The Rev David Coster

Acts 28:23-31 and Mark 4: 1-9

Are you listening? Really listening?

Joy and I have three grandsons – Kotaro, William and Issa. We also have a wee granddaughter of twenty months, Mia.

The three grandsons all have ipads and Mia, envying them, wishes that she had one too. In fact, one of her greatest pleasures is to wander round the house pretending to chat on her mother’s cell phone. Of course, only she knows what she is saying. But when the ipads are out then the ears of our grandchildren, somehow, seem to be in the turned off position. No matter what is said, they don’t seem to hear. “Tea is ready. Come for tea” – is not heard. “Do you want an ice cream?” may sink through to the brain but not always. I am the one who usually says, “Come on boys – turn your ears on!” But most often that is not heard. Why? Because the boys are in their own world, fixated by what they are watching on the ipad. In all honesty, I don’t think they actually hear someone speaking to them. For them it is only background conversation not addressed to them. Their minds are focused on the entertainment of the ipad story.

I suspect that most who are parents, grandparents or even great grandparents, aunties or uncles can relate to what I am saying. And for those who do not yet fall into one of those categories – wait, your time of frustration will surely come.

Now you may be a little more than concerned at what the behaviour of my grandchildren has to do with our Gospel reading for today. Well, if you listened closely with your ears turned on you may have heard the word at the beginning of the Gospel reading, “Listen” (as it is translated in the RSV and The Message) or “Hearken” (as it is translated in the KJV). Also at the end of the Parable (V9) are these words, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” (RSV). Or “Are you listening to this? Really listening?” (The Message).

The Parable of the Sower is related in the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, but not in John. In fact John does not record the parables unless we pick up on some of his “I am” sayings and view these as parables.

But Mark is the only evangelist to introduce the parable with the Greek word AKOUETE which as we heard this morning is translated as hearken or listen. He then finishes with the words, “those who have ears to hear, let them hear!”

Jesus did not often explain his parables. He left his hearers to work out for themselves just what he was teaching. That of course was frustrating not only for his disciples but for all of his hearers. I suspect that it was also frustrating for Jesus who must have wondered whether he was getting his message of “the Kingdom of God” across.

Is this the reason why Mark (and Matthew and Luke who used the source Q or Quelle as a base for their Gospels) actually put an interpretation of this parable in the following verses? This is unusual.

The traditional interpretation of this Parable is based on the explanation provided by Matthew, Mark and Luke. That is that Jesus is the Sower, the great preacher of the Gospel. His message is freely given to all but it doesn’t take root in some because of various circumstances in their lives. Some seed never takes root falling on dry rock; some seed does take root, but not very deeply and quickly wilts; other seed falls among thorns and weeds – that is other life interests and passions and the life is choked out of it; and yet other seed falls on good fertile ground and bears much fruit. There is a progression or gradation taking place in this parable. In the first seed produces nothing; in the second it produces only a blade; in the third it is near the point of producing fruit but fails to bring it to perfection; in the fourth it yields fruit but in different measures.

What may we learn from the parable for our lives of faith today?

The first point I want to raise for us this morning is the crazy sower. No one in today’s world, where seed and food are scarce commodities, would randomly cast seed to the wind allowing it to fall where it will. We prepare the ground, drill the seed, irrigate and then harvest praying that the weather is in our favour. That is not the way of the ancients who used a broadcast method throwing the seed left and right as they walked over the land. They could have been just as efficient at night as they were by day. What is the point that Jesus is making?

It seems to me that in the Kingdom of God there is much waste, or it may be better put to say that in God’s Kingdom there is much grace. There is also much risk and extravagance. Practically every parable told by Jesus has these hallmarks.

Secondly, it may pay for each of us to reflect on the soil of our own life where the seed of faith has been planted. I suspect that for all of us there have been times in our lives when we could readily identify with each of the soil types. I remember when I was a teenager, actively involved in the life of the Church, thinking to myself that faith in God was like an insurance policy for old people and those about to die. Thank goodness God had more faith in me than I had in God and the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Finally, I would like to raise some questions about the nature of the seed and the attitude of the sower by applying this parable to ourselves and our life of faith as part of the Church of today.

Is the seed you sow good or bad? Does it have a chance of sprouting in the lives of people or is it doomed from the start because you haven’t thought about how you are sowing or what you are sowing?

Let me give an example.

I was talking to my neighbour when our other neighbours, who are key leaders in the Jehovah’s Witness movement, left for their usual Saturday morning distribution of the “Watch Tower.” My neighbour said to me, “What is it with me? I am surrounded by religious people. Them next door and you across the road. Do you think God has God’s got it in for me?

I told him that God doesn’t have it in for anybody-including Roman Catholics – which he was or is.

My neighbour went on to tell me how he had had the Christian faith caned into him by the Nuns when he was a child at school. As soon as he was able he left the Church. A few years ago he was invited to the Programme Catholics Returning Home. He went along hoping that things might have changed for the better. He said, “They haven’t! All we were told is that we were naughty children and that we had better repent or our souls would be condemned to purgatory and the fires of hell. I don’t think there is much chance for me. I’m not going back if that is how I am treated.

“Don’t worry,” I told him, “remember the parable of the Forgiving Father (Prodigal son) which lies at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. God never gives up on us. God’s forgiveness is far greater than our waywardness.”

“Thanks,” he said as he left for golf.

Sowing the seed of the Gospel never gives us the right to abuse another person.

It would seem to me that the message, or seed, being sown in my neighbour’s life was never likely to take root because it was not good news but bad news. Jesus, in the parable, talked about the ground that the seed of the Kingdom fell on – seed that was randomly scattered. But I want to raise the question of both the nature of the seed (message) we convey and the manner of our conveying. When our Kingdom message is rejected we can revert to saying well “if they don’t want to hear it is their fault” and move on. But we need to have a close look at how we broadcast the message of the faith (Kingdom of God) and the seed (message) we are sowing. It doesn’t matter whether the ground is rocky or fertile; if the seed has passed it’s used by date it is not likely to germinate.

I was accosted in the Octagon, Dunedin by a well intentioned evangelist as I walked through with Joy and my brother Ray his wife Judy. I tried to keep walking faster but he kept pace with me. As I listened to his message I thought that if is that is what the Christian faith is about then I want nothing to do with it. I am sure the person challenging me viewed me as rocky soil. I actually viewed him as an insensitive person who didn’t even take the opportunity to get to know me.

When I caught up with Ray I said, “Thanks for nothing.” He laughed and said, “I saw him coming and took mighty fast and big steps.”

When you go home for lunch today I want you to think both about the soil on which the seed of the Kingdom is sown, but even more I want you to give consideration to the message that is being broadcast and how that is being done. Is it good news or bad news? Is it being shared sensitively and with compassion and consideration for the other person or is it being forced upon them without consideration for their well being and or state of mind.

Are you listening? Really listening?

To God be the glory. Amen