15th of the Year, 16 July 23
In 2016 we put a new heating system in to St Mary’s. A huge project, costing some £70,000 I seem to recall but a really important investment to look after the building and to ensure we could welcome people throughout the year to worship God in His House. I was pretty worried about how to fundraise for such a large project so I thought of organisations that might be interested in supporting us. Aha, I thought. Isn’t there a local multi-million pound organisation which might be able to make all the difference? If the Spurs - that thing up the road - could just give us £10,000 that would be nothing to them but make a huge difference to us. I wrote and asked. I got a letter back. “Dear Fr Morris … Unfortunately we don’t give money to local projects but please find enclosed a pendant signed by all the team which you could raffle off to raise funds for your project. Yours sincerely &c.” What a mean lot I thought, how mean-spirited, certainly not generous; and I mustn’t turn this into a rant so I’m going to stop there.
But let’s ask ourselves, how generous are we? Indeed, what does generosity even mean? There seem to be three elements to it in dictionary definitions: giving, freely and more than the bare minimum. I might add a fourth element, that we ought to expect nothing back. Generosity often becomes transactional, either in thanksgiving for something received, or in anticipation of something. “Oh thank you so much, that’s really kind. Let me know if there’s I can do to say thank you.” “Well, actually, now you come to mention it…” Something of the generosity of the gift-giving is diminished if we expect something in return.
One of the best bits I think about the image of the Sower which our Lord presents us to us in today’s Gospel is the generosity of the Sower. If we’ve done any sowing of seed it is likely to be a few water cross in a tiny flower pot no bigger than a mug. You place a few seeds in very carefully. You put ten or however many in and all ten of them should hopefully sprout. But that’s certainly not the image of the sower our Lord and the crowds would have had in mind, no. Here was someone with huge quantities of seed, throwing it around a huge field, hurling it. Yes, I’m sure you ensure the whole patch is covered but you’re not placing a seed at a time, one by one or you’d go potty. This image of generosity is picked up elsewhere when our Lord says, “the harvest is rich but the labourers are few,” (St Luke 10:2).
Recall then all the great things God has given us, His richness is providing for us. Enough food, enough time, enough life, enough air, enough light, enough love, enough grace. The selfishness of some will mean there is at times not enough to go round, but we must not lose confidence in the fundamental generosity of God. I’m sure there must be a skill to sowing though it looks pretty straight forward: when to do it, preparing the soil, not treading on what you’ve sown, keeping birds away etc. The Sower is someone who knows what he is doing, in whom we can have confidence. He is a professional. This is true of God even more so. We might wonder why the world has been made in particular way but we must always realise that God has made it in the best way possible.
We know if you give seed particular things - light, water, warmth - it will grow. Yet when we sow seeds there will always be an element of chance, some might and others might not flourish as they’re meant to. Remember with God He already knows how our story ends, how the story of the world ends, how the story of the Church ends. He knows which seeds will sprout and which will be choked by the cares of the world. Time is not unravelling for God, slowly taking unexpected turns which He needs to adjust to. God sees everything in a moment: “a thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone,” goes the hymn version of Psalm 90:4. Something of that purposefulness we heard of from the prophecy of Isaiah is true of how God operates: “the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do.”
However that doesn’t mean we don’t have choice. Rather, it’s a fundamental belief that we do indeed have freedom to choose. God invites us to believe in Him. We are baptised in the majority of cases before we have a chance to say for ourselves whether we want to follow God or not and this in part is an honest recognition that faith is a gift, the relationship the Christian has with God is a gift, not something achieved, not a problem solved, not a question answered, not an accomplishment, but God’s choosing of us and our faithful response. Mary could have said no to the Archangel Gabriel but because God’s grace had been given to her and she had cooperated with it - the handmaid of the Lord - she knew what was told her by the angel was true; she sang God’s praises and became Our Lord’s first follower.
So, that is Christ being the sower. Let’s ask ourselves now what do we sow? How do our actions imitate His generosity, or fail to? A few weeks ago I met a member of the House of Lords. It doesn’t matter who, but he was so charming and kind he could have asked me for anything and I’d have given it to him. To my shame I wouldn’t have thought the same if he’d been a homeless guy and turned up at the Vicarage door. It’s good for us to recognise that there are some people we find it very easy to be generous to: a favourite family member, a best friend, someone with a particular position in the society or in the Church, someone from the same country as us. We go weak at the knees perhaps, or we lose the ability to say no, or we’re incapable of thinking ill of them and we are easily generous towards them. Now, we might have to learn to say no to them lest they be spoilt, but that ability to be generous to some ought to instruct us has to how we should also behave to others. If I can be generous to her, why can’t I be generous to him?
Generosity has to take in to account that we don’t know what people are going to do with what we give them. God does. We don’t. St John Chrysostom, commenting on this parable, observes that it would be daft “to sow seed among thorns, or on stony ground, or by the wayside.” Indeed it would be “But,” he observes, “but with minds and doctrines it is otherwise; there it is possible that the rock be made rich soil, that the way should be no more trodden upon, and that the thorns should be extirpated.” Perhaps the logic of this observation is that just because it might be unwise to entrust certain material things with particular people definitely doesn’t mean we should refrain from sharing with them the Good News of Jesus Christ. We might not give alcohol to an alcoholic but we should share with them the love Jesus has for them and the call He gives to them.
We will be generous, reckless as God is, when we plant seeds in places where it looks like they would ordinarily not grow. After all, our Blessed Lord was from Nazareth and Nathaniel (whom we venerate as St Bartholomew) says when He hears this, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (St John 1:46). It clearly wouldn’t be a place St Bartholomew would have thought would have born fruit or wheat, yet he follows our Lord whose childhood is spent precisely there. Jesus gives similar direction when he says elsewhere, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing then others? Do even the gentiles do the same?” (St Matthew 5:47). I’m surprised to be honest that more people haven’t requested the return of the sharing of the Peace such as we used to do before the Pandemic. I’m glad we’ve not got it back because of the chaos that used to ensue, particularly unhelpful just before we received Holy Communion. It also often struck me as a very good example of restricting our greeting to our friends or those we’d seen before and this was not what it was meant to achieve when it was introduced in the Church of England’s liturgical reforms of the 1970s.
Rather, as God’s people we should be sharing the peace of Christ with those we can’t stand, those who have wound us up the wrong way, those who whom we’ve let down and are ashamed to see again. Being generous to them is the full imitation of the generosity of the Sower. And how often do we refrain from preaching the Gospel because we’ve convinced ourselves it won’t work? “Oh, I’ve tried with them before and it doesn’t work. Oh, no one would listen to me. Oh, no one would read it.” Well, it’s also true of seed placed on rock, on the edge of the path and among thorns and thistles and the Sower still threw them there. We mustn’t then give up on that person. Why not leave Mass Sheets and other invitatory material we distribute on buses or in the chip shop or at the doctor’s surgery? Far better to be be generous like the Sower planting seed where it might not work than to turn God’s work into something narrow and miserly.
For, finally my friends, as St Paul remind the Corinthians, “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully,” (II Corinthians 9:6). This seems to be so often true of people who are unsatisfied in a negative and despondent way with their spiritual lives: unwilling to invest commitment, commitment to prayer, commitment to the Church. They are sowing sparingly, miserly, with no generosity; they ought not to be surprised that they have not united themselves to God’s boundless mercy and measureless love. Let us then as we seek to be imitators of Christ the Sower, recall what generosity looks like: giving, freely, more than the bare minimum and without hope of return.