Friday, July 29, 2005

Wrestling at the Jabbok

In a recent – much argued about – book, New York Times columnist David Brooks coins the term ‘Achievatron’ to describe what makes American society tick.  The Achievatron, Brooks suggests, the engine that drives American culture, is basically the idea that we can all be Superman.  Or Superwoman.  You can have it all, and in fact you should have it all.  There’s something wrong with you if you don’t.  Right from the very beginning of life, Brooks observes, American children are groomed for success – the hyper-competitive Little League is just the beginning, then comes competition for school grades, getting into the right college and the right career, having a big enough house, a big enough 4WD.  Brooks points out a basic contradiction in American society that I think rings just as true here in Australia – that we celebrate wealth, power, strength, bravado, confidence, prestige and victory even though our everyday reality is a mixture of partial success and downright failure, even though deep down we are riddled with self-doubt – even though realistically we know that a whole lot of the time normal life is about feeling vulnerable, being afraid, and knowing that we’re not quite as confident as we’d like to pretend.  This is maybe what gives rise to the cult of celebrity – the almost worship of iconic figures in sport or business – the sense almost of ownership in the way we talk about people like Ian Thorpe or Dick Smith.  We really are that successful, we really are that fast in the water, Thorpie’s doing it for us.  But Brooks is suggesting that the Achievatron is like living in a bubble that sooner or later is going to burst, that the myth of universal success is a fantasy that does more harm than good.  The tall poppy syndrome – cutting down to size yesterday’s heroes who turn out to be not quite so perfect as the hype made them out to be – is maybe the less attractive side of the Achievatron.

A few weeks ago I was intrigued to read that politicians from both sides were starting to seriously woo Sydney churchgoers.  Not a very influential crowd, I would have thought.  And there were Peter Costello and Bob Carr – at different times – addressing this massive congregation at the mega-church that is Hillsong – almost 12,000 people in a huge auditorium.  Apparently politicians of both sides have discovered that the secular gospel of material aspiration strikes a particular chord in some Christian churches – that there is a Christian equivalent to the Achievatron and it goes, if you love Jesus - if you’re really a Christian - then God wants you to be successful and happy and upwardly mobile – and the risk is that our faith becomes shallow, if the only stories we tell ourselves are good news ones then we are in retreat from reality.  In retreat from reality and in retreat from the gospel.

Jacob brings us back to reality with a jolt.  The parables of Jesus that we have been reading over the last few weeks have reminded us in a profound way that God works not just through the wholesome parts of human nature but also through the unwholesome aspects, that God’s in the weeds as well as the wheat.  And right alongside, we’ve been reading through the cycle of stories from the Old Testament that tell how God makes a covenant with a family that becomes a nation, these mythic-sounding stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob which, like the ancient mythology of Greece, describe human personality almost in depth-psychological terms, warts and all, the dangerous desires, the love and the lies of being human.  And the Jacob saga has been reminding us, just like Jesus’ stories, that God works in the shadows of human life just as much as in the light, that God blesses ratbags and that God’s blessings come to fruition in and around the conniving of cheats.  Both disturbing and comforting, if you know what I mean. In spite of Hillsong, God’s blessings aren’t dependent on whether we deserve them, and sometimes they don’t come in the way we think they should.

So, here’s the story to date.  Jacob – whose name means ‘heel catcher’ – the one who takes what belongs to his brother Esau by trickery and who defrauds his father into giving him the inheritance rights and the blessing that should have belonged to his older brother – Jacob is on the run out of town and has a dream in which God appears to him and makes him a remarkable promise.  The God of Abraham and the God of Isaac promises to be the God of Jacob too, even though strictly it isn’t fair.  And doesn’t Jacob know it.  Jacob’s long stopover in Haran with his cunning uncle Laban must have rubbed it in.  What goes around, comes around.  The branch of the family that stayed in the old country turns out to be just as sharp and conniving as the immigrant branch in Canaan, and here Jacob finds himself on the receiving end for a while.  Only for a while, because ultimately Jacob turns out to be the better conman, and at the end of 20 years skips town under slightly forced circumstances to head back home with more wives, concubines, livestock and children than he could ever have dreamed of.  He’s got the Achievatron jackpot, Jacob is now a nomadic lord in his own right. 

But Canaan is where Esau lives.  Going home means running the risk that Esau would still like to get even for that original con that Jacob had been trying to put out of his mind these last 20 years.  And as he gets nearer, Jacob sends out his spies who report back, Esau is coming to meet you with a military force, 400 men.  The old Jacob rises to meet the challenge, first dividing his own caravan into two so if Esau attacks one group the other might get away  Then he starts sending presents, small groups of slaves with sheep, goats, camels, all up over 500 animals, and he instructs the slaves to say, ‘oh, just another small gift from Jacob’.  With any luck, Esau is going to think Jacob is a whole lot more powerful and well-connected than he really is.

But then comes the moment in the middle of the night, when Jacob is all alone.  Even the women and children have been sent across the river towards Esau and an uncertain reception, but for some reason Jacob stays behind by himself.  Could it be that he is afraid?  At any rate, he is clearly dreading the encounter with his brother, and he is preparing himself for the worst.  Have you ever had a night like that, when all your chickens have come home to roost?  Jacob can’t stop thinking about what he did all those years ago – and then, the narrator tells us, a man came to him and fought with him all night.  A matter of fact report, we only gradually become aware that it is God himself who struggles against him.  Is it supposed to be metaphoric, just a symbolic way of saying Jacob is having a sleepless night?  I don’t think so, I think the story is telling us something real, that God is with us at the lowest point, but also that when we struggle, when in the dark places of our own soul we struggle against ourselves we are struggling with the God who takes our struggles seriously, the God who risks something in the outcome of our struggles.  But God never wrestles without a purpose, and for Jacob – as it usually is for us - the issue of the wrestling is his shame, his guilt and his fear.  In her book, ‘Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope’, Benedictine nun Joan Chittister sees Jacob’s struggle as a symbol of the spiritual struggle we all have to endure to become who God intends us to be.  We all need to endure change, isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness, vulnerability and exhaustion.  We all need to struggle in order to be transformed.

It’s a struggle in which, remarkably, God can’t win, even though God’s human partner is wounded and will always afterwards walk with a limp.  You can’t struggle with God and expect to come out unscathed.  Jacob, who seems to have superhuman strength, can’t get the better of God, and surprisingly, God can’t get the better of Jacob either.  Jacob the heel catcher is good at hanging on, and insists on a blessing before he lets go.  Wouldn’t you think he’s had enough blessings already?  But according to Joan Chittister, Jacob does what all of us have to do to become whole.  Jacob knows the blessing he needs, because he has confronted in himself what is wounding him, and the blessing God gives him is a new name – Jacob the heel catcher becomes Israel, the one who contends with God.

This new Jacob is physically crippled, but he’s finally grown up.  He’s no longer damaged.  That’s something the Achievatron doesn’t tell you, isn’t it?  That the wounds you get in life are what transform you, or as St Paul puts it, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness’.  The place where you are broken is the place where you are in contact with God, that part of your life that maybe only you know about, that old failure you’ve spent years overcompensating for, that old grief you can’t forget – turns out to be where you go to wrestle with God.  And it’s a place of blessing.  Where you are wounded is where you go to find the blessing that only you can give.


Friday, July 22, 2005

Hidden treasure, dandelions and yeast

‘Come on’, Jesus says,  ‘Gather round and I’ll tell you a story’.  ‘Another one?’, asks a wrinkled old grandma, ‘we haven’t worked out the last lot yet!’  ‘But these are some of my best ones’, Jesus says.  ‘Ones?  How many have you got then?’  ‘A few’, Jesus admits, ‘but they’re really good.  I promise.’  So they all leave what they’re doing and gather around politely, though to tell the truth there are nets that need mending and children to be fed.

‘This is how God’s kingdom happens, says Jesus, ‘it’s like a man who finds a hidden treasure in a field’.  ‘What sort of treasure?, asks an old fisherman.  ‘I don’t know’, says Jesus.  ‘It doesn’t matter.  Old coins maybe.  Maybe someone buried them there when there were foreign armies around.’  They’re satisfied with that, these things happen from time to time in a land that’s been as fought over as theirs has.  ‘So he covers them up again and goes away and checks his bank balance’. 

‘What – so he can buy the treasure?’

‘No, so he can buy the field’

‘Well, if it isn’t his field, what’s he doing there then?  How did he find it in the first place?’

‘I don’t know’, says Jesus.  ‘You’re not supposed to analyse it, you’re just supposed to listen.   Anyway, maybe he’s just working for the farmer, doing some ploughing or something’

‘What’, says grandma, ‘the kingdom of God is like a labourer who finds something that belongs to his boss and then rips it off?  The kingdom of God’s like being sneaky and dishonest?’  Some of the men are looking a bit uncomfortable, at that.

‘What do you reckon?’, says Jesus.

One of the very best films in the 1980s was the French movie ‘Jean de Florette’.  We first meet the hero – maybe the anti-hero – Ugolin after his discharge from the army, when he returns to the village of his birth to live with the old man who is his only surviving relative – Ugolin has the idea of growing tulips, and so they set about it with frightening energy – these two men are poor, their life is incredibly hard and we watch sympathetically as they tend the small plants with care and even love – but tulips are thirsty and Ugolin and his uncle soon realise they don’t have enough water – just when it looks as though their dream is doomed to failure they stumble on a natural spring on the next-door farm that has been inherited by a city slicker played by Gerard Depardieu – determined to get the rights to the water they block up the spring and watch their new neighbour breaking his heart and ruining his health carrying in water with his little donkey all through the hot summer to keep his crops watered.  Eventually Depardieu’s character dies, and Ugolin and his uncle, playing the concerned neighbours, buy the precious field at a bargain price – the water flows again and in the last scene of the movie the tulips are magnificent.

Is it a positive example of the kingdom, or a negative one?  Does Jesus mean that disciples need to be alert to where God’s grace is breaking into the world – and that when we see it the normal rules just don’t apply?  Nothing else matters, this isn’t the time to be concerned with the niceties.  Just grab the grace and get to heaven!  Or, is it a negative example?  Is the whole point that God’s blessings aren’t blessings at all unless they are opened up for everyone to share?  That springs are meant to flow, not to be blocked up with cement.  If God’s kingdom is about inclusiveness and forgiveness and radical hospitality – where does that leave us when we unexpectedly stumble over God’s blessings in our lives?  Are they for us, or are they for sharing?  Or again, is the whole point that God’s kingdom, when it breaks in on our world, disrupts everything that we thought was fixed and settled?

Jesus says, ‘I’ll tell you another one’.

’Oh’, they say.  ‘Alright’.

‘God’s kingdom is like a farmer who deliberately plants a mustard seed in his field – not the domesticated sort, not Keen’s mustard but wild mustard that’s just about the most pernicious, noxious weed that ever haunted an ancient farmer’s nightmares – God’s kingdom is like somebody who goes out the back and plants dandelions in the lawn, and they spring up healthy and strong, and the snails come and have a field day.

‘Oh’, they say.  ‘We don’t get it’

‘Well try this one.  God’s kingdom is like a woman making bread.  She starts with three kilograms of flour and she only puts a tiny bit of yeast in but it works its way through the whole lump of dough.’

‘Well, we get that one.  That’s easy – just a little bit of God’s grace, or God’s forgiveness or whatever, turns a whole lump of uselessness into a nice big fluffy loaf of bread.’

Small turns into big.  You think the kingdom of God is powerless, you think it’s so small you can’t see it at all, but it turns everything upside down.  Tiny mustard seed – massive tree right in the middle of the paddock.  Couple of teaspoons of yeast – bread rises up twice or three times its size.  God’s grace is transformational – when you catch a glimpse of it – when you see just for a moment where there is some love in a situation that is unlovely, when you catch a glimpse of hope in a situation that you thought was hopeless, and you recognise that as God’s kingdom breaking in – then just watch because something you thought was set in concrete is about to get broken open and transformed into what God always intended it to be like.

Or is it about the mess?  Is it about disorder?  Why else does Jesus say God’s kingdom is like insider trading and sharp practices?  That God’s kingdom is like planting dandelions in your lawn?  And then we notice that this is the only place in the whole of the Bible where yeast seems to be getting a good rap.  Everywhere else in the whole Bible, even when Jesus talks about it – yeast represents rottenness and contamination.  Remember, this is before the days of freeze dry Tandora yeast in little packets, natural yeast is a sort of mould that blows in on the wind and bubbles up and produces nasty smells.  Bread is supposed to stay good and flat like the bread of the Passover that reminds the Jews of how God brought them out of Egypt.  You put a little bit of this messy bubbling yeast in your good flour and it contaminates the lot.  It upsets the apple cart.  You thought you knew what you were getting.  Proper buffalo grass lawn.  Proper lavash bread.  But in comes the wild card, something unexpected, and you get a backyard full of waist-high dandelion, you get a high-rise loaf that – well, actually it smells rather good, but it’s not what you expected.

That’s what God’s kingdom is like.  The world is wracked with terrorism and the clash of ideologies, those who live in the underdeveloped third world don’t have the basics of life while citizens of Western countries have a higher standard of living than ever before.  We haven’t learned to share.  We haven’t learned to trust one another.  Anxiety and fear are epidemic, we look over our shoulders like the tenant farmer wondering whether the cache of ancient coins is going to be a blessing or a curse.  The 21st century has begun badly – and yet we have this moment of extravagant grace when the little girl who was the face of famine in Ethiopia during the 1980s climbs up on a stage in Edinburgh as a beautiful young woman who is studying to be a doctor.  When the whole world stops to listen to the song of peace.  When the whole world stops in solidarity with the victims of global terror, when Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders join together to remind us that life itself is a gift from God.  And God’s kingdom has broken in.  There’s nothing holy about the kingdom of God, if by ‘holy’ we think we mean uncontaminated, set apart, clean and special and reserved for Sunday best.  The kingdom of God – according to the scruffy story-teller wandering around the fishing villages and the farms of Galilee – is busy springing up right in the middle of the most suspect corners of our private lives and forcing its way up like a weed through the cracks in the concrete of our hard-hearted politics.  So tangled up with our own mixed motives and so hidden in the ordinariness of our mundane lives that we don’t even see it.  The kingdom of heaven is hidden because it’s right there in plain view, in the last place we’d expect to find it.

‘Well?’, the people say.  Is that it, then?  These are your best stories?’

‘Yes, that’s it’, Jesus tells them.  ‘Did you understand?’

‘Oh yes’, they assure him.  ‘Absolutely’.

And the people go back to their nets, and to their babies and their wheat-fields, shaking their heads and saying to one another, ‘Many of this man’s stories have a great moral lesson and make a good point, but not these ones’.


Saturday, July 16, 2005

Don't pull out the weeds!

This week we continue with Matthews series of Jesus’ pithy stories that we call parables.  Like the good editor that he is, Matthew weaves them together so seamlessly that each story seems to grow out of the one we’ve just finished – and this week’s story of the weeds gets a very similar treatment to the story we heard last week about the not-so-bright sower who reaps a bumper crop.  But it’s got a very different emphasis, and a very different point.  Where last week the emphasis was on inclusion and surprising abundance, this week we hear the disturbing news that all is not quite right in God’s empire.  God isn’t the only sower.  There is a secret enemy at work.

You can imagine how this story would go over with the peasant farmers in the villages of Galilee.  Weeds are the bane of every farmer’s life – when I was working on the wheatbins as a young university student I quickly discovered that some farms had a major doublegee problem – we had sample books with coloured photographs of every known sort of foreign seed that might contaminate a load of wheat.  Most of the farms in our district produced good clean ‘A’ grade wheat, but I quickly got to know which trucks needed to be checked a bit more carefully and – just once – I had to reject a whole truckload which forced the farmer to drive an extra 40 miles to another wheatbin that could accept his load as ‘B’ grade wheat.  My commentary tells me the weed in question in Jesus’ story was probably darnel – a poisonous plant so closely related to wheat that you can’t tell them apart until the heads mature.  Jesus’ listeners would shudder at that – for ancient farmers without pesticides the only way to deal with weeds was literally to separate them by hand when the harvest was brought in – and I bet it would not have been unheard of for feuding farmers to do a spot of late-night sowing in one another’s fields.

This story resonates with anyone who has ever listened with fascinated half-belief to the latest conspiracy theory.  There’s a sense in which we need to know there’s somebody responsible for what goes wrong, we need to know it’s not just blind chance, there’s a sense in which human beings need to create images of who the enemy is – it’s a mild form of paranoia that helps us to define who we are and who we aren’t.  It’s as though the universe seems more predictable when we divide it into ‘them’ and ‘us’.  You used to hear that the CIA was behind everything.  Nowadays you’re more likely to hear about Islamic jihad movements.  Of course some of the enemies are real, some of the paranoia is justified.  But when it gets too simplified, too black and white, our fearfulness can tip over into prejudice.  Already, in the aftermath of the bombings in the centre of London, media reports from Britain are beginning to tell of backlash attacks against Pakistani residents in the UK.  An enemy did this, we know that all too well.  But are we so good at telling who the enemy is?

But, right here is the surprising thing about today’s parable, and it shocks the farmer’s servants just as much as it shocks anybody who finds it out for themselves, first-hand.  ‘What do you mean, an enemy did this?  Aren’t you supposed to be in control?  The tsunami wasn’t your idea?  Well, whose was it, then?  Who’s running the show if you aren’t?’  Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in the Nazi death camps in 1945, tells us we don’t need an omnipotent and powerful God who could deal with evil but for some reason decides not to – what we do need to believe in is a God who is powerless and vulnerable in our world, a God who continually gets pushed aside, an irrelevant God who always ends up on a cross.  A God who is for us and who chooses to be with us, a God who chooses to share our vulnerability and to suffer with us.  That’s the sort of God we have, if God is like the farmer in the parable of the weeds. 

The problem of the weeds is the perennial problem for people who believe in God.  It seems to have been the problem for Matthew’s struggling community of Jewish Christians at the end of the first century, and it’s the problem for us as we look around the world we live in, and as we look around even inside the church, and we see conflict and hurtfulness, competitiveness, isolation and greed – we see all this and more right where human beings are trying to live out of their best intentions and their most noble motives.  People who aren’t at all religious are often pleased to point out the irony that the world’s religions - which are all based on some appreciation of the spirituality and the value of human life - are also responsible for some of the grossest, most misguided and violent human behaviour.  Political ideologies maybe come a close second.  But the point is well made – right alongside the very best that human beings are capable of flourishes the very worst that we can do.  The weeds are growing right alongside the wheat.

The weediness that particularly concerned Matthew’s community was the problem of purity.  Who was going to be regarded as belonging and who wasn’t?  Did you have to keep to the Jewish food laws?  Did male converts have to be circumcised?  Maybe the problem of weediness for the Christian community in the 21st century is not so far removed.  Who’s in and who’s out?  What about people who belong to non-Christian faiths, or to the large number of people in our Western society who claim to have no faith at all?  Are they included in the circle of God’s love?  What about people inside the Church who challenge the traditional models of family life, what about gay people?  Should homosexual Christians have full communicant membership of the church, should they be allowed to hold teaching positions in the church?  What about people who don’t hold to the same beliefs about God that I have always held on to?  Does God reject them if they don’t believe the right things about God?  And the sad thing is that, all down through the ages, the Church has said the same thing to God: should we be pulling out the weeds, God? 

But the parable seems to suggesting we shouldn’t.  That’s not the same thing as saying that we should avoid confrontation or that we shouldn’t resist evil – but it does mean that we should always be inclusive.  ‘Never write people off’, is what Jesus is saying here.  ‘Leave the weediness of other people to God’.  And because this story follows straight after the story of the sower we also hear him saying, ‘don’t worry!  It’s still going to be a bumper crop’.  Well, but how’s that?  If God isn’t as much in control as we’ve always wanted to believe, how can we be so sure all this is going to come out right? 

The great psychologist, Carl Jung, would have loved this story.  You see, Jung believed that we each have a part of the unconscious that he called the Shadow, the part of ourselves where we push all the things that we don’t want to know about, things like unexamined greed, selfishness and inappropriate desire.  Things that our conscious minds have learned are not acceptable.  But Jung says they’re there all the time, that we spend a good deal of energy pretending that they’re not, pushing the lid back on them – and that what human maturity is about, is learning to integrate our conscious selves with the parts of ourself that we are normally unconscious of - in other words, Jung suggests that both light and shadow are at home within us, woven together into the very stuff of being human – or as Jesus’ parable suggests, that the weeds and the wheat are entwined at the very level of their roots – and that is the level at which God works on us.  Don’t pull out the weeds – they’re part of how you’re made.

Unfortunately, Matthew’s interpretation of the story – pretty standard judgement day sort of stuff that was very popular at the time – tries to nail tightly shut what Jesus’ parable has left tantalisingly open.  You might remember I suggested last week that Bible scholars doubt the explanations of this parable, and the parable of the sower, really go back to Jesus.  They might be more about how the early church wanted to interpret Jesus’ stories.  And the reason in this case is that Matthew’s interpretation seems to suggest God doesn’t want to be inclusive after all.  God doesn’t really want to work with us in all our contradictoriness and all our weediness, God’s love and compassion is just an interim thing until the Day of Judgement comes, and then - wham!  It’s just a matter of timing, the weeds get good and pulled up in the end.  I think this explanation is OK, insofar as it says that the end God has in sight brings everything together for good – both our weeds and our wheat.  And it’s an interpretation that reminds us about our accountability, that in the end we do need to answer to God for whether or not we are fruitful, whether or not grow in the way that God intends for us.  But it’s an interpretation we need to be careful of – an interpretation that has the potential to feed into our desire to be judgemental, to pull out a few weeds after all – and it’s an interpretation that we should never focus on so much that we overlook the most important point of the story – don’t pull out the weeds!  They are part of the field that God is working in – quietly, lovingly, and in ways we haven’t dreamed of.


Friday, July 08, 2005

The Parable of the Not-So-Bright Sower

At the very end of JRR Tolkien’s wonderful book, Lord of the Rings, the hobbit Sam Gamgee comes home from the war to find his beloved home in the Shire has been laid waste.  Everything that was wholesome and good about the Shire has somehow been twisted and made ugly.  And so the hobbits set about putting things back to rights.  And Sam takes out his greatest treasure – the little box of magical elfin seeds that the great elf queen has given him – and instead of planting each one carefully in his garden, as everybody expected, he goes up the highest hill he can find and throws the delicate seeds into the wind, in great big handfuls, trusting that the wind will take it where it can do the most good.  And so it does.

Today we begin the 13th chapter of Matthew’s gospel where we find a wonderful collection of the stories we call parables, the sort of vivid stories that Jesus probably came up with as he walked through the villages of Galilee and observed people going about their everyday lives.  Stories that most of us probably know almost off by heart, and we know also that Jesus uses these stories to spring his listeners’ minds open, to surprise us into seeing something familiar from an unfamiliar angle – and we know Jesus’ stories are intended to make a point about what God is like, and what God’s point of view is like, but increasingly Bible scholars have had to conclude that Jesus’ parables never seem to have a single obvious meaning – but always seem to mean something a bit different depending on how you look at them. 

You know how fairy stories always seem to start with ‘once upon a time’? – for Jesus the opening line is ‘God’s kingdom is like this …’  Always the kingdom of God, in Greek, God’s basileia – when we hear it we don’t quite get how in your face it was to go around telling stories that start with the words, well, God’s empire is like this – but in first century Palestine there was only one empire and that was Rome.  To speak of another empire was a political act, it was not healthy.  Yet Jesus does it, Jesus tells stories about the "empire of God" - an empire directly in contrast to the empire of Rome.  Maybe that’s why these disturbing stories needed to be obscure, because they carried a different vision of how things could be, and a different vision of what mattered, and that’s what made them dangerous.

Unfortunately, in our own time, the danger in these stories often seems to be that they are not surprising enough.  They’re too familiar, and our minds jump too quickly to the punchline and to what years of churchgoing have taught us they mean.  But the peasant farmers and the fishermen and the housewives of Galillee didn’t have that problem – when a good storyteller wandered into town the whole village would get out there to listen, to argue over the storyline and judge how good it was – and today’s story falls flat on its face in the first line.

‘That’s not how you sow seed!’  [a bit like that ad for instant porridge a few years ago where the little Scottish boy looks on incredulously and says, ‘tha’s no how ye mak porridge] You’ve got to know something about farming methods in the ancient world, in this little corner of the Middle East that wasn’t very fertile, that had notoriously unreliable rainfall, where farmers lived a hand to mouth existence at the best of times – you don’t waste your seed-grain – it’s all you’ve got to keep from starving next winter – in a good season when you risk the last of your grain you might get back ten times what you planted – or you might lose the lot – even modern farmers sometimes decide not to risk it at all, not to plant their seedgrain if the rains haven’t come – but this sower just goes out and flings it round him, scattering it on the path and in the rocky, barren corners where nothing has ever grown.  Not where we come from, you hear them saying – you’re never going to get a harvest like that.  So, what’s with this sower?  Doesn’t he know any better?

But when Jesus explains it all to the disciple afterwards, it’s all about the soil.  Now the funny thing is that this parable and the parable about the weeds and the wheat are the only ones that Jesus explains – and this seems so out of the ordinary that many Bible scholars believe that this might have been the early church’s interpretation of the parable, not Jesus’ own words.  But it’s become the standard way of unpacking the story – are you good deep soil with plenty of nutrients so God’s Word can take root in you, or are you not listening deeply enough, are you going to give in when persecution comes, are you going to get distracted from the Word by the cares and responsibilities of everyday life?  It’s an interpretation that focuses on the individual responsibility of disciples – it sounds a warning that we have to do some work of our own here – because it’s possible to hear the Word and not be transformed by it! 

Maybe we need to stay at this level for a bit.  It’s really a very good metaphor for the inner life, after all.  Because it’s about doing the inner work, it suggests something about the need to explore our own depths, to turn the soil over and dig in the compost and the manure – it suggests there’s something organic about learning to be a receptive disciple, and it suggests the value of the earthy, formative experiences of human life, the experiences of intimacy and hard work and mess. 

It’s also possible that focusing on how ready the soil is to receive the seed might also have been a word of consolation for the early church as they began finding out that not everyone everywhere was going to welcome the gospel – ‘fell among the thorns, didn’t stand a chance!’ – and of course a word of consolation which today’s church also gratefully receives.  It seems to caution us to be careful where we risk the treasures of the gospel.  But before we seize on that explanation too eagerly we need to remember the sower who scatters the precious seedgrain just anywhere and everywhere.

You see, like Sam Gamgee, God is a wasteful, a profligate sower – the seeds that God chucks around are not just scattered on well-tilled or receptive patches of ground – in fact when we look at the story from the sower’s point of view we hear an echo of the parable of the sun and the rain that falls on the unjust as well as the just – the point that is being made, I think, is that God’s blessings are utterly indiscriminate and God’s economy is not sensible like ours – or, perhaps is the point that we are not really going to know which patches of dirt are fertile until we throw the seed on them?  Is it possible that we’re not so good at telling where the fertile ground is?  Could it be that we plant in the same places year after year until the ground is worn out, even though it still looks deep and black, and we miss out on sharing in God’s harvest because of the ground we overlook?

Last weekend in Melbourne I was one of four Anglicans amongst a crowd of five hundred at the Forge National Summit, and I found myself feeling deeply challenged – uncomfortably so at times – and energised by the discussion on what is being called incarnational mission.  Incarnational just means that we notice what God has done in Jesus and we try to do the same thing – we see that in Jesus God has become immersed in our world and in our culture, because that after all is the only way we can really see what God is like and what God intends for human life.  So living incarnationally means living as Christians within a secular society - like for example the large, tattooed and rather scary looking man at the conference who saw more value in living as a Christian bikie in the bikie sub-culture, than in trying to get bikies along to church.  Some of the imaginative ways of being church in unusual places that are being discussed at Forge are a real challenge to what mainstream churches are doing.  In other ways it affirms what we’ve always known, deep down – that we are in mission when we are living as Christians in the society we happen to find ourselves, living intentionally as salt and light.  Conversations like the one at Forge make us look again at the secular culture we live in, a basically pagan culture of individualism and consumerism – and ask ourselves again - is it rocky ground or fertile?  Should we be in retreat from it, or do we need to live more fully within it?

Which brings us to the point of view of the seed, and the most surprising thing of all about this story for the peasant farmers of Galilee.  Because this not-so-bright sower reaps a bumper crop – in fact, better than a bumper crop, an unheard of, an outrageously over-the-top return – yes, the story says, when you live incarnationally and take the risk of sowing your seed just all over the place you’re going to lose some, but these aren’t just your ordinary seeds.  Like Sam Gamgee’s magical elfin seeds, these ones are going to surprise you.  It’s a good word for Matthew’s discouraged church at the end of the first century, and it’s a good word for us.  Jesus is telling us that God’s Word does not fail.  Like Sam Gamgee, you give away the little you’ve got, you take by the handful and you throw it on the wind and trust in the one who gave it to you – a surprising claim, don’t you think? coming from a prophet who thinks that God’s empire is springing up within us and all around us – but who is about to find out that the only empire with the power to determine the success or failure of his mission is Rome?

Or is it a true claim?  Is it a claim that we ourselves can rely on?