Sunday, July 13, 2014

sowing from the boat

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our gospel reading today concerns the parable of the sower. It is a ferociously familiar passage, one that we've all heard or read many times, as well as hearing it preached on or talked about in Sunday school … not to mention all the paintings, stain glass windows, and other images based on it … but I wonder how many of us take time to consider the opening verses of this passage?

It begins with the line: That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. The setting is, of course, Lake Galilee, and the house is Jesus' home there in Capernaum. In the verses preceding this passage, we read how the Pharisees are beginning to plot to kill Jesus, angered by the challenge of his teaching, and especially his doing things like healing on the Sabbath. So Jesus withdraws; he goes to a quieter place; he goes home. But still the people come to hear him teach. When he goes out of his house 'great crowds' gather around him. So many press around him as he sits there that those at the back probably cannot hear him speak. And so he gets into a boat, goes out a little way, and teaches them from there.
It is a remarkably clever thing to do. The flat surface of the lake would act almost as a stage; while the gentle slopes of the shore would act almost as a natural amphitheatre, so that all could see, even those standing at the back. And we all know how well sound travels over water; and so all would have been able to hear him clearly as well.

Now, I'd like you to hold that image of our Lord, sitting in the boat, teaching the crowd, in your mind for a few moments, because I think it is very important. Think about what is happening here: Jesus is having trouble reaching out to so many people to teach them, to share his Good News with them, and so he enlists the help of a boat in order to carry out his mission. Now consider that from the earliest days of Christianity it was quite common to compare the Church of Christ to a boat. Historical figures such as Tertullian and Hippolytus did so; and indeed, during the time of the undivided Church it was common throughout Christendom to refer to the Church as the Barque of Peter, barque meaning boat. What we have in our Lord's actions here, I think, is a foreshadowing of the birth of his Church, a term I do not use lightly. In fact, some commentators call the passages which immediately follow this episode in the Gospels 'the birth of the Church,' hardly surprising as they culminate in Jesus' famous words 'thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.'

And so I'd like to consider the parable of the sower in the sense of it being a charge to the church, with a sense of mission, purpose, command. It is easy, I think to see the parable as one concerned with personal holiness: our Lord sows the seed and depending on the ground it falls upon it bears fruit to a greater or lesser degree. And note carefully, by the way, that while in the parable the ground that the seed falls upon is what it is, rocky, thorny, thin, or rich; but in our Lord's explanation, the people whom he is talking about in the parable do have a choice – being overly concerned with the cares of this world, allowing oneself to continue in a lack of understanding of the Gospel message, letting ourselves be lead astray by the temptations of the world, the flesh, or the devil – these are all choices and we are responsible for them and therefore responsible for the the Lord's seed withering instead of producing good fruit. But what is that good fruit that others produce? Is it only personal holiness? Is it only having a more or less perfect relationship with God? Or is it not also reaching out to others to share this good news with them? When Jesus speaks of the harvest being plentiful but the labourers few, he is talking about need for men and women to follow in his way, spreading the word, and winning souls for heaven. So when he speaks of producing good fruit here, it is not unreasonable to suggest that such good fruit includes labouring in his vineyard to produce a rich harvest of souls for God. In which case, those who chose not to hear and receive his word in the ways outlined in the parable do not only do injury to themselves; they deny others whom they might have shared that word with the opportunity of hearing God's word. We sin not only in what we do but in the things we fail to do.

But returning to that scene with Jesus in the boat, an image I think which points us to the Church. And that reminds us that Christ has not left things to chance, to individual actions and responses; just as he used the boat that day for the sake of his mission, he now uses the boat of his church. He has entrusted the work he began to his Body on Earth, the Body that he continues to lead as its head; his Church continues his work of sowing the seed of his word; his Church continues to work the ground to make sure that as much of it as possible is good soil; and his Church continues to work to provide all with the possibility of bearing good fruit, in abundance, and so at the last being with our Lord in Heaven.

To him who is the shepherd and guardian of our souls, by whose wounds we are healed and who is with us always until the end of the ages, be glory now and forever. Amen

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