Homily: July 13, 2014
Proper 10, Year A: July 13, 2014 The parable we hear in today’s gospel is pretty open to interpretation, but it is nonetheless pretty shocking in its circumstances. What kind of farmer simply throws the seed around and doesn’t either prepare the ground or take care where it lands. Pretty dicey operation, if you ask me.
With a little bit of help from scholarly commentaries, it becomes clear that in the figure of the sower Jesus is probably referring to himself and the mission he claimed at his baptism: to spread the good news of the reign of God to all people everywhere, calling them to turn from their former ways and prepare for a whole new world order. Notice that twice he tells his audience to listen up, because producing fruit is not up to the sower— he stays true to his task, which is to fling the good tidings of God’s grace and favor with indiscriminate abandon— producing fruit is up to the soil that receives the seed, the listener who hears the word.
Just a few sentences later the evangelist takes this message and rather pedantically spells out the moral of the parable, shifting its meaning slightly to make it about the perils of discipleship: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed acts on it and bears fruit."
Now I understand that the evangelist is trying to take Jesus’ open-ended imagery and apply it to the circumstances of his own particular community; in context I don’t even mind that he’s being a little ham-fisted as he does so. But really: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, it is because the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart.” Really? Really? The “evil one” comes and snatches away our understanding?
Well…maybe…yeah…in a way.
The catechism in our Prayer Book tells us that: by nature we “are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God… [and thus] free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.” BCP 845 This is who we are intended to be by nature. But we know only too well that this is not the real way of the world. And so the catechism goes on to explain this, saying we do not live this way because: “…from the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and made wrong choices. [W]e rebel against God and we put ourselves in the place of God.”
This is what Anglicans label sin: “the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God….” and we acknowledge that this contrary pursuit “…distorts our relationship with God, with other people, and with creation.” BCP 848
Pretty much sounds to me like the work of evil, if not a personified devil, clouding our understanding, snatching away what is sown in the heart from birth. Sounds exactly like what the baptismal covenant is attempting to address when it asks whether we will renounce the powers, the forces, the desires of the world that draw us from the love of God.
Last week we heard Paul identify with this personally, saying that it is impossible to just hear the word and do it. Human nature, prone to the distractions of the will, gets in the way. We want to do good, but too often we make wrong choices instead. Yet today we hear Paul proclaiming, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” What can he possibly mean? How can he justify these seemingly opposite comments?
In part, Paul agrees with the catechism, or rather the catechism follows Paul. Sin is not a state of being but a choice, an action with consequences. What stops us from leading sinless, perfect lives is the powerful lure of willfulness. From time to time our hearts and minds will continue to give in to cloudy thinking. Do we continue to make wrong choices? Yes. Are we in constant need of God’s help? Yes. Does God hold us under judgment as a result? No. In the strict understanding of the Episcopal teaching about salvation, there is no limit to God’s grace. It is unconditional. We’re back to that carefree sower, extravagantly flinging seed. Christ has overcome the alienation of sin and restored our right relationship to God, even as we continue to act in ways that distort it. Does this lower the bar? Perhaps. It certainly means that there is no goad or threat to insure that human performance be “up to snuff.” We are to make that determination on our own. The overwhelming love of God necessarily calls forth a similar response from us. And when we do God’s will we are Christ’s brothers and sisters; when we do not we separate ourselves from God. But the emphasis remains on our actions and their consequences, not on God’s punishment.
And we have this promise in baptism by which we are “…cleansed from sin and born again.” We are empowered to “…continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.” We are “…raised to the new life of grace” and “…marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
This is what it means to be in Christ Jesus, to be in the Spirit and to have the Spirit dwelling in us
Our nature is never less than that we are created in the likeness and image of God. Aided by the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than conforming ourselves to this world we can be, as Paul will write later in this letter, “…transformed by the renewing of our minds…[so that we may] discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” We can hold it as an obtainable goal to “…come…to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
Therefore we do not grovel or give in to despair but rejoice in our humanity and give thanks to God, even as we repent our sin.
For those with ears to hear, this is good news indeed.