Sermon for proper 10 (15) year A

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,

Shalom Shalom

 

God’s peace be with you

’Til we meet again

Shalom Shalom

 

Amen

Sermon for Corpus Christi (transferred) 2017

John 6:51-58

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’”

May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (+).  Amen.

 

My son is just getting to the age where he is asking us about God and Jesus.  (I won’t say his name as he’ll probably come running to me from the back!)

 

Well, anyway, the other day he asked me “Daddy, why can’t we see Jesus?”.  Hmm.  I paused.  I answered rather slowly, and in all honesty not very well.  It involved something about Jesus being alive but in a different way from us.  It probably involved mumbling about Heaven.  As I said, it wasn’t a very good answer.

 

It’s a good question, though, isn’t it?  Why can’t we see Jesus?

 

This set me thinking.  Why can’t we see Jesus?  What does it even mean to know Jesus?  How, in Christian parlance, can we have a relationship with Jesus?

 

I know what it means to have a relationship with my family and friends, but I can see them, hear them, touch them.  How can I have a relationship with Jesus without those senses of sight, sound or touch?

 

People will give all sorts of answers to that question.  Well, you can pray they say.  Yes, but half the time I’m doing that I feel like I’m just lost in my own thoughts wondering what on earth I’m doing sitting or kneeling there…

 

OK, they say, you can read the Bible.  I can read the Bible, OK.  But more than half of the Bible doesn’t even talk about Jesus: it happened before He was born.  Even reading the New Testament might help me know about Jesus, but will it help me actually know Him?  Reading a book is not the same as having a relationship with someone.

 

Of course, both these things – prayer, reading the Bible – are important.  But I’d like to suggest something else as well that helps us to know Jesus and to enter into a relationship with Him.

 

It is something we will do later in this service.  After the creed and the prayers and the peace we will come to our time of Holy Communion.  Barry will take the bread and wine in his hands and ask God to bless them.  He will do that using the words of Jesus recounted in St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we heard this morning: “this is my body” “this is my blood”.  We will eat the bread and drink the wine.

 

This is what we call Holy Communion.  We do it every Sunday morning, and sometimes on weekdays too.  But today is a particular day in the church’s calendar where we focus on giving thanks to God that we are able to share in this.  Today is the day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion, or Corpus Christi…meaning Body of Christ.

 

Wait a minute, though, why are we thanking God for this?  What is there to thank for?  Surely the bread that we eat and the wine that we drink are just that: bread and wine.

 

Well…yes…and no…

 

Certainly the bread looks like bread and tastes like bread.  The wine looks like wine and tastes like wine.

 

But it is the testimony of the Christian Church since its very earliest days that when we receive the bread and wine at Holy Communion something more is going on.  In some way Jesus is especially present at that moment.  The bread is in some way His body.  The wine, His blood.

 

We are somehow able to take our spiritual nourishment from Christ Himself.  We satisfy our deepest hungers with the bread, His Body.  We quench our strongest thirst with the wine, His Blood.

 

Through this, the Gospel reading tells us, we abide in Jesus, and Jesus abides in us.  Holy Communion is a time when we can be unified with Christ, when we can be particularly close to Him.  We eat the bread and wine together, and we are drawn together as a community.  Communion: community.  That great image of the Church in the New Testament is that of Christ’s body, with Christ as the head.  We are nourished with Christ’s body, and that enables us to become His body the Church, doing His work on earth.

 

Many volumes have been written about exactly what happens to the bread and wine.  Much argument has ensued.  How exactly is Jesus present?  Is it physically?  Is it spiritually?  Is it only happening in our minds?  It is difficult, and ultimately unsatisfying to me, to try to construct a detailed explanation of what is going on.  A far more helpful image for me is found in today’s Collect: the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion are “sacred mysteries”.  Something happens to the bread and wine to make them Holy, to make them Holy to the point that we say they are for us the Body and Blood of Christ.  But we do not know exactly what is happening.  It is beyond our understanding, or somehow hidden from us.  We leave that to God.  I’m happy with that.

 

Talk of the Body and Blood of Christ must inevitably lead us to recall the manner of His death.  His Body whipped and scourged and nailed to a rough cross and left there until He died.  His side pierced by the Centurion’s spear letting His blood pour onto the earth.

 

When Jesus teaches us to share bread and wine together and to do this in remembrance of Him, I don’t think He meant just think about the good times in His life – the stable, the star and the manger, the gold, frankincense and myrrh, all that water turned into wine – what a party!, wow, those loaves and fishes miraculously feeding a crowd.  No…I think He meant all of it, including how it ended.  Especially how it ended.

 

Perhaps that is why we should be thankful.  We have access to this wonderful sacrament, we can know Jesus deeply and personally by a simple sharing of bread and wine.  But that came at a cost, the cost of Jesus’s own life – His Body broken on the Cross, his Blood flowing from his side.  As often as we do this, we proclaim His death.

 

This is not a time for sadness, though.  At least not sadness alone.  It is supposed to be a day of Thanksgiving.  That is what we mean when we talk of Holy Communion as the Eucharist: it simply means the thanksgiving.  Jesus, though He died, was not bound by death.  Jesus raised to life broke forever the power of death, and opened up for us the hope that death is not the end.

 

It is traditional in some churches for everyone during Holy Communion to have some particular intention in mind, some particular cause or person that they want to bring before God in this most Holy time when we are permitted to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

 

I feel the tragic events in West London at Grenfell Tower have been conspicuous by their absence from my words today.  The scale, the enormity, that much tragedy and sadness were just too much for me to process into anything like a coherent sermon.  My own thoughts and prayers when receiving Holy Communion today will most certainly be for the souls of those tragically killed, for comfort and healing to those who mourn them, and for those who survived and now despair as to where they go from here.

 

From our final hymn:

 

Sweet Sacrament of rest,

ark from the ocean’s roar,

within thy shelter blest

soon may we reach the shore;

save us, for still the tempest raves,

save, lest we sink beneath the waves:

sweet Sacrament of rest.

Sweet Sacrament of rest.