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Sermon for 16 July 2017


Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The parables are meant to knock us off balance.

We have all just heard Jesus telling an incendiary story, designed to shake us up, and we should be shaken up! Are you feeling shaken? Or is the story of the sower just another bit of the bible - something you’ve heard a thousand times before, or something that’s possibly interesting, but probably not.

Jesus, the gospel tells us, told this story to tell us ‘many things’. And if Jesus is telling us ‘many things’ - we should most certainly listen.

And he chooses to tell his listeners ‘many things’ by telling a particular kind of story. By telling a parable. A parable is a story that is thrown down alongside real life, which is meant to make you think with your heart and your head. It is not a pithy story with a neat conclusion, like one of Aesop’s fables. Parables are complex and challenging word-paintings, which give no easy solutions, but invite us to see things differently. 

Parables are meant to knock us off balance.

And I want to invite you into the parable of the sower now - to consider which of the ‘many things’ Jesus says are most important for you to hear today. How does Jesus want to knock you off balance this morning? Because I’m sure he does. Because that’s why he told parables - and they haven’t lost any of their power since he first sat on that boat on the lake 2000 years ago. 

So let’s start by pausing and reading the parable again. Slowly and carefully - notice what it says to you today. What stands out? What lands in your heart? What captures your imagination? What challenges you?

Although there’s no neat meaning to a parable, we know what it is about, because Jesus tells us. It is about ‘the word of the kingdom’. It’s about how God works to build his rule on earth. 

And there’s some specific stuff we can learn about that. The first thing is that God is pretty undiscriminating. A 1st century peasant farmer hearing this would have been shocked by the wastefulness of the sower. This is a time when life was tough, and a failed harvest meant starvation - so a farmer would have made sure that every precious seed landed somewhere it could grow and produce fruit. Not so the sower in this story. He goes round chucking his seed onto paths, into the weeds and even onto rocky ground - where it’s clear nothing will grow.

God, it seems, is remarkably indiscriminate with his message. He’s happy for it to be shared everywhere - even where there’s little chance of it growing.

Secondly, we know now that the kingdom grows a bit like a seed. Hidden in amongst the ordinary stuff of the world. It doesn’t descend from the clouds in great power and glory - it lands in the lives of ordinary people like you and me, and puts down roots and grows. God is undiscriminating in how he sows, but he is also patient and ready to work with what’s in front of him - people like us.

Third, we know that God’s word is meant to grow. A seed is designed to do one thing only - to grow. When we encounter Jesus Christ, when we hear the call to trust in him, things are meant to grow. Stuff is meant to happen. 

And lastly, we know that when the seed lands in good soil and it does grow, incredible things happen. Recent research suggests that a 1st century farmer would have expected a four or five-fold return on his seed. Jesus tells us that when the seed of the kingdom lands and grows well we should expect a return of thirty, sixty or 100 times the amount sown. The gospel is not ‘sort of good news’, it isn’t ‘helpful to those who like that kind of thing’. The gospel is transformational and overwhelming. It changes everything. It produces a quantity of justice, faith, mercy and compassion that we could never have imagined possible.

God is indiscriminate with the good news; the good news grows in hidden people and places; the good news is meant to grow and when it does, expect astonishing things.

So with all that in mind, where are you in this parable - and it may be you don’t know yet, and need to go back to the story again this week to look again and to ask God to show you. Where are you in this parable?

Perhaps the Holy Spirit is using this story to tell you to get out there and to sow. Perhaps you’ve been wanting to tell people about your faith, and Jesus is using this story now - as he did when he first told it - to encourage you to get going. That person you’ve been thinking about for a while, but haven’t quite got round to talking to about God; the book that Jean Kerr gave you to give someone else, which is still sitting on the shelf by the front door. That neighbour who is having a hard time and who you suspect would love you to knock on their door.

Is Jesus telling you that his word is ready to go; it’s alive and it wants to be sown so it can start to grow, but it needs you to get things going. If so, take heart - like the sower, all you need to do is to have a go. Where it lands and what happens next is out of your control. If you are being prompted to share your faith with someone, how about you do it this week.

Or perhaps that’s not what strikes you today. Perhaps instead you are feeling like a path. Like you’ve heard all this stuff about Jesus, and God, and you know that there’s something in it that rings true, but it just can’t seem to take root in your life. 

Jesus says that’s because ‘the evil one’ is snatching it away. We’ve seen horrible stories this week of thieves on scooters stealing mobile phones from people walking down the street. That’s the image Jesus gives - this valuable thing that you’ve been given is snatched away from you. Maybe that rings true to you - maybe you feel like you’ve heard something really good about God, and you know it really matters, and perhaps it makes sense when you’re here, or when you’re talking to a trusted Christian friend, but then when you’re on your own, or with people who don’t believe, it’s snatched away from you and you’re back at square one. Maybe that’s what faith feels like, and maybe you know you don’t want that to happen. 

If that’s you, and if you want the seed of God’s love to take root, then, like the mobile phone user on the street, you need protection for that little seed. 

If that’s you, at the end of the service, you could go and ask one of the prayer team to pray with you, and they’ll ask the Holy Spirit to put up a protection against the good news being snatched away again.

Or you might feel like rocky ground today. Maybe your faith was strong a while ago, and you knew it was true, but now it’s not making sense. Or maybe you’ve been knocked back by someone telling you your faith is empty, or that God’s not real. Or perhaps there’s something going on in your life which is really difficult, and you’re thinking - ‘well if God was real, he wouldn’t let this happen’.

If that’s you, the key is to figure out what the rocks are that are stopping your roots get into the soil. They’ll be different for in every situation, but they need to be identified and named. So you might like to find someone you trust to talk to - a trusted Christian friend who is good at listening, and ask them to help you figure out what’s tripping your faith up at the moment. 

Or perhaps, if you’re being honest, you know that your faith is being battered by the cares of the world and by money. And this might well be the hardest part of this parable for many of us - we’re doing fine with faith, we know Jesus as Lord, we pray and we love being part of the church community. But there’s something missing. There’s something still to give. Something still to give up.

I read this recently, and it struck me hard  - ‘It is hard to imagine any text more relevant to the situation of the churches in the West than the parable of the sower. Why we are dying seems very simple. It is hard to be a disciple and be rich. Surely, we may think, it cannot be that simple, but Jesus certainly seems to think that it is that simple.’ (Stanley Hauerwas) 

It is, says Jesus here and elsewhere, very hard to be a disciple and to be rich. The same writer goes on to say ‘Possessed by possessions, we desire to act in the world, often on behalf of the poor, without having to lose our possessions’

And it’s true isn’t it - that money and possessions want to possess us. But when we submit to the authority of any god other than Jesus, it’s hard for the word to flourish and bear fruit.

If that strikes home with you then this week, read Luke’s gospel, which is particularly clear about money and wealth, then pray like crazy, and then, if you have the courage, try pulling up some of the weeds that are choking the word in your life, by taking a risk and giving some stuff away - not just a little bit here and there - but stuff that you think you rely on. And I say all this with great hesitation, because I know how hard it is, how counter cultural it is and how risky it is. But that’s what this story says. That’s what Jesus says. It is very hard to be a disciple and to be rich.

But maybe it was none of this that struck you. Maybe, you are being fruitful. Maybe someone has challenged your faith, but you stayed true to the Lord. Maybe you are being generous with your time, money and possessions, and are more free as a result. Maybe your faith is growing deep roots, and you are alive in God’s love.

We’re a pretty typically English bunch here - and that means we don’t boast or show off, and we stay ever so humble. But I know perfectly well just how many people in this church are wonderful fruit bearers. How many of you have grown in faith and are serving the community and the world, how many are praying and acting for the coming of the kingdom, how many of you are talking about God and faith in ways you never used to. I see massive yields of love, compassion and mercy here. And for that I thank God, the great sower, who is at work, and is giving so generously, in so many ways, to so many people. 

Sower, path, rocky ground, thistles or rich harvest. 

Where are you today? 

How does God want to shake you up with this parable?

Posted: 16-07-2017 at 17:07
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