Sermon - 1st September 2019
Scripture - Luke 8:5-8, 11-15; Hebrews 13:1-8
Last Sunday, as I was locking the church door, a leaf blew in – not a green leaf, but an orange one, a first sign of autumn.
The start of autumn means more than cooler weather and longer nights: the harvest has begun. Last week, as I travelled for work to Liverpool and Preston, there’s a lot of farmland to either side of the motorway, and the harvest is well underway.
Living in the city, our lives are lives are disconnected from the agricultural cycle; however, our trips to the supermarket are dependent on it.
The people of Jesus’ time lived more closely to farming, most being subsistence farmers, selling their surplus at local markets. Story-telling was also a large part of their culture, and Jesus taught through parables.
Our first reading is one of Jesus’ most well-known: the Sower.
You may have heard this parable many times. Jesus’ audience would have understood His words and what it meant for farming and a good harvest, but they did not understand what His words meant spiritually, so the Disciples asked Jesus for an explanation.
- What does the seed represent?
- What does the seed on the path represent?
- What does the seed in the rocky ground represent?
- What does the seed choked by weeds represent?
- What does the seed in good soil represent?
- Now, let us hear the explanation in Jesus’ own words.
Jesus’ audience readily understood the farming metaphors, but they did not quite understand the spiritual meaning He intended: hence the need for the explanation.
In our 21st century urban lives, the roles are reversed: we may know intellectually what Jesus’ parable means, but we have lost sight of the deep and vital importance of the agricultural message.
The seed that falls on the path, in the rocky ground or among the weeds yields no harvest: it is wasted. It will not fill empty stomachs.
Only the seed in the good ground gives the farmer what has been worked for: a crop which is food for the family. Jesus’ audience knew that without a harvest, their families would go hungry, even die.
Without the good soil and the harvest which comes from it, our supermarket shelves and our stomachs would be empty.
Every farmer, whether in first-century Israel or here and now in the 21st century, has their set amount of land. Some of it is good soil; other parts may contain rocks or weeds, and other parts may be useless.
Now the farmer could accept the land for what it is, or the farmer could work hard to change the parts of the land beset with rocks and weeds. Doing so will take days, weeks, months – even years – of hard work, but the farmer knows that as a result, there will be more good soil to yield a bigger and better harvest.
When I moved into my current house two years ago, the garden had many weeds, particularly dandelions. Each spring, every day, I check my garden, armed with a weed-killer spray. As a result of my efforts, my garden had far fewer weeds this year; and next year, I expect even fewer. The garden also contains a lot of stone, another long and difficult task yet to come!
So what is the Parable of the Sower about? If you have a car in the UK, once it reaches three years old, you have to take it for an annual MOT inspection to check it for safety and roadworthiness. And, when you reach certain ages, like 40 or 50, the NHS will send you a letter and invite you to have various tests and health-screenings.
On one level, the Parable of the Sower is a spiritual health check. Jesus’ own words of explanation of the Parable tell us this. But on another level, the Parable is something more: once we know the state of our spiritual health, the message is hard work! The Parable encourages us to pull up the weeds, dig up and sift out the rocks.
But let us not forget the good soil. Any farmer will tell you that even the good soil needs care and attention: it needs to be nourished with fertiliser, ploughed over, and even be given time to rest and recover by leaving it fallow or rotating the types of crops grown.
Some people are not very good at gardening: they can’t tell the difference between a weed and a plant or flower. We might say the same spiritually. Fortunately, the New Testament contains many passages which offer advice to Christians about living lives which yield a good harvest.
In a moment, we are going to hear one such passage, from the letter to the Hebrews. Scholars are not sure who wrote the letter, but it is thought it was written some 40-60 years after Jesus’ time on Earth, probably by someone who was close to St. Paul.
This reading from the letter to the Hebrews offers us a spiritual MOT or health-check. As we heard it, did you notice that it was not about praying, nor about reading the Bible, nor about attending church: it was about how we interact with others – love for others, being welcoming, drawing alongside others in their suffering.
Sometimes, as LGBT Christians, we may flinch away from any mention of sex in the Bible. But these words in this reading speak of love; they talk about the need for honour and respect in our intimate relationships.
There’s a third strand in this reading, too: God’s faithfulness. There is a real temptation to put our trust in other things, like money and possessions, or even human philosophies – because they are visible and tangible.
One of the blessings of our church congregation is the openness with which many of us live our lives, sharing our joys and sorrows with us through social media. I am moved by the things which many of you going through the asylum process share: you may have little materially, but your harvest of faith is huge. We often read your shared thoughts where God has said – as in today’s reading from Hebrews: “I will never leave you. I will never desert you… The Lord helps me. I will not be afraid.”
Today’s readings and sermon have largely been about our faith as individuals. The 17th century English poet and Anglican clergyman, John Donne, wrote the famous line “No man is an island.” The quotation continues:
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…
any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.”
[MEDITATION XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions]
As a church community, our lives are bound together: we share together our good harvest, and we support each other to clear away the rocks and the weeds.
As a nation, our lives are bound together. In the news, there are many rocks and weeds. Many of our young people are without direction; they are scared, turning to gangs, knife crime, drugs and addiction. The political and democratic fabric of our nation is being choked by the weeds of certain political ideologies. Our environment is polluted by exhaust gases and rubbish as a result of our insatiable consumption and population growth.
It may seem like the bounteous harvest from the good soil is not what it was, even a few years ago. This week, the world marks the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, where the weed of the evil political ideology of Fascism grew across the face our planet. Only through the sacrifice of around 70 million people were peace and good order restored.
In Matthew 9:37, Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is huge. But there are only a few workers.”
Walking the Way with Jesus turns our lives upside-down and inside-out. It goes against the tide of the way of most of the world. And the journey will be long, and it will not be easy. For that journey, we need to be in good spiritual health, benefitting from a good harvest.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. He is the Source, Guide, and Goal of all that is: to God be eternal glory.