Trinity 5 2017
Isaiah 55:10-13, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
8.00 am Holy Communion
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I grew up in rural North Essex in a village that was in the middle of an arable farming area. Although I can’t claim to have ever seen farmers sowing seeds by hand (I’m not quite that old) I was certainly very familiar with seeing fields being planted by seed scattering machines pulled behind tractors, with seeing birds trying to eat the seeds that did not make it into the ground, with seeing how at the edges of the field weeds could overwhelm the crops and, later in the year, with seeing the stalks heavy with many more times corn than was planted in the ground. Therefore although the parable of the sower was told over 2000 years ago it still speaks directly into experiences that I can easily relate to and I am sure that goes for many people here today.
I also remember the first time that I heard the parable of the sower. I must have been about 8 or 9 years old and the local vicar, came to give a talk at my Church of England primary school.
He read us the parable and he posed the question of whether we wanted our lives to produce a crop of a hundred times what was sown or whether we would allow the word of God to be snatched away from us because of the hardness of our hearts. Of course as good pupils skilled in keeping the vicar happy, we knew what the right answer was and we said that we wanted our lives to produce a good crop but I remember thinking for the first time that we actually had a choice in this matter –although the imagery of seed being sown by hand makes the outcome sound rather random in fact I realised that it was up to us how we choose to receive and respond to the message about God’s kingdom. So, in addition to saying the right thing in order to make the vicar happy I also said to myself that I wanted my life to produce a good crop in response to the word that I had received. Of course I am a very long way from doing that, and may never do so without the grace of God, but if that vicar is looking down on us today then can I just say that your words of well over 30 years ago have stayed with me and I am still working on it!
Matthew chapter 13 is full of parables – it starts with the parable of the sower but there is also the parable of the weeds in which the children of God are the good crops which are separated from the children of the devil after the harvest, the parable of the mustard seed in which the kingdom of heaven starts from the smallest speck of faith but can then grow into the largest of trees or the yeast which can transform stodgy dough into life giving bread, the parable of the hidden treasure in which the kingdom of heaven is of such beauty and value that it is worth giving up everything else for and the parable of the fishing net which, like the parable of the weeds, has to do with sorting out the good from the bad at the end of time.
So why did Jesus speak in so many parables – why didn’t he just say something straightforward like: “Accept and follow the word of God and you will be transformed into a new person, one that is pleasing to God.” The answer is that he does say things like that to people when they ask him direct questions – in the story of the rich ruler at Luke 18 Jesus is asked what a rich young man should do to inherit eternal life and Jesus does not offer him parables but tells him directly that he should sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor and become a follower. So Jesus does give direct instructions on occasions but the beauty of the parables is that they make us think carefully about the meaning of the words for ourselves – and when we engage our minds in working something out for ourselves this usually results in learning something much more deeply than just being told the answer without having to think.
So let’s reflect a little more about the parable of the sower – the sower himself is God and the seeds being scattered are the word of God or the message about the kingdom of God. The ground on which the seed falls is us or, rather, it is our minds or our souls and it is the state of our mind or our soul which determines whether the seed will germinate and, even if it does, whether it will manage to grow and be fruitful.
We are told first that some seed fell on the path and that the birds came and ate it up – this is those who hear the message of the kingdom of God but do not understand it on any level and therefore it never penetrates below the surface and never gets a chance to germinate. We should be clear that this hardness on the part of the recipient is not due to any moral failing on their part but because they do not understand the message they have been given – as Christians and as a church it is therefore our responsibility to ensure that we communicate the message of God in ways that can be understood. And if we ourselves do not understand something, which happens to me quite regularly, then we can either leave the seed untended on the surface until it is taken away or we can seek out understanding in order to help the seed through our carapace of ignorance.
Some other seeds fell among rocky places where the soil was shallow – because it was shallow and warm the seeds germinated quickly and sprang up but when the sun beat down the plants soon withered away as they had no roots. We live in a rather superficial age of quick fixes and instant everything and this is a warning about superficial faith – the quick response of joy that has no root. Of course that does not mean that we should not welcome a quick and joyful response to God’s grace in ourselves or in others but it should not be mistaken for a mature or fruitful faith. As a church seeking to be and to make life long disciples we should keep nurturing our own faith and the faith of those around us to ensure that we are deeply planted in the knowledge and love of God that transcends all short termism and that we have roots that reach the living water of Christ.
Other seeds did manage to germinate and even managed to grow for a considerable time – unfortunately they had landed amongst thorns that grew up and choked the plants before they could bear fruit. As we know from Jesus’ explanation the thorns that he is talking about are the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth – in fact the rich ruler that we thought about a moment ago would be a good example of this – he was a good man who kept the commandments but, ultimately, he put his trust in his wealth rather than in God and that stopped him from becoming perfect. In many ways for Christian disciples in a largely affluent society this is the most troubling and challenging part of the parable as it reminds us that we can come a long way to spiritual maturity and yet still be overcome by trusting in our earthly treasures rather than seeking to store up treasure in heaven.
And finally some seed fell into the deep soil that was free of rocks and thorns and produced fruit of many times more than was planted – this is those who heard the word and understood it and put it into practice.
So what are we to do? We must till the earth of our hearts to remove any hardness there which may stop the word of God breaking through, pick out the rocks of superficiality one by one, pull up the thorns of distrust, build up the good earth of discipleship and to constantly hope and pray that in our time we shall yield a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
But, importantly we should not despair if we have ever had hard hearts, if we have ever made commitments to faith in the past but have not followed through or if we ever feel choked by the thorns of this life. I have certainly been in all those places from time to time and will doubtless be so again in the future. We should remember that God the sower does not sow for one season only and then move on to fresh pastures – God will keep sowing his word in our hearts and souls throughout our lives – some of that may happen in church but a great deal of it will not – our responsibility is to keep cultivating and weeding so we are ready for the next seed when it lands. Because, as we were reminded in the reading from Isaiah, actually God knows what he is doing, he does not sow in vain, his word will accomplish that which he proposes and that the whole of creation, including the mountains and trees, will ultimately celebrate in joy as his kingdom comes again.