The Church that Feeds People

Pentecost service


The Parable of the Rower

140713_coverMatthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Year A, 5th Sunday after Pentecost

The Parable of the Sower is about soil and fruits. Jesus interprets his own parable for his disciples, saying that the seeds are the word of God, and different people receive God’s wisdom the way different soils receive seeds. The natural and reasonable response to this parable is to ask what kind of soil am I? How do I respond to the word of the kingdom? Am I rocky soil? Have I been distracted by the cares of the world or by wealth? What fruits have I produced?

We could ask these sorts of questions of our own lives, or of the life of our congregation. Are we hearing and responding to God’s guidance?

As helpful as these questions are, I fear that they can lead us to be just a little too judgmental, of ourselves and of others. If I look at my own life and ask, what kind of soil am I, I am only getting a very limited snapshot, at best a moment in time from one perspective.

I would like to offer a personal story that gives a slightly different perspective on the parable of the sower. I call this “the parable of the rower.”

Almost two years ago I started learning to row in a single sculling boat. Once I had learned the basics, I joined a coach’s group to improve my rowing and, eventually, to prepare to compete in races.

The coaches had us do drills and exercises, over and over again, to learn the balance of the finesse, grace, and power necessary to row well. Just being strong isn’t enough. Rowing requires an astounding balance of grace and elegance while pushing as hard as your muscles will go. One coach likes to tell us to be like a ballerina, light and quick and strong.

From the first time out the coach told me, “Keep your back straight.” I understood the words. Conceptually, I knew what keeping my back straight meant, but I just could not do it at all. So, I did the best I could and kept rowing.

The next time we went out, I thought I was ready to work on something new, but what I heard was, “Keep you back straight.”

Weeks went by, and eventually I thought I was able to keep my back straight, at least for a few strokes. At the end of a big morning workout, after putting everything I had into my rowing, the coach called out to me, “David, you need to keep you back straight.”

So I worked and worked at my posture and form. I was improving and getting a little faster and a lot stronger. That first summer, I entered a race, my first regatta, and competed against five other men around my age. The race official called out the start, and I threw everything into my rowing. I was thrashing about. I almost tipped over at the start, and then again halfway down the course. I struggled to stay in my lane, and then I completely ran out of oxygen just half way down the course. I came in fourth, I think, or maybe it was 5th. (I know there was one guy behind me at least.) When I got back to shore, my coach was there, and guess what she had to say? “Keep your back straight.”

The point is, I was trying to keep my back straight all along. The first time I heard the instruction, I physically couldn’t do it. Later, I could keep my back straight briefly, and I even experienced some excitement when I noticed how much more graceful my rowing became, but I could not maintain the form. In the race, I was so distracted by the thrill of competition and the need to stay in my lane and the need to keep the boat upright, that I completely forgot about form. I was lucky to stay in the boat!

After almost two years of rowing three to five times a week, and after countless hours of coaching and practice, this week I finally had a breakthrough in my rowing form. I could really feel the difference in the stroke. My back was straight, my shoulders relaxed, hands relaxed, all the parts came together, and for several thousand meters I rowed smoothly and efficiently. A week from now I will be in another regatta, and I’ll see if I can row that way in a race.

Sometimes, when we receive coaching, or when we hear spiritual guidance, we are not ready or able to hear or understand. That was me the first 200 times I was told to keep my back straight. Only after many, many hours of practice was I able to even begin to row with good form. Other times, we hear great advice, and we are excited. This is the answer we were looking for! But we can’t keep it up. Even when we are ready to hear something new, even when we are ready to learn and grow, we so easily get distracted. The cares and distractions of life draw us away from even the best and most helpful guidance.

I haven’t given up on rowing. Every time I go out I try to improve, and I occasionally see evidence that I’m getting more graceful, more efficient, and faster.

Our lives as followers of Jesus look a lot like the parable of the sower, or perhaps the parable of the rower…

What we can’t even begin to understand today could turn out to be the most life giving pearl of wisdom a year from now. The key is to keep trying. Keep striving to know God. Keep striving to grow spiritually. Develop a daily prayer practice. Study the Bible. Get involved in a ministry in the world, serving those in need. When you encounter a reading in the Bible that makes no sense, don’t give up. When you struggle to find a daily prayer practice, keep at it. Every time you try, even if you fail, you are growing.

The Rev. David Marshall
St. Dunstan’s Church, Shoreline WA
July 13, 2014

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