I thought Father Bruce’s sermon, which he has given me permission to post here, was excellent.  The author retains his copyright.  Enjoy:  +MDH

‘A sower went out to sow his seed.’ ( Luke 8:5)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

We are told at the beginning of the Gospel today that when many people had gathered to hear the Lord, “he spake by a parable”.  A parable is a way of illustrating a truth by use of familiar images.  Sometimes we come best at the truth sideways, as it were.  “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” T.S. Eliot wrote, and when we are confronted with profound truths our minds often turn aside to more bearable and comfortable thoughts.

Because parables lead us by an easy path to profound truth, they are an aid to those who honestly seek to understand them.  At the same time, they are a hindrance to those too proud or too busy to stop and spend time upon them.  The parables themselves require a humble, repentant approach.  It’s not a matter of learning that A stands for B and then checking the box and claiming to have comprehended the parable.  The parable requires our time, our patience, and a commitment to stand before it, letting it unfold within us, like the seed which our Lord tells us is the word of God.  After all, this is true of all Scripture: it must be read, learned, marked, and inwardly digested: it must be made the material of meditation and prayer, or it will not take root within us.  There can be no casual, intermittent approach to the Scriptures: they must be our daily food.

Notice that the main characteristic of those people who are described as good soil: they hear the word, they keep it, and they bring forth fruit.  The word translated as “keep” here means “to seize” or “to hold something down to keep it from getting away”.  We receive the life of Christ at Baptism, but we don’t keep that life by putting it away somewhere and forgetting about it.  We keep it by holding it tight, clutching it to ourselves, not because it is a slippery thing, but because we are slippery things, and we would like nothing better than to be able to keep this seed within us without really letting it take root and grow within us, because there is so much within us that this growing life will crowd out, will overshadow, will outgrow.

In fact, if we keep the life of Christ in this sense, then we ourselves will be like seeds of our future selves: the word within us will not just take root and grow, but will crack us open, split us to the very core of our self.  What is here described as a seed is described in the Book of Hebrews as a sword, one that is “quick [alive], and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

This is why we harden ourselves against the word of God, against the life of the Spirit — because it demands humility and repentance from us, which is nothing other than an openness to and an embracing of the death of all that is false in us.  I’m not preaching down to you — I worry sometimes that when everything false in me is gone, there’ll be nothing left, because what else is there in me?  My only recourse is to cling to Christ in humility and repentance, and to trust his Sacramental seed to turn the asphalt of my soul into good and fertile soil.  That is all I have.

This was, in fact, the very thing that St. Paul describes in the Epistle today.  This Epistle might seem strange to us, with all Paul’s talk of speaking as a fool, but he was using a sharp edge of irony to point out to the Corinthians their lack of humility and repentance.  They had fallen prey to false teachers, and those false teachers had told them to ignore or reject what St. Paul had taught them.  One of their indictments against Paul was that he didn’t cut much a figure: he looked weak and didn’t speak well.

St. Paul replies by saying, “Even if I get down on the level of those who are attacking me, I can show that they’re wrong.  I have done a lot and accomplished a lot and suffered a lot.  I’ve got more to boast of, on an earthly level, than they do.”  But St. Paul isn’t content to leave it there.  The thing that St. Paul focuses on in all of this is ultimately his own weakness.  “I’m weak,” he says, “but not in the way my accusers say I am.  I’m weak because in all this I don’t act for myself, but I get out of the way and let Christ work in and through me.”  He is being actively separated from himself – from his false and mortal self, and constantly speaks of himself – the one who has worked miracles and been caught up into paradise – as another person altogether.  He realizes and proclaims that he is utterly weak, and that everything that is anything in him is the work of Christ.  This is why St. Paul can say that he glories in his infirmities.

To the worldly eye, humility and repentance are weakness and must be avoided.  Who, according to worldly wisdom, would glory in infirmities?  We avoid infirmity. We hate infirmity.  Why would St. Paul glory in his infirmities?

Infirmity in itself is nothing.  Our Lord pities infirmities, and spends a lot of time healing them.  But we have a deep infirmity, caused by sin, of which our bodily infirmities are only symptoms and signs.  It is not this deep infirmity, this tragedy of sin, in which St. Paul glories.  It is the infirmity, the weakness, of an infant or small child who relies wholly upon, and revels in, the strength of his parent.  Christ does not live in self-sufficient hearts.  He comes to those who have cast themselves away, all their pretensions to sufficiency and to strength and to self-reliance, and who place all their hope in him.

The parable Our Lord tells us this morning is very sacramental.  In a garden, it is the soil which gives life to the seed, or which activates the life within it.  In the parable, it is the seed which gives life to the soil.  It is a very picture of the Sacraments.  Think of the two primary Sacraments: Baptism and the Eucharist.  In each of these, our own weakness and infirmity is clearly proclaimed.  We receive these Sacraments – we do not take them.  This is the explanation for two practices related to the Eucharist.  The first is that the priest joins the thumb and forefinger of each hand at the beginning of the Words of Institution (“For in the night in which he was betrayed…”) and doesn’t take them apart, except to hold the Body of Christ, until he has washed his hands at the conclusion of the Holy Communion. This demonstrates that he is not the primary actor.  Human action is in a sense typified by our opposable thumbs, and especially by the use of the thumb and forefinger. Think of all the things we do with our thumb and forefinger: it is how we hold things, how we manipulate things.  Take that away, and a characteristic component of human work is removed. The priest, in a very important sense, goes through the Consecration and the Communion with his hands tied.  He is weak, but Christ is strong.  He is a vessel, and Christ the true actor.

The second is the prohibition on the congregation doing anything which might look like giving themselves Communion.  Ideally, they receive the Host passively on the tongue and the Chalice is administered with as little action on the part of the recipient as possible.  It is allowed for people to receive the Host on the hand, but under no circumstances should anyone pick up the host with the fingers.  It is meant to be as passive as possible: we are like infants being fed.  We are weak, but Christ is strong, and it is he who feeds us.

This does not mean that we are spiritually passive – quite the contrary.  But it is always God who does the real work in our lives – we cooperate with him.  We acknowledged as much in the Collect:  “O Lord God, who seest that we put not our trust in any thing that we do…”.  There are things that we must do (faith without works, St. James warns us, is dead), and things we must avoid doing, but we do not put our trust in what we do.  We rely wholly upon God.

Look at the words our Lord uses to describe what happens to souls who do not rely wholly upon God:  “trodden down”, “devoured”, “withered”, “choked”.  These are not pretty descriptions, but they are in fact very accurate portrayals of people we meet every day, and they go a long way to explain the ills which beset our society.

We avoid these things by opening ourselves fully to God, by giving him our trials, our worries, and our fears, as well as our gifts, our joys, and our pleasures.  We avoid these things by begging God daily to remove from us all obstacles to his life and his light, and by seeking him in prayer and worship.  As St. Paul reminded us in the Epistle, God uses our weaknesses and infirmities to show forth his grace and blessedness, his strength and unshakable love.  Lent is fast approaching, and Lent is a time to consider pruning and cultivation.  Take time now to consider your lenten rule, to identify the things which need attention in your spiritual life.  We are Christ’s, and he made us for himself, to present us perfect to the Father.  The Garden of Eden is lost to us in this world, but even now, even in this world, God wills to bring forth within each of us all the things which made a paradise of Eden, if we will give ourselves to humility and repentance.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

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