Fr. John Allison
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 16, 2023
Christ Church, Hudson
Our words from Isaiah this morning, a portion of what is known as the Second Song of Isaiah, are perhaps familiar to some of us as a canticle that is said during morning prayer—a favorite canticle of mine, in fact. And I was heartened when I saw this passage come up in the lectionary because its words, its sureness and certainty in God’s promise, have brought me much comfort over the years. Most specifically, I think, because Isaiah sees evidence of God’s promise, of God’s faithfulness, in the rhythmic nature of creation: “For as rain and snow come down from 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 that goes out of 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.”
As people of the Hudson Valley, as a people who live in the midst of God’s most abundant creation, these words, metaphorical though they may be on one level, point to a very real sense of God’s action among us, of God’s continuing action in creation. “For God’s word as expressed here is not just speech; Isaiah shows us God’s word in results, in outcomes—in transformations. God’s word is a word that does things. When God speaks, something comes about.” As hearers of God’s word we are invited, we are called, to participate in that action, in God’s action. We are called to sow the abundance of God’s love.
“Listen,” says Jesus in our Gospel today. “A sower went out to sow.” And thus begins one of Jesus’ best known parables. Best known and perhaps also most theologically rich because of its multiple layers of interpretive possibility: am I the sower? The soil? The fruit of the harvest? Are we all three simultaneously? Through this parable Jesus invites us into God’s action, illuminates for us the call to sow, the call to receive and cultivate, and, ultimately, the call to bear fruit. In essence, we live in the natural cycle of sending out and returning, so beautifully described by Isaiah. But, and there is always a “but,” it’s not so easy. Discipleship is hard. Over the last few Sundays, Jesus has told us as much. The hearers of this parable, in fact, preceded as it is by stories of the shaky faith of his disciples and persecution by the Pharisees who seek to discredit him, and then followed by the account of the people of his hometown rejecting him, the hearers would have been well-aware of the challenges involved in following Jesus. And so, where does that leave us, twenty-first century disciples who know well the hard soil of the world? Who know that creation, though beautiful, can be ruthless, red in tooth and claw as the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson famously described it.
Some of you know that much of my early ministry was in hospital chaplaincy and in reflecting on this parable over the course of the week, I remembered a particular patient I once visited. I was near the end of my shift and had visited everyone who had made requests and followed up with some patients I’d known who had surgery the previous day. I reserved that time in the late afternoon for patients who had been newly admitted, as I liked to make an initial contact as soon as possible and let them know I was there. Usually, that meant assessing the patient’s needs and maybe contacting their own clergy; sometimes I prayed with a patient or family member; sometimes it was nothing more than friendly conversation or even a polite, no thank you, to my visit.
Looking at that through the lens of this parable, you might say I was sowing seeds. Like the sower in the parable you might say I sowed extravagantly. It didn’t matter who the patient was or if they had a religious affiliation or not, I was there to share something of God’s abundant love through my presence. It didn’t matter if the ground was hard, or rocky, or choked with thorns, which it often was, I was there to sow. And this is where it gets tricky because when one does this sort of ministry, day in and day out in a hospital, it’s easy to be lured into thinking we know who might be most receptive to a visit and who isn’t, or to use the language of our parable, who might be good soil.
Well, on this particular day, I stopped at the nurses’ station to inquire about a patient who had been admitted early that morning. I’d noticed his door had been closed most of the day and I wanted to know who was there and learn some details about what had happened. “Oh no, you don’t want to go in there, chaplain,” said the nurse. She explained that he had addiction problems and had overdosed. “Since he woke, he’s been a handful. Very angry,” she said.
Hard ground, indeed. Why cast seed that is not likely to sprout? I wasn’t quite thinking in those terms but I did feel the urge to hold back, maybe go onto the next room where I might be more likely welcomed. And yet, our sower in the parable casts seed about extravagantly, much as God loves extravagantly, no discrimination about where it might fall or who might be worthy to receive. That’s God’s extravagance.
And so I knocked lightly and stepped into the room. Entering, my eyes went to two women seated near the bed. They looked at me expectantly as the patient, a haggard middle-aged man, slowly turned his head to me. “Who are you?” he said sharply. I explained that I was the chaplain and then, before I could say any more, he bellowed, “No, get out!” The two women were silent as I nodded and left the room. My instinct was right, or so I thought.
The next morning when I arrived in my office the light on my phone was flashing that there was voicemail. “You don’t know me,” said the message, “but you came to see my husband and I was there. She said his name and that he had asked me to leave but that she would very much like to speak to me.” What followed over the next couple of weeks was the flowering of a seed that unbeknownst to me had landed just where it needed to be. You see, this woman was very much ready to receive, very much in need of God’s word, of God’s love in action. Though raised in church as a child she had fallen away and now recognized the deep hole in her life. That visit that I almost hadn’t made, that single seed I almost hadn’t cast was the beginning of something new for her.
The abundance of God’s love is what we sow. It is inexhaustible and, like the sower, we are called to scatter it indiscriminately. We never know where it might land but have faith that some will take root and bear fruit—in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. We scatter the seed in our sharing of the spiritual gifts that God gives each of us. That’s our witness to the kingdom. Those are the spiritual fruits of the seed that has been planted in us. The fruits that we cultivate in our worship and in our prayer. The fruits that bring, in the words of Isaiah, new seeds to the sower and bread to the eater.
“For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace.” That is the action, God’s action, to which we are called to participate. “The mountains and hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” That is the abundance, the extravagance of God’s promise to us. Amen.