February 26, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
One summer many years ago, I was on a service project in Kentucky helping youth repair some homes in an impoverished area. Kentucky is known as the Bluegrass State because of a species of meadow grass that flourishes throughout the region in Kentucky’s humid sub-tropical climate. Bluegrass needs well-drained fertile soil to grow and I can still remember my first encounter with Kentucky’s soil the morning I was charged with digging a hole for a new post to shore up the porch we were repairing. Used to Alfred soil, I stuck the shovel into the ground prepared for the inevitable grind of metal on rock, but instead my spade sank neatly and cleanly into the turf, unimpeded by any stones. The earth I turned over smelled as rich as potting soil and the loam crumbled in my hand like a cupcake.
“You can probably grow anything in this soil,” I thought with considerable envy. I’m not a skilled gardener but I imagined that even I could produce magnificent floral displays if I had Kentucky earth in my yard instead of the Alfredian clay that we call soil. In fact, most of the gardening guides I have read for our area tell you to begin by amending the soil — a nice term for “fixing it” — by adding tons of organic matter and sand. Some people replace our soil all together by installing raised beds for which they import dirt from a land where the earth is used for growing plants instead of making pots. In other words, we here in Alfred are not the field of the good soil in Jesus’ parable and if a sower scattered seeds on our un-amended ground, those seeds would undoubtedly succumb to death on our rocks and sun baked clay. In fact, if a sower willy nilly scattered seeds on our land, the experienced Alfredian gardener would exclaim in dismay, “What are you thinking? Nothing is going to grow in this. You are just wasting your time!”
I imagine the audience listening to Jesus’ parable had a similar reaction. They were experienced farmers and must have shaken their heads at the foolishness of the sower in Jesus’ story: what was that sower thinking sowing seeds in places that anyone with the least bit of experience would know had little likelihood of survival? Afterward, Jesus tries to clear things up for his bewildered disciples by explaining that he isn’t really talking about farming practices but rather is telling them about his own ministry. The seed is the Word of God which makes him, Jesus, the sower. As the disciples considered his explanation, they probably felt that this didn’t make the parable any more palatable because if the seed is the Word of God and Jesus is the sower, then by his own admission, Jesus is predicting that he will have at least a 75% failure rate in his ministry. He is telling the disciples that he intends to sow the Word of God willy nilly among the populace and disregard any common sense ideas about who is most likely to receive this good news. Jesus intends to preach his message to both the rich and the poor, to the powerful and the meek, to the saint and the sinner, to the educated and the ignorant, to the clean and the unclean, to friend and to enemy alike. He’s not going to carefully dole out his time and energy by preaching only to those who will be most receptive to his ideas and will invite him home for tea to hear more of this wondrous faith; he is going to trod the highways and the byways preaching his word of grace to even the least likely of candidates. And, he warns the disciples, at least 3/4 of what he does will be a waste of time because his words will fall on deaf ears.
This was not what the disciples wanted to hear and initially they shrug off Jesus’ pessimism here early in his ministry. They refuse to believe his warning because they didn’t sign on for failure. They joined Jesus because they believed that he was going to bring about real change in their world. Some of his disciples thought that he was going to overthrow the Roman government and lead the people to re-establish an independent Jewish state. Some thought that he was going to bring down the rich and the powerful and return the land to the peasants. Maybe some followed because they were sure that God would shine favor upon them and they would be rewarded for their good works: their projects would be successful, their efforts would pay off, and their communities would shower them with respect. Whatever the disciples’ reasons for following, what they did not plan on was failure. Jesus was the Son of David — some even said the Son of God — and failure was not an option! No wonder they shrugged off his warning and strode confidently ahead sure that the world would be set right by the gospel.
If the disciples had trouble accepting that Jesus’ ministry would have a high failure rate, those of us raised in 21st century America where our lives are measured in terms of productivity and upward mobility struggle even more with this reality. We aren’t trained for failure; we are groomed for success, and when we are honest about our reasons for being here, many of us have to admit that we, like the disciples, sometimes embrace the gospel because we believe somehow in some way, the gospel will fix things right here and right now. Following the gospel will fix our lives or it will fix the world: if we pray hard enough and work hard enough in Jesus’ name eventually our minds and bodies will be healed, our families will love another unconditionally — the family that prays together stays together — poverty will disappear, the hungry will be fed, and the world will live in peace and harmony together. We, of course, are realistic enough to know that some of that may not happen in our lifetimes but we want to believe that we can at least see progress forward because of our efforts. We are succeeding! We are disciples of the Son of God and failure is not an option!
The disciples were unnerved by Jesus’ words of failure and chose to blithely ignore them, forging on ahead confidently toward Jerusalem and the new age they believed they were helping to usher in. Nevertheless, the warning of Jesus’ parable came true. Initially, Jesus’ ministry appeared to be growing like gang-busters: he gained an enthusiastic following wowed by his miracles and excited by his challenge to the establishment but like the seed that fell on the rocky soil, there were no roots to people’s commitment. The enthusiasm of the crowds was burned away as soon as things got a little hot. Some choked on Jesus’ commands to give up their possessions or their pet grievances against others. And finally, even the twelve faltered, devoured by their own fear. By Good Friday, Jesus’ prediction of a 75% failure rate looked optimistic.
“I will preach the Word, I will scatter my seeds of justice, peace, and grace, and very little of it will appear to take root,” Jesus warns his disciples. “But do not despair, because one day God will bring a harvest out of even just a few of those seeds; a harvest a hundred fold.”
Do not despair.
The gospels portray the disciples as a group of hapless but enthusiastic young men who have signed up with Jesus because they are stoked by the adventure that he offers and are ready to make a significant difference with their lives. They are like young men going off to war who are entranced by the promise of glory and the chance to be heroes but who have not yet understood the cost of what they are about to do. Jesus, however, knows the struggles that lie ahead for the disciples and he is concerned that their dedication will quickly turn to disillusionment and despair if they are not realistic about what they are trying to do. It won’t all be cheering crowds and successful revolution. Jesus knows that the path to change leads through the cross and if the disciples are not prepared for the cross, if they are not prepared for the inevitable rocky ground before them, if they are not prepared for failure and loss, and the constant need for vigilance, then the disciple’s dedication will turn to despair. Jesus knows that the greatest danger to a person’s faith is not hardship or difficulty or even suffering or grief: the greatest danger to our faith is despair.
Despair is disappointment which has hardened into conviction.
Disappointment is a failed harvest; despair is the conviction that this failed harvest means that the future is lost forever and there will never be harvests again.
Disappointment is discovering that your body is mortal, that pain is your lot; despair is the conviction that there will never be anything for you but pain, that because of this pain, moments of joy, beauty, and peace will be lost to you forever.
Disappointment is the fatigue that comes from pushing against the inexorable sins of the world; despair is the conviction that nothing will ever loose the bonds of the world’s injustice and sin.
Disappointment is the recognition that your efforts alone cannot save the world while despair is the conviction that no one’s hands are big enough to shake the world out of its slumbering ignorance and apathy, not even God’s.
Disappointment is when you weep at the end of the day because you failed yourself and those you loved, and you were not the person you know you can be; despair is the conviction that there is no help for you and that you cannot be saved.
The greatest danger to our faith is not disappointment; the greatest danger to our faith is when our disappointment is hardened into conviction that the future is lost, hope is lost, and there is for us only despair.
Jesus knows that despair is the death knell of faith and so he tells his disciples this parable of a crazy sower trying to get something to grow in the lousy land to prepare them for the disappointments that will come.
“There will be,” he says, “at least a 75% failure rate in what you are trying to accomplish. Moreover,” he tells them, “the harvest isn’t up to you. You are the sower; the harvest is God’s business.”
Notice what Jesus doesn’t say in this parable. He doesn’t chastise the sower for foolishly wasting his effort on barren ground. He doesn’t say that the sower should have prepared the soil before he planted. He doesn’t say that the next day the sower took his seed just to the good field and gave up on the rest. In the parable, the sower’s job is just to sow and he is to leave the worry about the harvest to God. Jesus goes on to reinforce this message by telling parable after parable about tiny mustard seeds that grow into great bushes and seeds that spring up overnight without the farmer’s knowledge. Jesus tells the disciples — and tells us — over and over again that our job is not to bring about the harvest; our job is to plant and to keep planting. Our job is to scatter our seeds of compassion and grace and justice on promising fields and lousy soil alike. Our job is to get up every morning with a fresh bag of seeds for sowing and focus just on the task of this day. An old proverb among Danish fur trappers said, “The next mile is the only mile a person really has to make,” or in the words of the Bluegrass anthem, “You plant your fields when the spring is tender; when the summer beats down you pray for rain; you hope for the harvest in the long cold winter…. and then you plant your fields again.” (“You Plant Your Fields” by Donny Lowery and Wendy Waldman)
In the parable of the sower, Jesus warns us that there will be disappointments in our lives as disciples. Whether we are trying to change the world or just trying to change our own hearts, we will encounter setbacks, failures, mistakes, and frustrations, and much of the seed that we sow will fail to blossom. Jesus promises, however, that God’s grace is inexhaustible and there we can be assured that there will be a harvest — thirty fold, sixty fold, even a hundred fold — whether we are there to see it or not. We cannot let our disappointments harden into despair because despair is the deathknell of faith.
So continue to sow the seeds of compassion and justice on good soil and bad, getting up each morning ready to plant these fields again, and leave the harvest to God trusting it to God’s inexhaustible grace.