The priest I live with was preaching last Sunday. The gospel reading from Matthew was the parable of the sower. Here’s what she said.
I sounded out a friend this week about sermons on the parable of the sower – the gospel reading we have just heard. John is a very committed Christian and has heard many sermons – in fact he is a church organist. He said “Oh they’ve nearly always been sermons where I’ve felt told off – I’ve come away from church thinking I’m either the seed that fell upon rock or the seed that fell amongst thorns, and I’ve left church feeling depressed.”
How do you hear this parable and where do you put yourself in it? For some us here today this parable will be very familiar as it comes up regularly as a reading in church. For others, newer to Christianity or church going, it may be a new story.
It takes a bit of imagination to see the scene. I don’t think any of us are farmers and if we were, then today we would sow our seeds mechanically. We’d be using some sort of seed drill on well prepared soil making the sowing of seed more precise so as to give a better yield. In Jesus’s day sowing of seed was done by hand and was imprecise – as the story Jesus tells illustrates, much seed was wasted. So it is a story from a different era but with a bit of imagination we visualize the farmer with seed in some sort of sack held over his shoulder, taking handfuls of seeds and scattering them on to the land. Jesus is telling the story to show what will happen when people hear the good news that he has to share and which after his death and resurrection, his disciples will share. It is a story of encouragement to the disciples and should be a story of encouragement to us. I was interested that my friend saw himself as the seed – because that is how I too have received this story. I have seen myself as someone choked by the cares of the world – too busy working, looking after children, and pursuing my own interests to really bear fruit as a Christian. But I don’t think that is how we are meant to hear it all.
When the church for which Matthew was writing heard this parable, it would have been an encouraging message. They were in the midst of turmoil. The church was made up of Jewish followers of Jesus in conflict with mainstream Judaism, which in any case was itself floundering after the destruction of the Temple in AD70. Different groups is Judaism were vying with other as they struggled to figure out how to be Jewish without the focus of their faith, the Temple. And in addition to the religious turmoil around them those Christians of Matthew’s community lived under Roman rule where power was all important and Christianity was definitely counter cultural. Life for them was not easy. Spreading the gospel was not simple. They did not have converts flocking to their door.
We are like them. Society around us does not follow the teachings of Jesus – we are a counter cultural community here. We live amidst other religions or more likely those of no faith at all. And the church itself struggles within to discover what God wants it to be like in this 21st Century pluralistic society. Like every church in Britain today we are a mission team. In what we say and what we do, we are telling others of the good news of Jesus and his Kingdom. We are all missionaries and in terms of this parable we are each a farmer, a sower of seed, and we keep going even though the results are not instant. We live in a high speed society where people want things “now” and we work in settings that are target and result driven, and that creeps into our thinking in the church. But Jesus knew the results wouldn’t be instant. The yield would be low in numbers but rich in quality. Each person who received the word of God and understood it would then themselves yield more fruit. As we plan the future for our church following the away day we had back in March, we need to think long term and sow seeds now for what may seem a distant future. But we can be confident that if we are faithful missionaries, sowers of seed, God will honour that faithfulness in time.
And so I tell you another story – another parable. The story of the ‘Man Who Planted Trees’. You can watch the short film of this story on You Tube – it is a delightful, thought provoking film that won the Oscar in 1988 for best animated short film.
Just before the outbreak of the First World War Jean Giono went on a long walk in the foothills of the Alps, through a region that had become barren and desert like. The villages had been deserted as people moved to the towns and the only people who scraped a living were a few charcoal burners and their families. Life was so hard they were constantly squabbling and as Jean Giono describes it the ceaseless wind irritated the nerves. There were epidemics of suicides and numerous cases of insanity, almost always murderous. On the third day of his walk Jean ran out of water. The village he found was a deserted shell and the well had run dry. He walked on. Eventually he met a lone shepherd, who said virtually nothing but offered him water and invited him to his house for supper and to stay the night. The shepherd lived alone with just his dog and his sheep. That evening Jean noticed that the shepherd was meticulously sorting acorns and the next day Jean followed him at a distance and saw him leave his sheep safely grazing and go further up the mountain and begin to make holes in the ground with the iron rod he used as a walking stick and slowly he planted the 100 good acorns he had sorted the night before.
Later Jean asked the Shepherd why. For three years he had been planting trees in this solitary way. He had planted one hundred thousand. Of these one hundred thousand, twenty thousand had come up. He counted on losing another half of them to rodents and to everything else that is unpredictable. That left ten thousand oaks that would grow in this place where before there was nothing. His name was Elzéard Bouffier. He had owned a farm in the plains, where he lived most of his life. He had lost his only son, and then his wife. He had retired into this solitude, where he took pleasure in living slowly, with his flock of sheep and his dog. He had concluded that this land was dying for lack of trees. He added that, having nothing more important to do, he had resolved to remedy the situation.
Well, the First World War came and Jean went off to fight and forgot about the shepherd until he returned on another walk several years later. He finds the shepherd again. By now it is 1920 and there is a forest of young oaks stretching for 13 kilometers. Bouffier has now also begun to plant beeches, and Jean notices that water has begun to flow in the streams that were dried up. The wind had also been at work, dispersing certain seeds. As the water reappeared, so too did willows, and flowers and meadows. Bouffier was still alone and even more silent. He hardly said a word. He and Jean walked together through the forest in silence. Thereafter Jean visited the shepherd every year and he noticed that Elzéard Bouffier’s passion for planting trees just got more passionate. One year he planted 10,000 maples and they all died. His passion was undiminished. He gave up on maples and went back to planting beeches which flourished.
By 1935 the forest had been noticed by officialdom and the water and forest authority thought the forest had regenerated spontaneously. The good thing was that they placed it under the protection of the state. The Second World War came and the forest was too remote to be disturbed by the war. Jean visited the shepherd for the last time in 1945. Despite the war the area that once was barren and desert like was verdant and people had begun to return. The once deserted village had five families living there. They were restoring the houses and had created a fountain in the middle of the village where they had also planted a lime tree. The land below the forest was once more being cultivated and barley and rye were growing. In the years that followed the 2nd World War more people moved into the area, a regular bus service started to run and more villages were restored. It became an attractive place to live and bring up children and the people prospered. No one but Jean Giono ever knew that it was Elzéard Bouffier who planted the trees. Elzéard died peacefully in 1947, in the hospice in Banon, at the age of 89.
It is another parable about seeds sown. I hope that here at St John’s as we seek to proclaim the good news of Jesus we can do it with patience knowing it is a long term task with few instant returns. But may we do it with the same constancy and passion that Elzéard Bouffier had for planting trees. Amen.