Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Sower and Seed
July 10, 2011, 5:01 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday July 10th 2011

We get a very vivid picture of our Lord at work in the opening of today’s Gospel: “Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat there; and the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables.”

We are at Capernaum, a large village on the northern edge of the Sea (or lake) of Galilee. Elsewhere, this village is referred to as Jesus’s “own town”- not the place where he was brought up, Nazareth, but the place he had chosen as his base for his work of preaching. There was a house where he lived: this is not the period when he would say, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” From other parts of the Gospel we get the implication that he lodged with Peter and his family.

On a typical day, he would leave the house and go down to the lakeside to talk to whatever people had gathered there. In a community like that, villagers were free to stop whatever work they were doing and wander down to the water to listen. As his fame grew, so the numbers grew as well- some coming from the villages round about. On this occasion, there were so many people crowding round that it was hard for him to make himself heard to those at the back. There was a boat nearby- probably the one belonging to Peter and Andrew- so he got into it, and stood out a little from the land. The people could then spread out along the beach, and see and hear better.

Jesus began to tell stories. The one in today’s Gospel is one of the most famous- it is practically the only one included in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus painted word-pictures of familiar scenes- farmers and fishermen, housewives and merchants; the sort of people and the sort of circumstances everyone could relate to.

What is the parable about? Well, a farmer sowing his seed, of course! Well, yes and no. The point of the story is that the sower does his sowing, but the result depends not on him but the character of the ground in which he sows his seed. The seed itself is the same in every case, but whether it is fruitful or not depends on other factors. In his own explanation, Jesus explains that the birds, the rock, the thorns are images of the troubles and distractions of life. The seed he is talking about is the Word of God: to his hearers, that would mean the Torah, the Holy Law of God.

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout… so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.” This was Isaiah’s message to the exiles in Babylon, demoralised and depressed, doubting whether they or their descendants would ever return to the Promised Land. A rather different picture: this is not a parable about the receptiveness of the earth, but the effectiveness of the divine message.

Two pictures, then: the older one of a virtually irresistible creative force, bringing new life. God speaks, and it is done! In the darkness of despair, this message is needed. God reigns, his kingdom is assured. But what is the newer message? The exile is long past, yet still more Jews live outside the Holy Land than in it. Those who live abroad are often more prosperous than those who remain at home. Roman rule has brought opportunities as well as disadvantages. The world is a more ambiguous place than it was in Isaiah’s time: the world of yesterday always seems more clear-cut, more simple, than the world of today.

The picture Jesus paints is equally ambiguous. God does not speak through earthquake, wind and fire, but in the quiet voice of a village carpenter sitting in a borrowed boat. He does not say that his word will go forth conquering and to conquer, but that it will sometimes be snatched away by evil influences, or dried up by lack of depth, or choked by competing attractions. There is no inevitability about the outcome. Jesus refers to an even older prophecy of Isaiah, given long before the Exile when the danger was complacency rather than despair: “This people’s heart has grown dull, their ears are heavy of hearing, their eyes are closed: they have made themselves unable to hear and understand and turn to me for healing.”

It seems to me that we live in a very similar age. Christ still offers the word of life, but few seem capable of hearing it and appreciating it. We (you and me) are charged with delivering his word, the Good News, which if it is accepted will transform individuals and society. But it is uphill work. We see the seed snatched away by the malicious and stifled by the complacent, and even when it is accepted for the moment, there is no perseverance. Is it worth the effort?

At moments like this, maybe we should see ourselves as exiles in an alien environment, just as the Jews were exiles in Babylon. Our temptation is like theirs, to give up hope. Yet the Word of God cannot fail, and our first responsibility is to ensure that at least we ourselves receive it, that we are God’s deep, weed-free soil, defended against those who want to snatch faith and hope away from us.

When Jesus sat teaching in the boat, because the crowds wanting to hear him were so great, when he offered a message of hope and liberation to all, who would have supposed that only a year or so later he would be accused by the leaders of his own people of treason to the Faith of Israel, and handed over to pagans as an enemy of the State?

“The sufferings of this present time are nothing in comparison to the glory that is to come”, St Paul tells us. Creation is in bondage, subject to futility and decay. But God has sent forth his Word, and it cannot be in vain. God still sends forth his Word, the Word that has been made flesh in Jesus Christ. But he does so through feeble ministers, through you and me. It is up to us to show forth its power, made perfect in our imperfection.

Sunday by Sunday we gather round the altar, waiting to be fed with the Word of Scripture and the Word made flesh coming to us in the form of bread. At Mass, time and space are eliminated. When we hear the Gospel read, we hear again the voice of Jesus, just as truly as those villagers at Capernaum did. When we receive our Communion, the Living Jesus himself gives himself to us as our spiritual food.

“Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word proceeding from the mouth of God.” The prophets already knew that God’s word, his message, is what sustains the human spirit, just as bread sustains the human body. That word was first proclaimed by the prophets and preserved by the scribes; but then it took human form, and came among us as a craftsman who became a teacher, sitting in a boat and telling stories. It became a man who met hostility and rejection, who suffered betrayal, torture and death. It became a man who rose from death and lives forever as our Lord and King. It became a man who is God, a man who by his divine power can give himself to us as bread from heaven, literally food for both body and soul.

The sower sows his seed, day by day and week by week and year by year. What will the harvest be? Will the word take root in our hearts, will it bring forth grain- thirty, sixty or a hundred-fold- grain which will in turn become the bread of life? Will the birds of malice steal it away? Will the thorns of worldly care choke it? Will we be to shallow to let it take root? Who can tell? But whoever has ears to hear, let him or her hear the Word of the Lord!


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