Sermon for 5th Sunday after Trinity – 12 July 2020
St John the Baptist – Parish of Felixstowe
23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is 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.’ (Matthew 13.1–9,18–23)
God give you peace my sisters and brothers.
When did you first hear the Parable of the Sower?
For me it was when I was 10 years old and had gone on a camp with Aggie Weston’s (A mission that cared for Royal Navy families) to the Isle of Wight. It was the first time I had ever gone away without any other members of my family and I admit to be suffused with both wonder and trepidation, loneliness and a new sense of belonging. During the week we were asked to act out the Parable of the Sower and I remember the glee with which I, as one of a particularly rowdy patch of thorns, ‘strangled one of the older members of the group. It was also the moment when I discovered that girls had ‘bumps’ in different places to boys. Little wonder I remember that happy sunny summer camp so vividly!
Some of the Parables our Lord tells us can become so familiar that, as the lectionary works through its three-year cycle we can feel we have heard it all before and, if we are not careful, the words can tumble out of our hands like so much seed thrown on the path. How many of us hearing today’s Gospel rushed ahead to the punchline of, ‘some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’ and perhaps didn’t open our ears as wide as we could to listen…
Don’t worry, it happens to Christians of all stripes all the time. A somewhat eccentric friend of mine was convinced that the devil had in his armoury little pixies who were ‘text demons’ who had the ability to cover a part of the Bible as you read so that you didn’t get to read the Full fat Gospel. Personally I put that experience down to my own idleness and inattentiveness but then ‘chacun à son goût’…
So forgive me if I take this opportunity to shake of some Lockdown dust and go through the parable patch of soil by patch of soil so that we can tend our own ‘soul soil’ well.
I’ve never been a great one for describing the different kinds of soil as different kinds of people (as was the case at my 10-year-old Summer camp). I know myself all too well that in the field of my life there are well-worn pathways and rocky outcrops, weed filled corners and not as much good soil as I would like. As they say there is good and bad in all of us.
The seed on the path speaks to those times in my life when, to be brutally honest, I don’t really want to pay attention to God and God’s claim on my life. I don’t want to change, I’m quite happy in my sin, it’s got me through life thus far (in a limping kind of way) and I really do not want God’s Word to come and find a crack in the armour of my self-justified sin.
These are my precious sins. The habits that have been there for so long that I see them as immutable and unchangeable.
Those things I do because I rationalise them; ‘everybody does this’.
Or I choose to be a petulant the child; ‘I wouldn’t be doing this if that other person hadn’t been so rude/uncharitable/selfish’ (as if one sin ever cancelled out another…).
Or, most foolish of all, the presumption that if nobody sees my sin no one is harmed; forgetting how many times I have glibly said the words of the Collect for Purity at the beginning of the communion service.
Here’s one we prayed earlier….
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden:
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.
How do I cope with them? I need to get the earth-moving equipment in! The big equipment of the spiritual life. An annual retreat. Consciously going on a course of Christian growth (such as Cursillo or Greenbelt when they are back in business). And biting the bullet by making my confession to a fellow sinner. This hurts, it will mess with our routines, it will mean we will not be able to hide in those places ever again. But if our soul soil is ever to be fruitful we need to get serious.
‘…endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.’
This is more tricky. We want to grow. We know that the Word of God planted deep within us will enrich us and be of benefit others. So we hear the Word joyfully and want the best to happen and then…
People around us don’t believe we can change, and we believe them instead of God because it’s too uncomfortable to live with their ridicule, their insults and, perhaps worst of all, their dismissal of you as a religious freak.
It is hard being a Christian in the workplace, at the school gate, and amongst our non-church going friends and family. Yes, this is not ‘throw them to the lions’ persecution of the early Christians in the Coliseum, nor is it the very real threats experienced by some Christians in other parts of the world to this day, but it is real. It beats us into silence, leaves the rocks of the field of our life unproductive, and, worst of all, robs us of our joy.
What can we do to stop this?
There is not much we can do to stop the disregard and insults of others but there are ways in which we can hold onto the seed of the Word better. Spiritual disciplines as simple as re-reading the Gospel for Sunday every day of the week until starting with a new passage the following Sunday.
Get into the habit of bringing a small notebook to church and write down any words from the sermon or prayer thoughts that come into your mind, and then reading them again when you get home.
Then when the haters come along it will not hurt as much because the joy of the Lord does indeed become our strength.
‘…the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.’
Thorns, weeds, and nettles. Yep! That fairly sums up my actual and occasionally spiritual gardening expertise in a few words. Are you any good at tending the garden of your own soul? Worries and wealth are so insidious. It’s not about how much of each we have, it’s about how we handle them.
We know that we are called to ‘cast all our anxieties on [Jesus] because he cares for [us]’ (1 Peter 5v7) but I can’t always seem to let go of them.
I insist on thinking that my worrying will somehow put the world to rights regardless of the number of times it hasn’t.
I know that all things come from God and that our family, despite a few close-run occasions (some of my own making), has never been without food or shelter but letting go of money remains hard work.
When we let our lives be overgrown with the weeds of worry and wealth we find ourselves whacking our way through the weed patches of life. If we stop doing that we find we are set free to spend the time trusting and being guided to green pastures led by the Good Shepherd instead.
So what can we do to help weed the soil of our soul?
Wealth is easy. Give some of it away. The Scriptures suggest 10%, and I know some faithful souls who do that. The Church of England says 5% to support the work of your parish and acknowledges that we all have other causes and charities that deserve support.
My advice is this. Give a fixed percentage, in some respects it doesn’t matter what that figure is. Pray about it and God will let you know what a fair amount is for you and your circumstances. Give regularly, preferably by bankers order (thank you to the nearly one score church members who now give using the Parish Giving Scheme). Give efficiently, add Gift Aid if you can and give joyfully. This will help dispel the worries as well.
The weeds of worry often have deep roots, after all many of us have spent a good deal of time tending to their growth! Digging them up needs constant work, they grow back all too easily. Learn to let go of them. Just as you may make a list of your prayer concerns, make one of your worries and place them in God’s hands. Just as (in other times) we light a candle to pray for someone else it is ok to light a candle to pray about our own concerns and worries. Light a candle, hand things to God, and leave the weeds of worry to wither away as the candle burns down.
…But as for what was sown on good soil, this is 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.’
Listen closely, I want to let you into a secret of the spiritual life. Good soil didn’t get to be good soil by accident. God didn’t make the world with fields that were neatly ploughed, tilled, harrowed and ready for the sower to come along and be pleased at what a great farmer they were.
Good soil once had a path running across it.
Good soil once had rocks strewn all over it.
Good soil once looked like a nature reserve for weeds.
Good soil became good soil by hard persistent work year in and year out, and season by season.
The spiritual life is no different.
The old aphorism remains true
Seven days without prayer make one weak… and weedy to boot!
Our Sunday School songs told the truth
Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow
And one that I wrote with a friend in Halesworth
If you give what you’ve got you’ll receive what you need.
Tending the soil of our soul is not difficult. We all have the tools and the opportunity to be ‘thirty, sixty, hundredfold’ followers of the way of our Beloved. All we need is the encouragement to begin and the opportunity to continue.
Even though we continue to live in the limbo of Lockdown we can take up some of these tools.
Commit to reading God’s good Word each day.
Decide to hand over the hardened sinful areas of our lives.
Refuse to let the discouragement of others steal your joy.
Promise to become a person who prays more often.
Things will not change overnight; harvest don’t work that way. Yet step by step hardened paths yields to rocky places and weed bearing wilderness leads to fruitful soil that feeds not only your own soul but transforms the lives of everyone around you
[This blog ‘Soul Soil’ is copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2020 and may be reproduced without charge on condition that the source is acknowledged]