the best known parable of all – the Parable of the Sower. Both it and our Old Testament reading from Isaiah are about God’s word, and both use the language of ‘sower’ and ‘seed’. Both texts agree that God’s word works in subtle, unobservable ways, and ultimately produces unimaginable abundance.
In the parable of the sower, God appears as an irresponsible sower, scattering the seeds of redemption even where they don’t have a hope of sprouting. In Isaiah, God’s act of redeeming a small group of exiles will ultimately transform the entire world. Both are a cause of great rejoicing as well as humility. God’s desire to bless and re-create is mind-boggling in its immensity and power.
The main character in the parable, is of course the sower. The sower scatters his seed carelessly, recklessly, seemingly wasting much of it on ground that holds little promise of productive growth and a decent harvest. Jesus similarly invests a lot of time and effort on disciples who look just as unpromising. He wastes his time with tax collectors and sinners, with lepers, the demon-possessed, and all sorts of outcasts and ne’er-do-wells. Yet he seems to think that his reckless sowing of God’s word will produce a rich harvest.
In trying to understand the parable of the sower we need to avoid equating the various types of soil with a particular person or group, and especially to avoid equating ourselves or those around us with the ‘good soil’.
If we’re honest, we can probably find all the kinds of soil the parable in our lives and likewise in any congregation on any given day. Also, we react differently to different parts of Jesus’s teaching. Some parts seem quite attractive and take deep root in the way that we live our lives. Other parts seem attractive at first sight but are actually rather more challenging, so the enthusiasm wanes and they die off. Then there are the really challenging bits that we quietly forget about without even giving them a chance.
The proof of the pudding is, “does Jesus’s teaching cause us to talk or even shout about justice and peace or does it cause us to act?” In her book “Outraged: Why Everyone Is Shouting and No One Is Talking”, the DJ Ashley (Dotty) Charles calls on the ‘Social Media Generation’ to focus on really important issues and do something about them, rather than getting caught up in what she calls “clicktivism and a culture of re-tweeting“, as though making a virtual noise were all that’s necessary to bring about change in a world of war and injustice. We shouldn’t simply be outraged but should seek tangible change. Now that’s the difference between stony soil and good soil!
Jesus doesn’t use the parable to suggest to the crowd or even the disciples that they should actually be ‘good soil’, as though any of us could make that happen. If there’s any hope it’s that the sower keeps sowing generously, extravagantly, recklessly even in the least promising of places. Jesus simply refuses to give up on his disciples, in spite of their many failings. Lets hope he won’t give up on us either, but will keep working on whatever is hardened, rocky, or thorny in us and our relationships.
As a one-time biologist and statistician, I notice that even in the ‘good soil’, the increase isn’t always the same. “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”. Quite big differences in yield. Any farmer or sower would likely be pleased with these results. But if it’s all on good soil then there must be something else that influences the harvest, in addition to the soil and the seeds.
What about the sower? Some people like my Dad and Anna have what are referred to as ‘green fingers’. They know how to nurture the soil and the seed and have never ceased to amaze me by what they have got to grow (even if I sometimes accidentality strim some of the results and end up in the dog house). And so, an equally important part in all of this is the sower.
As those entrusted with Jesus’ mission today, we might consider the implications of this parable for how we engage in mission. Too often we might be tempted to play it safe, sowing the word only where we’re confident it’ll be well received, and only where those who receive it are likely to become what is sometimes crudely referred to as ‘bums on seats’ in church. Surely that isn’t what we are called to do. Spread God’s love and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. In this time of unprecedented upheaval, we shouldn’t resist new ideas for fear they might not work, or that old excuse “we tried that before and it didn’t work” – as though mistakes or failure are to be avoided at all costs.
I am struck by the image of the sower sowing so recklessly. There’s no plan, no strategy, no technique for ensuring optimal positioning of the seeds; nothing that we could translate into a marketing type approach to Church growth. Like ‘helicopters’ from sycamore trees, the fluffy seeds from willowherb, or the seeds from dandelions, God’s word just blows wherever it will.
Whilst what Rev Richard Baxter says has much truth in it, unlike Duncansburgh Macintosh Parish Church, over the next few weeks, some of our Churches will be opening for a couple of hours a week for prayer. Later once all the planning and preparations have been completed we’ll also be able to return to having some services. It’ll not be the same as it was before (currently we can neither sing nor share refreshments and have to do all the things that Rev Richard mentions on his notice) but we have to be open to receiving God’s word wherever and however it is scattered amongst us. The message that we actually hear may be subtly different from how we’ve heard it before and that’s “how we shall sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?”.
So let us “go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before us shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”