16th July 2017

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Genesis 25: 19 – 34, Psalm 126, Romans 8: 1 – 10, Matthew 13: 1 – 23

Last week we spent some time looking at what it is like to live in Exile – a rather grand term perhaps for the experience of these few weeks when the Cathedral is closed for worship. Nonetheless this stripping away of what is familiar – the routines of which bus to catch, the familiar view as one enters the Cathedral and looks up at that wonderful sweep as the eye is drawn by the pillars to the reredos, the particular sound of organ, choir and hymn-singing, even spoken responses, the beautiful flowers, different each week but in their ‘proper’ place, and, of course, missing those who have chosen not to find their way to this different worship venue – all this leads to a certain amount of disorientation. Sarah Coakley offers the term ‘a disconcerting reorientation of the senses’. (EfM Year C, Week 22)

So what are we to do about it? Is there any good, any positive, any fresh opportunity coming out of this ‘disconcerting reorientation’? Back to the Exile, that dark period in Israel’s history between 586 BC when Nebuchadnezzar’s patience with a tiny recalcitrant nation snapped, and he stripped away those four pillars of identity for the people of God – king, temple, city and land. Without those props a new way of understanding themselves began to emerge for the Jews. There were those who spent time searching their souls, asking questions of their history, and revisiting their understanding of who and what they were. They discovered some interesting things: among them – that there was a body of teaching and instruction which had been handed on from generation to generation, from parent to child, grandparent to grandchild, teacher to student. It was based on another story of disorientation, also an E word: Exodus.

They read and re-read the great story of the Exodus, of the way in which God had responded to the cries of the people languishing in slavery in Egypt, and sent Moses to rescue them, leading them out through the Red Sea and into the Wilderness. Included in this story was the idea of a covenant relationship between God and the people – set out in summary form in the Ten Commandments. Over the centuries, through changing times of trouble and prosperity, the Covenant between God and people was central. Judges, kings and then prophets, each in their own way, tried to live according to the Covenant, shaped and fashioned in the forty year sojourn of the wilderness journey with Moses. In listening to their story the people slowly saw a pattern emerging. When the Covenant held central place, all seemed to be well. When the Covenant was replaced, and God no longer held central place in their lives – things went wrong. The prophet Elijah symbolised those issuing the clarion call to return to the Covenant, return to God and thus turn away from all other so-called gods.

Instead of constantly lamenting their plight, those in Exile began to study their holy writings. They met in small groups, small gatherings, known by the Greek word meaning an assembly or gathering of people – a synagogue. As they read what came to be called the ‘Torah’ (or Law) and the Writings of the prophets, the Jews discovered their identity lay, not in temple and city, but in Scripture and Covenant. Much later the Law (Torah) and the Writings were represented by the towering biblical figures of Moses and Elijah. (That fact is significant when we celebrate the Transfiguration on 6th August. You will recall that Jesus stood on the mountain top flanked by Moses and Elijah.) No temple, no cathedral – just a gathering of students, disciples, to study the Scriptures.

Jump some hundreds of years after the Exile and we find Jesus entering a synagogue and reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The words he read are familiar to us:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
  (Luke 4: 18 – 19)

While this incident, recorded in Luke’s Gospel, shaped the ministry of Jesus, it is the ready way in which Jesus was accepted into this gathering and invited to read from the Bible that interests me today. It shows a people who, despite living under occupation, still read the Bible regularly, studied it, learned it and used it to shape their lives. Fifteen hundred years later the great Anglican reformer and writer of liturgical prayers, Thomas Cranmer, penned this Collect:

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Which brings me to today’s Gospel reading and the well-known parable of the Sower. Don’t you just love the wasteful, profligate, oh-so-generous sowing of the seed! Unlike today’s precision planting, the biblical sower scattered seed far and wide in the hope that enough of it would fall on good soil to ‘bring forth grain, some a hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty.’ (Matthew 13: 8) In Jesus’s allegorical interpretation of this parable there’s a wonderful generosity on the part of the sower, presumably God. It’s sad that not all the seed grows, that some seed is eaten before it has a chance to sprout, that some of the young plants are scorched or choked before bearing fruit – but this does not stop the sower sowing. That, surely, is the love of God. God’s Word is available to all – to all who care to read and study it.

In recent weeks we have also been reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans. In Paul’s often complicated argument, not all of which resonates with us today, there is one basic point. It is this: that Christ died for all. The great division of Paul’s time – the distinction between Jew and Gentile – is no more. The covenant is open to all. No matter who or what they were, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News of God’s offer of salvation, was and is available to everyone. In the terms of the parable of the sower – the sower sows on good, bad and indifferent soil. This is the wonderful, profligate, oh-so-generous love of God offered to you and to me.

And we have in Jesus the example of how this gift of God’s love is to be received. Jesus, called Lord and Master, is also the servant of all – not averse to doing a bit of foot-washing. And it is this servant Jesus who calls people to follow him, calls them disciples, students. What are they to learn? Why – the Torah and the Writings. This is the Word of God, the seed, which falls on fertile and infertile ground, open and closed ears, hearts and minds.

Some years ago a representative of the Bible Society told me that he loved the Anglican Church because, no matter what else happened, there would always be several readings from the Bible. The Word, as well as the sacrament, has central place. Just last week a few of us met to discuss the various opportunities for education offered in the Cathedral context – this following on last year’s Education survey conducted by the Cathedral Council. When you actually sit down and list these opportunities there are a lot.

  • Parents asking for baptism of their children meet several times before the baptism.
  • For those who have limited time but enjoy looking ahead at the Sunday readings, there is a monthly gathering on Mondays.
  • There are currently two groups of people discussing the Pilgrim Course – looking more carefully at the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed or the Eucharist.
  • Twice a year we offer short study opportunities based on books.
  • A group meets weekly to delve deeply into the Bible, Church History and Theology in the EfM programme.
  • For those who are completely new to Christianity there is opportunity to join others on the Alpha programme.
  • For those who are perhaps more secure in their faith there are the occasional quiet days and silent retreats.
  • Nor should we forget the wonderful commitment of those who lead the Cathedral Kids Sunday programme, and the sound teaching that our choristers get simply from singing hymns and anthems.
  • Sunday by Sunday we hear the Word of God and are encouraged, challenged, seduced even, to consider its impact on our lives.

What sort of harvest will our soil produce? In the words of our theme hymn during this series,

‘Here the servants of the Servant seek in worship to explore

what it means in daily living to believe and to adore.’

It’s time to end this, the third in the preaching series on Sunday mornings as we move from Patronal Festival to Planned Giving; as we continue to watch with fascination the photos of our Cathedral, no longer covered in shining organ pipes (they are pretty much all boxed already), but in sound and pedal boards, wind pipes and electrical wiring; as we continue to meet in a different place during this time of Exile. Let me finish by encouraging you, us, to study the word of God, and so to explore what it means for daily living to believe and to adore. And then, in the words of Canadian hymn-writer Sylvia Dunstan:

‘Go to the World! Go into every place.
Go live the Word of Christ’s redeeming grace.
Go seek God’s presence in each time and space.’