Sunday 16th July 2023, St Anne’s Lewes Isaiah 55, 10-13
Psalm 119, 105-12
Romans 8. 1-11
Matthew 13. 1-9, 18-23
May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit of life,
Today's hymns bring back lots of memories for me; I think 'we plow the fields and scatter' is probably the first I can remember singing as choirboy in a little Devon church, where we always sang it at harvest Festival. We've got David to thank for choosing hymns which pair so well with our readings every week and its often intriguing to look a little more closely at the words, and to connect them to our readings, because sometimes the hymns help us to understand the big ideas at the centre of our worship-and sometimes, like today, the readings seem to be saying something a little different...
When we sing
'We plow the fields and scatter
The good seed on the land'
And then sing
'But it is fed and watered by God's almighty hand'
In one very literal sense we know that that's true. In the everyday world we are the ones who sow and reap the crops we grow, and we depend on God working through creation to ensure that the conditions those seeds need to thrive exist. But I think our readings today tell us to see ourselves not as the Sower, or as the seed, but as the soil, and to ask ourselves what sort of soil are we? If we think of the seed as the Word of God, which is the Spirit of life and peace that Paul writes about, then both Matthew and Paul are inviting us to ask ourselves how we can be rich, fertile soil, enabling God to be a living, growing and life-enhancing presence in the world. In Romans Paul tells us that we do this by letting go of all the things he associates with 'the flesh', by which I think he means not our bodies as such, but the destructive feelings we all share; feelings like greed and jealousy, and all the harmful thoughts and emotions that shape our desire to exploit the world and those around us for our own ends. These are the things that distance us from God. When we give way to these desires, we're like the rocky ground, where the soil is thin and sparse leaving the seed, the Word of God, to remain dormant. In this reading of the parable of the Sower it's not God who provides the conditions for the seed to grow, as suggested in today's hymn, but us. The question we need to ask in response to Matthew's parable and Paul's Gospel, is what kind of soil are we going to be?
Jesus wants us to be the good soil of the parable; soil like that in Isaiah that grows cypress trees rather than thorns, but that means asking ourselves what are we doing to enable the seed, the Spirit of Life and Peace that Paul sees as being the presence of God in the world, to grow and thrive?
Soil is messy, dirty stuff; and Paul tells us that if we try and live independent of God then we remain messy and dirty, governed by desires and impulses we know aren't good for us. But Paul tells us that if we're still and attentive then even with all our faults we can be changed and transformed; we can be the means by which God's living presence, in the form of the Holy Spirit, can grow and thrive.
Jesus must have spent time observing and talking with people who knew and understood the relationship between the natural environment and human needs. He knows about sheep and shepherds, vines, and vineyards and today I like to think of him sitting on a hillside near Nazareth, watching someone sowing, throwing the seeds out onto those different types of soil. I like to think of Jesus observing how the different soils succeed in either nourishing or restricting the seeds' growth and of him working out in his own mind the different meanings of the Sower, the seed, and the soil.
But what do we need to do to become 'the good soil' today? How can we enable others to grow in their knowledge and understanding of God? Well, if we want to be good soil, Paul suggests we have to concentrate on being close to God. Being good soil is what Paul describes as setting the mind on the spirit. It isn't necessarily about doing lots of good works-it's about being receptive to God, allowing our knowledge and understanding of what it is to be Christ-like to grow day by day and week by week so that eventually we find ourselves nurturing others so that they, like the seed sown on good soil, can grow towards the sunlight. This is the vision that Isaiah sings of; God's Word fulfilled in our words and actions, growing cypresses rather than thorns.
Today's reading from Matthew skips the question that the disciples ask Jesus in verse 10, 'why do you speak to them in parables?'. Jesus responds that parables help people to better understand what he means by the Kingdom of Heaven. Some people, like the disciples, have that understanding already, but for others it's harder to reach, and parables are a means of helping them see the truth. As we discovered at St Michael's recently, parables invite lots of different interpretations. My interpretation of the good soil may not be yours, but that doesn't matter. The more we come up with different ways of explaining what each thing might represent the more we come to understand the mysterious richness of God's presence in the world. They're a way in which Jesus gets us to see how we can think imaginatively and creatively about the Kingdom of God.
And so today, as we reflect on the ways in which we can be the good soil of the parable, let's reflect on how we can all find ways of enabling the spirit of God to grow and thrive through what we say and think and do. We might do this by being silent and still, or we might do it by giving expression to God's love through our words and interactions with others; ultimately, we each have to discover our own personal way of becoming the 'good soil' of the parable, knowing that by doing so we'll be enabling the Spirit of God, which Paul tells us is already part of who we are, to become evident in everything we do and say and think.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit