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).
A Sermon for Septuagesima, January 28, 2018
The Epistle, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 20:1-16
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- The meaning of Pre-Lent
We arrive at church today to discover a change in the season. The green of the Epiphany season has given way to the violet of pre-Lent. Septuagesima reorients us. Epiphany season, which just ended, is a meditation on the Incarnation; it looks back at Christmas. Today, we turn our heads and begin to look forward to Easter and to the cross that necessarily precedes it. Pre-Lent is a tap on the shoulder that tells us that Lent is coming in two and a half weeks.
I remember a professor who wrote a commentary on Mark’s Gospel. He said that as Jesus is being revealed as the Son of God, there is a growing drumbeat of rejection that says, “He is going to die.” Pre-Lent has this effect on the life of prayer. Just as we are glorying in the revelation of the Son of God, in the ways we have come to know him, and in all the possibilities of faith, we remember that he is going to die, and we share his resurrection life by sharing in his death. Or, to put it in positive terms. Easter is coming, but there is this little thing called the cross that we must participate in first.
- We are not in Lent yet. Pre-Lent provides us with a runway. We are not fasting, but we begin to think about the ways we will, even as we enjoy some final pre-Lent celebrations!
- Laboring in the field and running the race
The lessons for Septuagesima, the Parable of the Laborers in the vineyard, and a 1 Corinthians passage about the discipline necessary to win a race, both point forward to a goal. The laborer works for the denarius, which represents salvation. The runner strives for the crown, which represents eternal glory. Both point us towards Easter. We are striving for the crown of resurrection; we are laboring faithfully in time towards the end of eternal life.
However, there is a significant way that each analogy does not work—and that is part of the point. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a man who hired laborers for his vineyard. Then he preceded to tell a parable that explains, precisely, how the kingdom of heaven is utterly unlike the standard labor arrangement. The man who worked an hour got the same as the man worked twelve. Try that at your business and see how it affects morale!
St. Paul says that all run in a race but only one receives the prize. However, his whole point is that every Christian can run in such a way as to receive the prize. To win, we must strive against the adversaries called the world, the flesh, and the devil, but we do not have to compete against each other. We can all win. So, the kingdom of God is not exactly like a race either.
One point made by both lessons is that the dynamics of grace don’t always fit into ordinary life examples. We get the point of both only when we understand the discordance; the way the kingdom of God is not like an ordinary race or a normal labor arrangement. This discordance reflects a foundational paradox of the Christian life. All is grace, but we must work very hard. Salvation is a gift that costs everything we have.
III. The Paradox of Grace and Labor
Reconciling this paradox is of no small importance. The division of the western church is founded upon it. On the one hand, there is the proclamation that salvation comes by faith and cannot be earned by our labors and merits. On the other hand, there is the truth that spiritual growth requires the practice of actual disciplines over extended periods of time.
Alexander Schmemman exposes the excesses on one side when he writes, “The fight of the new Adam against the old is a long and painful one, and what a naïve oversimplification it is to think, as some do, that the salvation they experience in revivals and “decisions for Christ” and which result in moral righteousness, soberness, and warm philanthropy, is the whole of salvation, is what God meant when he gave his Son for the life of the world” (For The Life of the World 78).
But it is also an error to think that performance of religious duties and good works somehow stores up merits that will earn us entry into the kingdom on the Day when our Lord comes to judge. For every worthy religious thing we do is deeply rooted in grace—is itself a gift from God. We must, indeed, establish disciplines of prayer and fasting. Yet, the very ability to pray requires the Holy Spirit, whom we received as a gift.
The primarily labor of the Christian life is repentance; the continued death of the old Adam through confession, and the continual purification of our motives and aims through the work of the Holy Spirit. Salvation is a gift, but we must open our hearts to receive it. Salvation does not mean freedom from labor. It means freedom from futility. In Christ, through the Spirit, our labor is fruitful.
- Lessons from our lessons
As we orient towards Easter, we can draw a lesson from each of our lessons. The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard challenges our pride and our selfishness. If we are honest, we are sympathetic with the guy who worked all day and got the same as the man who worked only one hour. But this is about the kingdom of God, not about paying your employees. No matter when you come to faith, you will receive the reward of eternal life and resurrection.
The sin of the all-day laborer is the sin of self-righteous religious people who think they deserve more: “I’ve been in church all my life; then these new people come in and take my seat and get all the attention.” The longer you have been in the church as a believing and practicing follower of Jesus, the more you should know about the love of God and the more you should want to share it with others. Do you think you deserve more because of how good you’ve been for so long a time? Do you begrudge God’s goodness to newer believers whom you deem less worthy? Such attitudes reveal a need for self-examination and repentance as we move towards Easter.
The teaching of St. Paul about running a race reminds me of a scene from a high school cross country meet. One on my sons did a year of cross country, so it was new to me. The scene I remember was at the end of the race. Every runner had finished except one girl, who was finishing quite a bit behind the pack. But the whole team was at the finish line cheering on this one girl as she finished. However, the point was not merely charitable support for a girl who did not have natural gifts for running. They were cheering because this girl was running hard to achieve her personal best time, which, if memory serves, she achieved on this day. She wasn’t running against anyone else; she was running against her “old self” and trying to get better—and that is all that matters in the race we are running.
As we look towards Easter and contemplate the ways we want to grow, it is important not to look at other people and compare ourselves with them. God doesn’t care how we compare with anyone else. Comparisons are demonic in origin. They serve only to distract us from the real goal of the spiritual life. We are striving to grow beyond our own sins—not the sins of others; we are striving to grow into the image of Christ in the unique way God placed that image within each of us through the gift of the Spirit.