Trinity 3 (Proper 10 Year A) 10 July 2011

Isa 55:10-13; Rom 8:1-11; Matt 13:1-9,18-23

The divine sower

‘A sower went out to sow’ and yesterday the new republic of South Sudan was born; ‘a sower went out to sow’ and the News of the World appeared this morning for the last time; ‘a sower went out to sow’ and, in working with our facilitators, we have found new insights in the long-rehearsed question of the discernment of vocation.

It is perhaps a little clumsy, but we see the point: when we hear this parable, our attention usually rushes on to the emerging growth as the seed takes root - whether on the path, or in rocky ground, or amongst the thorns, or in good soil. On this Sunday, at least, our readings demand that we begin by giving due attention to the sower - that same sower whose word ‘will not return to him empty but will accomplish that which he purposes’. This Word is none other than the Saviour, who again in that other passage of Isaiah, comes neither from below nor from above but simultaneously from the heavens and from the earth: ‘pour down, O heavens, from above and let the earth germinate a saviour...’ This is more than the ‘constant gardener’ of John le Carré: this is the prodigal gardener who sends his Word to all and for all, whether he will be received or not. In Isaiah, the consequence of this sending, this sowing of the Word by the Creator of all, is that we are empowered, energised, eager to be sent ourselves, “For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace...”

In this sense we are bound to look for the hand of the divine sower behind and within all the events of our world - for he is closer to us than we are to ourselves. This is never easy or straightforward: we may discern the good purposes of God in the creation of South Sudan but
discerning his purposes in the deepening drought crisis in East Africa is nigh impossible. Perhaps the nearest we can come is recognising the prodigality of God’s giving; his boundless freedom, spontaneity and love that are never exhausted, though each new crisis seems to raise the bar ever higher when it comes to understanding. 

All this seems to me a necessary prelude to our thinking about the seed and the soil into which it falls. As Thomas Merton points out in “New Seeds of Contemplation” the parable is not about a particular day, or a particular instance when God appears and does a bit of sowing; or an occasion when an evangelist sows a seed about God. No: the parable is rather helping us realise that every moment of every part of life is a seed pregnant with divine possibility. It is asking us to recognise that the sort of soil we are at any and every moment profoundly affects what happens to the seeds of divine experience that our continually being sown around and within us. As Merton puts it:

“Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in her or his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men and women. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.”

Today’s collect prays ‘give us grace that we may dedicate our freedom to your service’ but it doesn’t take much reflection to reveal how constrained our freedom is. It is not that we have no freedom but we rarely act freely because of fear, or doubt, or mistrust, or a (usually misplaced) sense of a need for self-preservation. Indeed, at one level, God alone is truly free - but, by giving such freedom as we have in his service, we find that we become less fearful, less doubting, less mistrusting - and more free!

Faced with God’s prodigality, nothing then seems more important than doing all we can to maximise the chances: the chances of the constant sowing of divine possibility taking root in us. What better moment to ask for greater openness to God’s gifts than in retreat? Above all, it is an invitation to re-consider the skilful means that shape our life together: to review the generosity of our commitment to all the practices of the common life; to enquire into the balance of our life and to look into the constraints, the fears, the anxieties, the self-centredness that prevents us welcoming God’s generosity with freedom, spontaneity and love. 

Yet, more joyful than any sense of progress in our own spiritual pilgrimage is the ever growing awareness of God’s unceasing creativity and generosity; the awareness that God has anticipated our need and given us more than we can ever imagine to aid and sustain us. As Paul has it, “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk, not according to the flesh but according  to the Spirit. ... For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free.” To God be the glory.

Peter Allan CR