Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by David Usher
We come together this morning, seeking a reality beyond our narrow selves;
that binds us in compassion, love, and understanding to other human beings, and to the interdependent web of all living things.
May our hearts and minds be opened this hour, to the power and the insight that weaves together the scattered threads of our experience,
and help us remember the wholeness of which we are part.
We come together to renew our faith in the holiness, the goodness, the beauty of life.
To reaffirm the way of the open mind and the full heart,
to rekindle the flame of memory and hope,
and to reclaim the vision of an earth more fair, with all her people one.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). (words by Linda Hart)
We light this chalice as a symbol of the spark of life which abides within us and around us.
May it be as a light in a dark night, a light in a window that welcomes the weary traveller home.
May it be as a light in the hand of a trusted friend, that guides us along the path.
May it be as the light in the face of one we love, bright with joy.
Spirit of Life and Love,
be with us as we gather for worship,
each in our own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
in this world in which Covid has not yet gone away,
and the clouds of war hover.
May we keep in touch however we can,
and help each other,
however we may.
May we remember that
caution is still needed,
that close contact is still unwise.
Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have
and to respect the wishes of others.
May we hold in our hearts all those
who are grieving, lost, alone,
victims of violence and war,
suffering in any way, Amen
Reading from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 3, verses 3-8, 13-20
Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ 9And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!
Then Jesus explained the meaning of the parable to his disciples:
And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? 14The sower sows the word. 15These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.* 18And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 19but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. 20And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust. Amen
Reading from The Seeds of Heaven by Barbara Brown Taylor, shared by Richard Rohr on 1st September 2022
In this reading, Barbara Brown Taylor shares her usual response to the Parable of the Sower:
I started worrying about what kind of ground I was on with God. I started worrying about how many birds were in my field, how many rocks, how many thorns. I started worrying about how I could clean them all up, how I could turn myself into a well-tilled, well-weeded, well-fertilized field for the sowing of God’s word. I started worrying about how the odds were three to one against me—those are the odds in the parable, after all—and I began thinking about how I could beat the odds… by cleaning up my act.
That is my usual response to this parable. I hear it as a challenge to be different, as a call to improve my life, so that if the same parable were ever told about me it would have a happier ending, with all of the seed falling on rich, fertile soil. But there is something wrong with that reading of the parable, because if that is what it is about, then it should be called the parable of the different kinds of ground.
Prayer Harvest Thanksgiving by Cliff Reed, from Sacred Earth (adapted)
At this celebration of harvest, we give thanks
for the golden grain we saw in our summer fields,
and for its harvesting.
We give thanks for the fruit of our orchards and vineyards,
for the vegetables that swell in the rich earth,
or grow green in the sunshine and the rain.
We are so blessed, and yet we take it all for granted.
We hold in our loving thought and prayer the people
of our one world who suffer the devastation
of natural – and not so natural – disaster,
thinking particularly today of the people of Pakistan,
which has been devastated by floods.
We pray for the lands where the harvest seems one
of hatred and of death; where terrorism, cruelty and
war raise bitter crops of misery and vengeance.
We give thanks for the harvests of earth and spirit.
We pray that all who are denied them now will
soon receive their bounty through the workings of
your love in human hearts like ours.
Reading from The Seeds of Heaven by Barbara Brown Taylor, shared by Richard Rohr on 1st September 2022
In this reading, Barbara Brown Taylor asks whether our familiar interpretation may miss the more dramatic message of God’s radical grace:
Instead, it has been known for centuries as the Parable of the Sower, which means there is a chance, just a chance, that we have got it all backwards. We hear the story and think it is a story about us, but what if we are wrong? What if it is not about us at all but about the sower? What if it is not about our own successes and failures and birds and rocks and thorns but about the extravagance of a sower who does not seem to be fazed by such concerns, who flings seed everywhere, wastes it with holy abandon, who feeds the birds, whistles at the rocks, picks his way through the thorns, shouts hallelujah at the good soil and just keeps on sowing, confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty, and that when the harvest comes at last it will fill every barn in the neighbourhood to the rafters?
If this is really the parable of the Sower and not the parable of the different kinds of ground, then it begins to sound quite new. The focus is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity of our maker, the prolific sower who does not obsess about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil and bad, who is not cautious or judgmental or even very practical, but who seems willing to keep reaching into his seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of his truth.
Time of Stillness and Reflection For the Harvest by Cliff Reed, from Carnival of Lamps (adapted)
For the harvest of the year, hard-won from an earth at once bountiful and grudging, we give thanks.
For all our cleverness, all our technology, all our pride in our own achievements,
we are as dependent on our mother planet as were our forebears,
remote in time, who first scratched a living from its surface.
We are sojourners here. With reverence and wisdom we must till the soil.
It is not ours to own and dispose of as we will.
‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’
And it is our children’s and our children’s children’s too.
For them it must be as fertile, as green, and as rich in life as it has been for us.
We must do what we can to make it so, as faithful stewards of this good earth.
For the harvest of the year, we give thanks…
And for the harvest of the years, we give thanks:
the harvest of shared faith and shared work, a shared spirit and a shared endeavour.
As the harvest of the earth is both an ending and a beginning,
So may the harvest of the years, the harvest of faithful, hopeful, loving community – for all its endless endings – be always rich with new beginnings.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Harvest: The Parable of the Sower
I don’t know whether it is hot-wired into my DNA, or whether it is the fruit of having spent so many years in or around the education system, but for me, the new year begins in the Autumn. So the Harvest Festival marks the time of year when I can stop frantically planning for the future, sit still for a while, and take stock of what I have achieved during the past twelve months. It is also, very importantly, an opportunity to be grateful and to give thanks for the good things that have happened in the past year. I think we don’t do this enough. And finally, it is a chance to review what has not gone so well, particularly if it was my fault, and to resolve to do better next year.
Now, Jesus lived in an agricultural community, and often used agricultural metaphors to illustrate his stories. One parable of his in particular has always reminded me of the connection between our actions and their consequences, between what we sow and what we reap, which is a good thing to think about at Harvest time. It is the story of the sower who sows his seed in the Springtime, which appears in all three synoptic gospels. I shared it with you earlier in the service. As we saw, some of the seeds fell on the path, and were eaten by the birds; some fell on rocky ground, and did well initially, but withered because they did not have deep enough roots; some fell among thorns and were choked by them; and some fell on good soil “and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”
One explanation of this parable is that the different types of soil represent the different “hearts” or receptivity that people have towards God and his word. The first type don’t understand God’s word, and are unreceptive to it, so the evil one (the birds) takes the truth away. The second type initially respond to God’s word but fall away at the first difficulty. The third type, which falls among thorns, represents people whose hearts are choked by the worries and concerns of their daily lives. The fourth type is the individual who hears and understands God’s word, and whose heart then brings forth the fruit of a good life.
I wonder how this parable applies to our lives. We are not first century Jews, but 21st century Unitarians. But Jesus’s words still have a lot to teach us, I think. All of the actions of our lives can be seen as sowing seeds – what happens as a consequence of those actions, what sort of Harvest we reap, depends largely on ourselves. It is a big responsibility, this being human. Or it should be!
The two types of seeds that fascinate me most in Jesus’s parable are the ones which fall on rocky ground, and do well initially, but wither away in the end because they do not have deep enough roots, and the ones which fall among thorns and are choked by them. I believe that both metaphors are very relevant to our modern lives.
Take the seeds who fell on rocky ground. If we translate this metaphor into everyday terms, it could stand for the things that we start without doing our homework first, or without giving the task in question the time and attention it deserves. A problem presents itself, and we cast around for a quick resolution, apply this sticking-plaster patch, and move on to the next thing. Then, to our surprise, the hasty, un-thought-through solution fails, and we are back at the beginning.
Wayne Muller gives a wonderful example of this in his book Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in our Busy Lives. He writes, “I have sat on dozens of boards and commissions with many fine, compassionate, and generous people who are so tired, overwhelmed, and overworked that they have neither the time nor the capacity to listen to the deeper voices that speak to the essence of the problems before them. Presented with the intricate and delicate issues of poverty, public health, community well-being, and crime, our impulse, born of weariness, is to rush headlong toward doing anything that will make the problem go away. Maybe then we can finally go home and get some rest. But without the essential nutrients of rest, wisdom, and delight embedded in the problem-solving process itself, the solution we patch together is likely to be an obstacle to genuine relief. … In the soil of the quick fix is the seed of a new problem, because our quiet wisdom is unavailable.”
“In the soil of the quick fix is the seed of a new problem, because our quiet wisdom is unavailable.” I wonder how true that is of us – is this how we approach the issues in our own lives? I know that I am certainly guilty of this at times.
Then, take the example of the seeds who fall among thorns, and are choked by them. For me this is a metaphor that is only too apt for our daily lives, here in the 21st century. There are so many things competing for our time and attention, that it is little wonder that we are tempted by them, away from the importance of life, rest and renewal. Wayne Muller again:
“Much of modern life, of course, is specifically designed to seduce our attention away from this inner place of refuge. When we are in the world with eyes wide open, the seductions are insatiable. Hundreds of channels of cable and satellite television, telephones with multiple lines and call-waiting, so we can talk to more than one person at a time; fax machines; mail, e-mail and overnight mail; billboards; magazines; newspapers; radio. Every stimulus competes for our attention: Buy me. Do me. Watch me. Try me. Drink me. It is as if we have inadvertently stumbled into some horrific wonderland.”
But is there another way? I loved Barbara Brown Taylor’s alternative take on the Parable of the Sower, which formed our third reading. She wonders whether we have got it all backwards, and asks, “What if it is not about us at all but about the sower? What if it is not about our own successes and failures and birds and rocks and thorns but about the extravagance of a sower who does not seem to be fazed by such concerns, who flings seed everywhere, wastes it with holy abandon, who feeds the birds, whistles at the rocks, picks his way through the thorns, shouts hallelujah at the good soil and just keeps on sowing, confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty, and that when the harvest comes at last it will fill every barn in the neighbourhood to the rafters?”
This is a far more radical interpretation of the Parable of the Sower. No longer is it we who are at the centre of it, the seeds which fall on different grounds, and so are responsible for our own successes and failures. Instead, it is a parable about what Richard Rohr calls “God’s radical grace.” As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, in this case, “The focus is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity of our maker, the prolific sower who does not obsess about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil and bad, who is not cautious or judgmental or even very practical, but who seems willing to keep reaching into his seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of his truth.”
Of course, we have free will, and are able to choose how well we grow. And perhaps some Unitarians will not be comfortable with the idea that we are seeds sown by the Divine Sower. But I rather like it.
Perhaps the message of the Parable of the Sower is that we have to tend our own gardens, our own hearts carefully. We have to be sure that we are receptive to the presence of the divine in the world; that we are not discouraged by difficulty or apathy from doing the best that we can in our lives; that we try to cultivate an awareness of the divine in our lives, so that we are not distracted by worldly problems and worries from following the best that we know; and that we bring this awareness into our everyday lives. As the Quakers say:
“Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. … Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. … Are you open to new light from whatever source it may come?”
If we can bear this in mind, not just at Harvest time, but throughout the year, our lives will indeed be fruitful. May it be so, Amen.
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we accept the radical grace of the Divine,
And choose to tend our own gardens,
Our own hearts, with care.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
May we share the love we feel,
May we look out for each other,
And may we keep up our hearts,
Now and in the days to come,
Postlude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley