I have heard quite often that the sower in Jesus’ parable sows the seed in the traditional peasant fashion, casting it from side to side. If this is the way all farmers sowed their seed it is no wonder peasant farming was so bad and famines so frequent. It is a very inefficient way of farming. In Zimbabwe today we are teaching people new methods of growing maize. Oxen and plough have been discarded. They simply dig small holes in the ground 15 inches apart. Into each hole they put two seeds and one grain of fertilizer, then they cover it. No seed is wasted. Yields are excellent and even little old ladies can produce a year’s supply of maize for a family off a patch of ground the size of our front lawn. It is exciting to see this happen, but where does it leave us with the parable?
When Jesus told this story was he describing a typical farmer, or a rather foolish one? Did he know this was a silly way of planting wheat and if so was he making a point? Well, I can’t speak for Jesus but there is something here that describes mission in a way that would surprise today’s Church. Today’s mission planning revolves around mission strategies, strategies for church growth and plans that have definite time scales and measureable outcomes. That does not seem to be Jesus’ idea of mission. At the conference some of us went to recently at Lee Abbey there was an amusing moment when the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative used the word ‘strategy’ and a frisson of disquiet went around the room. Even he then admitted that it was not really a good word to use. Strategy in mission suggests that we make the plans, set up the process, do the work and tell God what he needs to do to bring about success. Jesus seems to favour the much more wasteful action of the sower just throwing seed anywhere he can reach. This really is what the Church has always done. Parishes in England or missions in Africa just do what needs to be done – visit the sick, care for the poor, teach the young, preach the Gospel wherever we get the chance and wait on the results. Paul had this in mind when he said “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” Even in the matter of getting people to come and join the religious life we seem to have little control. We put out our literature, build our websites, live our lives, and people pop up from the most surprising places.
Let us assume for a moment that the model of the wasteful sower really is the one Jesus wants us to take for mission and what do we get?
Well, waste can be good. How many of us were told we were wasting our talents coming into the religious life? In a sense we were, but we all know how God uses that waste in astonishing ways. Waste is generous if it comes from a generous heart. Generosity is one of those qualities of human life that are particularly attractive and seem to reflect something of the nature of God. One of the challenges we have as a Community is to make sure our hospitality is generous – in food and accommodation – without harming the environment or depriving the poor. Meanness never has a place in Christian life.
Our sower, too, is clearly not good at strategic planning. Nor was our Community in its beginning. It seems to have started without any clear idea of what it would do. Yet, its most fruitful works started by accident, almost on a whim – going to South Africa, starting the College, buying this place. How far this is still true – or could be true in our current state is not a subject for this sermon. At least our preacher last Sunday thought we could still be sitting lightly on a branch able to take off into the air. Maybe we still can. I think of initiatives we have taken over the past few years; many of them have failed to attract takers or to develop a life. Many others have taken off and flourish. We seem pretty good at imitating the sower, partly because we have no choice.
The trouble with strategic planning is that it puts us in control, even if pray about it and make courteous nods in the direction of God. Discernment is something different. That looks to see where God is already working and shyly asks if we may be allowed to help. God can work without us. He would probably do a much more efficient job if he did work without us. But he actually likes involving us in his work. That helps us to become the people he wants us to be. One of the important assumptions of the whole Benedictine approach is that, whatever else we are doing – farming, writing, preaching or teaching – God is using that to help us to change, to be transformed a little more into his likeness. As Athanasius told us last week: Christ is there in the details of our daily life. We don’t need a strategy to find him.
And there is one way in which we are not like the sower. The sower was stuck with the soil he had. He just had to throw his seed onto it and hope it took. But Jesus is actually talking about us, not just as the sower but also as the soil. And unlike real soil we can actually choose what sort of soil to be. We all know how much easier it is to be the kind of soil that resists any uncomfortable summons to grow something inside us. We all know the times when we have enthusiastically embraced some idea or action and then let it die without much regret because it is too much work, or there are other more interesting things to be doing right now. How can we choose to be the really fruitful soil that produces 30 fold, or 60 fold or 100 fold? That may be what we will ask in retreat! Of course I have to add that if we do become that kind of fruitful soil, we probably won’t know it. That is part of the divine dispensation that keeps us from thinking too well of ourselves.
So another difference between us and the sower is that he can measure the success or failure of his crop. We can’t. We may count the number of visitors, count the number of communions, count the confessions and hours of spiritual direction. We can list the sermons preached, the visits made to churches. We can even complain of our overfull diaries but that tells us almost nothing about how fruitful we are within the mystery of the Body of Christ. You probably know the chaos theory that a butterfly flaps its wings over Tokyo and a storm happens in New York. Is there some spiritual chaos theory which means that an act of kindness in our Community produces a tsunami of kindness somewhere else in the Body of Christ? The psalms we sing, the prayers we try to make may be immensely fruitful in the Body of Christ. There is so much we cannot know, and it is better we don’t know.
For in the end it is not our fruitfulness, or our prayers, or anything else that really matters, but the generous love of God. An Ampleforth monk tells the story that when he was discerning his vocation he visited first a Jesuit who listened to him and then told him to go away and pray for guidance as to what God wanted him to do with his life. Next, he consulted a Benedictine monk who told him to pray in order to understand what God wanted to do for him. Jesus said the same thing: Fear not little flock. It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Perhaps that is the best note on which to enter our retreat.