Sermons at St. Nicholas:
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ!
[Response: Glory to him forever!]
Usually I start the sermon with some kind of a story to illustrate the meaning of the gospel, but today Christ himself provides the story for us, and he provides also the interpretation. So instead of kind of looking at the story itself and the meaning and how it applies to us, [I thought] that we would look instead of some of the implications of this gospel for us. I think the first thing that we want to do is talk about this word of God, what it is, how we receive it, how we hear it.
Just within the context of the Divine Liturgy, we have to be very careful. I think we all know that the structure of the Divine Liturgy is the same every Sunday. In fact, except for some of the moveable hymns, even the words are the same, the petitions are the same, the hymns are the same. On the one hand, some might say, “Well, that gets kind of boring,” but I think if we look at it in a more positive light, we would say, “We know these words very well.” In fact, those of us that have been coming to church for many years, we come very consistently, we could say the words in our sleep. We know what’s coming next.
The structure itself is very logical. There are really two parts to the Divine Liturgy. There is this Liturgy of the Word, and everything that we do kind of surrounds the hearing: the reading, the delivery of the word of God. For instance, we had a prokeimenon, a psalm verse, which starts to uplift our hearing to receive the word of God in the epistle reading. Before the epistle reading, the priest or the deacon says, “Let us attend. Let us be attentive. This is wisdom.” So we listen very carefully, or we should listen very carefully, to the words of the epistle reading.
Then what’s interesting is—and again, we know all of this, but it’s how we think about it—we sing the Alleluia, but we should be very aware, the choir members should be aware, we should all be aware, that this is not the Alleluia after the epistle reading; this is the Alleluia before the gospel. We are singing the Alleluia—this word “Alleluia” simply means “praise the Lord”; it’s an ancient Hebrew word that means “praise the Lord”—we are praising God for what we’re about to hear, and it’s very festive and it’s very joyful, and we should never sing the Alleluia from rote: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. We should sing it with joy; we should sing it with exuberance, because we’re about to hear the gospel!
So there’s something here that we have to understand, and that is: if our heart is not both prepared and receptive, and, in fact, I would say, looking forward to and excited to hear the word of God, then this parable that Jesus tells us in today’s gospel reading, will in fact come true. He will, in fact, have proven his point, that there are various types of soils, there are various types of hearers. Some people receive the word very joyfully. Some people are like the hard ground, kind of hard-headed, stubborn, arrogant. They might even show up to hear it, but they’re not really interested in it. Others might be choked by the cares and the riches of the world, where you can hear it joyfully, but it dies very quickly. Others might sort of see it in a sort of a shallow way, not wanting the roots to take depth, and that also dies very quickly.
What we want to do is make sure that we’re the kind of people that allow this word of God to dwell in us, as St. Paul says, “richly.” This is very important. Sometimes I hear Orthodox Christians saying, “Well, we don’t really go for all that Bible stuff.” Really? Do we really think that’s true? Because that would be a terrible mistake, and that would be a terrible misunderstanding. Easily 90% of the Liturgy, just the petitions are direct quotes are based on the Scriptures, specific verses from the Scriptures. Then we have this whole part of the service that focuses in on the word of God. And then we have a sermon which explains the word of God. That’s how important it is, and without it we can’t have a Divine Liturgy.
So when we look at some of the points, the first thing we would say is this: Take every opportunity to understand the word of God, to hear it, to listen to it, to look for it. It starts with reading the Scriptures, at least in our modern day. We would say in an ecclesial sense, in the sense of the Church, we hear it preached in the liturgical assembly; we hear it proclaimed to us. But in the days when there was no printing press, that was really the primary way to hear it, right? People didn’t have Bibles at home. Now we have Bibles at home, but they collect dust on them, and instead we should be opening the word of God to understand it, to hear it, to allow it to get into us, to use every opportunity to do that, to even discuss it on the way home. Not: “Oh, wasn’t that sermon terrible?” but: “What did you think about what the Lord told us today, what God taught us in the Scriptures?”
Those kind of opportunities are always around us, and unless we take the word of God seriously, unless we take the teaching that is given to us seriously, how can we ever expect that it would somehow take root in us? So we have to use every opportunity to hear, to understand, to read, to seek out the word of God. We can never ignore it, because we would do that to our peril. As a matter of fact, St. John Chrysostom said this: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” In other words, the primary way in which we experience, know who Christ is, is to hear the word of God, is to hear his teaching, is to hear stories about his life, is to hear the letters that his Apostles wrote to the Church.
And I fear that we have a serious lack of interest in the word of God, as Orthodox Christians. It’s, in fact, shocking, and it’s to our peril, because if we wonder why people don’t come to church, why they’re not interested, why the Church doesn’t grow—it’s simple! We all know the reason. It was explained in this Scripture reading today. There’s no church-growth program in the world that will change this. The only thing that will change this is people’s hearts, people’s willingness to hear the word of God, to understand the word of God, to embrace the word of God. That’s the only thing that will change that.
The second point: when it says in the Scriptures that the sower sowed his seeds, you have to get this picture in your mind. Of course, the hearers would have known this right away; we don’t live in an agrarian society. But there were probably furrowed rows, and the farmer was taking [a] handful of seeds and throwing them. But there were also places, little paths, where you had to walk in between, right? So the farmer would be careful to put the seeds along the furrowed paths and not the walking paths, but some of it got on the paths.
The point here is: the word of God is always given to us. It is never withheld from us. In every possible way, whether it is the knowledge that’s imparted to us in the services, whether it’s the Scriptures that’s in our home, or whether—and here is another important part of this—to be able to see and understand the situations in our life which are teaching us lessons about the word of God, to see things that happen that reveal to us the working of God in our life and in the life of other people, this is another way in which God reveals himself to us. He reveals his word to us.
So in the parable, it says the sower sowed his seed, and it fell in all different kinds of soils. What Jesus is saying is: all of this is given to every type of person. It’s given to the person that is receptive; it’s given to the person that is not receptive, so that hopefully they would become receptive. And it’s given again and again and again, because it’s always planting season.
The harvest will come, at the end of the age, but the season for the word of God to be planted within us is always now. In fact, we heard it in the epistle reading today. Did you hear those words? In the epistle reading, it says:
not to receive the grace of God in vain, for he says: in an acceptable time, I have heard you; in the day of salvation I have helped you. Now is the accepted time. Now is the day of salvation.
It’s as if, when we live in the kingdom of God, we’re always living in God’s eternal now. For us, there’s a past. Yesterday was yesterday. Tomorrow, we don’t know about it yet. For God, it’s always now. He sees, if you can picture the timeline of history: he sees it all at once. And he gives us that word of God—past, present, and future—in the kingdom of God, which is always present with us. It’s always now. It’s always the fullness of the kingdom of God. So when God gives us that opportunity, we’re called to respond.
The third and the final point, in fact, it’s the most obvious, and it’s the part that maybe we don’t like to admit to. What motivates our openness, what motivates our desire to just kind of show up, to hear the word of God, to be receptive, to be open, to open our hearts to the word of God, the very foundation of that is our faith in God. The openness of our heart is in direct correlation to the amount of faith and the amount of trust that we have in God. The more faithful we are, the more open our heart and our mind is to hearing these things that God wants to teach us.
It’s worth looking at this parable closely, and the most important thing that we have to ask ourselves in this parable is: Which soil am I? and How can I become the receptive soil? That’s the one difference here. If I throw seed on cement, it will never grow. It might sprout, but it’ll never grow. That’s the kind of the stubbornness of the world. But the one difference here is that everyone has the capacity to become good soil.
In the three types of soil that we heard: the hard soil, that’s the closed mind, the mind that just sort of comes with arrogance and comes either thinking they know everything or thinking that they’re not really interested in it and they have nothing to learn. That simply requires a change of mind. The hard heart, the hard ground can be softened. We can repent of that attitude of spiritual arrogance, to say, “I will allow myself to be vulnerable. I will allow myself to be open to this, to be soft.” Jesus even quotes in one part of the Scriptures; he quotes the Old Testament, “I’ll take away your heart of stone, and I’ll give you a heart of flesh.” That’s what’s required for those of us that have the hard heart, those of us that have the hard sort of trodden-down ground.
Maybe even with that hard ground there’s something even deeper. Hard ground is something that is walked on all the time. Maybe we’ve had a hard life. Maybe we’ve sort of been through the school of hard knocks, and when we get that way, we kind of know everything. We’re not willing to change. We’re not willing to see things in a different way, but it requires that somehow a spade come and break that ground up, break our heart up, in order to soften it, in order to make it receptive for the word of God. So even the hard heart can be receptive, the shallow ground, the shallow ground that’s distracted by the cares of the world.
This requires diligence. This requires discipline. I’ve said before in sermons: we can’t be scared, we can’t be afraid of hard things. I will admit: Orthodoxy is not easy. But we also said last week: we don’t preach Orthodoxy for the sake of Orthodoxy. We preach Orthodoxy for the sake of Christ. And in it, we have to see Christ. In it, our goal has to be to grow closer to Christ. And the shallowness of this world, kind of the entertainment culture, the shallowness of wanting to sort of be stroked and be constantly comforted, this is what makes the difficult implantation of the word of God almost inevitable for the person who only wants a shallow faith, that once it goes step B, they’re not interested any more. They’re not interested in fasting. They’re not interested in a prayer rule. They’re not interested in humility. They’re interested in, like I said last week, what’s in it for me. How can you make me feel better about myself and my life?
So this shallow ground can also be changed, by going deeper, by plumbing the depths of our heart to see what’s really in there, because sometimes maybe we don’t want to see what’s in there. It’s scary to allow ourselves to do that. It’s not easy, but we have to sort of be fearless.
One more thought came to me before we go to the final example. Forgive me, I don’t remember her last name, but everybody knows the name of Malala now, this Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban in the head. If there’s no example in the world but hers, [do we see] that the grace of God blows where it wills in a little Muslim girl, to soften the heart of these murderous terrorists? That girl is a walking testament to the grace of God in someone who has not even named the name of Christ. And I pray that someday she will find Christ, but for now? Look at that girl! Look at her maturity beyond her years.
She has a depth of soul that is astounding. Her understanding of the world, her realization that she will believe in something to the point of death when she’s twelve years old—it’s astounding! And we’re worried about I don’t know what: Kim Kardashian? It’s just insanity; it is. It’s just pure insanity. So shallowness is maybe kind of the most pervasive condition in the American society.
Then the final, this kind of soil that is choked by the weeds, choked by the cares of the world. Really, this particular example is about sin. It’s about the contradiction between wanting to embrace the word of God and wanting to embrace pervasive sin, “the cares and the riches of this world,” it says. The cares and the riches of this world choke out the growth of the word of God. How much more plain it get than that? That the prescription for that is to pull those weeds out, to stay out of the weeds, actually.
But when the weeds grow in our heart [it is necessary] to kind of pull them out, to yank them out, to be ruthless. Just like in a garden when we want to get rid of the weeds, because they grow deep. Weeds are much more aggressive than good growth; we know that. And it requires an abandon to be able to rip out all of these cares and these riches and these sins in our life.
Whatever the condition of our heart is, if we’re honest about it, the prescription is there: break up the hard heart, allow the word of God to dwell in those deeply who are shallow, to go deeper, to rip out the weeds of the care of this world. We have to read this parable again and again and again, and realize that it’s Christ himself who is telling us this. It’s a very rare thing. Christ told about 30 parables, and this is the one he explained. Honestly, I’ve read this a thousand times, and it still somehow is mysterious.
To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables that seeing they may not see and hearing they may not understand.
Why does God allow some people to not hear? And I think the answer is: because of our understanding of how we grow in Christ, with synergy, in that Greek word “synergia,” working cooperatively with God. It requires our assent. It requires our willingness to cooperate with the word of God. The ground has to be tilled and the weeds have to be pulled and it has to be watered, and he provides the seed, and the seed is always good. It’s up to us whether it’s going to grow or not. That’s the amazing thing about this parable, and it’s so simple, it’s so obvious. All the excuses just melt away. It’s all left to us to respond. That’s the beauty of this parable, and that’s the beauty of the word of God.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us be encouraged to know that the word of God will always grow in the receptive heart. How will we receive it? What must we do to allow it to grow in us and dwell in us richly? Let us not receive the word of God in vain. To him who is our life, with the Father and the Spirit, be glory, honor, and majesty, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ!