Last year Stephen and I spent 3 months in Washington DC on sabbatical. We lived at Virginia Seminary in Alexandria and at a welcome reception they held for us and other visitors we met various people who in their kind American way invited us to their churches and homes. One person we met worked at the Pentagon and invited us to the weekly Wednesday Episcopalian Eucharist. We were intrigued – a visit to the Pentagon, the heart of American military might - for church?
We went on the appointed day and after going through multiple levels of security were escorted by our host and given a tour of some of the huge and impressive building. It is like a small town with thousands of people working there with their own shops, hairdressers, restaurants. As we headed for the chapel our host explained that the chapel was new, built after 9/11 on the spot where the hijacked plane had hit the Pentagon, killing 125 Pentagon workers as well as the 64 people on the plane. The Pentagon had never had a single chapel before the terrorist attacks, various groups had used different spaces. After 9/11 it was agreed they needed a chapel, on the spot the plane hit, and it needed to be an interfaith space.
So when we walked in it was set up for an Anglican Eucharist, but against the wall you could see the Ark with the scrolls for the Torah to be read in a Jewish service and on Fridays Moslem prayers are held. The response of those working at the heart of the American military, when attacked on 9/11, was to pray. I was astonished. This didn’t fit my expectations at all.
Jesus tells a story about a farmer who goes out to sow seeds, but this farmer is not a careful farmer, preparing his soil and sowing with precision so as not waste precious seed. What kind of farmer scatters seeds on rocky ground and amongst the thorn bushes? Some of the seed falls on good ground and this seed produces crops way beyond what any farmer might hope for. But the farmer doesn’t seem to do anything special to make this happen, the crop just flourishes.
Now the gospel writer we call Matthew gives us an interpretation of the parable.
Jesus did not usually explain his parables. Parables are intriguing stories to make his listeners wonder and think. But Matthew and the community he is writing for have lots of questions in their post resurrection – post Jesus life; and the question they seem to be asking here is “why does the good news we are preaching of JC not always take root and grow?” Well it must be that some of the people we are preaching to are not good soil, we have scattered the seed but the people on rocky ground are never going to hear the word and grow. Matthew’s interpretation answered the question of his community.
And we can too easily fall into the same trap and label those who we might disagree with as being the rocky ground and the thorns. What might the questions be of our community be instead? Our question needs to go back to the original parable which is more about the actions of God than the response of people. The actions of the reckless farmer, sowing seeds everywhere, and the plants popping up where you might least expect them, like at the heart of the Pentagon.
What is this seed? The seed that the sower scatters might be the word of God, the teaching as Matthew writes; or it might be love, or the Spirit, or God’s presence, or God’s justice, or God’s surprises, God’s inspiration. The parables always describe the kingdom of God, God’s realm, God’s way. The way of God in this story is reckless abandon, sowing the word, or love, or justice, or inspiration, everywhere. Everywhere – not just inside churches, not just amongst people who agree with our theology, not just amongst people who like the same music we do, everywhere. Everywhere in your lives, in your families, and homes, and workplaces, and encounters. Do we have eyes to see and ears to listen?
Where has some seed popped up and grown in your life this week when you didn’t expect it? Have you had an unexpected conversation with someone, read an article by someone you thought you would disagree with, been to a social occasion you didn’t really want to go to and had a great conversation? Jesus says “let anyone with ears listen”. As people of faith we are encouraged to listen, listen and watch for the way of God to be revealed.
I am spending as much of my time as possible listening – listening to your stories of life and faith, listening to the various leaders of the city as they tell me how they see St Matthew’s and how we can serve the city.
What I am really interested in us doing as a faith community is listening together to the voices of our neighbourhood. Like the old Sesame Street song “who are the people in your neighbourhood?”
In the 2011 census there were 3255 people living in the western half of the Auckland cbd census area; in 2013 they counted 10,104. 7,000 people have moved into this side of the city in the last 12 years and I am not sure that St Matthew’s has really noticed.
Our church is placed in the most densely populated neighbourhood of our nation, yet very few of us who gather here on a Sunday live in walking distance of the church.
Most of you pass many churches in order to come here for the music, the theology, and the beauty of our sacred space. And that is great – I am very glad you are all here!
My question is though - how can we listen to our neighbours? How can we look and see where the seed has been scattered and where it is growing. For God recklessly sows seeds in all corners of our city and if we don’t take a look we will never see it. What is going on in the lives of the 1000s of people who live in the apartments and work in the offices around us, what are the students learning and seeking, what are the families and children facing? How would we know?
We are doing some work together on our own pastoral care as a community; we have another session with Allanah today.As we learn to listen better to each other we will be more ready to listen to the voices of our neighbourhood here in the city.
God shows up in the most unexpected of places; and that is because God is like a reckless farmer who sows seed everywhere: on the path, on rocky ground, in shallow soil and in deep soil; and we are certainly not able to discern just by looking which is the rocky ground and which is the soil. Our own assumptions get very much in the way.
Instead we are called to listen, and be open, and to watch and to be astonished when a bountiful harvest appears in front of us. For as sure as the rain and the snow come, says the prophet Isaiah, so does the word come from the mouth of God, and it never returns empty. God’s word, or love, or inspiration or justice, or peace is sown in our hearts and lives in the lives of those around us.Let anyone with ears listen, watch and be amazed.