Monday, July 14, 2008

The Scattered Word

SJF • Proper 10a • Tobias Haller BSG

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path... other seeds fell on rocky ground... other seeds fell among thorns... other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain.

This Sunday we hear the first in a series of gospel lessons about seeds, parables in which Jesus uses agricultural imagery. Jesus, though a carpenter, must have been well familiar with the farming and gardening that went on in the lands in which he lived and traveled — as were the people of those lands. So he often made use of these images in his teaching.

Today’s parable shows someone sowing seed by the method that goes by the name “broadcasting” — and it may come as a surprise to hear that this term has been around a lot longer than radio or television. It consists of walking through the field and tossing the seed every which way, scattering and casting it abroad. You may have seen the logo of the book publisher Simon and Shuster, that shows a little man walking along with a sack of seed, his head tilted up, not even particularly looking where he’s going, just tossing the seed behind and around him. That’s the original “broadcasting.”

Jesus tells his disciples that the seed in his parable stands for the word, so it is not at all strange that a book publisher should use this same symbol as a logo. After all, a publisher’s business is to spread the word too, in the form of books — the written word printed on paper and distributed abroad. And this is true as surely as Jesus intended it to refer to the Word we know as the Gospel, the written word of God, the word of the kingdom scattered and spread to the four corners of the earth.

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Now, it may seem at first that broadcasting the seed is wasteful and extravagant. Why not just choose where the seed is to go, choose only the most fertile soil, prepare it, plow it and till it, and only plant the seed in the furrows. Well, to pick up our publishing analogy, you might just as well say, why publish a book? Why not find out just who wants to know what is in the book and send it directly to them. But, of course, that’s not a book — it’s a letter! That’s not publishing, but correspondence.

Publishing requires a wider reach, a greater spread, a more adventuresome approach. There is a risk of some loss in publishing just as there is in scattering your seed by broadcasting it. You may think you understand your audience, and do a lot of research about targeting a particular group for your publication, but once a book is printed and distributed, you never know for certain what will become of it. It might be a best-seller, or instead languish on the shelves only to be “remaindered” and sold at a huge discount so as not to be a total loss.

But on the plus side, you never know how many hands a book may pass through in its lifetime; one book can have many, many readers: the public library is a testimony to that fact. But the same is true of our own personal libraries. As you know, Father Forsyth, who in his retirement was a member of this parish, had served as a priest for well over half a century — and accumulated many books along the way. At his death, those books came to the rectory, where they still are. And every time I consult one of them when I’m working on a sermon or an essay, I’m reminded of Father Forsyth, because his name is written in neat little letters on the inside cover of each of them. So I benefit from them, and learn from them, as he did — and who knows how many others will do the same in the years and decades to come, and gain from what they read, and bring forth fruit, thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold?

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The thing about books is that the message they contain is for people who may not even know they need to hear it. And so it is with the Scripture itself, the written Word of God, that “book of books” we call the Bible. The message of salvation it conveys is most needed by the people who have yet to hear it, the people who don’t even know about it. Now, that doesn’t mean it will bear fruit in all of them — there are some who receive it eagerly but will not profit from it: like rocky soil where the seed can’t put down roots. Some may well receive the word, and have it taken from them by others, like birds who snatch up the seed from the path. Some may embrace the word but find that other cares and concerns stifle it out, like thorns that choke the seed.

But others, ah those others, who are like good soil, not only receive the word but do something with it, understanding it and bringing forth — what? Why, more seed! They bear fruit and multiply the seed and become broadcasters themselves, eager to share the Word they have understood and put into practice.

And this is what God desires, that the word that goes forth from his mouth shall not return to him empty, but accomplish that which God has purposed, and succeed in the thing for which God sent it. God, who broadcasts the Word, does so in order to maximize the opportunities for growth and productivity — and even unlikely soil gets the chance to be productive. Who knows, maybe that crack in the sidewalk holds enough soil to sprout at least a little. Who knows, maybe the rocky soil will give a bit when the rains come and water the earth, so that the seed might have a chance; or the thorns not be so tenacious and obstructive; or the birds might even find a tasty worm to add variety to their diet, and choose it instead of the seed!

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We are, of course, called to be the good soil — receptive to the word but also productive: to bring forth a harvest of the word, and to take up the task as sowers who continue to spread it. As our collect today puts it, we are called not only to know and understand what things we ought to do, but to pray to have the grace and power faithfully to accomplish them. We are, in short, to be fruitful and multiply the word of God.

And there is none so weak or small but may find service here. The word that a Christian proclaims need not be as eloquent as a sermon or a testimony. As the old song says, even those of us who cannot preach like Peter, or cannot preach like Paul, can still “tell the love of Jesus and say he died for all.” Even a young child, filled with the love of God and the Spirit of God, can cry out, “Abba! Father!” That Spirit is planted in our hearts through the grace and gift of God, and dwells within us, taking root and bringing forth fruit, as we — all of us adopted children — join our voices together and cry out to our Abba, our Father, our God.

And others, hearing that word, will take it in as well, as it takes root within them. The word shall go forth and shall not return empty, but accomplish that which God purposes, and succeed in the thing for which God sent it: the word of salvation, broadcast and published to the furthest extent of the world. So let us join in the task, dear friends, let us bring forth abundantly, and equipped with the word to spread, and the spirit to spread it, “publish glad tidings, tidings of peace, tidings of Jesus, redemption and release!”+


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