15th Sunday of Year A – The Parable of the Sower – Matthew 13:1–23

If, this morning, I were to go and stand  outside my local supermarket with a suitcase full of £20 notes and give away free money, you would be surprised if anyone refused the offer. There would in fact be a large queue. People would text and phone their friends. They would come from far and wide and would gladly take what I would give them and would go away happy.

And yet, we as the church offer something of far greater value than some bank notes: the love of God and life in all its fullness. If I were to stand in the middle of this village and talk to people about the love of God in Christ Jesus I doubt that there would be the same kinds of crowds, or a similar level of acceptance.

Jesus never had such problems, quite the opposite in fact, in the Gospel He has been teaching people about the Kingdom of God, and how it creates a new kind of family for us to belong to. He has been quoting from the prophet Isaiah, and now there are so many people who want to listen to what he has to say that he has to go into a boat on the Sea of Galilee to use a cove like a natural auditorium or theatre so that people can see and hear Him. He tells a parable to explain the Kingdom in a way that people could understand. A sower scatters seed, and it falls into various kinds of ground, some plants get choked by weeds. Others fall into thin soil and quickly wither and die. But some fall into good soil and produce a miraculous harvest. It’s a parable about people hearing the proclamation of the Kingdom of God: it’s easy to forget about it, to get choked by the cares of the world, to buckle under the first bit of pressure, but if you listen to what God says, and let it grow in your heart and your life then miraculous things can and will happen. Ours is an extravagant God, a generous God, a God who loves us.

The Church has always struggled with the fact that there are those who are unwilling or unable to receive the message of the Gospel of salvation. It seems so strange that people just aren’t interested in who Jesus is, in what He does, and why it matters.

I certainly don’t understand why anyone would think like that. It makes perfect sense to me, as a man of faith who loves Jesus. I want to tell people about Him. That is why I’m standing here talking to you. It is thanks to the example of a great and holy priest, Fr Glyn Bowen, who lived next door but one to us when I was a child. He was a humble, loving man, who lived out his faith and inspired me and countless others to follow Jesus.

We cannot do everything ourselves, we have to leave some things up to God.  But we can hope and trust along with the apostle Paul that ‘the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’ (Rom 8:21 NRSV). We must remember that the spread of the Good News, like all things, is in God’s hands. Unlike in the supermarkets, the Church’s offers are not time-limited. We should not allow people’s reluctance to accept the gospel to detract us from our main purpose. We as Christians are to love God and to love our neighbour, in thought word and deed. This is the key to our faith.

By living lives which proclaim the gospel truth, that there is much more to life than the false enticements of this world, we become fruitful evangelists, with the word of God dwelling in us deeply. As Christians, all of our lives need to be filled with Christ-like love. It cannot be otherwise. Through regular prayer, and reading of the scriptures, but most of all through regular reception of Holy Communion, we can be fed by the Lord, with the Lord,  to become living temples to His glory.

For God is seeking the healing of his people as noted by the prophet Isaiah which Jesus quotes:

You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn — and I would heal them.” (Mt 13:14-15 NRSV)

Isaiah is giving a message of hope to Israel, to trust in God, and turn towards Him, so that they may be healed. It is fulfilled in Jesus, who brings about that healing on the Cross, when He reconciles us to God and each other. ‘And I would heal them’, Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah ends with a promise of God’s healing. It is a promise which Jesus fulfils on the Cross. Here He shows us that God wants to heal His people, and has sent His Son to do it. This is the Good News of the Kingdom.

We can have a truly loving community in and through Christ, who has taken our sins upon Himself, and reconciled us to God and each other. It allows us to live in an entirely different way to the ways of the world, the ways of sin and division. And in the growth of the Church we can see the New Life and miraculous harvest which God offers.

The people of our generation are reluctant or scared to accept God’s love. They have become inherently suspicious of the idea of a free gift. The only way that they can be encouraged to accept it is by seeing in the lives of people around them examples of how the free love of God affects our lives. We need to reflect God’s love in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds.

So then, let us pray that we may be fed by Him, nourished by Him, strengthened to live lives of gospel truth which proclaim the generous love of God to all those around us. Let us show this love to one another, letting God work in our lives, and helping us to love Him and to love our neighbours, so that the world around us may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. AMEN.

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Jesus and Nicodemus Lent II

The sight of a crucifix has a continuity with Golgotha; at times its vision is embarrassing. We can keep a statue of Buddha in a room, tickle his tummy for good luck, but it is never mortifying. The crucifix somehow or other makes us feel involved. It is much more than a picture of Marie Antoinette and the death-dealing guillotine. No matter how much we thrust it away, it makes its plaguing reappearance like an unpaid bill.

Fulton J. Sheen Those Mysterious Priests 1974: 101—102

 

Our Baptism is a wonderful thing, and it is why each and every one of us is here today. It is how we enter the Church, how we become part of the body of Christ,  it is how our souls are infused with the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, it is how we are regenerate, born again, sharing in His death, and His resurrection. It is something for which people have traditionally prepared during this season of Lent, for Baptism and Confirmation at Easter, so that they can die with Christ and be raised to new life with Him. We enter into the mystery of Christ’s saving work so that we may conformed to it and transformed by it, by Love, by believing and trusting in Christ, publicly declaring our faith in Him, and praying for His Holy Spirit, so that our lives may be transformed – living for Him, living in Him, and being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.

To be drawn into His likeness means coming closer to His Cross and Passion: just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (Jn 3:14). Just as the serpent in the desert brought salvation to the people of Israel, so now the Cross is our only hope – the sacrifice of God for humanity, not something we can give God, but something he gives us – a free gift of infinite value. God gives it to us and to all the world for one simple reason – love, for love of us – weak, poor, sinful humanity, so that we might be more lovely, more like Him. God sends His Son into the world not to condemn it, but so that the world might be saved through Him – an unselfish act of generosity, of grace, so that we might be saved from sin and death, from ourselves, so that we can share new life in Him.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ John 3:16-17 (ESV) These few words spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel encapsulate what we believe as Christians, and why we believe it, may we live them, strengthened through prayer, our study of the Bible, nourished by Our Lord’s Body and Blood, forgiven and forgiving, preparing to be caught up forever in the love of God.

It is that same sacrifice which we see here this morning, which we can taste and touch, which we can eat and drink, so that our lives and our souls can be transformed to live Christ’s risen life. It is something which we treat with the uttermost reverence because it is God, given for us, because it can transform us to live as children of the Holy Spirit, freed from the shackles of this world, free to live for Him, to live as He wants us to, His new creation, of water and the Spirit. This is what the Church has done on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, in memory of Him, to make the holy people of God. To make us holy: so that everything which we say, or think, or do, may be for His praise and glory, living out the faith which we believe in our hearts, as a sign to the world that the ways of selfishness and sin are as nothing compared with the generous love of God.

So great is this gift, that we prepare to celebrate it with this solemn season of prayer, and fasting, and abstinence, to focus our minds and our lives on the God who loves us and who saves us. We prepare our hearts and minds and lives to celebrate the mystery of our redemption, so that our lives may reflect His glory, so that we may live for Him, fed by Him, fed with Him, with our lives and souls transformed by Him. We are transformed so that we can transform the world so that it may live for Him, living life in all its fullness: living for others, living as God wants us to live. Living the selfless love which saves us and all the world, living out our faith, and encouraging others so to do, can and will conform us to Christ, so that we may be like Him, and become ever more like Him, prepared for eternal life with Him, so that we all may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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A thought from Henri Nouwen

All of this is simply to suggest how horrendously secular our ministerial lives tend to be. Why is this so? Why do we children of the light so easily become conspirators with the darkness? The answer is quite simple. Our identity, our sense of self , is at stake. Secularity is a way of being dependant upon the responses of our milieu. The secular or false self is the self which is fabricated, as Thomas Merton says, by social compulsions. ‘Compulsive’ is indeed the best adjective for the false self. It points to the need for ongoing and increasing affirmation. Who am I? I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated or despised. Whether I am a pianist, a businessman or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by the world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy. If having money is a sign of real freedom, then I must claim my money. If knowing many people proves my importance, I will have to make the necessary contacts. The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failure and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same – more work, more money, more friends.

These very compulsions are at the basis of the two main enemies of the spiritual life: anger and greed. They are the inner side of the secular life, the sour fruits of our worldly dependencies. What else is anger other than the impulsive response to the experience of being deprived? When my sense of self depends on what others say of me, anger is a quite natural reaction to a critical word. And when my sense of self depends on what I can acquire, greed flares up when my desires are frustrated. Thus greed and anger are the brother and sister of a false self fabricated by the social compulsions of the unredeemed world.

Anger in particular seems close to a professional vice in the contemporary ministry. Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at their followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church for not coming and angry at those who do come for coming without enthusiasm. They are angry at their families, who making them feel guilty, and angry at themselves for not being who they want to be. This is not open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, an anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart. If there is anything that makes ministry look grim and dull, it is this dark, insidious anger in the servants of Christ.

It is not so strange that Anthony and his fellow monks considered it a spiritual disaster to accept passively the tenets and values of their society. They had come to appreciate how hard it is not only for the individual Christian but also for the church itself to escape the seductive compulsions of the world. What was their response? They escaped from the sinking ship and swam for their lives. And the place of salvation is called desert, the place of solitude.

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, London: DLT, 1990: 14-16

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Augustine on the works of mercy

Two works of mercy set a man free: forgive and you will be forgiven, and give and you will receive.

When you pray we are all beggars before God: we stand before the great householder bowed down and weeping, hoping to be given something, and that something is God himself.

What does a poor man beg of you? Bread. What do you beg from God? – Christ, who said, ‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven’.

Do you you really want to be forgiven? Then forgive. Do you want to receive something? Then give to another. And if you want your prayer to fly up to God, give it two wings, fasting and almsgiving.

But look carefully at what you do: don’t think it is enough to fast if  it is only  a penance for sin, and does not benefit someone else. You deprive yourself of something, but to whom do you give what you do without?

Fast in such a way that you rejoice to see that dinner is eaten by another; not grumbling and looking gloomy, giving rather because the beggar wearies you than because you are feeding the hungry.

If you are sad when you give alms, you lose both bread and merit, because ‘God loves a cheerful giver’.

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St Augustine on imitating Christ

Pride is the great sin, the head and cause of all sins, and its beginning lies in turning away from God. Beloved, do not make light of this vice, for the proud man who disdains the yoke of Christ is constrained by the harsher yoke of sin: he may not wish to serve, but he has to, because if he will not be love’s servant, he will inevitably be sin’s slave.

From pride arises apostasy: the soul goes into darkness, and misusing its free will falls into other sins, wasting its substance with harlots, and he who was created a fellow of the angels becomes a keeper of swine.

Because of this great sin of pride, God humbled himself, taking on the form of a servant, bearing insults and hanging on a cross. To heal us, he became humble; shall we not be ashamed to be proud?

You have heard the Lord say that if you forgive those who have injured you, your Father in heaven will forgive you. But those who speak the world’s language say. ‘What! you won’t revenge yourself, but let him boast of what he did to you? Surely you will let him see that he is not dealing with a weakling?’ Did the Lord revenge himself on those who struck him? Dying of his own free will, he uttered no threats: and will you, who do not know when you will die, get in a rage and threaten?

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St Augustine on Ps. 19:9

The Pharisee

Shall a Christian go and live apart from the world, so that he may not be tried by false brethren? Shall he who has progressed in a righteous life separate himself so that he need not suffer from anyone? Perhaps people have suffered from before he was converted. Has no one anything to put up with from you? It would surprise me – but if it is so, then you are stronger and thus able to endure other people’s failings.

Do you propose to shut out bad men from good men’s company? if that is what you say, see if you can shut out all evil thoughts from your own heart. Every day we fight with out own heart.

You say you will go apart with a few good men and admit no wicked brother to your society. How do you recognise the man you wish to exclude? Do all come to you with their hearts bare? Those who wish to come do not know themselves, they cannot be proved unless they are tried.

Nowhere in this life are we secure, except in God’s promise – only when we have attained to it, when the gates of Jerusalem are shut behind us, shall we be perfectly safe.

Beloved, mark the apostle’s words: ‘Support one another in charity.’ You forsake the world of men and separate yourself from it. Whom will you profit? Would you have got so far if no one had profited you?

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