Sunday 18 August 2013

Sowing the seed

Address given at the annual ecumenical service of thanksgiving for the Lough Derg Yacht Club Regatta on Sunday 18th August 2013.

Every year members of the Lough Derg & Loug Ree Yacht Clubs join with friends from near and far to share time together sailing on the Shannon, in competition but also in friendship and love. It is a great blessing. And it is very right that participants should also join together to give thanks to God for blessing them in this way. The Regatta Service has been held annually for more than 70 years. It is a lovely tradition, and one I hope will continue for many years to come.

Do you find it difficult to remember the point of a sermon you’ve just heard, 5 minutes later?
I do - it’s as if what goes in one ear comes straight out the other! But I do remember one sermon preached by Stephen White, then the Dean of Killaloe, at a Regatta Service like this one several years ago.

He likened our different Christian traditions to a flotilla of yachts racing on the lake. We may look as if we’re sailing in different directions as we tack to find better air, but we are all sailing to the best of our ability to reach the same mark – which is God’s heavenly kingdom. Stephen was not a sailor, and may not have intended it, but I had to laugh when I thought of all the shouting and roaring which so often goes with racing, whether it’s the crew arguing about tactics, or shouts of ‘Starboard!’ or ‘Water’ to other competitors. How like our different churches so much of the time!

The point I took from his sermon is that we are all sailing the same race together, and there is so much more that unites than divides us. I remember it of course because the image Stephen conjured up was so vivid and familiar, and appropriate to the time and place.

Jesus was also a master of the vivid, familiar and appropriate image to make his words stick.
Let us enter in our imagination the scene of the reading from Mark 4:1-9 we have just heard, what we now call the ‘Parable of the Sower’.

So many people wanted to listen to Jesus that he used a boat as a pulpit to address the crowd on the beach. The beach was on a lake, the Sea of Galilee. I’ve never been there, but I see it in my minds eye as rather like Lough Derg: it’s about 40% larger in area, and wider but not so long. Imagine the people crowded on the beach at Dromineer, and Jesus in a lake boat talking to them.

Did Jesus see a man sowing in a nearby field? Perhaps this prompted the parable, and everyone could literally see what he was talking about. The sower wouldn’t be using a seed-drill; he would be broadcasting the seed by hand, just as our ancestors would have done only 150 years ago. The seed would be in a bag or a basket, and he would walk steadily up and down the field, taking a handful of seed and throwing it out as evenly as he could. Even at a distance it would be quite clear to everyone what he was doing: they had seen it hundreds of times before, and many had done it themselves.

And Jesus describes just what the crowd can all see:
§         Imagine a big field divided like allotments into strips farmed by different families, with paths between them, beaten down hard by the passage of many feet. The crowd can see the birds following the sower swooping down to gobble up the seed that inevitably falls on the path, for all the sowers skill.
§         Everyone would understand that different parts of the field are of different quality.
§         Some parts would be stony. Don’t imagine small pebbles - imagine great sheets of rock just under the surface, with just a few inches of soil on top. The soil above the rock would warm early, and the seeds would germinate quickly, but without a depth of soil the young seedlings would soon run out of nutrients and water and shrivel up in the sun.
§         Some parts of the field would be infested with perennial weeds: imagine scutch grass and creeping thistle, which would quickly outgrow the delicate crop, choking it.
§         But other parts of the field would be good land, with a deep, clean soil. Here the crop would have nutrients and water enough, and little competition. It will flourish and produce a harvest of thirty, or sixty, or a hundred times the grain sown on it.

‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ Jesus finishes.
·        But when the crowd has left his disciples are still uncertain what he meant – as we are so often uncertain. So Jesus interprets it for them himself, in the passage that follows - perhaps to reassure them that they do indeed understand what he is getting at.
·         The seed sown on the path is the word spoken, but not understood. Satan snatches it away, before it ever has the chance to sprout.
·         The seed sown on rocky ground is the word received with joy, but by a person with shallow roots, without character, whose initial enthusiasm cannot withstand trouble or persecution.
·         The seed sown among thorns is the word heard by those who are so trapped by worldly cares and the lure of wealth that they cannot act upon it.
·         And the seed sown on good soil is the word heard by those who understand it, and act upon it. Only such people will yield a harvest of good.

The point of Jesus’ sermon is just the same as it was on that lake shore 2000 years ago.
If we are to be the good people God wants us to be, we need to cultivate our characters so that as good soil we yield a rich harvest.

Each one of us has to develop the character traits of attention, persistence, and concentration. Attention so that we do not miss God’s call when it comes. Persistence so that we can withstand opposition when we answer God’s call. And concentration so that the cares of the world and the pursuit of wealth do not distract us from acting on God’s call.

And I suggest these 3 marks of character are also needed by any winning sailor. Attention to the wind, the water and other boats. Persistence to overcome temporary setbacks. And concentration to make the most of the conditions we encounter.

I was never a winning sailor, as most of you know. But my prayer for every one of us is that we may never cease striving to build up our character – our powers of attention, persistence and concentration - so that we may be better sailors - and more like the people God wants us to be.

May you have fair weather and good sailing in the year ahead!

No comments: