30 years ago, I was in high school or the German equivalent of it, Gymnasium. At my particular school, students were required to go through a 3 week internship while in the 11th grade, getting a taste of actual work. Now me and my peers were allowed to pick our own internship site. Since I at that point was still debating whether I should become a pastor or a diaconal minister or youth minister, or something else altogether, I chose to spend those three weeks with a diaconal minister doing interdenominational youth work at the German YMCA, the CVJM (which is not an gym in Germany, but offers interdenominational community programs).
The sites my peers chose were quite interesting and diverse; one good friend worked in a factory producing fabrics. One worked in a storefront bakery. A couple spent their time assisting veterinarians. Some ended up doing menial administrative duties in offices.
At the end of the three weeks, of course we had to write a report. And I remember one question that we were supposed to answer: how did you contribute to your worksite’s productivity?
Let me tell you, that was a tough one to answer. I had been helping with organizing and executing group meetings for children and teens. To be honest, I had been telling stories about God, and then leading games and playing a lot during these three weeks. Had I been productive? How could I rate the efficiency of my work?
Other kids could proudly proclaim how many documents they had copied and how many pots of coffee they had made; how many loaves of bread they had sold; how many dogs and cats they had held and comforted while the vet was examining and treating them, how many gigantic spools of fabric had been made while they were operating the machinery. I could not give an account of how many of those hundreds of kids I had encountered turned into faithful followers of Christ.
And so I wrote, as a preamble to the question about my productivity, ‘Some people probably doubt that the work of a spiritual leader is productive…’; and I remember my social studies teacher, a professed atheist, who was reviewing my report, writing a comment in the margin: Sometimes all you can do is plant the seed and hope it will come to fruition. Your impact may turn out to be greater than you think. I’m a teacher – I ought to know.
You can tell I still remember his comment, 30 years later; so apparently, yes, I still remember Thomas Jacobskoetter as a great teacher, and he and his teachings have had a great impact on me. His comment encouraged me, a German with strong work ethics and a nothing is impossible if you only put your heart into it attitude, to abandon the thought that I have to be productive and efficient and effective at all times; that purpose doesn’t necessarily equate measurable successes. That there are professions out there which are built on ideals and hope rather than obvious usefulness. That it’s okay to sow and plant rather than to create.
A sower went out to sow.
Jesus starts the parable we heard in today’s gospel with these simple words. His original audience knew what that means: someone is planting and doing their best to have the seed succeed and grow and bring fruit; a good harvest means survival for the family and the community. And part of doing one’s best is to be very careful with the seeds. Today we get seeds for cheap at any hardware store or even at the supermarket, but in those days, seeds were taken out of the harvested fruit, carefully dried and stored, and then planted. A year with a bad harvest automatically meant less seed for the new harvest cycle.
And people in Jesus’ day also knew that ‘we plow the field and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand’, as the old hymn says. No matter how carefully someone handles the seed and tends to it, there is no guarantee that the seed will grow, and that the harvest will be plentiful. In that sense, a sower acts on hope and faith. The thing is: we need those sowers with hope. If they gave up and expected the worst, well, there will be a draught anyway, or too much rain will ruin the harvest, no one would ever get fed and nourished. There certainly is a risk in planting – but a risk well worth it, because we all depend on the outcome.
Now scholars have often pointed out that Jesus in his parables would take everyday situations his audience would be familiar with – but then add an unsettling twist. In the case of today’s parable, the twist is the obvious carelessness and wastefulness of the sower in sowing the precious seed. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. And some fell on rocky ground, and they withered and died in the end. And some fell among the thorns where they were suffocated. And many of Jesus’ listeners probably thought: what a fool! What a sloppy sower! What a waste!
And even we today might think: that’s not very efficient. This sower is setting himself up for failure.
But maybe the sower’s carelessness hints at the fact that his hope is greater than anything else. That, somehow, fruit will come out of the seed sown in seemingly unfit places. That, maybe, if only a few of those seeds survive and grow and bear fruit, it is worth the try, it is worth the waste.
After all, Jesus compares the seed to the Word of God. Jesus talks about the powerful potential of God’s word, and how it can transform our lives, if we only give it enough room to grow. God, the sower, can be careless with this precious seed because God is a God of abundance – there’s no need to hold on to the Word, to guard it, to use it sparingly. There’s more than enough of God’s word of love and grace and forgiveness to go around. Even for those who seem to be very unlikely candidates for receiving this precious word. After all, that’s what Jesus did: walk around, spreading the Good News of forgiveness and new life for all, sharing the message with saint and sinner alike. As we know, not everyone was open to the news Jesus spread, for various reasons, like self-righteousness, fear, certain expectations, and complacency. In fact, the whole Jesus movement remained a marginal group for a few centuries after Jesus’ death. Few, and often odd people, listened – and yet those few channeled the power of God in amazing ways and brought plenty of fruit.
God is not about efficiency and productivity – God is about the stubborn hope that reaches out to even the least regarded here on earth. God is about the abundant grace that is offered to the undeserving – and, in the end, we all are undeserving.
Now in the great commission of Matthew 28, Go and make disciples and baptize them and teach them all I have commanded, the role of the sower effectively is given to us. We are given the precious word of God, to be spread and spoken and lived in all the places where God’s grace and care are needed. As today’s parable tells us, this is risky business. There is no guarantee the seed we sow will grow. However, just like any farmer goes out every year and sows the seed, with great hopes that it will grow and bring fruit and nourish a hungry world, in the same way we are to go out with this great and stubborn hope.
God is not about efficiency. God is not even about productivity, you know, how many people we can get into this sanctuary. This is not what God’s word is about. It is about being spoken. Who knows what fruit it will bring after we speak it lovingly?
Sometimes all you can do is plant the seed and hope it will come to fruition. Your impact may turn out to be greater than you think.
This post is also available in: German