God’s grace comes to us before we even know it is there.
(video recording of the sermon begins around the 14th minute on the YouTube link)
My Grandma-Nette, my father’s mother, loved to tell the story of the day of her birth. Her name was Jeannette, thus, Grandma-Nette, and she was the fourth child of my great grandparents who had come to this country from England in the 1800’s, as economic immigrants. Poor and out of work, they came to find work in this country and raise a family here. My great-grandfather, John, had worked on the railroads in England and heard of opportunities in the rail business available in the Midwest, so he and my great-grandmother Mary boarded a ship and sailed to America. Incidentally John met a man on that ship, who was going to start a chewing gum company, and was looking for investors, but my great-grandfather was a serious man, and he turned Mr. Wrigley down. I have to think that was a good thing, as if he’d done that, I might never have been.
John and Mary began their new life in Illinois, and began their family…first there was Dorothy, then Irene, and then Florence. On the day my grandmother was born, John, in the tradition of his day, celebrated by going to his favorite pub and handing out cigars to everyone. It’s a boy, he proclaimed, and everyone shouted for joy. Ah, John, his friends slapped his back—wonderful! Cheers, my good man! The celebration was jubilant as the men all congratulated my great-grandfather on finally having a boy, after three girls. Of course, my grandmother was not a boy.
The story goes that John just wanted to have a big celebration, without folks apologizing or patting him on the back in sympathy, for not yet having a son. And it was a big party, I hear. And John didn’t even care that he had to go back and tell his friends about Jeannette the next day. My great-father apparently loved to tell that crazy story himself.
I tell you not because this family story of mine is some sort of parable, it’s just great fun, and it’s true. I’m not comparing it to Jesus’ parable of the sower, except in this one way. The parable Jesus told must have sounded a little nutsy to his listeners!
The people hearing Jesus’ story would be wondering, what kind of sower would be so careless—to cavalierly throw seed out so that it lands on rocky ground, in thorny places, amongst weeds. The story’s sower is obviously wasteful or, at least, extravagant they would think. The world of the first century was an agricultural society—fishing and farming were how the people in Galilee survived. Their existence was always at risk of hunger, farming wasn’t easy or sophisticated. When Jesus describes a harvest of 30, 60 or 100 fold, the people are astonished because this would be an extraordinary, unimaginable, near-miraculous harvest. Their economy was subsistence farming.
You and I are not only unfamiliar with the stresses of today’s farmers, we are far, far removed from the experiences of Jesus’ listeners. We have enough food in our refrigerators and freezers to feed us for several days. We have credit cards to buy food in well stocked grocery stores close to our homes. Jesus’ listeners knew that if their crops failed, if they were careless with the seed, they faced starvation.
The parables Jesus told are such an effective tool of instruction—because they are stories that make you think—on many levels, and they are stories you can remember, because they hit familiar themes in human lives. Parables are supposed to hit us where we live. Parables are also meant to strike us differently, in various stages of our lives.
We can all identify with times in our lives when we are less open to the word—represented by the seed in Jesus’ parables. Still, God sows the seed liberally—God is undiscriminating about where he sows, almost reckless, giving the seed a chance no matter in what circumstances we find ourselves.
I talked to a woman just this week who told me she heard the word speaking to her while she was in jail. She and I talked briefly about CS Lewis, in fact, the first Christian book she read. We laughed about how Lewis heard the word while riding on a bus driving through the rain in England. I told her that he later wrote a wonderful story that included a bus ride in it, because of that experience.
God’s word is sown in all ages, for all people.
We hear Isaiah shouting that in our reading today: “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth
it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
God sows the word everywhere; this is how God accomplishes God’s purpose.
Two weeks ago a priest named Becca Stevens preached at our new bishop’s ordination. I don’t know the relationship between our new bishop Glenda and Becca Stevens, but you can bet I’ll ask next time I see one of these friends. Becca’s sermon was remarkable, and you can still hear it if you’re tired of listening to me, by going to the diocesan website.
I’m betting you’ve heard of Becca’s work in Nashville, maybe you even know that her ministry now spreads across the globe. Thistle Farms. She began 20 years ago. This ministry has lit a pathway of healing and hope for women survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. Becca can tell you so many stories of healing, tales if of the grace that has changed the lives of these survivors.
Because of what happened to them in their lives, these woman came to see themselves like as we see thistle, that purple weed that grows on the side of the road, an unwanted prickly plant that needs to be cut down. Thistle Farms has transformed the world of these women, as they literally take thistle and make it into beauty products, learning the skills of business and financial independence, and finding the love that God always intended for them along the way.
Be good dirt, I’ve heard the parable of the sower preached many a time, and this is good stuff, but we all can fall flat on our faces at times, and need to know God sows the word there too, in the muck on the side of the road. When I hear the stories of Thistle farms graduates, I am reminded how very hard some people’s lives are. When I sit down to talk to a person searching for hope, I hear how from the beginning of their existence they were hungry and neglected, or thrown out of their home because their family couldn’t accept who they love.
Sure, be good dirt, friends, but be a good sower too. Sow like God sows, generously, abundantly, recklessly, in all places. People cannot make a faithful response unless we are already willing to go out and sow God’s word, God’s love.
In theological terms we call this action of God, prevenient grace.
God’s grace is being sown all along.
It comes to us before we even know it is there.
God takes the initiative, offers the invitation, by sowing the word all throughout our lives, by sending the Holy Spirit into our lives—nudging us, to respond. Our faithful response is never compelled by God but is there freely given when we are ready to accept it.
When I was a kid, I didn’t know anything about prevenient grace; I thought people were either good or bad. I didn’t know when my Grandma-Nette came to visit us on occasion, sometimes with a boyfriend in tow, that she was dead drunk as they say. Mom and Dad just told us she was sick.
Grandma-Nette’s husband, my grandfather, left her with three elementary age kids, ran off with his secretary. My grandmother’s life spiraled downward, my father and his siblings lived with Aunt Irene for a while. They were lucky—they all did well. And Grandma-Nette—even she found a way up, thanks to the faithful in AA who found her and gave her a way up. She eventually began a halfway house in Hollywood FL. Not the famous Hollywood—in CA. but the hot sticky one, she used to say, cantankerous as ever. God has a way, she’d tell me when I was an adult—I think she said it sarcastically, but she grasped that way—grabbed up God’s prevenient love, ready for her when she needed it most.
Love Heals—this God knows. It’s also why Becca Steven’s ministry chose it as their slogan. Love Heals
But don’t think Becca means this in a sweet and gooshy way—Jesus went out, sowing and sowing, tirelessly, doggedly. He sowed love by teaching, healing, by rebuking leaders who are after their own gain, and by feeding people who are hungry.
That is how folks find God’s prevenient grace, through the work of love, sown by you and me.
Thanks be to God.