Sunday 13 July 2008

Sowing on the banks of Lough Derg

1. I’ve had mixed success with my sowings this year.

The problem is hares. We’re used to having them about, but this year there seem to be more than usual, and they seem to be more destructive than ever before. They’ve devoured the young French bean plants, they’ve made a fair start on the peas, and a few nights ago they took an entire row of emerging runner beans, each bitten off a bare inch from the ground! We’re trying to do something about it: my wife has put chicken wire fences around her raised beds, and I’ve ordered a spray from England which claims to deter them. But the yield this year will be poor all the same.

All this came to mind as I looked at today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (13:1-9, 18-23), commonly called the Parable of the Sower: the hares seem to be playing the role of the birds sent by the evil one to snatch up the seed from the path!

What is a parable? A parable is a story describing a scene from everyday life, which conveys a deeper meaning - when Jesus used them, a spiritual meaning. No doubt Jesus taught so often in parables because they conjure up memorable images, which lead those who hear them to reflect on their meanings, and discover the truth in them for themselves. No lesson is better learned than one you tease out for yourself! Parables are a bit like slow-release fertilizer, gradually yielding up their truth to people who ponder them.

The parable of the sower comes in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels as well as Matthew’s, and in startlingly similar words. Scholars believe the vivid image was remembered and later recorded, and an edited version was the basis of all three Gospel writers' texts. All three Gospels also contain the same explanation by Jesus of what the story means, so we can take it as authoratitive.

So let us in our imaginations picture the scene of the parable, let us reflect on its meaning, and let us tease out its relevance for us now, 2000 years later.

2. So many people wanted to listen to Jesus that he used a boat as a pulpit to address the crowd on the beach.

The beach was on a lake, the Sea of Galilee. I’ve never been there, but I see it in my minds eye as rather like our lake, Lough Derg: it’s about 40% larger in area, and wider but not so long. Imagine the people crowded on the beach at Dromineer, and Jesus in a lake boat talking to them.

Did Jesus see a man sowing in a nearby field? Perhaps this prompted his parable; if so everyone could literally see what he was talking about. The sower wouldn’t be using a seed-drill; he would be broadcasting the seed by hand, just as our ancestors would have done only 150 years ago. The seed would be in a bag or a basket, and he would walk steadily up and down the field, taking a handful of seed and throwing it out as evenly as he could. Even at a distance it would be quite clear to everyone what he was doing: they had seen it hundreds of times before, and many of them would have done it themselves.

So Jesus describes just what the crowd can all see:

  • Imagine a big field divided like allotments into strips each farmed by one family, with paths between them, beaten down hard by the passage of many feet. The crowd can see the birds following the sower. They swoop down to gobble up the seed that inevitably falls on the path, for all the sowers skill.
  • Everyone would understand that different parts of the field are of different quality.
  • Some parts would be stony: don’t imagine small pebbles, imagine great sheets of rock just under the surface, with just a few inches of soil on top. The soil above the rock would warm early, and the seeds would germinate quickly, but without a depth of soil the young seedlings would soon run out of nutrients and water and shrivel up in the sun.
  • Some parts of the field would be infested with perennial weeds: imagine scutch grass and creeping thistle, which would quickly outgrow the delicate crop, choking it.
  • But other parts of the field would be good land, with a deep, clean soil. Here the crop would have nutrients and water enough. It will flourish and produce a harvest of thirty, or sixty, or a hundred times the grain sown on it.
Jesus said many other things to the crowd that day in parables, we’re told. We don’t know what they were, but I think we can take it that Jesus was ‘proclaiming the good news of the kingdom’ as Matthew tells us elsewhere (Mat 9:35).

Let anyone with ears listen!’ Jesus finishes.

3. Jesus himself explains the parable in terms of ‘the word of the kingdom … sown in the heart’.

When his disciples ask him why he teaches in parables, Jesus gives them this interpretation of the parable, no doubt to reassure them that they do indeed understand what he is getting at.
  • The seed sown on the path is the word heard, but not understood, which the evil one snatches away, before it ever has the chance to sprout.
  • The seed sown on rocky ground is the word received with joy, but by a person without roots, without character, whose initial enthusiasm cannot withstand trouble or persecution.
  • The seed sown among thorns is the word heard by those who are so trapped by worldly cares and the lure of wealth that they cannot act upon it.
  • And the seed sown on good soil is the word heard by those who understand it, and act upon it. Only such people will yield a harvest of good.
Like those who crowded to the lake-shore 2000 years ago, we are the soil in which Jesus sows the seed. On a personal level, the message of his parable remains what it was then: we need to cultivate our characters so that as good soil we yield a rich harvest. Each one of us should try to develop the character traits of openness, persistence, and detachment from the world. Openness so that we do not miss God’s call when it comes. Persistence so that we can withstand trouble or persecution when we answer God’s call. And detachment from the cares of the world and the pursuit of wealth so that we are not distracted from acting on God’s call.

4. For Jesus, the sower is one who proclaims ‘the word of the kingdom’.

That is himself of course. But it is also his closest disciples, the twelve apostles, who he sent out saying ‘Proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mat 10:5-7)’. No doubt the twelve took comfort from the parable that even when their teaching seemed to show poor results, enough people would accept it to make it all worthwhile.

Before his ascension Jesus commissioned the apostles to go out and make disciples of all nations. Their commission was handed on to others, so that the Church in all its varied denominations still proclaims Jesus’s good news of the kingdom today. In Paul’s memorable words Christians are all part of Christ’s body the Church. Today the Church is the sower. Is there then a message for the Church in this parable? I believe there is.

The Church’s sowing of the seed does not seem to be producing a good harvest these days, does it? The fact is that here in Ireland - and in Europe generally - taking a broad view across all denominations, more and more people are losing contact with Christ’s Church. We see falling Church attendance; we see fewer baptisms; and we see insufficient ordinations to maintain the stock of full time clergy. Of course we need to understand why this is, and we need to do something about it; we also need the Holy Spirit to guide us for this to be successful.

It would be so easy for us to sink into depression about it. Particularly when the lost souls are those close to us. But we should not despair. Jesus himself was completely realistic about the prospects for his teaching, and so should we be as the Church. As Jesus realised, no matter how good a job we do as sowers, the sad fact is that many people will not become his disciples and will not be led to the kingdom of heaven by his or the Church’s teaching. Yet those who do become disciples make up for those that don’t by the rich harvest of good fruit they yield – as Jesus put it, 30, 60 or 100 fold.

5. So to sum up, the parable of the sower remains just as relevant today as it was in Jesus's day. Among the things we should learn from it are these:
  • As Christians we need to cultivate the soil of our own characters. We need to develop the Christian virtues of openness, persistence, and detachment from the world, so that we may yield a plentiful harvest of good fruit.

  • And we should not despair at the state of Christ’s Church today. Rather we should rejoice in the rich harvest of Christian souls we already have, as we pray for God to guide his Church and all of us to be better sowers of the word in future, so that the harvest yields even more.

Sunday 6 July 2008

Children & Yokes

1. Why does Jesus so often use children to illustrate his teaching?

Perhaps it’s because he knows what so many preachers forget, including me, that the best way to make your point stick is to relate it to everyday experience. And what’s more part of our everyday experience than the doings and sayings of children?

Or perhaps it’s because the open-minded, trustful innocence of a child has something special to teach us.

Or perhaps it is just because he loves children.

Whatever the reason, the responses of children are an obvious link between the two short passages we’ve just heard from St Matthew’s gospel – I suppose that’s why the good compilers of the Lectionary put them together, although by doing so they've rather lost their contexts. Let us look at them more closely, to see what they tell us.

2. In the 1st passage (Mat 11:16-19) Jesus evokes the image of children in the street who can’t agree what game to play.

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn says Jesus. You might hear something very similar on a street today:

‘Lets play weddings’ say one lot of kids;
‘Lets not’ say another lot, ‘Lets play funerals’;
‘No, we don’t want to play funerals’ say the first lot, ‘We want to play weddings!’

Jesus applies this image of squabbling children to the people of his generation. One lot won’t listen to what John the Baptist says because he is too puritan; ‘He has a demon’ they say. Another lot won’t listen to the Son of Man – Jesus of course, because he is too lax; ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ You can really feel Jesus’s exasperation, can’t you?

But what is going on here? To get to the bottom of it, I think we have to look at the context of Jesus’s words in Matthew’s text.

Matthew has just told us that Jesus’s cousin John, whom Herod had imprisoned and
would later execute, had sent his disciples to ask Jesus a question, ‘Are you the one who is to come?’ – In other words, are you the Messiah? And Jesus has answered, in a coded but unmistakable way, that he is: he says, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’ These were the signs by which Jews believed the Messiah would be recognised, based on Isaiah’s prophesy.

The Jews believed then, as many still do, that before the Messiah came, Elijah would return to herald his coming. But if Jesus is the Messiah, where is Elijah? Jesus then addresses the crowd, saying that John is more than just a prophet; John ‘is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!’

So Matthew has just told us that Jesus saw John as the new Elijah, heralding himself as the Messiah. Their teaching styles may be different, but John and Jesus’s teaching go together like a hand in a glove. There is no reason to take one side and rubbish the other! This is why Jesus is so exasperated with the squabbling factions.

But Jesus’s exasperation is tempered by his certainty that this will not derail God’s plan, which will ultimately be successful. He finishes by saying ‘Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’ Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures is seen as emanating from God, created by God before he created the world in the Genesis story. Wisdom is personified in the Book of Proverbs as a woman teaching a simple youth. And in future centuries this idea was to be developed in the Eastern Church into the idea of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, to whom Emperor Justinian dedicated his great church in Constantinople.

2. I think that in our own generation there’s a great deal we can learn from Jesus’s words too.

Take our Anglican Communion. You’ve no doubt heard reports, as I have, about the increasingly bitter divisions in it. We have a self-styled Orthodox party struggling for power in the Communion with a so-called Liberal party. Both parties are vying for the support of everyone else, while threatening to leave or to expel the others. On the surface the issue is whether homosexual behaviour is sinful, but underlying this are very different opinions on how literally or not to interpret scripture. It’s all rather confusing and disturbing, isn’t it! At least, I find it so.

But isn’t the whole hubbub rather like Jesus’s squabbling children? I don’t think we should allow their arguments to disturb our own faith. We should continue prayerfully to follow Jesus in the way he calls us, recognising that he may call others differently. They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. I for one intend to maintain Christian fellowship with all who look to Jesus, whatever disagreements I may have with them. Like Jesus, we can be certain that this squabbling cannot derail God’s plan. Perhaps the arguments will ultimately strengthen our churches, no matter how painful we may find the dissension now. Let us trust, like Jesus, that God’s Wisdom will be vindicated!

And I suggest that whenever we find ourselves drawn into disagreements with others, in our church, in our community, or anywhere else, we should reflect on these words of Jesus. Could we be exasperating our Lord by behaving like squabbling children? Are those we disagree with, like us, trying honestly to do God’s work? If so, perhaps we should try harder in love and fellowship to find common ground. We should be reassured by Jesus’s words: whatever the outcome, God’s wisdom will be vindicated!

I've been told by one dear to me that I should have finished the sermon here - she's right! There are two sermons in this one address, and one would have been enough! So please feel free to come back and read the second one later!

4. Turning to the 2nd passage (Mat 11:25-30), Jesus starts by publicly thanking his loving-father God.

‘I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth’, he says, ‘because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.’ The child theme again!

Jesus is surely speaking from experience: the experience that the wise and intelligent, the rabbis, the intellectuals, reject him, while plain ordinary folk accept him. I don’t think Jesus is condemning those who are clever – rather he is condemning those who are puffed up with intellectual pride. We must have the open-minded, trustful innocence of a child to believe that Jesus is who he claims to be.

Jesus continues, making the claim that is the centre of the Christian faith, ‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ What Jesus is saying is this: if you want to know what God is like, look at me! As Christians we believe that in Jesus we see what God is like. But surely we can only see it if we are as open-minded and trustful as children. Children really do have much to teach us!

Jesus then says the ‘comfortable words’ that we used to hear every Sunday in the old traditional language Communion service: they are comfortable in the sense that they give us comfort. ‘Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ And he continues, ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

We Irish tend to use the word yoke these days for something whose name we’ve forgotten, or we are too lazy to dredge from our memory. Unless we work with draught animals we probably know very little about real yokes – those wooden bars that go over the shoulders of men or animals to allow them to carry or pull heavy loads safely. But Jesus’s audience would have been very familiar with yokes. And Jesus himself was quite likely an expert in yokes. He probably made them as a youth in his father Joseph’s carpenter’s shop. They would have been bespoke – the carpenter would no doubt take measurements of the man or animal, trim the wood, and fit it carefully, making fine adjustments until it fitted just right, like a good tailor. Perhaps the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth had a sign over the door saying something like ‘Buy my yokes - they fit well!’

What Jesus is saying to his audience, echoing down to us over the millennia, is this. ‘My way, the life I show you, is not a burden to cause you pain; your task is made to measure to fit you’. Whatever God sends us is made to fit our needs and our abilities perfectly. It is not that life’s burdens are easy to carry, but God lays them on us in love, they are meant to be carried in love following Jesus’s example, and love makes even the heaviest burden light.

5. So to conclude

Let us pray that we may not exasperate our Lord Jesus Christ by unnecessary squabbling, like the people of his generation, but rather may we draw strength from Jesus’s certainty that God’s wisdom will be vindicated in the end.

And let us pray that we may be as open-minded and trustful as children, so that we may see God in Jesus, so that we may take up his yoke of love, and so that we may find rest for our souls.