Radical Vocation Conference, Saturday after Proper 19, The Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, TX

“Let anyone with ears to hear listen" (Lk. 8:8).

It’s a great honor to be here and to preach at this “Ancient Order, Radical Vocation” conference. What a great theme, and what a great encouragement the conference, the presenters, and the participants have been to all involved, not least of all the bishops present over these last few days. We all know that ministry, and ordained ministry in particular, is work that we are called to in concert with others. None of us “accomplishes” or “fully carries out” (2 Tim. 4:5) his ministry on his own. We all need companions on the journey, co-workers in the Gospel; people who are hopeful and expectant alongside us. You all have been a source of inspiration and visible signs of the fellowship we share in Christ over these last few days in Dallas. I offer grateful thanks to Bishop George for the invitation to preach, and to Bishop Burton for this parish’s hospitality this week.

Veterans of our Lectionary may recognize that the parable we have just heard is not the more familiar versions of Matthew and Mark, but actually St. Luke’s rendition of the Parable of the Sower. The Lucan version is not included in the Sunday Lectionary, but it does find a place in the daily lectionaries of the church. So if you thought there was something missing from the reading, or if a few things didn’t sound quite right, you were on the right track. The slight unfamiliarity of this version, however, actually offers us opportunity to think again about the parable; to hear it with fresh ears.

Luke’s version is, of course, simply shorter; but to my mind it is also more spare, with some features more distinct because there is less embroidery in the way. We miss out the “hundredfold, the sixty, the thirty” of Matthew and Mark, and the more extensive citation of the prophet Isaiah as well; but what emerges is leaner and more direct. The sower of the seed has a greater prominence, it seems to me, and it is clearer what the chief action is (seed being sown) and who the chief actor is as well.

Yes, the seed does bear fruit, or it doesn’t: that too is part of Jesus’ parable, and presumably the purpose for which the sower goes forth to sow. But we start with the sower, and as Jesus puts it in the explanation of the parable, the seed that is sown is “the word of God” (Lk. 8:11). We start with the word, broadcast lavishly hither and yon; it is the nucleus from which any fruit comes. God’s word can only have one source and that is God the Sower. Both the action and the Actor are visible here in a different way, either stripped down or unembroidered it matters not for the purpose of this sermon. We start with the Sower who goes forth to sow.

Then there is the fruit that comes forth. Sometimes the seed falls in unpromising places and brings forth no fruit. All three versions of the parable share the three-fold iteration of unsuccessful planting. This is the most intimidating feature of the parable: that the seed ravaged by sun and lack of rain, and thorns and the trampling effect of traffic, is placed so squarely before us. That such seed sown by such a sower should come to nothing!

Yet the Lucan version of the parable gives us another gift, in Jesus’ explanation of the meaning of the seed that falls into good soil. It’s a unique statement that expands upon the spare “hundredfold” of the parable: “But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” or “with patient endurance” (Lk. 8:15).

The return from the seed sown on good soil far outstrips the seed that is lost: true. But Jesus’ words here have the advantage of keeping before us a sober assessment of what it costs to bring forth Gospel fruit. First of all, honest and good hearts: words that go to the heart of the matter, the interior dispositions that are the seedbed of virtue. But also patience, patient endurance that can persevere; a note that is sounded again in the Lucan apocalypse when Jesus tells the disciples, “By your endurance (patience) you will gain your souls” (Lk. 21:19). It is, as the Revelation of John the Divine puts it, “a call for the endurance (patience) of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12).

We were meant to bear fruit with patience. This word is rooted in the Latin word for suffering, a sufficient reminder of the robust meaning of patience and the cost that goes with it. We sometimes think of patience as merely the patience, or rather impatience, of a child: a fretful disregard for the time that must be spent in deferral. “Are we there yet?”: perhaps you’ve heard that line before. It’s more truthful to think of patience in this context as the costly virtue that is so much more than the child’s exercise of patience. No, we’re not there yet, but real patience demands much more. “How long, O Lord, how long?” (Rev. 6:10).

This is the time for bearing fruit; a time for patient endurance. God knows it is also a time in which the three-fold iteration of unsuccessful planting hardly seems enough to chronicle the abundant examples of ecclesial folly. “Make a fair reckoning and you will find shipwreck everywhere,” according to Petronius (Satyricon, 115); and the shipwreck of the Church is all around us. The Ark of Salvation still swims, of course, but the signs of distress are manifold.

Yet this is the time for bearing fruit; a time for patient endurance. At the very least, these times are our times, the days that are given to us, to hear the call and claim the church’s apostolic work. This is our time. Indeed, “Let anyone with ears listen” (Lk. 8:8). Our times are chronic with unfruitful planting, but this is also God’s time in which the word is addressed to us. Now is the time in which the Sower goes forth to sow, and the seed is the word of God.

Endurance is more than the patient endurance of suffering. It is instead the fruitful stretching of ourselves through God’s grace that will lead to life. I tell our clergy in Tennessee that a willingness to stretch ourselves for the sake of the Gospel is the necessary thing we need to accomplish our ministries. It’s more necessary than self-care, at any rate! It’s a willingness to go beyond our own self-assessment of what we’re good at or what “feeds us” and to consider what we might be called to.

John Henry Newman preached many years ago, in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, these words, “Let us feel what we really are – sinners attempting great things and succeeding at best only so far as to show that we do attempt them. Let us simply obey God’s will, whatever may befall; whether it tend to elate us or to depress us, what is that to us? He can turn all things to our eternal good. He can bless and sanctify even our infirmities” (Parochial & Plain Sermons, “Reliance on Religious Observances”).

May God bless you in this time of patient endurance; may you bring forth a hundredfold out of honest and good hearts; may God sanctify even your infirmities; and bring us all to attempt great things, sinners though we are.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee