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s048g02 Lockleys 14/7/2002 Sunday 15

"With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: 'You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive." Matthew 13:14

This quotation, from the prophet Isaiah, happens immediately after he gets his commission. You may recall he has the vision of the Lord of hosts, high and lifted up, and the question "Whom shall I send?" After Isaiah's lips are touched with the burning coal, he says to the Lord, "Here am I, send me". But the prophet is immediately warned that the Lord's message would be rejected.

The parable of the sower is really more aptly named the parable of the soil, for the difference in growth has nothing to do with the sower who spreads the seed everywhere, but in the soil and it's preparedness to receive the seed and to nurture it within - or not.

And this parable is quite fundamental to the teaching of Jesus. Nineham calls it one of two or perhaps three passages actually telling us the content of the teaching of Jesus in the whole of Mark's gospel. (Nineham St Mark p125 - the others are 13.2-37 -the signs of the end time and perhaps 7.1-23 - eating with defiled hands) The so-called parable of the sower is recorded also by Matthew and Luke and each quotes this passage from Isaiah at it's conclusion.

This is probably enough evidence that Isaiah's prediction of rejection was important to the early Church, but there is in fact more. It is extremely significant that John, so often different from Matthew, Mark and Luke in his account of the life and teachings of Jesus, does not fail to also use this passage from Isaiah predicting the failure of the religious authorities to hear the message of Jesus, though the parable of the sower / soil is absent. (John 12:39-41) It is in fact after the voice of God is heard from heaven, so those who wouldn't hear are given even less excuse.

Paul is recorded in Acts (28.26-27) as using this verse in Isaiah to explain the rejection of Jesus message, and echoes of it are also found as he ponders the official rejection by his own people in Romans (10.16 - 11.8).

Some may be unaware that three times Jesus predicted his forthcoming death on the cross - probably the best remembered time is where Peter tries to dissuade Jesus and is rebuked with the words: "Get behind me, Satan!" The Cross was no accident where Jesus "painted himself into a corner" from which he was unable to extricate himself.

And we begin here to see the interplay between God acting in love towards all of humanity, that grace being deliberately rejected by those in power, that rejection turning into actual murder, and that the very act of murder is foreseen by God and turned into victory and grace for others not in positions of power and authority.

The fundamental key to this whole drama is for me the fact that Jesus accepted the offerings of people other than the religious authorities and it was precisely this that they could not countenance and he was killed for this. You may recall that the first murder recorded in the Bible was because one brother imagined that his brother's offering to God was more accepted than his own.

I always use the term the "religious authorities" because I am never talking about the ancient people of God, the Jewish people. Every religious organisation, including our own Anglican Church, have their religious authorities, those who hold positions of power and see others as less privileged.

So the passage from Isaiah is not that some people *inexplicably* do not perceive - something which we attribute to some divine non-election. The sign outside the Church: "Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?" is quite misplaced. In the parable, the people who passed by the traveller who fell among thieves were the religious people. The people who do not perceive, do so out of their own deliberate choice. They refuse to see because in seeing they would have to acknowledge God as more prodigal, and prodigal towards people other than themselves. They refuse to see because they would lose their self-appointed positions of power and authority over others.

And we are meant to see that Jesus was killed by the powerful - so that we can both see that God loves us as we are and shows us that we too need to avoid power ourselves.

Jesus ministry "failed" not because he failed to convert the world, but he "failed" because of the opposition of the religious authorities who refused to see that God could love people other than them.

The resurrection is our guarantee that the efforts the religious people went to - to stop Jesus associating with others - was doomed to failure. God continues to love people other than the religious hierarchy and the religiously orthodox.

It is common knowledge that "the man in the street" to use the phrase is now, more than ever before prepared to answer on religious affiliation (an optional question) in our Census - "none". Many more people "believe but don't belong" - to borrow a phrase from a recent story in our "Advertiser". I am suggesting that these are logical outcomes of the faith we hold. People are not prepared to ascribe to a restrictive faith and so often our faith comes across as restrictive. In some senses they perceive the prodigalness of God more than us. They realise that it was precisely people like them that Jesus associated with and was killed for doing so.

One of the other lovely pictures of Christians is that we are salt to the world, but we must realise that the world is not meant to be composed entirely of sodium chloride. It would be a horrid aberration to suggest so and I for one wouldn't want to live in such a world. As you next drive past the salt pans north of the Barker Wetlands, see how barren they are! Yet, we blithely assume that God expects everyone to become like us - that the world will become salt. No. Salt is properly used to bring out the flavours in other food. So Christians as salt, bring out the unique contributions others have to make to the world and to our perceptions of God.

So we as Christians notice in other people things unique and worthy and highlight them to others. We magnify others and we and society are magnified.

Indeed, to return to the so-called parable of the sower, we are merely the soil, prepared to nurture the seed, and enable and let other people sprout and grow up to maturity, the path on which they are already travelling. We pray that others will become more wonderful than us, the patch of soil which nurtures them.

So this is my vision for St Richard's. We exist, not to make everyone recognise how wonderful we are, to make people our clones or to get them to conform to our precepts. We exist that others may find full maturity as they grow into the person God intended for them from the beginning. They are enabled to grow as we nurture them with love. They are stunted from growth if they find no love here, or if they are made to conform to our ideas of who they should be. If we are not a nurturing place, the birds of the air will take others away, or they will be choked by our expectations.

Of course, this is the reality for us all, for the promise is that we too will find our unique contribution blooming.

I have had cause in another situation, to compare the ministry of an uncle or aunt with that of a priest. In some ways an uncle or aunt can help a young person find their own way, where a parent brings so many expectations to their relationship with their child. So too a priest and a parish can be a real help in allowing a child to gently move out of the family circle and begin to find their own feet in the wider society - and this outward movement is surely good, for parents and family will not always be there - whereas society will always be there until the day we die.

Recently I have been attending the conversations run by the Ministry Development Council: "Living Together: Speaking in Love - Conversations on Homosexuality and the Church". One of the conservative presenters has come to the conclusion that the Genesis story of Sodom and Gommorah has nothing to say about intimate gay relationships, and of course it doesn't. But as I reflected, how the inhabitants of Sodom exercised their control over others was by using sexual bullying. Once cowered in this way the victims would comply in every other way. But controlling and regulating people's intimate affections is just another way of getting control over others, and the Church, of all persuasions, has made an art-form of this over the centuries. One person responded to my words saying that he had witnessed clergy trying to get their way on other matters, and I thought afterwards, that is because we, I as much as anyone else, have already complied with the pressure, social as well as ecclesiastical, in matters of intimacy. We are in positions of power in all sorts of ways, and we need discernment to ensure that people are enabled to grow into the people God made them. I actually believe our society is much more free to allow people to explore and grow in ways denied even those of my generation. I rejoice that this is so.

So the words of the prophet, echoed by Jesus have immediate relevance to us today. Do we allow others into our communion and fellowship who differ from us and encourage them to grow, perhaps more different still? The words are, of course, equally an invitation to us all, to allow ourselves to perhaps conform less and experiment with life, and bloom as the flower God intended from the beginning, rather than accepting a model imposed on us.

One of the difficulties I have with calling the parable, the parable of the sower, is so often Christian ministry is described in terms of sowing the seed in the world. But it is God who sows the seed and the rather more difficult thing for us all is to accept that God sows other seeds in our Church. God calls people into our community and fellowship and calls us to accept and be blessed by their presence, not just expecting them to become like us.

Finally, I want to return to the question of divine non-election - the concept that God chooses one and not another. The reality is that people choose in response to the prodigal nature of God. But inevitably the reality of grace means that God does put before each and every one the wideness of God's mercy and it is our choice. Grace is always initiated by God, so God forces us to choose, to be a part of the company of joy or to not be. It is a mystery (to me) why anyone would not want to be a part of the feast, yet there it is. So there is a divine election and a divine non-election but it is hardly arbitrary. God calls everyone to choose and some will choose to accept grace with others and others will choose not.


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