Reading Matthew 13.1-9,18-23
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Halfway through this year to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, today we have a biblical bonanza. First, an opportunity to sample the excellent Bible Reading Fellowship study notes [see the Notices]. Then we have Vantage Point, a study group piloting from Sunday 17th July, which will look at Matthew, the gospel we are following on Sundays this year. And as a curtain-raiser I am doing a brief introduction to Matthew’s gospel over coffee in the All Souls chapel after this service.
There are many reasons to read the Bible, but one of them is to be have your compass reset, because life blows us off course. Matthew’s gospel, for instance, is interested in morality, not the prim, curtain-twitching kind but true righteousness (a word that appears several times). How different our times be now if some journalists (and indeed some police officers) had been regularly prompted to ask: ‘This stuff I’m caught up in – how unrighteous is it?’ News International is to set up a standards committee, which sounds a good idea, and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew could give them their controlling principle: ‘with the judgement you make you will be judged’ (Matthew 7.2).
We hear today one of the best known stories in the gospels. If the parable of the sower leaves you cold at first, that’s a good sign in a way, because it means you live a fairly secure life (if we were in the horn ofAfrica, this story would have real bite). But imagine you are one of the crowd Matthew’s gospel describes on the shore of the lake, listening to Jesus. Almost certainly you are poor, and you probably live off the land. The soil isn’t the worst in theMediterranean, but growing is still tough: you get three or four baskets of grain for every basket of seed you sow. If it’s a good year, you have all the bread you need and you can sell the surplus; you’ll still be poor, but you’ll have a few months of security. If it’s a bad harvest, you’re in trouble; if the crop fails, you starve. So you are careful about how you sow the seed, to give it the best chance. Now you are also a Jew, and there are stories you hear about how it will be when the Messiah comes. One story talks of bumper harvests.
You go to hear Jesus, the wandering rabbi, and he tells a story about the worst farmer in Galilee, who throws the seed just anywhere – on the baked earth of the path, on the rocks, in the thorns. What’s wrong with him? Is he drunk? You know how this story will end: a tiny crop, and serve him right, but pity the family that depends on this agricultural buffoon. But no: that madman’s tiny amount of well-sown seed produces a miracle harvest, some seeds yield a hundredfold, even the worst thirtyfold, a harvest beyond your dreams, as though the Messiah (whoever that might be) has really come at last. So what can this be about? ‘If you have ears,’ says Jesus, ‘then hear.’
Back to here and now. If you’re new to all this, you are very welcome, and you are quite like the people in the crowd on the lakeside. But if you have years of Christian faith behind you, then you are more like another group of people in the story. This morning’s reading leaves out eight verses which tell us who these people are: after telling the story, says the writer, Jesus gets together with his team, the disciples; they ask him about the parable and he gives them the explanation which forms the second part of our reading. These are not people hearing the message of Jesus for the first time; these are people who are charged with helping spread the message of Jesus. In the terms of the story, they are sowers.
So a question for each of us is this: ‘Where do I see myself in this story?’ Are you among the crowd hearing Jesus, perhaps for the first time? If you are, ask yourself: ‘What is this story saying to me?’ It’s a story about God doing something incredibly generous in you, but what might it be? It could be anything, some little thing that has great potential to bear fruit. Is it some gift or talent you’ve got? Or a person you have just met, some new development in your life you haven’t really thought about yet because you reckon there’s nothing in it? What might it be?
Now ask: ‘What might stop me responding to this generosity from God?’ Jesus gives three possible answers when he explains the meaning of the seed falling on the path, on the rocky ground, and among the thorns. First, I may just not understand what God is saying to me – no fault in that. Or I may not be letting it take root in me: you can really enjoy worship on a Sunday, but something stops any of it getting too deep. Or again, other things may choke the green shoots of whatever God is trying to grow in me, things like ‘the lure of wealth’ or ‘the cares of the world’. That’s a hard one. ‘The lure of wealth’ (quite an issue round here) – being greedy, you can see that’s not good, but what about this idea that cares, real things that worry you, are getting in God’s way; that is tough. Again, it’s hardly your fault, but it is true that you can be so choked with anxiety that you can’t receive the very thing that might help. Still, no-one need despair. We can change, just as dry earth can be watered, and stones or thorns can be dug out.
Where do I see myself in this story? For some here, the honest answer is: I really belong among the disciples, even if I don’t want to be: the seed has borne fruit, I have received a lot from God, and now it is time to give, to be a sower of God’s word. This is quite a thing, the idea that God might use something you or I say to speak to someone else, I don’t mean in a sermon like this, but in ordinary talking. Each of us should be able to say something, in our own way, about what we believe, what makes us seek God. And if you need a hand with this (as most of us do), there has never been so much available to help ordinary Christian people make sense of their faith. I mentioned three things at the start.
This really is important if thechurch of God is to grow. Here I am speaking to – what? – a hundred people. In the next seven days, if we each meet an average of ten different people, that’s a thousand lives we shall touch before we meet again, any one of whom might need a seed sown, a word from God spoken through one of us. Sometimes it may be a word that never mentions God, but God will be speaking through it.
Where do I see myself in this story? In the crowd, among the disciples? What about the crazy farmer, who sows the seed all over the place? I see the sower as God, whose ways are not our ways. It’s God’s call where the seed goes; it’s not for us to decide who is the ‘right’ kind of person to receive God’s attention; or ours. We only need look at ourselves and those around us to see what unlikely people God seems to care about. We see the face of God’s care for us in Jesus, who now invites us to his table.