The Sower: Proper 10 (Pentecost 8)

Van Gogh's The SowerVincent Van Gogh’s painting, “The Sower and the Setting Sun” played a very special role in my ministry. The artist wrote frequently that it was his first effort to use extravagant, bold, contrasting color to express emotion. You can almost feel the heat of the sun beating out from the canvas. You experience the exhaustion of the strong farmer who appears against the sunset as a black shadow with his arm flung out, scattering seed.

The painting hung in my office for 35 years. You probably would not have noticed it. It was deliberately placed behind visitors, but in a place where I was almost forced to look at it. If I looked up from my desk, there it was. If I was counseling someone, there it was. every time I noticed it, I thought of today’s parable and its message. Even more I remembered my wife’s message as she hung it.

It was way back at the beginning of my ministry. I ran into a tremendous problem with the Church Council. At least, I think it was tremendous. Like most of the things I worried about in the past, I cannot remember what it was. As usual, I came home ranting and raving, complaining about their lack of creativity and my profound insights. At least, I think I had profound insights. Like most of the great ideas I had in the past, I can’t remember.

I do remember I upset my wife. And I do remember her storming into my office the next morning with a hammer, a nail, and the Van Gogh painting. She chose a place where I would have to look at it, banged it into the wall, turned, and proclaimed rather forcefully, “You are a sower. Nothing more, nothing less; a sower. Please remember that.” And with that, she turned her back and walked out the door.

I do remember her words. Often I have stopped in the middle of a crisis to repeat them, “You are a sower. Nothing more, nothing less; a sower. Please remember that.”

Obviously Faith Ann was teaching me an important lesson about Christian ministry All ministers, whether clergy or laity, are simply God’s sowers. Like the farmer spreads the seed, trusting that God provides the rain and sun to make it grow and bear fruit, so we spread God’s Word in the world in faith that God provides the Holy Spirit to bring his kingdom of love and peace. We make our offering and allow Go to do what he wants with our gift. We do our job and leave the rest in God’s hands.

Being a sower and nothing more has many implications. It means we are realistic. Only one fourth of the seed bore fruit. It means we don’t judge our lives by our own personal achievements. We sow as part of a community who works together to bring God’s beloved community. We might not even be around when the seed bears fruit. Others might reap what we sow. It means we follow Johann Sebastian Bach’s motto, For the glory of God alone”, trusting that His word never returns empty, that God can make our work part of something ultimately significant. That is enough.

Sometimes we do not even remember sowing the seed. One of the joys of retirement is having someone come up to ask, “Do you remember when you told me this or do you remember when you preached that?” Often my reply is, “No, I have no recollection of that at all.”

“Well, I remember. It changed my life.”

Of course, that happens to all of the elderly, not just pastors. One of the bonuses of a long life is sometimes having the joy seeing some of your seeds bear fruit.

Sometimes we do not even know we planted seed. One of my favorite stories is about Glenn Richie. The wife of an alcoholic had asked me to come by. Her husband was a wonderfully talented man, but booze was destroying his life. She loved him, but felt he had to leave him for her own sanity and in hopes that her leaving would shock him into recovery. At the same time, she was afraid it might have another effect. He might give up and kill himself. So we talked as she packed her bags and walked out the door.

The husband assured me there was no danger of his suicide. Glenn Richie kept him alive. No matter how bad he was doing when he saw Glenn Richie, he was inspired to become a better person. He wanted to be like Glenn Richie.

Glenn Richie, like the alcoholic, was a member of my congregation. In fact, he was a Council person. The next time I was with him, I wanted to let him know what an important witness he was making in the alcoholic’s life. Glenn looked very puzzled and finally responded, “Who? I don’t know any one by that name.” After some thought he thought, maybe the alcoholic was in his Monday night bowling league on another team. Glenn was not aware in any way that he was playing a role in the guy’s life. The story goes back 45 years. It has always reminded me that we never know who we are influencing. People watch us as witnesses to the faith even when we are not aware. We are planting seeds without knowing it.

The parable plays an important role in Jesus’ teaching. It is the first one he tells in the Gospel. It also plays a central role in television ministry. It is absolutely the number one theme of televangelists. Sadly, they totally pervert Jesus’ message. Televangelists use it in terms of “seed money,” claiming sending offering to them is like sowing seeds that will bear fruit. If we send “seed money” to their ministry, God will provide a miracle to solve whatever problems we have– health, financial, family.

Of course, even a cursory reading reveals the parable has nothing to do with this kind of “seed money.” Christians sow so others benefit. In fact, Jesus warns that the very things that the televangelists promise prevent the true Gospel seed from growing: fear of persecution, obsession with worldly cares, and the lure of wealth.

We are all sowers. Nothing more, nothing less. We sow, God provides the growth. Jesus promises he will produce tremendous growth– mustard seeds become great bushes, ordinary seed renders a hundred fold harvest. That is crucial to hear in a world that reels in fear because of a long and fruitless war, a faltering damaged economy, a selfish often immoral society. We continue to sow in this world of broken families, broken lives, and broken hearts confident that eventually God will produce the community of peace and love the whole world craves.

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