Sermon #49 (21st March 2021 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
When people ask me about Unitarianism – what it is we do, what’s special about our church – I never really give the same answer twice… but one thing I often say is that we seek wisdom from wherever we can find it. So, for example, in this week’s service we’re drawing on ancient stories from the Bible – one of Jesus’ parables – also the best of contemporary Unitarian thought – my mate Bob’s recent poem – and alternative expressions from spiritual-seekers around the globe such as that track we heard from Nimo Patel. But if we’re going to talk about sowing seeds there’s one authority on the subject we just can’t ignore: Monty Don. So I made a point of tuning in on Friday night, for the first episode in the new season of Gardeners World to see if Monty had any wisdom that I could bring to you this morning. You can’t say I don’t take my research seriously!
So let’s start with the Gospel According to Monty Don; if you’re sowing literal seeds – on Friday he was encouraging the nation’s gardeners to sow chilli seeds indoors and broad beans outdoors – Monty says (I was watching on iPlayer and I ran it back so I could write this down!): ‘it’s a mistake to think that you can just scatter the seed any old how and they’ll all just sort themselves out… because then it just becomes survival of the fittest and a lot of the seedlings won’t do very well’. The wise words of Monty Don. When I heard that I couldn’t help thinking of our readings today.
In that well-known Bible passage, the Parable of the Sower, that Antony ready for us earlier, Jesus likens the seed being sown by a farmer to ‘the Word’ being planted in those who hear it. In this story we are the seedbed, the soil, into which ‘the Word’ is sown, with… variable results. So how might we interpret this notion of ‘the Word’, as Unitarians? Well, this parable turns up in three of the Gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, in slightly different versions, with a different emphasis – ‘the Word’ also gets rendered as ‘the Word of God’ or ‘the Word of the Kingdom’ – as Unitarians we’ll each have our own way of making sense of that language. My take on ‘the Word’ is to think of it as something like ‘God’s Way’ or ‘The Message about God’s Way’ – spiritual and ethical teachings about the way of Goodness, Truth, Justice, and Love – and also guidance on how we might best live in alignment with that path. Maybe what is being sown, then, is the seed of a better world for all. A vision of how life could (and perhaps should) be instead of the way it often is.
If you don’t feel a particular connection with the Christian tradition, or even the God-language, perhaps this notion of ‘sowing the seeds of a better world’ is a more universal way of thinking of it. Those values of goodness, truth, justice and love transcend any particular religious tradition really. So maybe, in this teaching story, Jesus is saying that ‘the Word’ is a seed sown in each of us – we hear wise guidance about how we can live by those values and bring about a better world – but somehow ‘the Word’ doesn’t always germinate, or take root, or grow to its full potential in us. We hear that wisdom – we might like the sound of it, in theory, and aspire to live by it – but there’s a lot going on in our lives and any number of other concerns can divert us from our best intentions. Seeds of goodness, truth, justice and love don’t always reach full maturity in our lives and the world. I think most of us would acknowledge the truth in that. Spiritual seed-sowing is a bit hit-and-miss.
But let’s take the themes of that parable and run a bit further with them, as Bob Janis-Dillon did in his poem, ‘Idiot Wind’, which he read for us earlier on. In his version, the seeds cast into the wind represent all our cherished plans, and dreams, and hopes, and expectations… which, again, face a range of mostly-inauspicious endings: variously crushed, scavenged, shrivelled, and choked. A bleak outlook, perhaps. We want to shape our lives, or the world, for the better but it often seems the odds are against us. Yet sometimes – just sometimes – things mysteriously come good. A few seeds do thrive, despite everything. And it’s not necessarily that we’ve done anything right. There is an element of chance involved. A stray gust of metaphorical wind may just carry our precious hopes onto fertile ground so they miraculously ‘rise above our heads in glory’ and ‘produce a harvest beyond our wildest dreams’.
So, if we do want to try and bring about some significant change, despite the odds – whether that’s to help create the better world that we (and God) dream of – or to realise our own personal hopes and aspirations – is there any practical wisdom we can extract from this metaphor of sowing seeds? Well, when it comes to seed-sowing, there’s an old proverb that comes to mind. There are lots of variations but my version is: ‘One for the rook, and one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow’. The country wisdom being that, for every flourishing plant, you need to sow four seeds, to take into account the pests and diseases that will likely strike most of them down prematurely. So if we’re going to sow seeds of change it helps to sow them generously. Take lots of small steps, small actions, in support of your hopes and dreams, and maybe a few of them might just succeed, nudging your life (or the world) just a little further along in the direction you were aiming for.
And – I’m sure Monty Don would back me up on this one – often there is something you can do to prepare the ground and improve the conditions your ‘seeds of change’ are going to land in. Rather than scattering your seeds haphazardly you might actively seek more fertile ground (and add compost or mulch to enrich the soil, add vital nutrients, and improve its structure). You could water your little seedlings, diligently keep on top of the weeding, chase away the birds. Similarly, if you’re trying to help bring about a better world, you might do well to focus your efforts where you’re most likely to have an impact, in a way that plays to your strengths. Choose an issue, or a project, or a community you really care about and make that ‘your patch’, at least for a season or two, and get stuck in. Commit to the change that you want to see. You might call in support and encouragement from others – get the nourishment you need – and take care to protect yourself from naysayers and those who divert you from your purpose. There are all sorts of things that might improve our chances of bringing about the transformation we seek. But there will always be factors beyond our control – in the end, to sow, we have to let go.
And, finally, it’s worth remembering that the seeds we plant – the seeds of a better world – those seeds of goodness, truth, justice and love – might well bear fruit that we never get to see. We might despair of making any meaningful difference in this world – but we can never know what impact our actions will ultimately have – so we must sow and tend our seeds in faith. And in that spirit I’d like to close with an echo of those words from gratefulness.org which took us into meditation:
‘This is a message that we can carry into our daily lives:
The idea of planting seeds without expectation of the fruits.
To plant seeds of love without expecting love in return.
To plant seeds of hard work, without expecting success or accolades.
To plant seeds of peace, without expecting the world to always be peaceful.
In the end, this is what we can do… plant our seeds, water the plants,
then let it take its own course… [for as the song says]:
We are planting seeds, nothing more.’ Amen.
Sermon by Jane Blackall
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