A Sermon for Sexagesima, February 4, 2018
The Epistle, 2 Corinthians 11:19-31 – The Gospel, St. Luke 8:4-15
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- Organic vs non-organic analogies.
Last week our lessons likened the Christian life and the kingdom of God to running a race and working in a field. We noted that the main impact of these analogies was in the way they did not work. The Christian life does not consist of working for the reward of heaven or competing against each other in a race that only one can win.
These analogies can be contrasted with today’s gospel, the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, which, along with other agricultural parables and analogies, more accurately describes the Christian. The greater accuracy lies in its organic nature. The life that has been planted within us through the Holy Spirit grows in a way that corresponds to the way plants and babies grow. Thus, the more we rely on organic models to understand that life, the more accurate our knowledge of it will be.
- Judgment vs Growth
The contrast between competition and labor on the one hand, and organic growth on the other, gets at the reason many people struggle in the life of prayer. Many people are stuck living in narratives that focus on judgment. “If I say my prayers and am a good boy or girl, then God will reward me with eternal life.” The Christian life becomes a striving to be good. Since goodness is not attained by human effort, the inevitable result is a perpetual feeling of guilt, of having fallen short—which is relieved only by periodic feelings of forgiveness.
When we shift from judgment to horticulture, the picture changes. We are no longer working for a reward; we are, rather, fostering the growth of a life. The evil that is present in us, the remnant of our fallen nature, consists of weeds to be removed by confession and hearts to be softened by grace. The good that has been planted within us is to be nourished by the grace of Word, Sacrament, prayer and close connection with others in the Body of Christ.
When we do something wrong, which inevitably we all will do, the point is not that we are immediately condemned by our heavenly Father—any more than a good parent immediately disowns a child for misbehavior. What God wants from us is the same thing a parent want from a child; to acknowledge the wrong that was done and to learn and grow from it—pull the weed and fertilize the good. God does not expect perfection. He wants us to continue to grow over time.
- The foundational areas of our work
The Parable the Sower and the Seed is the foundational parable that Jesus told to describe what was happening in his ministry as he preached the word of God and it took root, or did not take root, in human hearts. The success of the seed depended on the hardness of the heart, and the things that were competing in the heart for nourishment.
The parable reveals the enemies of the soul—the world the flesh, and the devil—which we renounced in baptism (BCP 276, 277). The devil is seen in the seed by the wayside. Jesus said, “Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved” (Lk. 8:12). The devil tries to crush faith with feelings of doubt and anxiety, and by making the would-be believer so afraid of the implications of faith and obedience that faith is abandoned immediately.
The world is seen in the seed that among the thorns. “The ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity” (Lk. 8:14). Here faith competes in the heart of the would-be believer with worldly attachments. The worldly attachments leave no room for the growth of the good seed.
The flesh is seen in the seed that fell on the rocky soil. “The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away” (Lk. 8:13). Here, the would-be believer is not willing to give up the satisfaction of disordered desire—is not willing to give up pain killers to make room for genuine interior fulfillment. Thus, the word of God cannot become deeply rooted and produce the fruit of holy behavior.
This is the ongoing organic struggle in the life of prayer. The life that has been planted in us in baptism, which we receive by faith and continue to grow in through our ongoing trust in God, is challenged by these enemies of the soul. Spiritual forces of evil constantly tempt us to doubt and despair. The world offers us success, status, and pleasure to pull our hearts away from Christ. Our disordered desires tempt us to say, “Forget the will of God. I want to do what I want to do—and I deserve it!”
The pattern of temptation and sin is the same in all cases. It is tempting and powerful in the moment of temptation, but when we give in to it, it leaves us feeling guilty, empty and despairing afterwards; then it offers to take care of these feelings with another dose of painkiller—and the cycle continues.
- Spiritual Disciplines
We talk about “spiritual disciplines.” These are practices of spiritual horticulture; things that reduce the pull of temptation and help the life of Christ within us to grow. In Matthew 6, Jesus discusses the three foundational spiritual disciplines; prayer, fasting and alms giving. These three disciplines are the primary ways we combat the three enemies of the soul.
Prayer is the primary way we combat demonic temptation. Maintaining a close relational connection to God through prayer is the main we keep doubt and despair at bay. We cannot overcome spiritual evil except through constant prayer. We cannot fight the demons with our own strength, but as St. John says, “You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (1 Jn. 4:4).
Fasting is the primary way we combat the temptations of the flesh. If our appetites overwhelm us so that we cannot say no to things, we must practice fasting—practice saying no to things to gain the mastery over them. This is a necessary but neglected discipline in our overindulged culture. Most of us need to practice it in our use of electronics and technology. These things often threaten the spiritual life more than excesses of food and drink.
Almsgiving is how we combat the temptation of the world. When we become too attached to worldly things, we must practice giving them away. Tithing is the foundational discipline of freedom from money, and generosity is the ongoing practice of freedom from the world. Rather than pursuing more, we look for ways to give. Practicing humility is how we fast from our need for worldly status.
During the pre-Lenten season we should examine our hearts to see how we are being tempted and tested by the enemies of the soul; then we should adopt spiritual disciplines for Lent that root out the weeds, soften our hearts, and draw us nearer to God. Are you struggling with doubt and despair that comes from the evil one? How will you increase your practice of prayer to live in closer communion with God? Are you overcome by your appetites? What things will you fast—and which electronics, video games, and social media will you give up to develop greater self-control? Are you too attached to the things of the world, and to the status that the world gives you? How will you give and practice humility in new ways?
For we are practicing spiritual horticulture. And, as Jesus said, “The ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience” (Lk. 8:15).