30 some years ago, while I was in the German equivalent of high school, I and my classmates were required to do a 3 week internship, you know, to get a taste of actual work. The good part: we could choose whatever internship site we wanted. 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 who was doing work with children and youth at a local interdenominational Christian organization.
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. 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 productivity or efficiency of my work?
Other kids could proudly proclaim how many documents they had copied and how many pots of coffee they had brewed in an office setting; how many loaves of bread they had sold at the corner bakery; how many dogs and cats they had held and comforted at the vets office, how many gigantic spools of fabric had been made while they were operating the machinery in a local factory.
But what about me? I could not give an account of how many of those scores of kids I had encountered turned into faithful followers of Christ, how many souls I had saved. It’s very hard to put a number on that.
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…’
When I got my report back, I saw that my social studies teacher, who had reviewed my report, and who, by the way, was a professed atheist, had written in the margin: ‘Sometimes all you can do is plant the seed and hope it will come to fruition. Your impact may be greater than you think. I’m a teacher: I know all about that…
You can tell I still remember this comment, 30 some years later, and what impact this great teacher, Thomas Jacobskoetter, has had on me. He opened my eyes to the fact that the work of so many is not really measurable, but based on unwavering hope and idealism that, somehow, you plant a seed and it will sprout and grow. And all you can do is to wait patiently for the beauty and the mystery of growth to happen…
Which is not the easiest thing in a world where we like to put numbers on everything. Even as church, we know about that, we feel the pressure to produce numbers, don’t we? How many people come to worship on any given Sunday? How many folks are watching our online services? How much money is coming in?
A sower went out to sow.
Jesus starts the parable in today’s gospel with these simple words. His original audience knew what that means: someone is doing their important and essential work in feeding the community. Someone is participating in this ancient mystery of growth. ‘We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.’
And because the sowing, growth, and harvest cycle was such a mystery, there would be many rituals surrounding it, which, from times immemorial, involved the calling on the divine.
The seed itself was seen as a precious gift of the gods and goddesses, as something that needed to be treated with utmost respect and care. We get seeds for cheap at any hardware store or even at the supermarket, Monsanto retails them in unimaginable quantities, 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. A few years of bad harvests in a row spelled doom for a community.
A sower has the sense of awe for the mysterious growth – and entirely acts on hope and faith, that, despite all eventualities like droughts and locusts and floods, the seed will somehow make it and bring fruit. And where would we be without that unwavering hope?
As in so many of his parables, Jesus just doesn’t state the obvious, but puts a twist on things; in today’s parable, the twist is the obvious carelessness and wastefulness of the sower as they are sowing the precious seed. And as they sowed, we hear, 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! Can’t they be more careful?
But maybe the sower’s carelessness hints at the fact that their 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, if this mysterious miracle happens in unexpected places, it is worth the try, it is even worth the waste.
Now of course we know Jesus is not just talking about seeds and harvests – his parable is about the word of God and its powerful potential – 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 this Word, to guard it, to use it sparingly. It will not return empty, as today’s lesson from Isaiah says so confidently. 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. Think about what Jesus did: he walked 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, and complacency. In fact, the whole Jesus movement remained a marginal group for a few centuries after Jesus’ death. Few, and often quite odd and unexpected people, outsiders, listened – and yet those few channeled the power of God in amazing ways and brought plenty of fruit, living according to God’s word, living the word.
God is not about efficiency and productivity and numbers – God is about the stubborn hope that reaches out to even the oddballs here on earth. Oddballs like you and me, with our pet peeves and weak points and things that trigger us – oddballs like you and me with our particular gifts, our talents, our love – how imperfect it may be. God is about the abundant grace that is offered to us in our less than perfect circumstances with our less than perfect ways of life.
But God – and how awesome and mysterious is that? – God doesn’t give up on us: God sees to it that some seed falls into our hearts, even though the conditions there may be less than perfect.
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 by Jesus. We are being entrusted with the precious word of God. It is our responsibility to see to it that this word is 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. There is no guarantee that we will see our efforts reflected in numbers. 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.
And I want to cheer you on: Be abundant and wonderfully wasteful with how you spread and live the word of God, wherever God has placed you and with whatever gifts God has given you.
God’s word is not about efficiency. It is not even about productivity. It is not about numbers. It is about being spoken and about being lived out loudly and boldly and abundantly. Who knows what fruit it will bring? God knows…
Sometimes all you can do is plant the seed and hope it will come to fruition. That God’s beauty and mystery will be experienced – in expected and unexpected places. Your impact may be greater than you think.