Frederick Buechner says that parables are like jokes: if you have to have it explained, it’s just not worth it.* In some ways, this parable says the same thing about itself. The last line of Jesus’ explanation is that those who hear and understand it – the ones who get it – those are the ones in whom the seeds take root and grow and bear fruit. If you get it, you’ve got it.
Perhaps this is a rare opportunity for spiritual self-congratulation. We consider ourselves, after all, part of the inner circle of disciples who understand Jesus, who hear him and who get him, so we are by definition, aren’t we, good soil, that yields a fine harvest. If we look at this church, and its nearly nine decade history, we can see some of the good that has been done.
Eighty-six years ago, in January 1928, the first meeting to form an episcopal congregation in Euclid took place. The first service was attended by 39 adults and 19 young people in March of that year. In December 1928, the Church of the Epiphany was named as a Mission of the Diocese of Ohio, and building began not too long afterwards. This building was first dedicated more than eighty years ago, in 1933, and the extensions completed twenty years later. In the meantime, in 1947, the church was incorporated as a parish and a nonprofit in the State of Ohio.
Since 1959, which is the first year for which I have good records easily at hand in my office, so just in the last 55 of its 86 years, in less than two-thirds of its life in this city, this church has baptized 888 people. It has blessed the beginnings of 481 marriages. It has raised up at least one curate, who came here as a young transitional deacon, to become a bishop. Last year, in one year alone, this parish offered the gifts of God to the people of God 3615 times. In 2006, the number was over 6000. It is impossible to calculate the number of people that this parish has touched, served, prayed with, prayed for;
To borrow a phrase from another parable: “You good and faithful servants!”
Of course, we know that sowing and growing and the harvest are not one-off events. They are a cycle. The farmer cannot sit back after one good harvest and live off it for life. She has to go back out, in the spring, and renew the soil, refresh the earth, reseed the rows, and wait all over again to see what takes, what gives.
So it is with ministry. It is never a once-and-done affair, no matter how successful it may once have been.
In the old country, crop rotation would be a way of making sure that soil didn’t get used up and worn out. A field that grew wheat one year might grow barley the next, and in the third year it would lay fallow, that is, nothing would be sown; the soil would rest and regather its strength, so that it would be healthy and have sufficient nutritional substance the next year to grow a new crop. Soil that was reused over and over, especially for the same crop, farmers found, would become stale and exhausted, and the harvest would gradually weaken and falter. It seems so wasteful in our economy to let a whole field lie fallow for a whole growing season; but the wisdom of the long view says that it is worth it to take care of the soil so that the soil can take care of the harvest for the long haul.
It’s ok if everything doesn’t look the same year by year, season by season. Of course, that doesn’t mean we get to rest on our laurels, but it does mean that we shouldn’t get too anxious if every harvest is not as rich as the ones that we remember. There may be something new trying to grow, that we have yet to recognize.
The landscape around this church has changed in nine decades, as landscapes will. The landscape of the lives of those of us who have been around for a few of those decades has transformed itself from generation to generation, seed time to harvest.
Cycles rise and fall, the seasons in their sequence come and go; nothing stays the same. The landscape has changed; there may be more rocks in a field that used to be loamy; there may be new pathways across old meadows. Some fields that once were well-tended may have become overgrown with weeds. Other plots have opened up where once nothing grew, because someone went out with a hoe and a vision and broke open the earth to give it a fresh outlook on life.
I’ll be honest: I don’t know quite where we find ourselves in this parable today. On an individual level, each of you is quite capable of praying through that dilemma for yourselves, and hearing the call of God on your souls, where your soil needs food, rest, or celebration. As a congregation, as a community, we know that we have some work to do, to align ourselves with the landscape around us; to get to know all over again the soil in which we are planted, so that we can grow most effectively within it; because nothing stays the same.
Here’s the thing that I find most strikingly hopeful about this whole parable, though. Every single time we read it, year after year, that sower goes out and sows the seed this way and that, across pathways and rocky ground and thistle beds and good soil; indiscriminately. This sower is not concerned about who grows the best. The sower doesn’t learn from one outing to the next to restrict the seed to one good area. The sower continues, against conventional wisdom, to seed everyone, everywhere, with the word of the kingdom; because even the cracks in the sidewalk sometimes bear fruit, and even the birds of the air need to be fed by the seed that falls on rocky ground.
God speaks through the prophet: “’My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from the heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”’
Whether or not we get the parable, or the joke, God’s word does not fall flat; whether or not we get it, whether or not we see it, God’s word is not wasted, but it shall accomplish God’s purpose, and it will succeed in the thing for which God sent it.
Thanks be to God.
- Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, revised and expanded (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 81