Tuesday, 8 July 2014

“…Some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”: a sermon (Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23)

Jesus once told a story about a farmer sowing some seeds. He spoke of the different results with different seeds, depending on where they were sown.
  • Some seeds fell on the path. They were eaten up by birds before they had a chance to grow.
  • Other seeds fell on rocky ground. They sprouted quickly, but didn’t continue to grow, because they were in shallow soil.
  • Other seeds fell among thorny plants and, as they sprouted, the new plants were choked by the existing plants.
  • Still other seeds fell on good soil. They grew, and grew well.
Later in the chapter, an explanation of this parable is given. The seed was the “word of the kingdom”, the message of God’s love. The fates of the various different seeds represent people’s varied response to the message of God’s love.

The majority of New Testament scholars agree that the explanation is not part of the original story and, in fact, is from a somewhat later time than the story itself … probably from at least a generation later than the time when Jesus told the story.
In fact, the emphasis of the actual parable is very different from the emphasis of the later explanation. 
  • The emphasis of the actual parable is on celebrating the seeds which grew, and which grew well, both the seeds in the story itself and, by extension, for the metaphorical “seeds” of the message of God’s love.
  • The emphasis of the later “explanation” is on the reasons for the failure of those seeds which didn’t grow well, particularly for the metaphorical seeds, making the story less of a parable and more of an allegory.
We need to remember that there is a difference between a parable and an allegory. In an allegory, every part of the story has a symbolic meaning. In a parable, such as the stories Jesus told, there is usually only a single point to the story. In the case of this parable, the point of the story is celebrating the seeds which grew, and which grew well.
 
Still, we can use the general premise of the explanation that the seeds represent the message of God’s love, and that the various sorts of soil for the seeds represent our various reactions to the message of God’s love. Given that premise, what parallels do we see, in our own day, in the year Twenty-fourteen, to the situations in this parable.
 
1. First, there are the seeds that fell on the path and were eaten by the birds.  And there are people of faith who get “eaten up”.
 
There are some people who get “bored” by the mainstream churches and become attracted to the more predatory, “fundamentalist” sort of churches, the more “religious” sort of churches. Frequently, they may get excited at first in these groups. Frequently, they may find the religious certainty of these groups very satisfying. Frequently, they enjoy being told what to believe. 
 
It’s not really their fault. Some people like certainty. Some people can’t cope with ambiguity.
 
But then, many find that they can’t accept the whole package of beliefs and lifestyle expected by these groups. And many feel that, if they reject (or even question) one part of their group’s teachings, they’ve rejected the lot. And many leave. 
 
The predatory, “fundamentalist” churches have a very wide “back door”. We hear a lot about the people who leave mainstream churches and go to the more “religious” churches. We hear far less about the people who leave these predatory churches. They often don’t go to the mainstream churches because they’ve usually been told so many bad things about us in the more “religious” churches. When people leave the predatory churches, they usually end up going … nowhere … as if they were eaten up, and then spat out.
 
2. Then there are the seeds that fell on rocky ground with shallow soil, seeds which sprouted quickly but didn’t grow, because of the shallowness of the soil. 
 
And there are people who have a shallow faith, as well. 
  • These are the people who leave a church if their musical tastes – whether contemporary or traditional - aren’t catered for.
  • These are the people who leave a church if the minister doesn’t pander to their pre-existing prejudices: prejudices against Jews, prejudices against Muslims, prejudices against Catholics, or gays, or feminists, or … anyone really.
  • These are the people who feel that a Sunday School-faith, or a Confirmation Class-faith, or a Youth Group-faith is a sufficient faith to sustain them in adult life.
  • These are the people who approach their faith asking, “What will this do for me? … What will the church do for me? … What will my faith do for me? … What will God do for me?”.
These are the people who have not asked the real question: “How will the church enable me to do something for God and for the world which God loves?”
 
And again, it’s not really their fault. We live in a consumerist culture. It’s only normal for some people to develop a consumerist attitude toward their faith.
 
Just as there were seeds which fell in rocky ground with shallow soil, seeds which sprouted quickly but didn’t grow, so too there are those who allow their own faith to remain shallow.
 
3. Then there are also the seeds that fell among thorny plants, seeds which first sprouted, but soon found that the young plants were choked by the thorny plants. And there are people of faith who allow themselves to be choked up by their attitude to their faith. 
 
There are people who see their faith not as a joy to celebrate, but as a heavy burden to bear; people for whom the punch-line of last week’s gospel lesson is relevant, when Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
 
And there are people of faith who see their faith as an uneasy yoke and a heavy burden, those who see the practice of their faith as a grim duty: a lot of jobs to do but with no joy in it at all. Many find themselves getting “burnt out” in their church life.
 
At its most extreme, this mentality leads to the dour-faced Calvinist for whom any levity associated with their faith is a grave sin indeed.
 
Dr. Tex Sample once told about a time when, as a young theological student, he attended a church service and the minister who was preaching said “Why, If I didn’t believe the things I’m telling you, I wouldn’t be preaching to you. Why, I’d be out having myself a good time!” 
 
And it was obvious, both to Tex Sample and to many of the others at the service, that the preacher’s idea of “a good time” was one that they didn’t particularly share. But, nevertheless, there was this attitude conveyed by the minister – an attitude shared by many people inside and outside the church - that faith is a heavy burden, something that keeps us from having fun, and from fully enjoying ourselves.
 
And, again, for those who have this attitude, it’s not really their fault as well. Too many churches have taught versions of this attitude for so long, that it’s very difficult to encourage people to see an alternative view.
 
Like the seeds that fell among thorny plants, which found that the young plants were choked by the thorny plants, there are people of faith who allow themselves to be choked up by their attitude to their faith.
 
4. But, finally, there are the seeds that fell on good soil, seeds which grew, and grew well. Even though, this part of the story was not emphasized in the explanation, this was the part of the story that Jesus emphasized. This is the part where Jesus allowed his language to get particularly expansive, with the seeds bringing forth grain, “… some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”. 
 
The point of Jesus’ story is not to bewail the failures of the times when we share the message of God’s love. Neither is it to make excuses for these failures. The point of the parable is to celebrate the successes of the message. There are occasions when the message gets through, and bears fruit “… some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”. 
 
For this congregation, as for any mainstream church,
  • there will be some people who will allow themselves to get “burnt out” in their practice of their faith;
  • there will be others who will get their noses out of joint if their personal tastes and prejudices are not totally catered for;
  • there will be others who will decide that this church is not “religious” enough for them, and will look for a church that is more “religious”.
But, rather than obsessing over these facts, let us celebrate all those for whom this congregation provides an opportunity to do something for God and for the world which God loves, and are, thus, enabled to bear fruit “…some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”. 

No comments:

Post a comment

Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.