FINDING NEW TRUTH IN THE FAMILIAR
Do you ever feel like yawning and quietly going into a dream about something else when one those best-known gospel parables reappears in Church for the umpteenth time. Today’s story is very likely to be very familiar, but today I want to issue a challenge. Instead of listening like bored children to familiar stories, I would like us ask ourselves if we dare consider of how today’s very familiar Gospel story might be seen as challenging us to push our boundaries as we embark on this coming week.
I want to use today’s parable as a spotlight on something that speaks to my conscience when it comes to calling myself a Christian. I’ll leave it to others to decide if it may also apply to them.
Perhaps you know the saying that Christianity is said to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. Don’t forget Jesus’ message was so unpopular in his day because it challenged accepted thinking and common practice . His message was likely to have been at least as disturbing to the comfortable in his day as I suspect it would be now if we took it seriously in our modern world.
I was in still primary school the first time a visiting Anglican minister explained to our class what today’s story meant. He gave the standard explanation which I guess has been heard by all of us here many times since. He reckoned the seed represented the potential faith cast into the whole community by Jesus. Not everyone is ready for the message. Some refuse to allow the message to get hold – the seed for them falls on rock.
He said in effect some take a bit of notice- but don’t really nurture the message. Poor soil… Others not only welcome and accept the message – but allow the seed to germinate, to grow and become the living embodiment of the faith.
He really stressed what he considered the key part of the parable … When the seed comes you should offer it the right conditions to get it started…and who knows you might become a proper disciple.
But did you notice that these days something is now missing. Jesus was indeed entitled to use that story to his disciples because after-all they had seen him day after day offering his words of wisdom, his listening ear, together with acts of compassion and even healing to anybody he met. The disciples would have seen the entire range of responses to Jesus, so his parable would have meant something. But there are two things we miss if we think we should read this story in Church and hope as a result that all of us present ourselves as good soil and see our faith grow.
This morning Jesus is not physically present to scatter his faith potential. Surely then seed scattering can only be the task of his followers. And that is not just the minister. And nor can we get away with just telling the story. His first listeners to his story would have got the point. Jesus acted on his faith not just talked about it with words. He also showed by his actions his listening skills, his actions of hospitality, his ability to share food with anyone who is hungry- his offer to turn the other cheek to those who are his enemies. What is more Jesus certainly never implied his lived message would offer seeds of faith only to those who booked in for an hour on Sunday morning.
The parable of the sower and the seed implying that the message of Jesus should be shared with the symbols for those outside the faith – the bad soils – would not have gone down too well with some of his listeners. Why would Jesus waste his time with non followers of the faith – or worse. But notice he did. Jesus also gave his time to uneducated fishermen, Zealots (who were the ancient equivalent of terrorists), to prostitutes, Samaritans, to invading soldiers, tax collectors. His mission was to live the parable…he didn’t seem to prejudge who encountered his lived faith.
Again if Jesus is indeed the sower in the story, he is no longer present in the flesh! I wonder if we too will pick up the mantle….?
OK now let’s start again, remembering the sort of religion we approve of – and the sort of people we would like to see in our faith community. Knowing what we know of our own Church and community settings would, or does, our own faith community throw itself into spreading the seed of Jesus inspired actions including in areas where the results are likely to be ambiguous at best.
First a true life story…. At one service I remember ….One of the more vulnerable rough sleepers who was a frequent visitor to that Church and for whom the Church has offered much by way of practical assistance was a late arrival. Unfortunately the young man had some addiction problems and was clearly agitated in his seat as the service unfolded, and just as one part of the liturgy was moving to a dignified conclusion he suddenly stood up – cursed the minister very loudly and made a most dramatic exit, abusing those who attempted to calm him down. During the morning tea which followed, one of the congregation members asked why the Church was wasting time with “losers like that”.
Now that’s a very good question. So if we were the ones providing the answer to the man who asked his question on Sunday morning, do we agree that we in the Church should be concerned about “the losers, particularly those who don’t respond with appropriate thanks or approved changes in behaviour?
And for that matter would we be entirely honest if we were to reply that since we are quite comfortable with those who don’t share our background… um… including potential Covid-19 virus sufferers. In short do we think the message and actions that Jesus put at the centre of his ministry must be offered to all regardless of social position, health history, religion, or even personal history?
Perhaps one way to read the parable is to see ourselves as the ones entrusted with sowing the seed – or if you like – being those who are those called to take on the task of being Jesus to the community. But here is the catch. Jesus doesn’t just say concentrate on telling, or even better being the word only for those most likely to respond and implying all will be well. In fact Jesus is brutally frank. His story says that the seed is offered to all situations – stony soil as well as the soil rich with natural resources. Yet nowhere does he pretend that the seed will always be able to do its work.
History shows the not all the recipients of the seed will respond in an ideal way. More embarrassingly, I guess if we are listening to the retelling of the parable we must also be open to seeing ourselves collectively as less than ideal soils.
A more complete description of the seed comes in effect in another of Jesus’ talks…. The one we call the Sermon on the Mount.
Christian communities and Christian nations have typically long and chequered histories. There are very few nations who have always treated neighbours as themselves. Think of religiously motivated wars, or what about the history of slavery and all too often its passive acceptance down through the centuries. Even today child slavery, sex slavery and sweat shops continue to exploit the vulnerable and for the most part the mainstream Churches are somewhat lukewarm about their protests. Does that include us?
Then of course there is the message that Christians should forgive our enemies. Do you agree that this message has for the most part fallen on very stony ground when the so called Christian nations invest far more in military hardware than in paying for the repair of the towns they ( or those who have bought their military hardware) have blasted into oblivion – and for the most part our main allies including the self claimed Christian nation of the United States of America US, have made it abundantly clear that civilian refugees fleeing the bombing are unwelcome in the West
Certainly it is true that offering the hand of friendship will not always be accepted. Perhaps in part Jesus is merely underlining that unfortunate truth when he offers his parable. But remember nowhere does he imply that the one who does the sowing is entitled to only offer love to the one who is certain to reform and love in return. Those who work with Alcoholics and Drug addicts tell me that not all who enter the programmes for recovery will instantly reform – in fact in the real world, in situation after situation, the majority (including many who claim church membership) will continue to act against the words and acts of the offered gospel.
In one way the parable is mirrored by what happens every Saturday night at the emergency department of any major Public Hospital in the country. I know for some of the inner city hospitals Accident and Emergency can resemble a casualty clearing station from a battle field. The injured, the drunken party goers, the raving druggies just keep coming and yet, although the doctors and nurses are saving lives, patching up the wounded, offering comfort to the dying – and in short- being the Christian face of society, all too often their reward is not so much gratitude as it is likely to be a response of violence and abuse.
But think for a moment what the alternative would be if the assistance was only offered to the well behaved and politely grateful.
Certainly the traditional main point to the Parable of the sower and the seed is that the message – or if you like the lived gospel – can be offered to everyone regardless of how likely it is that they are worthy or ready for it. It is always been the case that not all will receive it.
The more interesting and often overlooked question is whether or not we can accept the implied challenge of accepting the role of the sower of the seed. If our current society is not living out the message perhaps someone here wants to step up in response to become the one – what was it Jesus said? Be “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.”
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