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Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Seaside, Post-Card (Proper 6B sermon)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jason A. Fout
at St. Mark's Church, Newnham,
on Proper 6b (First Sunday after Trinity)
18 June 2006

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

The author C. S. Lewis once wrote that there is all the difference in the world between reading a map of the coastline and feeling the spray of the ocean upon your face. People come to church, he said, not to be taught to read maps [about God], but to feel the spray.*

There’s all the difference in the world between a map and what it describes. We might apply the same idea to parables, such as we heard this morning from Mark. On one level, parables aren’t meant to be analyzed and interpreted. They are evocative little word-pictures that work on an intuitive, gut level. And so to scrutinize a parable in too much detail risks turning a trip to the seaside into mere map-gazing.

But on the other hand, parables ache to be engaged. It can be all too easy to encounter a parable, like the Good Samaritan for example, and feel certain that we know what it’s all about. In these cases we can fail to truly hear the parable and miss out on its true depth and power. In these cases we can find, to our embarrassment, not that we have spent all our time looking at maps, but that we have settled for a picture postcard of the sea, rather than actually traveling to the seaside in all its three dimensional glory.

So we have a tricky task at hand this morning. When we’re done, will we find ourselves basking in the sun at Bournemouth, or merely staring at a map of Dorset? Well, friends, it’s worth the risk, because to encounter the true depth of a parable can make all the difference in the world.

Continue reading The Seaside, Post-Card
I’m going to focus on the first of the two parables we heard today. In four verses, we hear of a sower scattering seed. The earth helps the seed to grow, and after a time the sower harvests the mature grain.

It might be easy to see ourselves in this parable. We are the sower who spreads the seed of the good news throughout the world. The seed grows, people come to faith, and then the benefits are reaped at the end of the age, the harvest. The parable tells us we and what we do are important to the growth of the Kingdom.

I think there might be something to this. It’s true that we need to be invested in the good news and keen to see the Kingdom spread in all its forms. But I think we ought to be suspicious of any interpretation which places us and our effort at the centre of importance.

Moreover, we know our own sin and brokenness, how far we fall short. If we too easily profess our own importance without also coming clean about our failure, then we set ourselves up to become hypocrites, not at all something we want.

But perhaps in approaching this parable we could see ourselves in the seed. The seed of the gospel is spread, and we accept that seed. We grow in grace. We grow in the depth of our own faith. We mature in our life with God. But, as with a growing plant, we don’t cause the growth ourselves, but depend on the strength of God to grow. So as we see growth in ourselves, this isn’t a cause for our own boasting or self-congratulation. This isn’t an opportunity for us to feel better than someone else, but to love and serve them better than we have in the past. After all, the grain that the stalk bears is not for the sake of the seed or the stalk, but for the sake of the harvest, the kingdom.

Friends, there is much to recommend this reading, too. But again, I wonder if by starting with ourselves and placing ourselves in the centre we might risk missing just what this parable has for us. And this is important, because who is at the centre makes all the difference in the world.

So perhaps instead we might start with God. We might make God first and foremost the subject of the parable, and only afterwards turn to ourselves. More precisely, I wonder if we can see the Trinity at work here in this parable – and if so, what difference it might make to us.** I would like to suggest that looking at the parable this way changes everything.

Let’s return to the text of the parable. A man scatters seed on the ground. The seed goes into the ground and then grows into a plant which bears fruit. The growth in the plant comes through the earth. Eventually, the grain from the plant, nourished by the earth, is returned to the planter at harvest.

It is not too much of a stretch to see the one who plants as God the Father. The Father creates and gives life. In fact, the sower of seed here in this parable does not just plant the seed: he scatters it. The image isn’t at all of someone carefully parceling out seed by seed, making sure that each is nestled in its own place in a well-hoed row. No, he flings it around, chucking it any which way he can. There’s no concern for the bottom line or maximizing return. He’s concerned to sow these seeds of life wherever he can. In this scattershot sower, we can see the grace and love of the Father. He just keeps giving generously, unconditionally, prodigally – we might even be tempted to say wastefully. He’s willing to give and give and give some more, slinging the seed of life wherever he can.

The oddness of the Father’s farming doesn’t end there, though. First he throws the seed around everywhere. Then he lets things take their course. He isn’t out there every other day vigilantly weeding or fertilizing. The parable uses its language to set a pace, showing that the sower steps aside and lets the seed develop. In this alongside the Father’s gracious generosity, we can also see the Father’s exquisite patience. He’s not concerned to ration seeds, and he’s in no hurry to harvest, at least until it’s the right time.

If the Father sows, and he sows life, then the seed that he sends into the world is his Son. Seed is placed in the earth and dies, and new life emerges. So also the Son is sent into the world by the Father, dies, is placed in the ground and emerges with new life. That death and new life is itself the beginning of a richly abundant harvest, because it’s the beginning of new life not just for Jesus but for the world.

So the Father in his love sends the Son into the world so that it may have new life. Alongside that, God sends the Spirit into the world to produce the growth and fruit of the Son. In this parable, we see this in the Earth, which produces the growth and fruit of the seed. The Spirit rested on Jesus in his baptism, calling him and empowering him to the ministry he had been given. The Spirit’s presence nourishes, grows, and encourages that new life.

So the Father sows generously and reaps abundantly. The Son dies and rises to new life, raising a great harvest. And the Spirit empowers the Son, nourishing him to bear this fruit and return to the Father. Within this agricultural parable, we can see the movement of God in the world, working out his kingdom in the world with grace, love, generosity, sacrifice, without concern for the cost, and in great patience, sure that his plan will come to fruition. This, in brief span, is what God is like; and this is what God’s kingdom, God’s will, is like.

Where then do we find ourselves within this? Oddly enough, we find ourselves within God. And that makes all the difference in the world.

When we’re baptized, we are buried with Christ in his death, so that we might live in newness of life. So we grow, having been scattered by God to what might appear to be surprising places. We are like the seed, the Son, for through him we become sons and daughters of God. And it is the Holy Spirit, the earth, which gives us this growth: this is none other than God working in and through us. In this parable we see a God who is three and one, who comes to us, loves us, patiently calls us, and works through us to bring growth, so that we might bear fruit for him. And as God draws us in, he empowers us to invite others into the centre as well.

Friends, we are not the centre. God is the centre. And when we allow God to be the centre – not just in the parable, but in our lives – that is when all of the maps, travel brochures, and picture postcards suddenly just seem like so much paper. And that is when we begin to hear the roar of the surf, to taste the tang of the salt air, to see the blue-green swell of the waves. When we allow God to be the centre – behold! We’ve arrived at the seaside in all its incomparable glory. Sisters and brothers, just as there is all the difference in the world between a postcard and the sea, so also there is all the difference in the world between putting ourselves in the centre, then trying to find a place for God, and letting God be the centre, then finding ourselves in him.

This, then, is the parable of the growing seed. And even if the sermon hasn’t transported us this morning to the seaside at Bournemouth, I do pray that we have at least been able to hear, in the distance, the crashing of the waves of this deep, powerful and utterly glorious Sea. Amen.

* Found in TAD, Pentecost 2003, in an article by Rev. Virginia L. Bennett
** I am not interested in claiming (or defending the claim) that ‘the Trinity’ is what the author of this parable intended.

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