Sunday, 16 July 2023
Marion Chatterley. Vice Provost
Without the Sower, there wouldn't be a story.
This morning’s Gospel is one that many of us know, have probably heard lots of sermons on, and might, perhaps, even quote from time to time. We know it as the parable of the Sower, and yet the unpacking – both within the passage of Scripture and in many sermons I’ve heard, makes it into the parable of the seeds. The Sower doesn’t get much of a look in. He or she was out there doing their work, creating the scene within which the parable unfolds, but can easily be overlooked, as though they were almost incidental to the story.
We live in a society that, perhaps more than at any time in the past, values certain professions and tasks over others. Proud parents tell people about their child who is now doing something considered to be prestigious, while other parents keep quiet about the less glamorous, but potentially equally or even more important role that their child performs.
I got to know some of the road builders who worked on the cycle path at Manor Place – hardly surprising when I walked past them several times a day.
They were doing an important job, a job that many of us simply wouldn’t manage, and a job that no-one, including them, appeared to value. It seemed to me that much of their work was very skilled – cutting stone to size; building ramps and accessible kerbsides. But it was what they did and they didn’t think too much about it. Their chat was all about looking towards their days off, rather than taking pride in what they were doing. They were almost invisible as a workforce – despite the high vis vests – because manual labour isn’t something that we value highly in our society.
It's easy to overlook entire sections of the workforce, perhaps a majority of the overall workforce, because some people do tasks that are neither glamorous or particularly well-paid. And yet, without people doing those jobs, the infrastructure of our communities would grind to a halt.
So let’s turn our attention to the Sower and the task before them. I guess that the sower was a farm worker who did all sorts of tasks depending on season and weather and what was needed. And the day we’re focussing on was a day for sowing seed. I want to imagine a contemporary sower – I imagine someone with their ear buds firmly in, their music filling their head and the task of sowing becoming almost a mindless activity. My (admittedly rather romanticised) image is of someone walking up and down with a basket full of seed and throwing it this way and that. Now I do know that modern agriculture uses machines and robots to fulfil this kind of task, but my sower is on a small holding or something similar where the jobs are all manual. I told you this was a rather romanticised picture – but just indulge me for a moment. Suppose we ask our sower to turn off their music and to just focus on the task at hand – to give that all of their attention. Will they choose only to sow in the fertile ground? Will they risk throwing some amongst the thorns? What about the seed that is blown by the wind? Or picked up by birds. The overall placement of seed may be no different in the end, but the process of sowing has taken on a different hue.
The sowing has become intentional rather than incidental; it requires decision making with each handful of seed – to throw or not to throw; to sprinkle thinly or generously; to compete or not with what might already be emerging from some patches of ground. Whether any particular decision was good or not will only become apparent some considerable time later.
Let’s now think about the times and ways when we are like the Sower. Perhaps there are situations when we feel that what we have done or offered has been overlooked or taken for granted. We perhaps see other people’s gifts being valued in a way that ours appear not to be. Inevitably, there are times when what we do happens without us really thinking about it. Especially those repetitive and routine tasks that don’t demand much of us. We can find ourselves almost mindlessly going through the motions, perhaps being rather surprised when we discover that the task has been completed.
And then there are times when we have choices about where to put our attention. Times when we can make decisions about where to place the seeds of energy and hope that have been gifted to us. Decisions about where to focus our attention – when to turn the music off and simply concentrate on the matter at hand. To what extent are we able to make those decisions intentional rather than incidental?
Without the Sower there wouldn’t be a story.
There is a skill to sowing efficiently – to making choices that give the seed the best possible chance to flourish. To think about timing and placement – to focus on the process.
In our lives we can choose whether to pay attention to whatever we are engaged in doing. Where we allow our words and actions to fall. Whether we are focussed on the music in our ears or the environment that we inhabit. Whether we are intentional in what we do or distracted by other things and mindless in our activity. I think that we can be quick to tell ourselves that we always favour fertile ground, that we do our best to use our energy and our gifts wisely – but do we really?
I want to suggest that there is a temptation to see the rich and fertile ground and to find that we are passing it by. Our default can often be to choose the stony or thorny ground. We undervalue ourselves in the same way that many people’s work is undervalued, and so we undervalue what we have to offer, undervalue the unique giftedness that we have. We can get into a mindset of thinking that the things we find difficult have more value than those that come easily. There’s something in the Scottish mindset that encourages that kind of thinking.
What we need to remember is that we are not the seed. We are the means by which the seed, that which has potential to bring positive change, is liberated and given an opportunity to flourish. Our role is to take seriously the task before us, to pay it some attention, and then to allow God to do what God does – to nourish and nurture – to send the rains and the sun and to then step back and give space for growth to happen. Without the Sower there wouldn’t be a story. Without us and other people who have faith, who trust and hope, the future will be even harder. There is a task to be done.