You Reap as you Sow

A Sermon preached in Peterhouse Chapel on the Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity, 18th November 2001, by Dr Rachel Muers, Fellow of Girton College. The readings were Daniel 6 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

You reap as you sow. We say that, with the benefit of hindsight and distance. Somebody's acted and their action has brought about consequences that seem inevitable. With the benefit of hindsight. That's the thing. Because saying "you reap as you sow" also reminds us how irreversible our actions are - and how little control we have over the chains of events we set in motion when we act. In the parable of the sower, this is even clearer. The farmers in Palestine in Jesus' day sowed the seed before they ploughed the ground; so they had no way of knowing whether they were sowing seed onto stony ground, or among thorns, or onto good and fertile soil. But once the seed was cast, it couldn't be taken back - and they reaped the harvest accordingly.

In the reading from the book of Daniel we hear, first, about people who reap what they sow. Think about Darius' story. Darius the king was the most powerful person of his time. He had power over life and death throughout his wide dominions. But he didn't have the power to undo what he had done; he didn't have the power to change the consequences of his actions, to turn aside the inevitable course of events guarded by the law of the Medes and the Persians. He had proclaimed the decree that he alone should be worshipped in his kingdom. That wasn't necessarily an act of sheer megalomania. It might have seemed like a good way to manage religious pluralism or keep the peace, something that looked, from where he stood, good and responsible. But then he reaped what he'd sown. His closest and most trusted servant, the one who protected his kingdom from all kinds of loss and trouble, was to be destroyed by the decree. And Darius, despite all his efforts, was forced to seal the servant's fate, over and over again - to give the order for Daniel's death, to seal the lions' den. No way out. No way out of the law of the Medes and the Persians. Plenty of opportunity for hindsight, no opportunity to undo his action. He already realised, as he waited out that night, what his decree had really meant. A false attempt to make his own power absolute, a terrible delusion; extreme pride and folly. But what could he do? You reap as you sow.

Then consider Daniel, the man whose wisdom had thus far brought him great prosperity and success. He also reaped what he'd sown. He knew what the king's decree said, he knew the law of the Medes and the Persians that he had administered for so long, he must have known of the conspiracy against him; and he knew that to offer prayers and praise to his God would take him into the lions' den. He decided against the king's decree, so the king's decree decided against him. A painful and shameful death. That's the harvest many such faithful witnesses have reaped.

So far this has all proceeded as it inevitably would; according to the law of cause and effect, according to the law of the Medes and the Persians. You act, it turns out well or badly, and you take the consequences; you take what comes.

In the same way, people listening to the parable of the sower heard something with which they were familiar, completely expected, just as things would be. You sow seed, it falls wherever it falls, and you take what comes; and often that's loss, destruction and waste. Whether what you're sowing is seed in the fields or the word of God.

Do we have ears to hear what comes next? If so, we may begin to understand what it meant for Daniel, this wise, successful and prosperous man, to trust in his God not just against all the odds but against all the certainties.

When you sowed seed in Palestine, you expected a harvest of about sevenfold. Sevenfold was enough to keep you going and have a little to spare. Tenfold was exceptionally good. But thirtyfold? Sixty? A hundred? Putting the different numbers in just seems to emphasise the absurdity of it - like the difference between getting 500% and 600% return on your investment. It's not just beyond the expected, it's beyond the possible. It's the point at which the parable, the story of ordinary life and the ordinary rules people work by, breaks open to show another rule at work altogether. God's rule. The rule of the living God, enduring for ever.

Just as the lion's den breaks open to show Daniel alive. The power of the lions, the power of the law of the Medes and Persians, all the powers that bind people to cycles of destruction, are brought under the power of the God who delivers and rescues.

And this means that Darius is set free at the same time as Daniel is - he's set free from the terrible train of events into which his decree has bound him. He's freed from the consequences of a proud and foolish act. And - and this is the real miracle perhaps, the real breaking open of the story - he's set free from the pride and folly itself. He changes his decree. Not the worship of Darius, the worship of the God of Israel. Not Darius' kingdom, which he's learnt was no kingdom at all, but the kingdom of God.

What do these two texts say to us, in a time of ambiguous harvests when we may fear that we see even more troubles being sown? When in the aftermath of disaster there is so much opportunity for hindsight and at the same time so little chance, it seems, of breaking out of the patterns of action and consequence that waste and destroy? If we have ears to hear, let us hear. Let us hear that this troubled world is ruled in the end, not by the law of the Medes and the Persians that is eternal, but by the God Daniel trusted who is eternal and lives, who delivers and saves, who sets free and surprises, who raises harvests of joy where only trouble was sown. Let us hear that as the rule of this God breaks in we can be freed from the need to suffer and repeat our own pride and folly. And let us hear that those who act from their trust in this God are not, finally, cast into the ground as wasted seed.

We do not hear that there is no more waste and destruction. In Daniel's story, remember the continuing violence with its collateral damage - Daniel's enemies killed along with their wives and children. In the parable of the sower, remember how often those who heard it experienced what seemed like senseless suffering and the waste of their labour. These are not simply happy endings. But they are endings that leave us at the breaking in of God's kingdom and summon us to acknowledge it.

So let us hear this also. The most precious seed of God is sown into the world onto inhospitable ground, crushed down with thorns, swallowed up in death, and raised to yield a harvest beyond what can be thought or imagined. May the living God, who endures for ever, raise up this seed in us and for us.