Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 13th July 2014
13 July 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Tony Kyriakides-Yeldham, Chaplain
A story is told of Franklin D Roosevelt, the thirty-second President of the United States of America, memorialized here in the Abbey by the West door. Apparently, he did not enjoy the protocol of long receiving lines when he would welcome distinguished visitors to the White House. He was convinced that no one really paid much attention to what he said. One day, during a White House reception, he decided to test this out. As each guest passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured the words, 'I murdered my grandmother this morning.' The guests responded much as FDR expected: 'Marvellous!' 'Keep up the good work'. 'We are proud of you'. 'God bless you, sir'. Only at the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, were his words actually heard. The ambassador leaned over and whispered, 'I'm sure she had it coming'.
In our gospel reading, the first word we hear Jesus say is 'listen': but did you? You heard the reading, but did you listen to it? Our ears enable us to hear the sounds of the surrounding environment but, while I don't want to minimize the enormous number of tasks that the auditory system must perform, for those of us who are not hearing-impaired, hearing simply happens. Listening, on the other hand, is quite different because it is something I have to consciously choose to do. Listening requires me to concentrate, to process meaning which is derived from both verbal and non-verbal communication. In reality, most of us are not 'hard of hearing'; we are 'hard of listening'.
Let anyone with ears listen!
The parable of the sower is, for most of us, all too familiar and because of that familiarity perhaps some of us have become contemptuous of its power to pack a spiritual punch. Never forget, that when Jesus teaches in parables he is using shock tactics and if we are not shocked, if our world is not rocked, it is because we are hearing rather than listening. A parable, which engages us, will challenge our expectations. It will turn our world upside-down for the way of Jesus is an 'upside-down kingdom'. When we listen to a parable, rather than simply hearing it, we will be forced to question the sometimes all too comfortable way we relate to other people and to our world. Put another way, while Jesus sought to comfort the disturbed—instilling hope, healing and joy to those in need—he was also intent on disturbing the comfortable among whom, in his day and ours, sit the rich, the religious and the complacent. Where economic, social or religious systems embody selfishness and injustice, Jesus calls us to overturn tables.
So what is so shocking about the parable of the sower?
First, the claim that inefficiency and waste is a good thing in the kingdom of God! How else are we to interpret the actions of a sower, a farmer, who casts the seed here and there with no thought to where it will land? Valuable seed needs to be placed where it is going to produce a decent return, but this farmer behaves as if he has an unlimited supply of seed and has no need to take account of whether the ground is stony, or barren or weed-filled—unless, of course, he is casting around this message of salvation seeking to germinate faith in people most of us would discount: the rejects and outcasts of society; people whose lives have been so damaged that they have become hardened and crusty, cynical and mistrusting; and others whose wealth, status and power give them a sense of self-sufficiency and self-certainty.
Listen! Jesus preaches salvation to all and sundry, even to those who, at times, find the good news too difficult, too challenging, or too demanding. No one is beyond the pale.
Second, God rewards those who don't deserve to be rewarded: how else are we to account for a thoughtless farmer who fritters away valuable seed on soil everyone knows is worthless and yet receives a bumper crop beyond anyone's wildest imaginings. Of course, we are the soil, the seed of God's word is planted in us, but now this parable takes on a different dimension: from the ordinary we are transported into the mysterious. The sower and the soil, in which the seed is planted, work in partnership with one another: it is much our responsibility, as soil, to seek the mulching, the watering and the tilling which will ensure that we become 'good enough' soil for that dream of a harvest; and, most mysterious of all, we are then charged with responsibility for the eventual outcome of that harvest—not just the square centimetre my wheat sheaf occupies but every last acre of the harvest!
Listen! You don't deserve it, you haven't earned it, but God is entrusting you with his word and there will be a bumper harvest when, as Isaiah puts it, the word that goes out from my mouth will not return empty, but will accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55: 11)
Third, God's work is exposed and vulnerable. Birds can devour it, the sun can wither it, and the thorns can choke it. Following Jesus, as Jesus would have us follow him, will put us on a collision course with the world, its values and its priorities.
Listen! Jesus has changed the world and requires that our lives be changed if we are to live as people of the new creation. As Christians, our mission is not to change the world, but to live as witnesses to the world that God has already changed. Our responsibility in discipleship is to make that change visible.
This parable of the Sower—or is it the parable of the soil?—is one intended to shock as Jesus calls attention to the reckless farmer, an undeserved harvest and the vulnerability of God's work while, at the same time, encouraging us to take risks for the gospel, assuring us that there will be a plentiful harvest and preparing us for the cost of authentic discipleship.
This morning you and I have a choice: to hear or to listen? Which will we chose? Amen.