Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

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Today we continue our sermon series, leading up to Lent, looking at Jesus' parables. Now last week I introduced this by explaining that the series was conceived in response to a news item about some young women who had converted to another faith. Now, they were, of course, entitled to do that, but what stung was that they had felt that the Christian community had nothing to say on the deep questions of their lives. And David Jones and I are concerned that people in our communities are looking for answers, but our silence about our beliefs (which we think of simply as modesty) is actually letting people down and giving the impression that we don't care and have nothing useful to say. So David and I have been gently encouraging us, firstly to have confidence that we do have something valuable to say and secondly to find ways of communicating it.
And last week, we began with two very short parables from the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus compares us to salt and light. And it was an important starting point because these are parables that relate primarily to how we live by example, rather than by what we say and I think that's very encouraging for most of us. Most of us, I suspect, are rather afraid of trying to say anything about our faith, partly because we are instinctively reticent about talking about something so personal and partly because we don't feel equipped to talk about it. We feel we're not learned enough, or quick-witted enough and we certainly don't want to become the religious equivalents of second-hand car salesmen (no disrespect intended to any members of the motor trade who happen to be present!).
So those parables of salt and light came as something of a relief to old fashioned Anglicans, because they remind us that how we live - living as modest examples of Christianity in action - is the most important way to communicate our faith. Even without us saying a word, how we live will speak volumes about what we believe and will articulate the gospel on our behalf.
But there is still a challenge at the heart of it, to live the life of a Christian and to set the right example and that means living the life of faith, through deepening our relationship with God and allowing that to permeate the whole of our lives. And I set before us a phrase that embodies the sort of Christianity I want to encourage - "passionate moderation". Still bearing all the good old fashioned Anglican virtues of moderation - decency, modesty and restraint, but with a passionate faith-based grounding, so that it's not just quiet apathy, but a passionate, moderate faith that will inspire others and help them to find answers without turning to the voices of extremism.
But living by example is only part of the story. For Jesus, word and action went together and we do need to find a voice to articulate our beliefs and the answers that we have found in our faith which sustain us through life's ups and downs. And I think that's where this parable of the sower comes in.
In this parable Jesus likens the "word of the kingdom" to seed, sown by sowers. And having spent some of the past few days getting my own seeds ready for sowing, this is a particularly topical parable. Now, according to the parable, speaking the word of God to people is like sowing seed: its purpose is to germinate new life and to cultivate that new life into full maturity of faith which will bear fruit. Fruit in this context being the life of the kingdom of heaven lived here on earth - lives lived in obedience to King Jesus and making manifest his way of living (the sort of characteristics I was talking about last week).
Now what do we take from this parable? Well, lots of course, but in particular I want to focus on two points: Firstly, it takes time to bear fruit; and secondly our job is to sow, even if we don't see the harvest.
Firstly, time: we human beings are not very good at being patient are we? We get discouraged very easily if we don't get results quickly - just ask any child trying to learn a musical instrument. So, it's worth reminding ourselves that the most significant things we do and say can take time. Many of the most important things that were said to me were said long before they were of any use. For example, there was something a Sunday School teacher said to me around the age of 9 or 10, that stuck with me. It wasn't particularly earth-shattering, but I remember him saying that when you're a child, you are forced to come to church and want to leave as soon as you get the choice. Then you become an adult and finding yourself choosing to come to church, because it means something as an adult which you never noticed as a child.
I could certainly identify with that. I was desperate to stop coming to church, as soon as I got the choice. But it made me think twice about the choice. It made me look deeper to see if I could see what it was that would make you choose to come to church. And the deeper I looked, the more I found, until here I am, many years later, an ordained leader of the church.
I'm sure many of us can point to examples in our own lives of something someone's said that, years later, becomes enormously significant to us. They're often not devastatingly clever, or the result of years of learning or in depth bible study, but they are seeds sown which burst in to life when the conditions are right and bear fruit in our lives.
And we owe it to our fellow humanity to share the seeds of the life that sustains us, because one day it might just save their lives. And again, they needn't be clever arguments, or great theological points. They can just be the simplest things which make all the difference.
I have another example for you. I was talking to someone recently who freely confessed that they were shy about sharing their faith verbally, but who recounted how, after she had suffered a bereavement, she found her friends and neighbours questioning her decision to carry on going to church. "Why are you still going to church after all that's happened to you?" they asked. And she replied, very simply and honestly, "but I find church helps me."
You won't find that phrase in any great work of theology, but my goodness it packs a punch doesn't it? It speaks volumes about the nature of Christian faith and our relationship with God. A seed sown, very simply, but very powerfully.
And that brings me to point two. Our job is to sow. Now, this has some important implications: implication A: the sowing of the seed ultimately bears the fruit, but we may not necessarily see the harvest. It's still our job to sow. I feel this particularly, because in ministry, you very rarely see any fruit to your work. You have no idea whether what you say to people or what you do for them helps at all. And yet, I know for a fact that a great many clergy have helped me enormously in my life and they probably never what an impact they had. They sowed faithfully and that's our mission too.
Implication B: we are not responsible for where the seed lands. That's between God and the people who hear. But we are responsible for sowing and we need to sow as liberally as we can. When I was interviewed for the post of your rector, I gave a little presentation using this parable and I said that we simply need to sow more seed. The more seed we sow, the more fruit will be borne. Now, that necessarily means that we will encounter failure more often than success. That's fine. God will never ask us to account for our success or failure (that's what the Cross is all about). But he will ask us to account for our sowing. So we need to scatter as much seed as we can, as often as we can.
Implication C: sowing more seed requires a joint effort. Each of us, in our own small way, can find ways of sowing seed as we live out our Christian lives. But our voice together as a church will do the talking to a much wider audience. So the things we say individually (most of which will be fairly unspectacular, as in the examples I gave earlier) matter enormously, but the things we do together matter too - and we're already doing them: Alpha, Emmaus, ATOM, Snack, Back to Church Sunday, We Believe. They all sow seed and we need to do more of it and we need to be more together in doing it.
Finally, implication D: the seed we sow needs to have life in it and that comes back (again) to nurturing our own faith. Scripture study, prayer, fellowship & learning all give life to us and put the life of God in the seed we sow. And you will find that the deeper you go in your relationship with God, the more everything comes together. It needn't turn you into a religious extremist, but into a passionate moderate: a modest life that gives you the assurance you need to survive what this world throws at you; that gives you tools for relationship that frees you and builds up others; a passionate life that makes it a joy to be alive and means you'll never walk along; and that passion (almost without you noticing it) will put life in your seed and help you to sow liberally for the kingdom of heaven.
And I predict that when you finally stand before your maker, you will be amazed at the harvest you have yielded in ways you never knew and will only wish you had had the courage to sow more seed. Amen.

Preached: - Crosby Ravensworth (joint), 13 February 2011