Spreading the gospel with wild abandon

Pentecost 5 – 2014

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Marian Free

In the name of God who is not concerned with the where or the how, but only that the gospel is shared. Amen.

As you know, General Synod met last week. A significant proportion of the meeting – one and a half hours each day – was spent in small group discussion. There were three aspects to the process – getting to know each other across Diocesan and theological boundaries, bible study and discussion of the report of the Viability and Structures Task Force. The Report, which is available on the General Synod website, is an honest, hard look at the state of the national church.

Broadly speaking, the future of the Anglican Church of Australia looks bleak. Whereas in 1911 38% of the population identified as Anglican, today, according to the census, only 17% of Australians admit to being Anglican and these figures drop to 12.2% in the Northern Territory and Victoria. Of these a massive 62% of those who identify as Anglican are over 60. Changes in our culture over the past fifty to seventy years have dramatically changed the landscape in which we as a church operate. Many of you like me have rehearsed these changes over and over again – Sunday is no longer sacred, patterns of relating have changed to include Facebook and other online networks, Australian citizens now come from vastly different backgrounds and many of our younger citizens have abandoned the church in favour of other forms of spirituality. The days of huge Sunday Schools and full churches seem to many to be a distant memory.

Not only has the society in which we live changed, but we are hampered by other factors that are outside our control – not least of which is the vastness of our country. The Diocese of North West Australia for example covers an area as large as Europe with a population that is small and scattered. How do we offer ministry in such a situation? Changes in our rural areas mean that the populations are declining making survival difficult for rural Dioceses. Job opportunities in our major cities mean that the coastal fringes and especially the capital cities on our eastern seaboard are expanding at a phenomenal rate -so much so that it is impossible for our Dioceses to keep up the pace. Both in the country and the cities there are large areas that are not receiving ministry on a regular basis.

Given the situation on the ground it would be easy to become despondent. However, while the report is realistic, it is also hopeful and offers some suggestions for moving into the future. Using the report from the Church Growth Research Programme in the UK (which we discussed yesterday at our Synod), the report points out that there are places in which growth is occurring. The research team discovered that while there is no single recipe for church growth, there are a number of factors that are associated with growth in Parishes. These include a clear mission and purpose; a willingness to reflect, to change and adapt; freedom to experiment and to fail and intentionality in prioritizing growth and nurturing disciples. Added to these, good leadership and the culture of a Diocese/Parish are paramount. Prayer and vision are indispensable.

Doing things the way that we have always done them is no longer working. If we are going to take the gospel to a world that is vastly different, we will have to try new ways of doing things, we will have to take the gospel to the community instead of expecting the community to come to us and we will have to create an atmosphere in which those who have no experience of church are made to feel comfortable and are given opportunities to engage with the gospel.

Today’s gospel of the sower is very familiar and most readers or hearers will be used to hearing and interpreting it according to the allegorical interpretation that follows. However, it is the view of scholars that the interpretation did not originate with Jesus, but was added by the early church. There are a number of reasons for coming to this conclusion but perhaps the most convincing is this – in a country where arable land was scarce and land holdings were small, it would have been a very thoughtless or careless farmer who would scatter his seed so recklessly (or clear his land so inadequately) that his seed would fall on the rocks, the paths or in weeds. Any farmer would want the best return from his labour and his seed and would ensure that the land was cleared and that the seed fell where it was intended to fall.

The parable then, is not about where the seed falls, but about the extraordinary growth that follows[1]. A thirtyfold return would have been a significant harvest in that time and place, sixtyfold or a hundredfold would have been inconceivable. The parable then, is not about how people respond to the gospel, but to the fact that the sower spreads the seed recklessly and in every direction in the hope that it will fall on receptive ground, take root and grow. The seed is not measured out in small quantities and planted in limited and suitable places. It is thrown to the wind that it might fall where it will.

The kingdom of God then is like a sower who tosses seed on to good and bad ground with wild abandon knowing that whenever and wherever it does take root it will flourish and grow beyond anyone’s expectation.

If we would like our church, the church, to grow, we need to stop being timid and cautious, limiting what we do to the tried and true. If we believe in the gospel, if we really want to share the good news of Christ with a rapidly changing world, we need to step out in faith, to try things that have never been tried before and to go to places where we have never been. We have to have the courage to experiment and not to worry when we fail. Above all, we have to have the confidence to spread the gospel widely and wildly, allowing it to land in many and varied places – the expected and the unexpected. And we have to believe that we will know when it lands in the right place, because it will grow and increase in ways that we cannot even begin to conceive or imagine.

There is good soil out there – just waiting for us to sow the seed.

[1] An interpretation that is supported by two of the parables that follow – the mustard seed and the leaven.

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