That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Well here we go!
One of the best known of Jesus’ parables. Is there anyone here who hasn’t heard this before?
We know the original story and we know Jesus’ interpretation. We’ve heard it all before so many times.
In fact, if I were to sit down now and ask anyone in the congregation who’s a regular to take over, most of you could come up here and make a pretty good fist of a sermon. (I won’t. Don’t panic.)
This is not just the preacher’s dilemma – “How can I make something so well known fresh?” It’s also the dilemma of the man and woman in the pew – “I can slip into my usual state of happy indifference because I know this one. Give me a nudge when he’s finished.”
A friend of mine was telling me earlier in the week how he intends to keep his congregation on their toes this morning by acting out this parable. When he gets to the part where the thorns choke the new growth he suggested that his congregation would be miming strangling each other.
It does strike me – without wishing to be critical of my friend, after all I won’t have been there to see how it pans out – that we can too easily stick with the Sunday school interpretation of this parable, which is fine as far as it goes: the sower represents God and the seed the Word of God. Note how generously, liberally, almost extravagantly the sower distributes the seed: different people hear God’s word and respond differently. Some heed the word and go on to bear good fruit and others don’t, for a variety of reasons and the parable is good at outlining what it is that gets in the way for people when it comes to failing to hear, or hearing but failing to listen or hearing and listening but failing to understand or hearing, listening and understanding but failing to act.
I’ve never actually preached on this text before, but I’ve taught it in the classroom more times than I care to remember and because I was teaching it in a syllabus for 11-12 year olds I’ve never needed to develop the ideas beyond that fairly simplistic approach which identifies each patch of ground as an individual or a type of person: the person who’s enthusiastic but gets side-tracked; the person who is so overwhelmed by the struggles of living day to day that there just isn’t time in their lives for something new and the person who takes it all in and works with it.
And it does work perfectly well at that level, but where’s the challenge for those of us of, shall we say, more mature years and who have been disciples for half a lifetime if not more?
The more I think about it, the more I recognise that at different times in our lives each of us have received the word of God in all the ways described in the parable. The soils are no longer different types of people but each of us at different stages of our personal walks and struggles with God and his word.
Sometimes life got in the way, even when we had good intentions. Again, hearing the word and following it in all its moral and ethical implications has been, for many of us, a series of steps too far at particular times in our lives. At other times, we’ve heard it, accepted it and allowed it to shape us. At the same time many, maybe most of us here, no longer react to the word of God, hear it or understand it in the ways we did ten, fifteen, twenty or more years ago. We’ve matured and developed; are in the process of maturing and developing in our understanding of God’s word and its call on our lives. When Jesus says, “Let those with ears hear.” we have - but over time we’ve begun to hear something else, something new, something different, something more challenging in the familiar message.
In fact, isn’t that just as it should be?
And isn’t it also true in the wider life of the church? We had no women in ordained ministry prior to the 1990s. Why? Because of our understanding of scripture and church tradition, and now we have women bishops. This week’s General Synod has moved in more than one way in its understanding of the issues around human sexuality and has promoted policies that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago.
It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation: is it the church’s teaching which has helped individuals to change their understanding of doctrine or is it individuals who have helped to shape the church’s understanding of a whole range of doctrinal and ethical issues which come under the broad heading of the Word of God?
Either way the Word of God and the discipleship it feeds into is a living, dynamic force that has the power to speak – yes, to individuals certainly, but also to each new generation as we confront complex issues unimagined by those who went before us - and that is the work of the Spirit.
What’s the alternative? That our faith becomes like that of the religion of Jesus’ own generation and which he railed against for being inflexible and hidebound in tradition and outdated practices and from which the love and compassion of God was all too often obscured if not lost completely? Yet, often without any sense of self-awareness or irony, we too can fall into those same traps because change is threatening.
So, think back for a moment or two? Are there any attitudes or moral certainties that you once supported as faithful and committed disciples which you believed to be scriptural but which you no longer accept or support? Are you any the less a faithful and committed disciple because of that shift in your belief or theological thinking?
There’s a long standing approach in all branches of Christianity which asks, “What would Jesus do?” Perhaps it should be, “What would Jesus Think?” before “What would Jesus do?” because one leads to the other.
So, let me ask you: what do we do when Jesus’ attitude as we’ve come to understand it from what is revealed to us in the Gospels, appears to be in conflict with what scripture seems to say elsewhere? (And that’s not an unlikely scenario.) Which has primacy? Which has more authority? Scripture or the teaching of Jesus – or the perceived spirit of the teaching of Jesus? Are not both the Word of God, given that Jesus is, as John tells us, the Word made Flesh?
Let me ask a different question. Do we believe that God’s self-revelation stopped at the moment the ink was dry on the last document of the New Testament? And if so, what are we to make of more of John’s theology when he tells us that The Spirit, when he comes, will guide us into all truth? Are we still waiting for that Spirit? If the answer is that we aren’t still waiting, then we must accept that the Spirit is alive and engaged in his ongoing task of guiding us into all truth.
There is a principle in worldwide Anglicanism called The Three-Legged Stool. Our faith, our belief and our practice are based on three things which together give balance: scripture, tradition and reason. We ignore any of the three, or give too much emphasis to any of the three at our peril.
So, as we’ve said, it had not been the tradition of our church to have women clergy. Was it that the Word of God, on those early occasions when this was questioned fell, as in the parable, on stony ground and those with ears didn’t hear? Or later, when attitudes were changing that the weeds grew up around the idea and strangled it and those with ears didn’t hear again? “Not now. The time’s not right.” But over time our understanding of the changes in human society, an application of our reason, and the spirit of the teaching of Jesus as found in scripture about the equality of all before God, has led us into a different understanding and a new tradition. Those with ears heard – at last.
It’s a good job God sows - and continues to sow - his Word so liberally, so generously and so extravagantly because sometimes it takes us an inordinately long to time before we hear it unencumbered by our own prejudices, agendas and cultural norms: challenging the status quo doesn’t happen easily and the church moves forward by consensus as it seeks to understand the mind and will of God and the outworking of his word.
You’ll often have had conversations with other Christians who call themselves “Bible-believing Christians”. For many who identify in that way that’s another way of saying that their belief is in Scripture as the ultimate authority: the only expression of the Word of God. Other denominations concentrate very heavily on church tradition. Neither is the Anglican way.
When we listen, as we do Sunday by Sunday to scripture read, have you ever thought to ask why it isn’t just left at that and why people like me are tasked with explaining it? Why? Because it’s part of our tradition to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to make that scripture speak to us in ways the written word doesn’t – can’t. Every week we’re encouraged from the pulpit to go away and think about what we’ve just heard; to use our God given intellect - reason, as the three legged stool has it - to understand what God is teaching us. At the end of our Biblical readings it tends to be our practice to respond, “This is the Word of The Lord. Thanks be to God.” Other congregations respond differently with, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. Thanks be to God.” That’s a bit more challenging.
Now, if to you, that’s starting to sound as if I’m saying that we can play fast and loose with scripture, that’s not what I’m saying at all. Scripture is the Word of God and it is the foundation of our faith, but let’s not pretend that Scripture doesn’t sometimes confront us with problems that it can’t seem to solve by reference to its own texts: where there is confusion in ethics and doctrine, the New Testament trumps the Old. Where there is confusion in ethics and doctrine the spirit of the teaching of Jesus trumps Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. The Word of God also resides outside of scripture in the ongoing guidance of God’s Spirit who works in our hearts and minds to guide us into all truth.
But be wary: In Philippians St. Paul warns us to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” Let’s take up that challenge by truly seeking to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church when we hear or read scripture and seek to discern the Word of God outside of scripture.