We Do Not Sow

Part 3 of the series “Lent and Easter with Game of Thrones
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
March 23, 2014
John 4:31–38

Illustration by Rachel Ternes
Illustration by Rachel Ternes

John 4:31–38 • In the meantime the disciples spoke to Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” Jesus said to them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.” The disciples asked each other, “Has someone brought him food?”
Jesus said to them, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four more months and then it’s time for harvest’? Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest. Those who harvest are receiving their pay and gathering fruit for eternal life so that those who sow and those who harvest can celebrate together. This is a true saying, that one sows and another harvests. I have sent you to harvest what you didn’t work hard for; others worked hard, and you will share in their hard work.”

I. BEGINNING

For the last few years, the mission statement of this community has been the pithy and easily memorized: “Love God. Serve Others. Welcome All.” Those six words were an improvement on the paragraph long mission statement that we’d had for years that while aspirational and descriptive, was largely unknown to anyone in the community.  That mission statement was the result of a prompt by Rev. Adam Hamilton, who challenged us at Annual Conference to come up with mission statements that the entire congregation could learn by heart and that would guide them in all that we do.  And I think we succeeded and succeeded well.

But a mission statement is aspirational: it’s what we’re supposed to be doing. But what words would we use to describe what we actually do?  That is, what words would we use not to drive us toward some kind of action, but to represent us to the broader AU community?

“We have free food,” would be the obvious choice, I think.  “Prepare to be hugged” maybe another.  Or “We Do Not Sleep”. “We Overextend Ourselves” would be also fair slogan.  Or perhaps, “Ask Me About My Third Internship”.  Of course in my more frustrated moments I might suggest: “We leave half-drunk soda cans and used coffee cups around the office.”  All in all, perhaps “We Have Free Food” is the best way to go.

II.    ‘WE DO NOT SOW’

In the world of Game of Thrones, each great noble house has a sigil (usually an animal) and a motto, which are referred to as that house’s “words.” We began this entire series by looking at the words of House Stark whose words were “Winter Is Coming.” Most of the great houses have words that extol some virtue or some noble characteristic of the house: “Ours the Fury”, “Family, Duty, Honor”, “Hear Me Roar.” But there is one house whose words present a very different message and a very different tone.

House Greyjoy is the ruling house over the Iron Islands, a series of islands off the west coast of Westeros, and a bane to the peoples of that coast. For the people of the Iron Islands are a people made up of raiders and reapers.  Their history is one of vexing the fishing towns of the coast, capturing women and taking the bounty of the land.  The words of House Greyjoy are “We do not sow.”

It is a reminder that the Ironborn are not farmers, they do not till the soil, they do not labor in the mines, they take what is theirs.  They are very much the Vikings of this world, subsisting on plunder and violence rather than on industry.  They will often speak of purchasing things by paying either the “gold price” or the “iron price.” The gold price is by using money; the “iron price” is by using the sword.  Of the two, the iron price is the respectable one and things purchased with the gold price, unless there is no other option, are considered unworthy.

The words of House Greyjoy speak to an experience of taking things by force, of claiming lands by right of conquest, and by dominating those who do the work necessary to provide for the basics of life.  The fishers, the farmers, the miners, the herders, and the ranchers are as nothing before the Ironborn, who by virtue of force of arms take what they desire without regard to those who have produced it.

III.  THE GOSPEL

I will admit, it makes for a pretty badass motto for a noble house.  I mean, who doesn’t like the Vikings?  Well, in real life, no one likes the Vikings, but as characters in a story or as the object of adolescent male admiration, it’s hard to beat the Vikings or their moral kin, the Greyjoys.

But how on earth are Christians supposed to take any lesson from that?  As impressive as they were, the Vikings were hardly the kind of people lifted up throughout history as moral exemplars. What possible lesson could a Christian take from a motto as self-serving, as imperious, and as predatory as “We do not sow”?

The gospel lesson we heard read tonight is a passage in the middle of a much larger story. In the broader passage, Jesus is having an enigmatic conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in which he has talked to her about possessing living water with which one never goes thirsty. He proceeds to tell the woman a number of details from her personal life that convince the woman that she is talking with the long-awaited Messiah.  She runs into town to tell everyone what she has seen.  A number of the Samaritans in that town believe what she says and come to believe in Jesus as the messiah.  But while she is away spreading the Gospel, Jesus has the following discourse with the disciples, who have wondered if someone had brought him some food:

Jesus said to them, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four more months and then it’s time for harvest’? Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest. Those who harvest are receiving their pay and gathering fruit for eternal life so that those who sow and those who harvest can celebrate together. This is a true saying, that one sows and another harvests. I have sent you to harvest what you didn’t work hard for; others worked hard, and you will share in their hard work.”

After this, the people from the town come because of the woman’s report. And Jesus even agrees to stay in the Samaritan town for a couple of days.  But an interesting thing happens, after this, the people of the town say to the woman:

“We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.”

See, here is an interesting thing.  Because as Christians, we’re inclined to lift up the virtue of the Samaritan woman, sinner though she was, who went to share with her fellow townspeople her report about Jesus.  She becomes a model of evangelism and testifying about our experience of Christ.

And yet, by the end, the people no longer give credit to her for their faith.  “We not longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves…”

We Christians like to imagine ourselves as sowers.  We talk about getting “crops” of new believers.  And pastors love to talk about planting seeds.  I am frequently told that as a campus minister.  Since I only have you all for four years, I rarely get to see any evidence of whether the work we do here is effective at all.  When I express that sentiment to colleagues, they will offer words of comfort along the lines of “You’re planting seeds that will one day yield fruit.” I suppose that’s a comforting image.  But it occurs to me that there is one problem with it:

We do not sow.

IV. WE DO NOT SOW

Jesus tells us as much in his conversation with the disciples:

Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest. … I have sent you to harvest what you didn’t work hard for; others worked hard, and you will share in their hard work.”

We can often imagine that our efforts are so central to the work of the Kingdom that we eliminate any part of God’s activity.  Oh, to be fair, there are certainly seeds of faith we plant, but this is not our enterprise alone.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes a similar point, noting that each of us has a role to play in the overall project: sowing, watering, tending, but that the growth is God’s doing.  Sometimes, we as Christians can be so busy about our work that we come to believe that it depends entirely on us.  Now, I am not arguing for inactivity. Nor am I making a case for predestination.  But I am saying that sometimes we become so invested in the work that we allow ourselves to be convinced that everything depends on us.  And in so doing, we do not leave any room for God’s activity.  We crowd out the surprising, the grace-filled, the miraculous.  We conflate our activity with God’s activity and sometimes miss where God has already been at work.

Jesus reminds us that someone else has done the hard work and that we are the harvesters. That is an important thing to remember, especially in this very busy community.  The work we are about is work that was begun by others. The ministries that we tend were started by others.  We tend the gardens we have inherited as one day others will tend to the work we have performed. But all of it, even in the very beginning, began with God’s work.

John Wesley was a big believer in free will.  He rejected Calvin’s doctrine of predestination and believed that human beings did have a choice to respond to God’s activity and God’s grace.  But here’s the thing: he believed that the realization that we should respond to God’s invitation was God’s doing.  That is, the sense that we even need God is the result of God’s prevenient grace.

Even were our faith the result of a missionary or a friend or a campus minister who came and shared a message with us, the awakening in the heart Wesley understood as God’s doing.  God is the one sowing the seeds.  We do not sow.

V. END

Now, of course, there is a lot of work to do besides sowing.  There is the watering, the tending, the nurturing, and the harvesting.  But when we pause to realize that we are part of a much greater process than our work alone, we can truly reflect on what God is doing in the world.

Christianity as a missionary religion has a real tendency to trend toward the arrogant. And sometimes Christian evangelists come on less like apostles and more like Vikings. But here is a call for humility.  Ultimately, we are the hired help.  It is not about us. It is about what God is doing.

We may, like the Samaritan woman, run into town to tell other people, but they will believe not because of us, but because of their own experience with Christ. That may be through us, but it will be God’s doing.  It will be God’s doing, in the end, that ensures the harvest. Our task is only to be on hand and to do the work that has come to us, so that we too may celebrate when the season is done.