Sermon – the parable of the sower


The church is completely obsessed with one topic.

Whenever you go to church meetings there is one thing that dominates everything and has done so for at least the last 15 or 20 years.

We talk about it endlessly. Whether it is local regional chapters, diocesan synod, General Synod or even the meetings of the Anglican Communion such as the Lambeth Conference which gathers all the bishops of the communion together every 10 years, there is sure to be this one item on the agenda.

Reports are written.

Debates are had.

Motions are passed.

Decisions are made.

All in relation to this topic which has seemed to dominate absolutely everything we do.

People (by which I mean me) are bored to the back teeth of hearing about it and yet still we go over and over it all again at every meeting.

Bishops and archbishops make statements about it. And our concern is matched by similar conversations in other denominations.

Who would like to hazard a guess at what that topic is?

Is it wonga?

Is it assisted dying that Lord Carey has been highlighting rather unhelpfully this weekend?

Is it sex in general and homosexuality in particular?

Well, no. The topic which consumes us and indeed many other denominations is mission.

For just about the whole of my ministry in the church there has been an obsession with mission that has been becoming more urgent, more frantic and more desperate as time has gone on.

You see – for lots of congregations, things are not going that well. The life and the joy that might be said to be indicative of the spirit of God is alive and kicking seems to be ebbing away.

And so programmes are developed to “do mission” in different localities.

Some of these are good and some of them are bad. The ones I see most of these days seem to be characterised by panic and yet seem very often to consist of little more than putting the word mission in front of everything. Instead of a bible study you have a missional bible study. Instead of a knitting group you have a missional knitting group. And so on.

The fact that this is not working can be seen not simply in local statistics but in church statistics around the western world.

But I had a moment of insight this week whilst thinking about what to say this morning that made me feel curiously better about all this. (For it can become depressing – and misery has never been indicative of the presence of God).

It was this – the gospel reading today gives us clues that this debate about mission may have been going on for 2000 years.

What’s more, if we can see beyond it to what Jesus was really trying to talk about then maybe we can find something a good deal more hopeful than schemes to keep dying churches alive.

Here’s the theory.

You can churn this over and see if it rings true.

First of all, we need to note that there was a bit missing from the gospel this morning.

There were a few verses. They are verses where the disciples ask Jesus why he is preaching using parables. He gives the rather surprising and tricky answer that he uses parables in order to confuse people and make sure only the disciples – the true believers really understand.

Once you’ve got that bit reinstated you can make a bit of sense of what we have.

For first we have the parable – a sower went out to sow and some of the seed fell here and some fell there and some grew and some didn’t.

Then you get a question about why he is teaching in parables.

Then you get an explanation which suggests that this is all an allegory for the way that preaching the good news is heard. Some people turn away, some people show enthusiasm but don’t follow through but some of them are the real thing – people in whom the seed with grow.

The theory that unlocked this for me is the idea that what we’ve got going on here is genuine stuff from Jesus, followed by commentary from the early church who put their explanation into the mouth of the Lord.

People used storytelling to do that kind of thing.

We are used to reading a book and then reading a commentary on it in another volume. Sometimes in ancient texts you get both text and commentary all muddled up and I think that’s what is going on here.

Jesus tells us the parable. Then the early church who are gathering all his sayings together in the gospels (and remember all this is copied from Mark anyway) and adding their commentary – some are under the influence of evil, some fall away, some are insincere, yet some are fruitful.

If we look at the gospel in that way rather than just something that Jesus said then it unlocks how things were for those early Christian communities.

They had this good news about Jesus. Yet some didn’t get it. Some were wicked. Some fell away. Some didn’t care. Yet some were fruitful.

If we think of this as a commentary on their situation then it perhaps suggests that the agonising about mission that we have in our own day is not that different from the early Christians trying to work out why not everyone believes the great stuff they’ve got to share.

And they were persecuted by violence remember, not just indifference. They had good reason to try to work out why their message was not universally believed.

I find myself as I read this chapter trying to listen to Jesus and hear what he is saying in the parable of the sower without anyone trying to persuade me that it is about who listens to sermons and believes them. (which is a pernicious game for preacher and for people alike).

If I take the Jesus bit – just the parable, and stop listening to the chatter of the church then I can read it quite differently.

I’ve read it through again and again this week and tried to put myself next to those hearing it for the first time.

What if Jesus was telling them the amazing truth that the kingdom of God is here amongst us already. That it is sown into our world already by the divine sower. What if he is telling us that goodness is already taking root alongside the dross, alongside the fruitless and the sinful.

God is already here. Already at work. Prompting us to bring in the harvest of justice and joy and reap the bounty of things we never had to work for because God has given his gifts to us of love freely and without expectation.

As I try to hear the parable afresh, that’s what I’ve come up with.

And oddly, if we could grasp that and live that. All those conversations about mission might stop.

Churches which talk about the kingdom of God – of love and compassion and justice and joy may never need to talk about mission at all.

God is amongst us. Already. Alive. Bountiful. With gifts of love for all who care to receive them.

And overwhelming love for everyone else too.

God’s like that – wandering the earth, scattering the seed from which all good things still grow.






  1. Snap! And hurrah! 🙂

  2. Suzanne Bryden says

    What a wonderfully positive message! Thank you.

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