A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 12 July 2020, the Fifth Sunday after Trinity, by the Revd Catherine Duce
Reading for this address: Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
A father in lockdown is plunged into a new routine of multitasking. Squeezing a full time job around part time childcare. To keep his son busy and engaged outdoors, he decides to embark on a life time’s dream of digging a vegetable patch. This proved to be no easy task. The father and son soon discovered just how extensive the brambles and weeds had grown up at the back of the garden. Keeping an increasingly despondent 12 year old boy happy whilst ignoring work calls in his pocket, the father fought back thoughts that it would be far easier to buy vegetables in the local shop and allow his son back indoors to play on the computer. But as they persevered, and the son began to see the impact of their labours and delight in the mysteries of undergrowth and insects, the man gradually realised that this had been the longest and most fruitful time he had spent with his son in a very long time.
A friend who is shielding decides to gather all the labelled and unlabelled seeds at the back of her gardening cupboard and to plant as many seeds as possible. Using every inch of space available indoors on window sills and outdoors in the small garden at the back of her flat these seeds took root and have given hours of delight and discovery. Some have sprouted, others have not. Last week she was tending to the courgettes. This week she has been repotting sunflowers from little pots into big pots. With every reason to despair being confined to the four corners of her home, instead my friend has been on a profound journey of discovery “the world is so full” she exclaims. “I’m seeing in new ways – there is life all around me. These plants are my teachers. Instead of going out into the world, I am going deeper”.
I’ve been moved by such stories of perseverance during lockdown – of people coming face to face with themselves and with God. Mahatma Gandhi, once said “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves”.
During lockdown, there has been an unprecedented growth in people’s participation in gardening. Facebook reports a surge of over a million people joining UK gardening groups since March. Seed suppliers have depleted stocks.
With the absence of physical touch, people have cherished the sensory experience outdoors of “hearing bird song and insects, tasting herbs, the smell of flowers, the warm sun and satisfying ache of gardening.” Even those lacking outside space have found the addition of indoor plants has boosted their mood and productivity. “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”
Today’s gospel reading is also known as the Parable of the Four Soils – the parable of the seed thrown on hardened, shallow, thorny and good soil. It is easy to slip into moralising here. Yet each of us has all four kinds of soil in our hearts.
There are seasons in our lives where the soil can wear thin. Where the wait for growth can be painful. Where the prospect of barrenness and uncertainty can overwhelm us and we get distracted by the demands and cares of this world. The invitation in these moments is to dig the earth and attend the soil around us. The invitation is to go deeper and trust the nutrients in the darkness of not knowing. The invitation is to remember that soil itself is dead leaves offering the promise of new life. The invitation is to trust the growth that can take place in the hidden depths. The invitation is to trust the growth that can return after pruning. The invitation at the heart of the parable is to go deeper, to continually turn back to Christ and to allow Christ to take root in us. As Macolm Guite writes of this parable ‘O break me open, Jesus, set me free, Then find and keep your own good ground in me’.
Because, of course, the parable isn’t just about the soil. The Parable of the Sower is really about the Sower. This story is a description of our God. A God who is recklessly generous with seed distribution. Who is prepared to endure immense waste to win over our hearts. Here is a sower who throws seed anywhere in order to communicate that anywhere and everywhere is the arena of God’s care and redemptive activity. This sower throws seed not only on good soil, but also amid the rocky, barren, broken places, in order to communicate that God’s vision for the world is itself born and apprehended in strange and broken places.
Jesus throws seed at the disciples and over and over again they display hardness of hearts. Jesus continues to throw seed at them, and continues to help them see what God is up to in the world around them. Jesus scatters the seed of the Gospel with a reckless generosity, even when it is clear that his disciples don’t get it, when they abandon him in his hour of need, and deny even knowing him; Jesus continues to pour out his love for them by inviting them back into the fold after the resurrection.
God is reckless in his love for you and me. We who continue in the tradition of the disciples. We who neglect to build the kingdom and instead focus on building ourselves. We who show again and again why we need forgiveness and we forget to give it. The good news is: God continues to throw seed at us. He pours out his love upon us relentlessly. And when he finds even the smallest patch of good soil in our hearts, he nurtures the Kingdom within us, producing an abundant harvest: 30, 60, even 100 fold. This parable is about God and his wildly extravagant love for us. So may we tend closely to the soil in our midst and believe in God’s abundance. For it is filled with promise.
I would like to end with a prayer: O gracious and holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate upon you, and a life to proclaim you; through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord