s048g99 11/7/99 Sunday 15a
"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 ..." Matthew 13.22
Some time ago, the Rev'd Dr Kevin Giles, a theological consultant with World Vision wrote a commentary on these readings and I was delighted that he called this parable the parable of the soils rather than the parable of the sower. It is the first time I have heard anyone else describe it so.
Yet he still uses the parable (like most commentators) to criticise those who are "impervious to the gospel", those who "come to church for a while and then ... leave" and those who "come to church when they are free but their heart is elsewhere". So if anyone chooses to continue to interpret the parable in this way, they are in excellent company.
I note however that Jesus says "what was sown" is "one who hears". The seed is NOT the word of God, the seed is people.
As I look at the Church, and by this I mean the church in a much wider sense than St Philip's, or even the Anglican Church. I mean the whole "Christian" Church. When I look at the Church, I see many people who are interested enough to come. Somehow the message of God's unconditional love has reached their ears, or they have some needs they would like met, or wish to know more of this God who has made their hearts restless. It does not matter how God has acted in their lives to bring them to this point.
However when they come to Church, that message of God's unconditional love for them gets lost in the expectations placed upon them. So certainly someone comes and snatches them away. It could be the devil which takes them off into fields unknown, but it could as easily be the Church itself, as those who have heard and responded to Jesus' invitation come only to be expected to accede to the expectations placed upon them, and then simply perpetuate the same sort of life.
Others come wanting to make a contribution to the life of the Church, in thanksgiving for having heard that invitation - just as we, one and all, have heard that invitation and responded by trying to make our little mark in the life of this parish, deanery or Diocese. It may not be a physical contribution, it may be in terms of a ministry. Yet the building or the system which we regard as sacred because we have had a part to play in it, has no place for anyone else's contribution. I remember once hearing Fr David Cobbett saying of a visiting churchman from overseas who saw St Peter's Glenelg. The person was probably from Korea, but it could have been Africa. Wherever the person was from, it was a young and vigorous and poor Church. The sentiments were something like - you've got everything - how can you attract people? In the midst of all the undeniable beauty of the building, no one else could contribute to it. Everyone who came, could only admire it. We believe that if we make the building beautiful enough or our own lives things of beauty and faith, then people will be attracted. In fact it is precisely the opposite. They will be attracted when WE see beauty in them, when we accept the contribution they can make. It is here that I see the stony ground, everything is so set in concrete that no one can make their unique contribution.
The third sort of soil is that choked with weeds and thorns. We are, myself as much as anyone else, all tinged with the sectarian delusion that because God has dealt with me this way, God obviously deals with everyone else in the same way. No matter how much we deny it, we welcome people into our lives who reflect our own perceptions far more than those who challenge our perceptions. I welcomed seeing someone else describe this passage as the parable of the soil. Yet this can so ever so subtly become an expectation that others have to live up to my expectations. That others have had to have the same sort of conversion experience as me. This has the effect of choking those around me, forcing them to grow my way rather than in their own way. This is the lure of wealth of which Jesus could be speaking. The wealthy person is the one who has lots of clones - the successful evangelist or whatever.
One of my most frequent critics recently said to me, words to the effect that: "It's all right for you, you're a people person! Others of us aren't so outgoing". This parable is precisely the parable of the soil. Being prepared to accept the ministry and the contribution that another person has to make. I would hate to be accused of inflicting on others a requirement to be as "outgoing" as myself. Lest anyone jump to erroneous conclusions, my most frequent critic is, of course, Catherine. I often have cause to be grateful for the words she says.
We speak of Jesus being the word of God, so when we hear Jesus talking about sowing seeds, we often think that Jesus' words are being spoken of. However the parable really makes it plain that the seeds are people, people which Jesus sow, the people who come into our midst, as they come into churches and denominations everywhere. They come into Churches as seeds, that is all. Their task in life is to grow into the person God created in the beginning, as it is our task also.
Article 10 (of the 39, APBA p 478) states "... we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us ..." This means that everyone is here in Church today - a good work, pleasant and acceptable to God - not because we have decided to "do the right thing" but because Christ has called us - be it ever so surreptitiously or quite dramatically - as Christ has called everyone else here.
We as the Church can be quick to criticise if people come only for a time, yet fail to perceive that they have found no ministry to exercise, no contribution that was appreciated, only expectations to live up to. That is not the gospel of God.
There is a prior question here, and that is just to whom is God's word addressed? So often I have heard the Church speak as if God's word is actually addressed to those outside the Church, and if they would only just come in and listen, they would turn from their evil ways (= not coming to Church) and become like us. So we make a virtue of evangelism (= proclaiming the words of scripture on street corners = sowing the seed?). Yet I have interpreted this passage of scripture as directed at US. God's word is directed towards us, the Church, to become the accepting soil, and that it is as WE BECOME accepting that the ripened grain in ourselves and in others is brought forth, "some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty."
Unless WE BECOME accepting of other people, it is OUR hearts which have become dull ... it is OUR ears that are hard of hearing ... it is OUR eyes that are shut ... Was the word of Jesus accepted by the religious authorities of his own day - or was it not directed towards them? I have no doubt what so ever that Jesus was welcomed into the homes of the ungodly because he accepted their contributions, not because how simply he was able to explain to them how they could measure up.
We have to be fair on ourselves though. People's needs might well be better met in another community of faith than ours. Are we humble enough to say this? For instance, the sort of social work which is appropriate and highly effective at St Mary Magdalene's or St Luke's in the city would be totally out of place here at St Philip's. If someone was to come and hope to set up something similar here, it would be far wiser to say: "It would be better to assist St Luke's or St Mary Magdalene's". There are certainly the poor in our midst, but they really don't congregate close to us.
It is in fact good news that churches need only be the soil for the people, the seeds, to grow in their own way. We don't need to be great evangelists or holy people. We can let others be seeds, and not expect others to be as fully grown as we perceive ourselves to be. We don't need to measure our success by the number of clones of ourselves we have managed to achieve.
Let us let God be God. Let us let others be the people they are. Because by doing so we will, as a parish, as a denomination, as the whole Church, be the soil where all might find a little nook or cranny to nestle in, free of rocks and weeds; that God might bless us and all people. We will all grow into the people God meant us to be in the beginning - simply God's children, by adoption and grace. For Jesus also speaks of the cares of this world. Trying to be more than who we are, or more than who God calls us to be, is a sure recipe for frustration and burnout.
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