In today's Gospel lesson Jesus is having a problem that I would love to have--that when I preach on Sunday morning the crowds would be so great that I would have to sit out on a boat to avoid being consumed by the growing congregation on the shore.
But while I know that this is not the problem of many churches in our denomination or other members of the mainline this Sunday morning, in my church, like so many churches, there was once the problem of not having enough space.
As a seminary student, I learned that church growth is a slippery concept, that it's elusive and can't be simply tracked back to one reason or cause. We want facts, though, things that we can do or change, forces that we can control. We see that some churches prosper when led by certain preachers, or that those churches with a certain theology or worship style attract people, packing worship services with excited young adults, and we begin to wonder what we're doing wrong.
I grew up in a church that grew dramatically, especially under the care of one particular senior pastor. While this man was the senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Marietta, membership increased in ways you wouldn't believe, to the point that the sanctuary that had housed the congregation for most of their 150-year history had to be replaced by one that could hold more than double what the old one did, as membership increased into the thousands.
In so many ways I was intimidated when my former pastor asked me to lunch after graduating seminary. For me, as a child who had witnessed the church grow and expand, this man was larger than life, surely the most intimidating model for ministry I could imagine. After lunch I asked him what words of advice he had for a young man seeking a call to a church. I asked something like, "As far as having a successful ministry goes, your time at First Presbyterian can't really be beaten. What's your secret?"
He said, as he looked me dead in the eye with a gaze I had to look away from, "Joe, you have to know what is in your control and what isn't, and when it comes to being a minister, there isn't really that much that is in your control.
In him I saw a man who had earned the right to pat himself on the back, but then I realized I was face to face with a man who knows the wisdom of the parable of the sower.
In this parable, we hear about a farmer who has gone out to sow seed. The farmer seems careless, sowing seed along the path where birds would eat it up, on rocky places where the plants would sprout quickly but with shallow roots that the sun would scorch, other seed scattered among thorns that would outgrow the plants and choke them out--seed going all these places besides its intended destination, among the good soil.
This parable describes a farmer, but surely not a farmer who knows what he's doing. There is no mention of plowing the field, irrigating or fertilizing it. The farmer carelessly sows seed without thinking much about the maximum yield of his field, depending on a miracle for any kind of harvest at all.
Modern farmers don't depend on miracles; they plan ahead, plowing, irrigating, and fertilizing--minimizing waste by sowing with some precision, recognizing that minimizing waste means maximizing profit.
But Jesus admires this less economical farmer, and he interprets his parable far away from the crowds so that only the disciples hear, the disciples, who, in a way, are like sowers, sowing the Good News of the Kingdom of God. To them, those who would soon be entrusted with spreading the Gospel to all the earth, Jesus offers a parable about a farmer who sows seed and leaves the rest up to God.
My pastor knew that First Presbyterian Church grew not because of him, but because the seed he sowed fell on good soil, in a city booming with young families looking to the suburbs for a place to raise their kids. That the church he served grew because the city the church served grew; and though he and the church did their job of casting out seed, the harvest was plentiful because of many factors that were completely out of their control, saying something like: "Marietta was growing, Joe. All I had to do was keep the doors open and not screw up."
Like modern farmers, we do our best to control everything that we can. We maximize the soil's fertility, adding in Miracle-Gro ourselves, doing our best not to leave too much of the process up to chance or up to God.
When we seem to be successful, the temptation is to take credit for a job well done; and when we seem to struggle, we assume we have done something wrong, we haven't planned enough. We want to maximize our yields, minimize our waste, and with the opportunity to control more and more, to know more and more, we run the risk of forgetting that ours is a vital, but ultimately small, part of the great miracle God has been doing in our world since the dawn of creation.
Our seed must be sown or there will never be a crop, but by no means is the harvest all up to us. We must sow the seeds, but we must also trust that what will grow will grow and what doesn't is out of our control.
Our world is changing, and I, like many of you, am worried about the future of the Church.
I worry about the world we are living in--what, according to too many Christians is a culture of drugs and greed, filling young men and women with apathy, cynicism--eating up seeds of hope and truth like birds to seeds sown along the path.
I worry about the soil--that too many in our communities are unresponsive to the Gospel, as hardened to the church as the rocky places that have no use for seeds of faith.
I worry about the shallow faith of others who have not left the Church but have left the mainline for holograms of preachers offering clearly-communicated moral lessons at best and a gospel of prosperity at worst. I worry about what will come of, what seems to me, a shallow faith or the lonely faith of those who are spiritual but not religious. When the sun comes up, will their belief be scorched and wither into nothing?
I worry about the thorns of our world--knowing what forces will take over to strangle humanity should the faithful fade away. A world left to ambition, the reckless pursuit of wealth with no regard for the common good--surely without the Church, too many would be left to the thorns that grow up and choke, first the poor, the oppressed, then us all.
But Jesus doesn't call our attention to the seed that is lost. "Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop--a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Let anyone with ears listen!"
Jesus entrusted twelve people with the future of the church, twelve people who launched a campaign that changed the whole world while the mainline church in the United States is consumed by worries. This image of the sower is not an image of worry. So why does the mainline church in the United States seem consumed by worries?
More and more, either having experienced rejection or just fearing it, we are reluctant to reach out to people in love though we so desperately want to--as though our hands are cold despite our warm hearts. We are reluctant to reach out in love, to cast seeds of hope, to invite friends to worship in our communities of faith.
We are reluctant, as though we already knew how our offer would be received, though the only thing that guarantees the rejection of what we have to offer is keeping the seed in our hand, never casting it out into the world.
Rather than cast concerned eyes on our world wondering where all the good Christians moved off to, the parable of the sower calls you to trust that you are not the Lord of the harvest--that the state of our communities, like the state of the sower's soil, is not yours to worry over.
Rather than split hairs of theological principle--the parable of the sower calls you to sow seeds of love.
Rather than worry over members lost, the parable of the sower calls you to sow seeds of grace and mercy over new ground--worried not over where it will land--concerned only with casting as much seed as possible--leaving all the rest up to God.
The parable of the sower demands that you sow seed.
Don't complicate matters any more than that--just sow seeds of love--and leave the rest up to God.
Leave the rest up to God?
Maybe it doesn't sound so American, but it sure does sound faithful.
Let us pray. Holy God, in a changing world that seems reluctant to accept the gifts we the Church have to offer, grant us hope enough to go on casting seed and grant us the faith to leave the rest up to you. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.