SERMON for the third Sunday after Trinity

SERMON for the third Sunday after Trinity

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s (Iffley, Rose Hill and Donnington) by Graham Low on 16th June 2024

Those who dare to preach about the parables of Jesus do so with some trepidation, as I do this morning. On the one hand the parables offer some of the most vivid stories and rich metaphors in the Bible. On the other hand, they can be interpreted in remarkably contrasting ways. As one commentator has put it, they can tease our imaginations, evoking a response that depends on what we as individuals bring to the text. In other words, how you are this morning will affect what you hear me say now.

The parable of the sower is the very familiar title usually given to the way it is put in Matthew. But when we read the version in Mark, we might well call it the parable of the seed and the soil, for that is its focus here. The sower is a vague figure who melts away. He is not explained later. Some have suggested that the sower is Jesus, but it seems clear that anyone can be the sower, the one who shares the word. Looking at all three versions of the parable, the focus is not on the proclaimer of the word but on the state or situation of the person who receives it. For Mark, this is set out in the verses which precede today’s passage.

It is interesting to note that the interpretation of this parable at the end of the nineteenth century tended to stress the inevitability of God-given growth. Life was steadily improving, human effort was being marshalled for the building up of the kingdom on earthly soil. Optimism was about in religious circles. This was not so in the time of the early Christian community of Mark which struggled with its inauspicious role in the broader society. The text makes it clear that some hear the gospel and for various reasons do not persist in their responsiveness. But be assured, Mark insists, that when sown on the proper soil the word bears fruit beyond one’s wildest dreams.

The parable of the mustard seed reveals further hope according to Mark’s comparison between the smallest of all seeds which grows into the greatest of all shrubs. At the time he wrote, the prospects for God’s rule on earth did not seem to be reassuring. The Roman empire certainly looked in another direction. But the promise is here in Mark. Inconspicuous beginnings will lead to a huge conclusion. We sense that God will not be thwarted.

This parable is about a promise that is unrelated to the apparent immediate success of the church, its membership, its budgets and so on, or on the prosperity of individual believers. It is about the eventual triumph of the reign of God (note verse 30: with what can we compare the kingdom of God?). That reign is characterized by mystery, rather than by a blueprint for the future. Instead, the future is talked about in stories, here about planting and harvesting. Let us remember that planting and harvesting happens continuously in the life of this church. It is found in our relationships with each other. It happens when we listen to each other. It happens in schools. It happens at Community Cupboard. It erupts in the most unexpected places: in emergency operating theatres, in those giving aid in Gaza and so on. It happens wherever the power of God overcomes the destructive forces of evil.

Returning to the parable about the secret growth of the seed, let us note that the farmer, having sown the seed contributes nothing else. He is not described as weeding or irrigating the crop. He simply sleeps and rises as he waits for the moment of harvest. He is confident that he will be able to harvest abundantly. The mystery of the growth of the seed lies with God. Mark states that the time of the harvest is likewise in God’s hands.

The figure of the farmer is a reminder that the consummation of God’s reign is not finally dependent on our best efforts in social ministries, or in pastoral care or evangelistic activity, important as they are. The fortunes of the kingdom do not rise or fall with programmes that succeed or fail.

We may look around us and see so much that is not in accord with our understanding of the nature of the kingdom of God: climate breakdown, over-population, and increasing inequality are dominant issues, but sadly are not yet dominant in the present election campaigning. We probably already know enough about the causes of the biggest problems facing humanity and how to overcome them at a practical level. However, human greed and selfishness are huge obstacles to overcoming them and allowing God to prevail. In his recent Bampton Lectures Rowan Williams said these problems of the world appear to be linked to people nowadays being drawn to tribalism rather than solidarity and community. It would be wonderful if the Christian church could unite and play a direct role in reversing this trend, rather than being so absorbed with third order matters of little or no interest to the unchurched majority. The parables would be a fundamental tool.

The parables offer us an astonishing resource to point us towards community. The parables also point us towards being attentive to, and responding to God who dwells in our innermost being. May we have the grace to allow God to act in God’s way and time. Amen.