A sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, …Amen.

James Martin, the Jesuit priest who, through his book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, kept us company beside our olive tree during this time of pandemic, wrote another book simply entitled, Jesus: A Pilgrimage. This book weaves the story of James Martin’s pilgrimage to the Holy Lands with the story of Jesus. Each chapter tells of James and his fellow Jesuit brother George’s visits to a particular site meaningful in Jesus’ life, together with a gospel story and the reflections of scholars on that story. The first chapter entitled “Yes” tells of the Annunciation, of Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel; the final chapter, “Tiberius” tells the story we heard last week of our Patron Saint’s conversation with Jesus after his resurrection beside the fire of coals. The chapter, “Parables”, tells of James and George’s search for a place in Galilee, “The Bay of Parables”. Interestingly it wasn’t an obvious tourist site. Most people they asked didn’t know of it. Eventually, a Benedictine monk told them the way.

“As we walked … into the dry grass, “James Martin writes,… “immediately the ground dropped away from us, and we found ourselves on the rim of a natural amphitheatre. People had likely stood here and listened to Jesus preaching from the boat. Or, as is often said in the Holy Land, “If it didn’t happen here, then it happened a few hundred yards from here.” As I gazed on the blue-green water sparkling under the sun, I could easily picture Jesus sitting in a boat just a few hundred feet from where we were standing. I couldn’t stop smiling when I realised what we had found. …Then I saw something that amazed me more. All around us was this: rocky ground, fertile ground, stony ground, and even a thorn bush.” [1]

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow…’ (Matthew 13:1-3)

We know this story well and we know a little about how we might allow Jesus’ parables to move us. Sit with what you don’t get, isn’t that it? Sit with what irritates you. The parable expert, the biblical scholar C. H. Dodd, described a parable as something that “arrest[ed] the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, …leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”[2] We are meant to be puzzled. This is a living word from God, this story Jesus has spoken to a crowd in the natural amphitheatre of a sea bay, and it lives now when we allow it to engage with us.

Jesus himself made it clear that parables were not meant to be easy. In fact, that the work of engaging with them was kingdom work.

The disciples came and asked him why he spoke in parables. Jesus replied about those who understood and those who did not and then he quoted the prophet Isaiah:

You will indeed listen, but never understand,
   and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
   and their ears are hard of hearing,
     and they have shut their eyes;
     so that they might not look with their eyes,
   and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
   and I would heal them.
(Matthew 13:14-15)

These words matter for in them we hear Jesus’ longing, God’s longing. Why does Jesus tell parables? Why did Jesus come? That we would understand with our hearts and turn and God would heal us.

So what puzzles us in the parable of the sower? Every text of scripture will shed light on something of what it is to be a human being, a created being, in fact, and something on the nature of God. The danger with this parable is that we’ll get stuck thinking about the human being part, we’ll get stuck thinking about us. Especially when we hear Jesus’ interpretation of the parable. It is important to note that the interpretation is puzzling. The point of a parable was the interaction of the hearer with the word. The confusion matters. So many a scholar would doubt that Jesus spoke these words of interpretation. But we’ll explore the parable assuming that it is about the word of God and our engagement with it.

What puzzles us? The danger with this parable is that we’ll get stuck thinking about us. Nothing like a set of four categories graded in worth for getting an anxious follower of Jesus wondering. Are we the good soil? The soil where the seeds took root and brought forth such abundance? Or are we the path where the birds came and ate up the seeds … or the rocky ground where the seeds were scorched by the sun and withered away … or are we the soil littered with thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked the young plants. Which one are we? We do have our good days … and yet? The danger is that we will worry and worry about us and where we fit into this soil hierarchy and not hear the bit we are meant to hear. The true puzzle in this parable. The bit about the sower. And the bit about the harvest the seed can bring.

For we are all these soils, we are all these responses to the seed that is sown to be the word of God. We are all these things. We are not always the good that we would like to be or sometimes kid ourselves we are, but we’re not all rocky ground and thorns either. We are all these soils, these responses, at different times in our lives and in different parts of our lives and we might reflect on that and where healing might come.

But there’s more in this parable. There is a great puzzle in this parable and that is in the nature of the sower. The one who sows the seed. Because this sower just doesn’t stop casting seed around. This sower doesn’t seem much worried about the soil that’s nearby gathering in the seed. This sower seems so infused with hope and faith that he just keeps on sowing.

And Jesus, who we might think of as the parable of God, the entire story that blesses us and puzzles us and confronts us and comforts us, is just like that sower. Why else does he go out in a boat to teach a crowd? Do we know about the physics of sound and water? Sound travels better over water. Did we know that? Sound travels better over water and so the Bay of Parables found its name..

Jesus would do anything to have them know, see just a little, glimpse enough to wonder, and turn that God might heal them.

And one thing he does to help them know is give them insight into themselves. When we get struck trying to work out which sort of soil we are, Jesus helps us see that we are stuck because we are all these soils. And it is out of his great love that he would have us know this – and have us know that he knows this about us. He sees what we are like. And still loves, and still heals, and still goes out in boats to teach where the sound travels best. The sower just keeps sowing.

So what of us? We’re back in our natural amphitheatre, our cathedral, rejoicing that we can hear the word, spoken, sung, preached, prayed, pondered together. We’re back. But we won’t ever forget, will we? As we won’t forget the people of  Melbourne and other parts of the world where this virus has a hold. We won’t forget what the sower did to reach us, what God did to find us when we couldn’t be here. Did we find ourselves wondering how the people of God managed in plagues past? In the time just over one hundred years’ ago when the Spanish flu struck and churches were closed. And in plagues long, long ago. In Julian of Norwich’s time, in the 14th century, when she spoke those words of utter hope, when she said that “all shall be well”. Do we ever wonder what they did? God would have found them. This parable tells us that. As God found us, through the internet and emails and phone calls and prayers. God would have found them. For God will do anything to have us know. Not quite understand maybe but have us hear and wonder.

For hearing and wondering seems to be enough. Strangely. What is the other great puzzle in this parable? The thing the hearers of Jesus’ time, standing by the Bay of Parables would have noticed with disbelief. We might not notice but they would have. About the seeds that fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. An unimaginable harvest. This harvest was not possible in that time and place. But Jesus seems to be hinting that when the word of God takes root and grows and blesses, something impossible happens. Some transformation we might never have imagined happens. Some conversion, realisation, blessing happens.

Jesus got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables.

In the Bay of Parables, that natural amphitheatre where the word of God was spoken by Jesus, the Parable of God. And as we sit in our amphitheatre, our cathedral, our place for hearing the word of God, we might know that it is just possible that some conversion, some realisation, some blessing will enfold us through the determined love of God.

[1] James Martin SJ Jesus: A Pilgrimage p198.

[2] Quoted in James Martin p200.