Learning to Fetch

For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.  (Is 55:10-11)

Although you wouldn’t think so to look at him today with a tennis ball or a stick, my dog Baxter needed to be taught to fetch when he was a puppy, as most puppies do.  Since he is a retriever his instruction was meant to unlock the instincts that have already been bred into him.  And today he is liable to bring me a found tennis ball or a stick in Rittenhouse Square and ask me to throw it for him so he can fetch it.  But when he was just a puppy he had to be encouraged to chase after a ball – to “go get it!” – and then to bring it back, where he received a reward for his success.

These days I can throw a stick or a ball for him that lands somewhere he cannot see it; I can tell Baxter to “go find the stick,” or “go find the ball” and he will put his eyes and his nose and all his retriever instincts to work and eventually find it and bring it back to me.  To borrow the phrase from the prophet: the word that goes forth from my mouth does not return to me empty, but it accomplishes that which I purposed, and it prospers in that for which I sent it.  

The prophet imagines that God’s word is as effective in accomplishing God’s purposes as Baxter is at fetching a ball.  As effective as the rain and snow providing water for seeds to grow.  The surety of God’s purposes is as plain a fact to the prophet as is the effect of a healthy rain on the tomato plants in a garden: they accomplish that for which they were purposed; they prosper in that for which they are sent.

Of course, while Baxter is a very good retriever, and responds well when told to “go get the ball,” he is not always as responsive to other commands.  “Come here, Baxter,” gets mixed results.  “Don’t jump up on her, Baxter,” is not foolproof.  “Don’t eat that, Baxter,” falls on completely deaf ears.  The words that go forth from my mouth do not always accomplish that which I purpose, nor do they always prosper in that for which I send them.

It is by no means plain to much of the world, that God’s word is especially effective.  In fact, it is by no means plain to much of the world that what you and I might call “God’s word” means anything at all.  

The church is a proving ground for the confidence of the prophet – where his prophecy is put to the test.  It is the community in which we discover whether or not God’s word is, in fact, to accomplish that which God purposes.  And you and I and every Christian person are crucial to the outcome.  It is here, in the church, that God begins to unlock in us the power of his own image, in which we were made; encouraging us to learn to be the kind of people he made us to be, to do the kinds of things he made us to do, to build the kind of society he made us to build, ushering in the kingdom of heaven.  It is here in the Church that God teaches puppies how to fetch, if you will.

The parable of the sower, which Jesus tells in the reading from Matthew’s Gospel this morning, is his way of describing to his disciples (and to us) what is expected of them (and of us).  It is a way of encouraging them (and us) to learn to “go get the ball,” as it were.  This parable about seeds which either do or do not yield grain is a way of drawing a picture of the prophecy of Isaiah: “so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it will accomplish that which I purpose.”

Of course, in telling the disciples this parable, Jesus is telling them what a crucial role they play in the fulfilling of God’s word.  God’s word will accomplish that which he purposes if they will let it grow in their hearts and unlock the instincts of love and mercy that God planted in our hearts when he first created us and saw that we were good.  But it is possible that God’s word will find in them (and in us) only hard, rocky, or thorny ground where the seeds of his love and mercy will not grow.

And so the question the parable poses to us is this: Do we believe that we hear in it, God encouraging each and every one of us to “go get the ball”?  Do we find that God is encouraging us to do something about his word?  Do we believe that we might have something specific to do in the fulfilling of God’s word?

There are a thousand different ways to respond to this parable.  I see people accomplishing that which God purposes every week when they deliver soup they have made to our Saturday Soup Bowl, or when they show up early Saturday mornings to serve that soup or wash the dishes.  

It happened here during Vacation Bible School when a corps of volunteers from this parish led a group of more than twenty kids in a week of growing and learning.

It happened when our mission team set up a free medical clinic for a week in Honduras.

Some of you respond to God’s encouragement by your commitment to prayer and worship in the church throughout the week, coming to daily mass or joining in morning or evening prayer, or through your participation in weekly Bible study.

Several people here are helping to accomplish that which God purposes (I hope!) by volunteering in the office, or with another church agency.

I am hoping that we will develop a wonderful new field in which to accomplish the purposes of God by adopting Saint James the Less as a mission of this parish.

And of course there are many of you who have ways of accomplishing that which God purposes about which I will never know, through your care for others, or through your commitment to social justice, or your efforts to care for our planet.

It is not actually hard to find ways to be a part of the fulfilling of God’s word, if we believe that God has really called us to this challenge.  But how will the world know of the power of God’s word if we don’t let it grow in our hearts, in our lives?

In telling his parable, Jesus is also reminding his followers, and us, that we have a choice.  We do not have to do what he says, we do not have to go where he calls, we do not have to learn to go get the ball.  We are free to do as we like and to disregard God’s word entirely.  But what seeds will die on the hard, or rocky, or thorny ground of our lives if we make that choice?

It is often said of the men that Jesus gathered as his disciples that they were not an especially astute, brainy, or clever bunch.  (These are not characteristics shared by the women who followed Jesus, however, who were altogether more sensible!)  One evidence of the thick-headedness of the disciples is their need to have a parable like the one we read today explained to them.  Can they really be so slow?  Do they really fail to see that Jesus is showing them that the kingdom of God will grow in their hearts and be built with their hands if they will let it, if they are willing to learn to go get the ball?

And what about us?  Where do we think the kingdom of God has been planted if not in our hearts?  How do we think the kingdom of God will be built if not with our hands?  Can we really be so slow?  Do we really have to have the parable explained to us, too?   Or do we believe already that God’s word shall not return to him empty, but it shall accomplish that which he purposed, and prosper in the thing for which he sent it?  Which is really another way of asking if we are ready to go get the ball, and receive our reward.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 July 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 13, 2008 .