Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.
Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.
And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.
Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.
But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.
Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
Let anyone with ears listen!”
“Hear then the parable of the sower.
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;
yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.
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.””
It is a beautiful image, isn’t it? A sower striding across a dusty field casting seed to left and to right, handful after handful until the whole field has seed enough to produce a harvest. Seed here and there; no concern for where it lands: some on the path, some onto stony ground, some among thorns and some into good, fertile soil.
But surely we’ve moved beyond such agricultural images here in suburban Shirley?!
Well, perhaps…. But less than a hundred years ago, most of this area would have been farmland. Even now, you only have to go about four miles down the road past the Emmaus Centre in West Wickham to find yourself in farmland again.
This isn’t really a story about farming of course… Like all of Jesus’ stories, what we call parables, this story has a meaning.
Many sermons I’ve heard on this passage – and this story seems to be a popular one amongst preachers – many sermons focus on the four soils in the parable; the three bad soils: the compacted soil of the path, the stony soil, the thorny soil; and finally the good soil.
What an opportunity to urge people not to be like those bad soils!
“Oh, you’ve got to understand what I say: don’t be snatched away like that birdseed on the path.” As if the preacher understands God any better than the people.
“Oh, don’t be shallow people. You’ve got to have depth. Your faith needs to have deep roots.” As if the preacher is any less shallow than the people. As if the preacher’s own faith doesn’t wilt and wither in the face of so much pain and sorrow in the world.
“Oh, don’t be choked by the cares of this world and the lure of money.” As if the preacher somehow sits above all that and doesn’t also feel the temptation of love of money and things.
“No”, says the preacher, “be like the good soil.”
“Be receptive. Hear the word. Understand it. If you have ears, listen!”
And in all that the preacher is really just saying “If you have ears, listen to me”…
No…that won’t do. It is a temptation to anyone who preaches to say “listen to me” rather than “listen: listen to Jesus”
That temptation was on my mind when I was preparing for today. The preacher as the sower casting out his words, hoping that one in four of the congregation would be good soil and take something on board.
But the more I thought about it, the more ridiculous that seemed. Look at where we are right now: I’m standing up here; you’re sitting down there.
Right at the beginning of today’s gospel passage, we see that turned on its head. Jesus sits down in a boat and begins to teach, taking the traditional posture of a Jewish teacher: sitting. His disciples learning from him are the ones standing up.
The one standing up, the preacher, is the one who should be learning from those sitting down. Not the other way round. A strange thought perhaps, but one which is true for my relationship with this church.
As a family we are fast approaching the end of our time at St George’s. It is difficult to believe that we have been here for around six years, and yet in just under a month’s time we will have moved into theological college, where I will begin training for the priesthood. This is the last time you shall be subjected to me on a Sunday morning! At least for a while…
As our time here starts drawing to a close it really made me think about everything I’ve learnt at St George’s. St George’s really has taught me so much: you have taught me a huge amount (and really not the other way round).
You have shown us what it really means to welcome people to a church. I still remember our first visit here six years ago – we were mistaken for a couple having their banns of marriage read. Even when we pointed out that was not the case we were treated just as warmly. David Frost collared someone to take us under their wing, guide us to the hall and get us settled. Little did you know that we were in effect refugees from another church we had left after a very unhappy falling out. But you welcomed us as your neighbour, loving us as yourself, just as Christ commanded us all to do.
I’m touched by how this church serves those in the community that perhaps would otherwise be forgotten. For those who don’t know about it, this church provides a weekly pop-in session for the older folk of the area. This is an essential time of fellowship for people who might otherwise have little or no human contact all week. This is not a trendy initiative. This is not chasing the latest fad in church mission and evangelism. No, it’s serving the needs of the community, where that is most needed.
You’ve been unusually understanding with the more disruptive members of our family. Not every church would be. Not every church has been! I hope this area of the church’s ministry goes from strength to strength. Jesus says “Let the little children come to me”. It should be the foundation of any church’s attitude to children and young people. It’s not how many children you welcome to this church, it’s how welcome each one is.
We’ve been struck by the generosity of the whole congregation. We’ve found people are willing to give so generously of their time and throw themselves into all sorts of things, from passion plays to running stalls at Christmas or summer fetes as well as the more usual church things. I’m always blown away by the astonishing spread every time we have a bring and share lunch. It always feels a little like the feeding of the 5000 – there is enough food left over at the end to feed everyone all over again. It feels almost miraculous!
We also found a church proud of its own tradition, but not enslaved by it. It was important to us to find a church where the Eucharist was of central importance. That is the tradition of St George’s, but we wear that tradition lightly. We’re not afraid of change, whilst having a healthy suspicion of change for change’s sake.
All of this is wrapped up for me in one service at St George’s – our Maundy Thursday Eucharist, meal and vigil. The church gathers, including those who only attend occasionally. All are welcome at our passover meal, young and old. We sit around Christ’s table together and following His command we break bread together and share wine together. In that sharing we become the Body of Christ, His Church.
In that gathering, as in all our gatherings here, Jesus Christ is made known in this community of Shirley.
Let me finish where I started. 75 years ago a church called St John’s planted a seed in the former farmland of Shirley. That seed has grown up into a church called St George’s. You are bearing fruit.
And from our Maundy Thursday service:
Shalom my friends,
Shalom my friends,
God’s peace be with you
’Til we meet again