Sermon preached by Dr Philip Murray, ordinand
This last week I’ve been on retreat at a Benedictine monastery just outside Worcester. Going on retreat is, I know, good for me, and I’m grateful to have the time and money to get away with some regularity. But I must confess to always feeling quite tense about a retreat in the days leading up to my departure. I can understand why people might think of a retreat as something relaxing and restorative. But for me at least there’s also something quite difficult about withdrawing from the world, even for a few days. In the silence of a monastery there aren’t all those things I use daily to distract myself from my underlying anxieties, doubts and fears. So, positively speaking, being on retreat gives me the invaluable opportunity to bring everything I fret most about in my life to God, falling completely on his mercy. But there’s a real riskiness in all this as well. There’s a danger that all my worries and doubts, fears and failures, now unhidden, will overwhelm me and prevent the spiritual growth I’m looking for. And learning how to avoid that has been, is, a long and difficult process.
So what’s my approach? Well, on this retreat at least the answer lay in weeding —lots of physical, down in the earth, weeding in the monastery’s kitchen garden. ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul’, St Benedict says in his Rule for monastic life (c 48), and so following his advice I kept my hands busy. And, indeed, the job I was given was very appropriate. The spiritual risk of immediately drawing into oneself on retreat is a bit like the dangers of jumping too earnestly into the task of weeding. The beds of runner beans and courgettes I was given charge over were full of unwanted plants that crowded out the vegetables and prevented healthy growth. Haphazardly tearing into the weeds would do nothing but temporarily halt their growth and endanger the health of the plants that were meant to be growing there. No, my weeding required patience and discernment: taking my time to find the root of the weeds, carefully removing them, and allowing the vegetables room to flourish. And in dedicating my time to this, I also allowed myself to ease into the otherworldly rhythm of the monastery. My weeding wasn’t so much a distraction from all that I’d come on retreat to confront, but rather the necessary groundwork to spiritual growth. Physical work set a different rhythm that meant I could, patiently, get to the root of my own spiritual problems, giving the Holy Spirit the time gently to bring them to the surface without them all crowding in and overwhelming me. I could then, in turn, offer them to God — on prayerful walks in the surrounding countryside; in the rhythm of the daily office in the oratory; in silent prayer before the blessed sacrament; at the eucharist. My physical weeding led to a more important spiritual weeding.
So much for weeding, but what has this got to do with the parable of the sower? Well, other than providing an easy transition from the horticultural to the agricultural, all I’ve said about weeding, physical and spiritual, helps us better to understand what Jesus is trying to say in this morning’s Gospel.
Part of the reason why St Matthew includes the parable of the sower in his Gospel is to explain why some of his fellow Jews became Christians after hearing about Jesus when others did not. Why did some Jews see Jesus as their Messiah when others sought to eject Jesus’ followers from their synagogues? In our Western, secularised world, we might put the parable to a similar use: why is it that those of us here, men and women, old and young, cradle Christians and new believers, have accepted the Word of God when so many of our contemporaries do not? The parable of the sower pushes us to concentrate on our receptivity to the gospel in answering these questions. It’s the state that we are in when we receive the Word of God, Jesus tells us, that determines whether it takes hold.
Now it’s important we resist seeing this receptivity as something that’s predetermined: that we’re the lucky ones for whom the Word of God was intended. There’s certainly a dangerous potential in the parable for using it as justification for a sort of self-righteous sectarianism. But such a use does not, I don’t think, fit well with the text. Jesus doesn’t use this parable to tell us that whether or not we believe in him, whether or not we receive the Word of God, is something that lies completely out of our control. There are, of course, numerous circumstances that mean we can’t influence how receptive we are to the gospel: the limits of our understanding, the onslaught of the evil one, the unpredictable rockiness of our life all affect how we receive the good news. And we must never forget that faith is always a gift from God and not something we can manufacture for ourselves aside from God’s grace. And yet Jesus’ emphasis on there being ‘good soil’ for the Word of God to take root does, ultimately, I think, emphasise our role in cooperating with that grace — in striving to do everything that does lie within our ability to make our acceptance of Jesus, our trusting of God, a reality. God gives us the grace and the strength to do our own spiritual gardening, to weed our own soil so that it is good and receptive to his Word.
St Paul’s letter to the Romans fleshes this out a bit more in a slightly different way. Paul seeks to explain why Gentiles had come to believe in Jesus when so many of his fellow Jews had not. And his answer certainly rests squarely on God’s activity, God’s grace. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’, he says. ‘God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do’. It’s through God’s action in Jesus, Paul tells us, that God’s people, Jews and Gentiles, have been saved. At the same time, Paul doesn’t shirk from our responsibility to respond to the new life that Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion have made possible. Important for St Paul is how we orientate ourselves in relation to God’s activity. ‘Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh’; ‘those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit’; ‘[t]o set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace’. So we must set our minds on the Spirit. We must open ourselves up to the Spirit of God, so that as he dwells in us he can do his redeeming work in us.
Why do some believe and some reject the Word of God? Why do some of us have a strong faith, when some of us feel like we’re floundering in the depths? The Christian answer, paradoxically, is the closer we put ourselves to Jesus, the more we strain forward to him, the richer our faith becomes. Contrary to how critics of religion present the faith, Christianity is not a membership club with a dotted line to sign before entry: we’re not expected to have it all worked out before we join in. Christianity teaches, instead, that no matter how slight our faith is, if we can take that leap of trust, made possible by God, our faith will flourish as a result. Opening ourselves up to prayer, placing the eucharist at the centre of our lives, giving up our time to serve the poor and needy, living peaceably with our neighbours and family — all are all ways of setting our minds on the Spirit, of making our spiritual soil good, so that Jesus may do his work in us.
Doing this is a lifetime’s work and more. All that apprehension I felt before my retreat is testament to how difficult, how tiring, genuine spiritual openness can be. But if we feel we don’t have the energy, or the will, or the ability to do this, then we can rest sure in the hope that God never gives up on us, and that his designs for us will prevail. The seed of the Word of God ‘shall not return to [God] empty’, Isaiah tells us; ‘it shall accomplish that which I purpose’.
As we approach this morning’s eucharist, then, let us fall on the strength that Christ provides through his body and blood. And let them by the tools we use as we weed ourselves spiritually, as we till the soil of our souls, and open ourselves up, in trust, to the Word of God.