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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Key to All Parables

Sexagesima 2018

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Feb. 4, 2018

All of us at one time or another, have been blessed to learn from a gifted teacher. This priest was fortunate to learn from our former Presiding Bishop, Royal U. Grote, who taught us seminarians that the Parable of the Sower is key to our understanding of all Christ’s parables.  It is considered by many Biblical scholars as the “root” parable of parables. 

In our Gospel for the day, Our Lord uses an agricultural or “organic” analogy in the parable of the Sower.  St. Luke 8:5-8: ”A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold.”

Biblical commentators have remarked on the Lord’s use of agricultural analogies in the parables. First, his use of common agricultural references made it easy for his hearers to grasp his message, at least on one of its levels.  After all, everyone can understand a growing plant or weed.

The second reason is not as transparent.  Our Lord is concerned about our growth in holiness and righteousness; thus, He uses “growing” analogies a great deal.
We Christians are to be the “good soil” from which good works do spring, not as a justification for our salvation, but rather as a natural outgrowth of our faith, trust and love in Jesus Christ. 

Another reason Christ uses agronomy or agriculture for his teaching examples reflects the Great Plan of Creation itself.  Why do we have parks in cities?  Why do many of us have house plants? Each plant, each plot, each park reflects man’s desire to get back to the Garden of Eden, which Man lost through sin. All of us, deep in our natures, be we “city” or “country” folk, have this desire to “get back to the Garden”.[1]This may be one reason why deep, simple faith is often more prevalent in the countryside, when contrasted to the cold, concrete atmosphere of the city.

Why is this parable so important to understanding Christ’s Mission and Ministry?  Let us consider two phrases Luke 8:11  Luke 8:5  "The sower went out to sow his seed” and "…the parable is this: the seed is the word of God.

Our Lord speaks of the Sower, who is Jesus himself, casting some seeds in the World.  This is significant because Christian theology teaches us that the Son, the Word, spoke the World into being.  St. John tells us, (John 1:1) “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. So now in this parable we have the Great Speaker of Creation casting seeds into the World.

What is this Seed? The Word of God. The Sower is cultivating his Garden.  Why is this important? It shows us that God was not content to simply create the World and let in spin.  So thought the Deists of the 18th Century, but no. Instead, Christ wishes to sow seeds in His World that bring His creatures into complete fellowship with Him.  Christ sows the words of salvation, the Good News, into the world. 

Is it fertile? Note, seed some falls on the wayside and is devoured by birds, some falls on a rock and withers from a lack of moisture, and others are choked out by thorns.

In the first case, the seed is exposed and is an easy target for Satan, who comes and devours the seed. In the second case, the rock provides no soil for the seed, and it dies. It falls on a hardened heart that will not receive it.  In the third case, the seed grows in an environment of competing weeds, who choke it out.   

None of these environments was right for growth.  In the last case, however, some seed fell on good soil and sprang up, bearing fruit “an hundredfold.” 

If we see the seed as symbolic of the soul, this parable makes a great deal of sense.  Just as a seed must be given a good place to grow, the Christian soul needs a good spiritual environment.  The young soul should not be exposed too early to the devouring forces of the World, which is why we try to shield our children until they reach some measure of maturity.

In addition, the soul cannot grow in isolation or barren-ness, as the seed on the rock.  Rather, it needs the seedbed of the Church for its moisture and nourishment.  The idea of the solitary Christian, apart from the worship and fellowship of the Church is usually doomed to failure.  Instead, God meant for the Christian “seed” to grow in the Church, being fed by her and returning good fruit to her and to the community at large.

Why do you think that the first sign of a Christian soul in trouble is their absence from church?  Simply, Satan knows that he must cut the straggler away from the herd, just as predators do. Once alone without the shelter of the group, it is easy prey. If Satan can stop a person from going to church, he knows that he has won a great victory.

Note that our Lord had to explain this parable to his disciples. This indicates that this Word is meant for us, the household of faith.  Although the message and call of Christianity is universal, in the mysteries of God’s grace some hear the call and respond to it, while others do not. For some mysterious reason known only to God, we are called to be here today. Accept this with thanks and praise. 

Thus, our Lord means us to be “good” soil: planted, nurtured, and tended by the Church.  God desires us to be bountiful: producing sweet, delicious fruit for our brethren and for the World.   In the words of our Lord from Luk 3:8 “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”

Our fruit is the result of the grace of God in our hearts, not from us.  It is there because of Christ’s seed, the Word of God.  

Pray always, therefore, that this seed may bear forth good fruit.

Luke 8:15: “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.”

Glory be to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, now and for ever.   AMEN

[1] Crosby, Stills, Nash, Woodstock, “Déjà vu”

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Love without Limits

The Rev’d. Stephen E. Stults
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
January 14, 2018
“Love without dissimulation”

We just heard a beautiful, but archaic phrase today in the Epistle from St. Paul.  We heard, “Let love be without dissimulation.” While this beautiful language, what does it mean? While this priest genuinely loves the KJV version of the Bible, and it is this translation that comes to memory for me, other translations have real value to us as well.  For example, some modern translations put it this way: “let love be without hypocrisy”;[i] “let love be genuine”;[ii]and “let love be sincere.”[iii]

This “kernel” of truth here isthat love must be real. It must have substance.  Is it enough to say to another person, “I just love you…?”

This statement certainly makes us feel good, but how do we know it is true?

For most of us, appearance is reality.  Yet, there is always a test between appearance and reality. It could be that test revolves around one little word: action. Something must happen to solidify the quality of love.

With that thought in minds, consider the actions St. Paul associates with love.  Note the verb attached to each one.
  • Abhor evil
  • Cling to that which is good
  • Be devoted to one another
  • Prefer one another
  • Avoid slothfulness
  • Rejoice in hope
  • Be patient in trouble
  • Pray instantly
  • Distribute to the needs of the saints (the Church)
  • Give hospitality
  • Bless those who persecute you
  • Do not pay back evil with evil
  • Practice humility
  • Live peaceably with all men.
This is quite a list: abhor, cling, bless, prefer, rejoice, and give, among others.  All these things require something: effort and action. In short, love is doing something for someone else. Sometimes, that may be not doing or saying something that may be hurtful.

Referring to St. James’ Epistle, he tells us, “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”[iv] While St. James’ statement applies to a broader context that what St. Paul is saying, it is very applicable. It is very important that we show love to others in our lives by what we do and say.  Deeds speak louder than words, as the old saying goes. As our Lord taught us,” Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”[v]

As an aside, let it not be thought that words are not important; they are. We all know of people whose parents never told them they loved them. There are people who have never heard the words, “I love you.”  How unfortunate. As in all things, we must seek to strike a balance.  The wise ancient Greeks called it the middle way.  This is a quality of Anglicanism, too.  We strive to walk the middle way, the “via media” in many things.

Let me ask you a question…where does love begin?  Does it originate in the head, as an intellectual decision, or in the heart, as an emotional response?  Do we weigh the benefits of something, and then decide to love it, or them; or, is it merely an emotional “rush” that comes over us?  How does it happen?

We will submit to you that the type of love of which St. Paul is speaking is deeper than either a rational evaluation that leads to affection, or an emotional onslaught in the form of infatuation. The love St. Paul is referencing is much more profound and durable.

Consider this: for us to be able to love in action as well as in words, we need something that is infinitely greater than either our mere intellectual appraisal, or even our fickle emotional attachments.  We need something that lets us love the unlovely, and to show our love to those whom we normally would not.

How is this possible?  How do love those we really don’t like, how do we pray for our enemies, and how do we consistently prove our love through action? It must come from outside ourselves.

Most certainly it does.  First, to love others, we must love ourselves. This love is not the self-indulgent, or selfish manner that we all are prey to, but rather is the clean, bright knowledge that Someone loves us more than we can imagine. The Holy Trinity loves us (you) to such a degree that is totally incomprehensible to us, for it knows no limits. 
Try to accept that in your innermost soul.  If possible let it sink in, deep down, and transform you that you truly love yourself.  When this happens, loving others is possible, even natural.  As the realization grows that you have infinite value to God, you will value yourself. You will value others more also.
Here’s something the engineers in our congregation can relate to: godly self-value and Christ-like self-esteem is like liquid that can only be compressed so far; eventually it explodes its container. The extreme, profound love of God cannot be contained in mere mortal vessels.  It too must explode into the world beyond.

This is what God’s love is like. It wants to live in you, to the extent that you choose to accept it. As you allow God’s love to take root in you, it cannot help but spread its branches through you, to the world.

Then, you can express love in word and deed.  Then, you can do things like abhor evil, prefer others above yourself, pray instantly, give unstintingly, and live peaceably with all men.

You will be able to prove consistent love by speaking it and doing it.

Romans 12:9   “Let love be without dissimulation.”

[i] New American Standard Version
[ii] English Standard Version
[iii] New International Version
[iv] James 2:20
[v] Matt. 7:20