I wonder whether you think of yourself as a glass half full kind of person or a glass half empty kind of person? I imagine that we all have a kind of tendency to go one way or the other, and each of us probably drives someone else mad with either our relentless chirpy optimism or our gloomy pessimism. Once, the great missionary Leslie Newbiggin was asked, ‘Are you an optimist or a pessimist?’ and he replied, ‘Neither. I believe that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.’
The Christian Gospel is completely clear-eyed about the bad things that happen in life, but also completely confident that whatever happens God is with us, bringing life even out of death. It’s this kind of faith that surrounds our celebrations of Harvest. We are not ignoring the reality that in some parts of the world, and in our own lives, the basic things of life may seem scarce or vulnerable. We are not escaping the truth that life is tough and that bad things happen. But we are saying that somehow however empty the cup of life can be, there is an ultimate hope in the goodness and love of God, the God who can bring life even out of the grave. And we’re saying at the heart of the way things are made, at the heart of the Creator, is the most profound and ultimately life giving generosity – God is a God not of drought and famine, but of the Harvest.
As we read the the parable of the sower we often show ourselves to be ‘glass half empty’ kind of readers. For much of Christian history people have read this parable together and talked most about the things that go wrong; the birds eating up the seed, the rocky ground with little soil, the scorching sun, the thorns that choke and kill – and nodded their heads sagely and said, ‘Yes, that’s how life is’. Right? Whenever I read this parable, and especially if I read the explanations the Gospels provide, I can just get very depressed, because I can’t stop thinking about all the things that can go wrong with my life. I am very ready to admit that I’m shallow. I can accuse myself of not being rooted enough in the faith or of being eaten up by life, and there are days when I feel exposed and vulnerable to all sorts of dangers. By the time I get half way through, I’ve almost stopped listening to the story because I’m so busy thinking about all that goes wrong in life. And the bit about the Harvest at the end can just pass me by.
But when I read stories to my grand children it’s clear that they know that you have to wait for the end of a story before you can really understand it. The owl babies’ mother does come back. The little bear who is scared of the dark does fall asleep. Children know that even though bad things happen in a story you need to hold on. And so they always wait for the ending of the story and take notice of that too. And this story that Jesus told – the parable of the Sower – is a story about a fabulous harvest, beyond dreams, bread for everyone. It’s not even just the usual kind of miracle, the one we experience most of our years. This harvest is 30fold, 60fold and a 100fold. The right response at the end of this parable is to cheer and rejoice, to prepare the barns for storing and the ovens for baking, and the house for a party. Gobbling birds, scorching suns and strangling thistles are all really scary and part of life, but they are somehow put in their place by the end of this story, and the truth is that the stories of our lives really don’t end there. There is, despite all that overwhelming reality, a harvest to come.
I think that’s what we’re doing at Harvest. We’re celebrating that even if life is tough, there is the promise of hope. I know that I have had to learn again how to read this parable. Jesus’ story is telling us that just as it’s astonishing that anything ever grows at all, and that almost every harvest when it comes is utterly miraculous – so it is with life and with life with God. Things do go wrong with our lives – that is true. We do tend to mess things up – true, and we do get gobbled up by life – true. But, even so, life has a way of giving us more than we ever deserve or expect and God is always bringing life and hope and resurrection with generosity. It is tragic then that we linger too long on the early part of the story and miss the harvest at the end! We just can’t believe it’s possible. But, says Jesus, it is possible and indeed it is the way of God.
Jesus’ parable is honest about the way life is, often grim and throttling us and with so much that’s wasted. But it’s also absolutely resolute about what, despite all, God is doing. So we shouldn’t get stuck, either as readers or as those who live in this world, with the first part of the story, but live for the ending, in the sense that we almost can’t wait for the final line. There is grace and life and fullness – there really is – no matter how much your life feels like a disaster in a particular moment or just now.
Of course my grand children are dealing with the realities of life when they hear stories too. They know what it’s like to feel afraid when your mother has gone. They know what it is be afraid of the dark or of the dog in the park. These are real experiences and are sometimes overwhelming. But the good news is that, even when these things are at their most real, they are not the end of the story. The end of the story is something else. It really is.
And the story is really not all about our own successes and failures in life, but about the extravagant sowing of someone who doesn’t worry too much about all those things. This sower flings seed just anywhere, wastes it even, gives it to the birds and walks through thorns, just confident that there will be enough and to spare. What if that’s what the Kingdom of God is actually like? If God is like this sower then God isn’t so worried about getting every last seed to land well, but just keeps on going, trusting that the Harvest will come.. and it does.
There were those amongst the very earliest Christians who saw in this story something about the whole story of the Gospel – they saw what God is doing in Jesus Christ. They said, ‘Look, here is a story that is reversing the story of Eden’. At Eden, the world had turned from being a fruitful garden where everyone walks with God and enjoys life in fullness. It’s become, in all sorts of ways, a barren wilderness kind of place, with rocks and thorns and angry birds. But it is into such a world that Jesus came – as both sower and seed. Jesus suffered as creation suffers, and endured the stony ground of the wilderness and received in his own flesh the marks of the thorns. And he does all this so that he can save the world, and bring again the promise of life, and life not only in fullness, but in abundance, 30 fold and 60fold and 100fold. He scatters love abroad and promises a harvest of life. He brings water in the desert places – and life begins again. Just as at the Last Supper Jesus poured water over his disciples’ feet, so he pours water into dry hearts and into lifeless communities. And he invites each one of us to offer to God the hard and broken pieces of our lives so that we might become fruitful too, 30fold and 60 fold and 100fold.
There is a great saint of the church in Brazil, Helder Camara, who thought about this parable and wrote this;
isn’t your creation wasteful?
Fruits never equal
the seedlings’ abundance.
Springs scatter water.
The sun gives out
May your bounty teach me
greatness of heart.
May your magnificence
stop me being mean.
Seeing you a prodigal
and open-handed giver,
let me give unstintingly…
like God’s own.’
The parable should, teach us to be generous, open-handed as God is. But the very first thing that the parable can teach us is about the reckless and profound generosity of God. Today of all days, a day we celebrate a Harvest, we begin to see how God promises to bring life out of death, to bring the summer from the storm, and the light from the dark. Even if life is tough, thorny and rocky, God will bring in a harvest home. That’s what God is like and we see just a glimpse of this in the Sower who sows and reaps with generosity and joy.
There is nothing mean or careful or even prudent about this parable. We have a less than careful sower, taking little thought for where the seed goes. And we have an overwhelmingly generous harvest – a harvest beyond the capacity of even a combine harvester to bring it all in! The Kingdom of God, the kingdom we look for here, is a generous and joyous place – filled with extravagant, generous and open love – and the parable asks us to imagine what it would be like to live there and to know the God whose Kingdom it is.
But let me tell you another parable. Some women were preparing to decorate the church for Harvest. The minister had hinted that she wanted a ‘bread and wheat’ kind of theme. They looked on the internet to see if they could buy a wheat sheaf there, but there were only small such things available – the size of a small bouquet – and for a great deal of money. ‘That won’t do’ they thought. So they wondered what to do and told their families of their longing. But then one day one of their relatives was driving along a country lane and a great sheaf of wheat fell off a lorry in front – and the lorry just carried on, leaving the sheaf in the road. This was bigger than the internet version, 30fold and 60fold and 100fold.. And so the church was decorated for Harvest and the generous and surprising love of God was made visible among the people. And all of them rejoiced.