Seeding the Feast:
Sexagesima – A Sermon on Luke 8:4
Anthony G. Cirilla
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My dad was always a jokester, and there was one type of joke he repeated often (as dads do). I would tell him, I’m going to take a shower, and he’d say, “Again? You just showered last week.” He would also use this joke around meals. I’d be making lunch and he’d say, what, you’re eating again? I already fed you last month. I can tell you, very rarely do I actually encounter a meal with that attitude. Often while I’m eating lunch I wonder, what is dinner going to be? Sometimes I’m sad that my dinner will be gone after I’ve eaten it. I look at that beautiful meal Camarie made and think, it’s too bad that soon there won’t be any of this wonderful food left.
Something that can be missed in today’s parable is that when Christ talks about the sower and the different kinds of ground in which he casts his seeds is that he’s really talking about how much nutrition the seeds are able to take in, in order to grow. I went to a church once that had a lot of plants, and every Sunday I noticed the pastor’s wife watering them. Nobody ever asked her, “Why are you watering those plants? You already did that last time you were here.” We understand that the soil needs repeat exposure to the water so that the plants can be fed. Like feeding our appetite, cultivating soil takes more than one round of care.
Some of our fellow Christians who are unfamiliar with liturgical worship might wonder, Why do you Anglicans like to do the same thing every Sunday? Every Sunday, you say the same prayers, and you hear readings in the same order, and you say the same creed. Isn’t it kind of repetitive? The process of answering that question always reminds me of the training montages in those old martial arts shows, you know, Mr Miyagi, Wax on, Wax Off. The repetitive motion trains the martial artist in the basic moves that defends him from danger. That’s true in the Christian life too, because the attacks on our faith will come in similar patterns as the temptations from the world, the flesh, and the devil faced by believers indicated in this passage. Christ says, “And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it.” An attack on our faith is the world’s distraction, like the thorns that choke out the harvest by keeping our focus elsewhere than the kingdom of God. When we repeat the Nicene Creed, we clear away the thorns to refresh in the soil of our hearts the grip on those basic truths of the faith that keep us grounded in Christ.
Jesus also says, “some fell by the way-side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.” He explains this as the work of the devil: “Those by the way-side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.” This attack on our faith comes in the form of aggressive doubt, from those who would question or attack our beliefs, sometimes inspired by the devil who seeks to take the seed of saving faith away. (Please understand: I am not saying all doubt, from Christians or non-Christians, is from the devil. Quite the contrary – doubt is a normal human experience. I am saying, rather, that Satan wants to prey on that doubt.) By hearing Scriptural sermons, being reminded of the Christian truths in the Articles of Religion, and hearing God’s word read aloud, our faith that Scripture is true is affirmed.
The temptations of the flesh are also an enemy to the growth of the seed of our faith, for Christ says, “And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture…They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.” Like hardened ground, our hearts have to be softened again to the core concerns that should mark the Christian Life, and so by returning to the same prayers every week we work over fallow ground in our emotions so that we can better fight the sin of our flesh. By praying the prayer for the church militant we are reminded of the comprehensive application of the Gospel to all members of Christ’s Church, and by praying the prayers of general confession and of humble access we are reminded of the Gospel’s urgent application to ourselves.
But there’s something strange about the Gospel we don’t often focus on. Did you notice the explanation Jesus gave for why he speaks in parables? Normally we think of the parables as explanatory tools, metaphors that help us to understand God’s truth. And that is correct, they are that, for in that context Christ says, “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God.” But did you notice that Christ says the opposite, that the reason he taught in parables was so that his listeners wouldn’t understand? He says that he speaks “to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.” That’s surprising – it’s not what comes to mind and probably doesn’t fit the nice, people-pleasing image of Jesus many want to promote. But why would Jesus intentionally speak in a way that would stop others from seeing and hearing?
Well, I am not saying this is everything one can say about this passage, but here’s one thing that happens: because Jesus spoke in a parable, it created an opportunity for a distinction to be made among his listeners. Some heard the parable of the sower and didn’t want any further explanation. It’s kind of strange if you think about it. Imagine – you hear Jesus tell a story about a sower who cast seed on different ground. “Huh, weird. I wonder why he told that story. I dunno. Guess I’ll go tend to my sheep or go fix my wagon or something.” Even though they knew he was a miracle worker of great wisdom, they weren’t curious about what he was trying to say. They didn’t ask, they didn’t have hunger for the nutrition that was in those words. But the disciples did. Even though they didn’t get it, they knew there was something spiritually nourishing in that parable, so they asked Jesus to feed them with its truth.
You might compare the crowd who listened to the parable to someone who watches Food Network regularly but only eats fast food. They see this amazing meal that the chef has prepared, and they respond with, wow, that’s amazing, and take a bite out of their greasy burger. They change the channel before they learn how to prepare it, how to make it edible. They’ve seen a display of a magnificent feast, but instead of asking how they might get a plateful or learn to make it for themselves, they go away and get a snack from a vending machine.
As Christians we do this with the magnificent feast of God’s Word all the time. How often do you skip those bits of Scripture that don’t quite make sense? The Book of Revelation, the more confusing books in the Old Testament, or simply those passages that challenge our preferred theology or life opinions. It’s easier to just revisit those passages that are familiar and seem to echo back what we already think. But when we don’t spend time in the Lord’s word because it’s confusing, we’re doing exactly the same thing as the crowd. Christ presents us with a feast, and we change the channel. The thing about food is, you don’t have to understand it to benefit from it. As a child I didn’t understand cooking. I saw adults do mysterious rituals around the kitchen and somehow food came out of that. Weird. But the food they gave me still fed me. Even now, it’s sort of mysterious that food feeds us, just as it’s mysterious that water, sunlight, and soil can nourish a plant, even when you understand botany deeply.
Maybe you know a lot about nutrition and metabolism and that sort of thing, but even that knowledge can’t get around the fact that your body unlocks the value from your food in secret. You eat that food, and then your body takes over, and in the mysterious places within your body, nutrients are drawn out. A healthy diet comes from understanding what food is good for you, but healthy digestion isn’t something you can give yourself. It’s part of God’s common grace that your body came with the ability to do that. Well, when it comes to the Bible it’s the same in the spiritual dimension. Our souls can digest the Word and derive benefit even when our minds don’t fully understand the content. We know it’s a healthy diet to be in God’s word. So why aren’t we? We’re too busy? Well, are we too busy to eat? We know what happens to our bodies if we don’t eat. We get weak, faint. We’re not up to the task. Life overwhelms us. The same is true if we aren’t nourishing ourselves with the Word. Just like the seeds immersed in thorns, we’ll get choked up on a diet of spiritual junk food.
Reading God’s word to seek understanding is profoundly important, but even when you don’t fully understand it, God’s word still feeds us. Like Christ’s parable, what makes your heart good soil isn’t that you understand God’s word, but that you keep coming back to it, like the disciples asking for more. Recently, Camarie and I read through Ezekiel as our nightly Bible reading through the time of Epiphany. I can tell you, often I had no idea what specifically the prophet was communicating. I was often deeply confused, and so was Camarie (and she is a lot smarter than me, so that really tells you something). But even so, after we read it, somehow we would both have edifying thoughts about how it related to other aspects of the Bible and to our lives as Christians, even though we didn’t fully get every aspect. See, understanding might be another barrier to being in God’s word. Maybe you’re so familiar with it that you think, well, I don’t really need to read it again. I know what it says. I get it. But that’s like someone who reads articles on diet, nutrition, and healthy food, but doesn’t actually eat it. Maybe you do have a lot of good knowledge about the Bible. But knowing the Bible is not the same thing as feasting on God’s word. If I offered you a slice of pizza you probably wouldn’t say, well, I’ve tasted that before – I get it. You’d want to eat it because it’s warm and inviting and it fills you and takes away your hunger. You don’t eat for your mind – you eat for your stomach. And that is the way we should read Scripture – not only to know, but to satisfy the need we have to be fed upon the word of God. Not for our minds only, but for our souls. You know, if the only exposure to the Bible you get every week is when you heard it read in the liturgy, it’s a lot harder to digest that content. Especially with the Old Testament but with other readings too, you hear it and if you haven’t been reminding yourself of the story of God’s revelation, it will be harder to get in the context and make the reading useful to you. Coming to Church Sunday to listen to the Word without having refreshed yourself beforehand could be compared to eating cold pizza – it’ll still feed you, but it’s just not as nice.
The work of frequent Bible reading, and the work of frequent prayer and worship, which may not always feel nourishing at the time, is the work of seeding for the feast. Christ says of the good soil that it will “bare fruit an hundredfold.” We want our appetite for the things of God to grow, and much like any food that seems unappealing at first but is healthy, the more we partake of it, the more we’ll want it, and even come to love the sweet savor. Christ says, “But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.” And if we’re bearing that fruit a hundredfold, not only will we be more satisfied and more energetic for our own walk with the Lord, but we’ll begin to produce spiritual bounty that can benefit others – a plenty of spiritual joys that we will want to share with people we know who need to be fed too. So every week we come here and we pray again for the same reason we sleep every night – because we need rest in prayer. And we hear sermons every week for the same reason we exercise – the work is good for our health. And we listen to the word of God and eat the Lord’s supper because we really can’t live on bread alone – we need to feed on Christ all the time or we’ll get as sick in the soul as we do when we starve the body. And when we cultivate that desire for God’s word we won’t want to skip church, or prayer, or personal devotion in the Bible any more than we’ll want to skip meals, sleeping, or breathing. After a long week away from the bounty of the feast of worship, we’ll feel eager to come to the Lord’s Table, where even the smallest crumb of Christ’s words are a feast for the soul. When we constantly fix our attention on the treasure of Scripture and read it with the same need with which we seek food and drink, then we can truly taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Amen.