I have an ancestor named Samuel Provoost who was the first
Episcopal Bishop of New York. I feel that I can talk about him without
appearing to brag, because by all accounts I have read he was not a particularly
appetizing fellow. History records, for example, that he hated Samuel
Seabury, who was the Episcopal Church's first bishop.
Provoost was plotting to run Seabury out of the church at an early General
Convention, but God smote Provoost with the gout and thus foiled his nefarious
plans. One of the most distinguished histories of the Episcopal Church
describes my venerable ancestor by saying, "As a bishop he made a good
That does put Bishop Provoost ahead of me, for as a bishop -- or as
anything else for that matter -- I am no horticulturist at all. Anything
I know about growing things is something I have picked up from my study
of the Bible.
And, of course, most of that information is metaphorical and poetic,
rather than practical in any direct sense. When Israel moved into
the promised land after Moses died -- around 1300 or 1400 B.C. --
they began a gradual shift away from their wandering, animal-based economy
to a more settled agricultural model.
It is for that reason that we hear the prophets in the Hebrew Bible
as well as Jesus and St. Paul in the New Testament using agricultural
and planting imagery to talk about the things of God. For example,
St. Paul's most sustained and direct teaching about the resurrection
of the body uses a horticultural image.
He says that the resurrection of the flesh is comparable to the planting
of a seed. A seed has to go into the ground and die before it can
sprout up as a plant and bear fruit. In the same way, we place dead
physical bodies in the ground so that later on at the last day they can
blossom forth as resurrected spiritual bodies.
Our gospel today uses an image taken from planting to describe the different
sorts of responses people make to God's word. It is not the most
difficult story in the world to figure out in the first place, and, as
he does only rarely, Jesus goes on to give an explanation of what the parable
The fundamental idea is that the word of God is like seed. A sower
would go out with a bag of seed and toss the seed on the ground as he walked
along. He did not place the seed carefully, he broadcast it instead.
That meant that the seed would fall onto different types of ground --
different in their likelihood of being a place where the seed might take
root and grow. Seed that fell by the wayside, or fell on dry rock,
or fell among thorns and weeds would be lost. Seed that fell on good
ground would spring up as fruitful plants.
Jesus is telling us that that is exactly the way God's showing himself
in the world plays out. God sows the seed of his word in various
different ways. He shows himself to us through the things that happen
in our everyday experiences -- both in the dramatic and in the not-so-dramatic.
He sows his seed quite specifically through the church -- in sermons and
in the sacraments and in prayer and in Bible study and in our relationships
with our fellow Christians.
And the reality is that some people respond to God and other people
don't. Some people try to lead lives which are focussed upon God
and the church; other people are lukewarm and half-baked in their commitment;
other people get going with God, but then difficulties arise, and they
cannot sustain their faith; others just drift away, because they allow
other things to get in the way.
It is certain that Jesus wants us to try to be as good ground as we
can possibly make ourselves be. That fits the Pre-Lenten theme of
spiritual discipline -- last week we heard about the discipline of the
athlete, this week we look at the cultivation of our hearts.
Being good, cultivated ground means being receptive -- looking for God's
activity in our lives, trying to understand everything that happens to
us in terms of his unfolding plans and purposes, wanting the life-giving
seed of his word to take root in us and grow.
What lies behind the parable of the sower is a passage from Isaiah.
God is talking about the snow and the rain: they come down from heaven,
but they don't go back. They have work to do on earth, which is to
help produce food. In the same way the word of God comes down from
heaven, but it doesn't go back either -- it too has work to do on earth.
"For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth
not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud,
that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: so shall my
word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void,
but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the
thing whereto I sent it."
The seed which is God's word has a purpose. And the purpose is
to help us grow up into fully mature human beings -- to grow up into Jesus
-- what St. Paul calls "the measure of the stature of the fulness
of Christ." Wayside, rock, thorns, or good ground? It is all up to you.