Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was a great communicator and teacher. Partly because of the way He used the ordinary things of life to grab the attention of His listeners, but mostly because He did not tell stories just to entertain, but to teach spiritual truths.

Many people have a hard time understanding the parable we heard in this morning’s Gospel, but if we take the time to listen very carefully and thoughtfully to what Jesus is saying and to His instruction, we can walk away from this sacred place today with a better understanding of what it takes to have a happier and more fruitful life.

One of the reasons so many people have trouble understanding parables is because they do not know what a parable is. We might naturally assume that the parables are like anecdotes used in a speech or sermon to illustrate a point and make it clearer. This is partially true. But one of the reasons Jesus always spoke in parables is because parables hide mysteries. And a mystery is a hidden truth. But why would Jesus want to hide a truth, and from whom did He want to hide them?

A parable presents a truth in such a way that those who are dull-hearted, whose spiritual ears are hard of hearing, and whose spiritual eyes are closed, will be unable to understand it. So, whereas the parable illustrates a truth to those who will hear it, it hides that same truth from those who are spiritually dull or ignorant. The ones who see, and hear, and understand, Jesus calls blessed.

So how are we to understand this Parable of the Sower of the Seed? Let us consider each part of it and how Jesus explained it. The seed about which Jesus speaks is the Word of God. Each time it is spoken or read, it is like planting a seed. But the seed must germinate in order for it to grow and bear fruit. This “seed” of the Word of God contains within it all the power of new life and fruitfulness. But if it is not nurtured and properly cared for, it will wither and die.

The sower of the seed actually has two meanings. In the first case, the sower is God, He who speaks the Word and plants it in the ears and the hearts of men. The other meaning of sower are all those who take the seed, the Word of God, and plant it all over the world, in every city, town, village and hamlet in the world. It is not just bishops and priests who are sowers of the seed, but every baptized Christian who has received the Word of God in their heart, nurtured and cared for it, and who have allowed it to take root and grow and bear fruit within them, who are also the sowers of the seed.

Every time you speak the Word of God, every time you live the Word of God in your life, whether you are in a pulpit or in a coffee shop with a friend, you are sowing God’s Word and this parable, therefore, applies to you. We read in 1 Corinthians, “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:9). Those who speak God’s Word are God’s workers working in God’s fields and vineyards. So when is the right time to plant?

If you have done any gardening at all, you know that certain plants need to be planted at certain times of the year in certain seasons. Any horticulturist or farmer knows this. But when it comes to God’s Word, this is what St. Paul has to say: “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, and exhort, with all long-suffering and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2). When is the right season for speaking God’s Word? The answer is simple. It is always the right season to speak and plant the Word of God.

Speaking the Word of God does not mean merely quoting Scripture word for word, verse for verse. The Word will only bear fruit if you believe the Word and live it actively in your life. God calls us to action, to be active workers in His fields and vineyards. And we cannot do the work of the Lord half-heartedly. We must give it our full attention. We must give 100% of ourselves to the work of building up and strengthening God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Certainly for many people, doing the work of the Lord is a struggle. There are many worldly distractions which keep us from focusing on doing God’s work of spreading and witnessing His Word. Jesus knew this when He first told this parable, and nothing is any different today than it was more than 2,000 years ago. It all has to do with the condition of the human heart and the place God has in the life of every human being.

The heart is the soil about which Jesus speaks. It is this soil into which the seeds of God’s Word are planted. There are four basic conditions of the human heart when it comes to responding to God’s Word. They are: the indifferent heart, the stony heart, the thorny heart, and the fertile heart.

The indifferent heart is the heart that falls by the wayside. The indifferent heart is a hard heart. Jesus said that when the Word of God is sown into this kind of heart, the birds of the air come and eat up the seed. The devil, Satan, the wicked and evil one, comes and snatches the seed out of the hard heart because the person is indifferent to it and chooses to ignore it. In this person’s heart, God’s Word never gets a chance to grow. Their lack of understanding or their refusal to hear means that the seeds that were attempted to be sown in the hearts of such people just falls to ground and never penetrates their hearts.

We might ask, “What hardens a person’s heart? Another simple answer: sin hardens a person’s heart. It is very easy to harden one’s heart, especially when God is not present in the life of an individual. In today’s society, God is very hard to find. There is an aggressive move to remove God entirely from the realm of human experience and life. Many people today have replaced the Eternal and Almighty God with different gods more to their liking and appeal. Among these are the gods of money, sex, drugs, power, position, self-gratification, etc. These false gods offer many temptations and immediate pleasures to those who are willing to sell their souls in return for a few years of pleasure. But from these so-called pleasures that are given by these false gods there comes also sins like hatred, greed, lust, anger, envy and a whole host of others. These are the sins that harden one’s heart and prevent the Word of God from penetrating it and taking root.

There was a lot of stony ground in Palestine. The bedrock is so close to the surface, and therefore the soil is so shallow that plants have nowhere to send their roots down. So the roots are very shallow. The stony heart is the heart of the person who joyfully receives the Word of God but does not allow it to take root. The stony ground is shallow ground and this represents a shallow heart. A person with a shallow heart receives the Word but the Word cannot send down deep roots. After the seed has been planted, it grows, but the sun comes up and scorches the plant, which then withers away.

So what does the sun represent in this case? The sun represents trials, difficulties and persecution. A bit of opposition or some difficulties in one’s life or some persecution causes the person with a shallow heart to fall away. A shallow heart has not faith, no substance, no endurance. Jesus had plenty of followers like that. They loved His miracles, loved His healings, the exorcisms, His wonderful teaching and the way he stood up to religious leaders. But when it came down to crunch time, they had not allowed God’s Word to take root in their hearts and they deserted. They believe and endure so long as things are going good for them. Once things turn bad, they bolt. A shallow heart cannot stand a test of faith.

When the seed fell on thorny ground, the thorns sprung up and choked them. Again, the Word of God becomes ineffective because of the condition of the heart of the hearer. So what chokes God’s Word? Jesus tells us that there are four different things: 1) the cares of this world; 2) the deceitfulness of riches; 3) the desire for things other than the things of God; and 4) the pleasures of life.

Have you ever noticed that weeds never need any encouragement to grow? You have to nurture your flowers and vegetables, but weeds just pop up anywhere and with the greatest of ease. But our hearts are like a garden; we have to nurture what is good and remove what is bad, otherwise our flowers, fruits and vegetables will die.

Here are the four weeds that we have to be careful of because they choke God’s Word in our hearts: First, the cares of the world. This is worry, and Christ tells us not to be anxious for anything, for God always provides what is necessary and needed. Second, we have the deceitfulness of riches to be concerned about. St. Paul is very strong in his warning against this. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (1 Timothy 6:10)

Money is not bad, but the love of money is. What we do or do not do with it can also be bad. How do you know if you have the love of money? If you want to be rich then you have a love of money. Why is it necessary to be rich? Is it not enough just to have enough money to live a decent life? To have food on the table, money in the bank for one’s retirement, to travel and enjoy God’s creation, would not such a financial position bring one enjoyment, security and comfort? Why the desire to be rich, to have more money than one can spend in a lifetime?

The pursuit of riches interferes with pursuing God’s Kingdom. And Jesus is very clear that seeking God’s Kingdom should be our first and foremost priority. “But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33). Seeking God’s Kingdom has to be our highest priority; not the second, not the third, but our first.

No one engaged in spiritual warfare, no one engaged in the pursuit of the Kingdom of God will entangle himself or herself in the affairs of this life. The affairs of this life can even include good things like success, business, your marriage, money, your career, education, etc. But these things do not control us, we control them. There is nothing wrong with any of these things, but if they come in between you and your pursuit of the Kingdom and God’s righteousness, then they are nothing more than idols and false gods.

Finally, there is the pleasure of life. Let us not be mistaken; there is nothing wrong with pleasure. God designed such pleasures as food, drink, sex, and a whole bunch of other things. But they can be idols and false gods too.

All of these aforementioned things, good or bad, can be thorns in one’s life. They can take root in your heart and choke God’s Word.

Now we come to what is necessary for a good life, the good ground, the good heart. This is the kind of ground, the kind of heart that God is looking for. Let us put together what the Gospels say about this kind of heart.

The good heart hears God’s Word, accepts God’s Word, understands God’s Word, and manifests God’s Word in words and deeds. A good heart is noble and good and shines with holiness and righteousness. A good heart is humble and contrite; it longs for and seeks truth and honesty at all times. It finds its home in what is holy and pure. Most importantly, a good heart is patient. The person with this kind of heart will bear much fruit in his or her life.

Patience is an important element in growing in holiness and righteousness. Why do we need patience? Because when you plant a seed it does not start producing fruit the very next day; it takes time. Here is something we need to consider. When it comes to fruitfulness, the person who hears, and accepts and understands God’s Word with patience and a noble and good heart bears fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold. This is the kind of fruitfulness God is looking for.

So why is it that some people produce thirtyfold, some sixtyfold, and some a hundredfold? It is not because of their heart condition. We have already seen that all these people have a noble and good heart. It has nothing to do with their level of commitment. It just means that they produce fruit according to their ability, according to their individual talents and gifts. Different people have different talents, abilities and gifts and how much fruit they produce depends upon that.

In closing I want to odder you some advice and counsel. If you are a person with a hard heart, God has something to say to you. “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord, till he comes and rains righteousness on you.” (Hosea 10:12)

How do you break up that hard ground so that it is ready to receive the seed of God’s Word? It is time to seek the Lord; in prayer, in worship, in studying God’s Word, in faithfully fellowshipping with God’s people, in fasting, in setting your heart to practice faith and righteousness.

If your heart is like the stony or thorny ground, God has something to say to you too. “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” (Joshua 1:8) Meditation allows God’s Word to sink into your heart, to take root, and to produce fruit.

If your heart is like good ground, let me just say this: keep up the good work.

To all of you I say this: Guard your heart, keep the weeds out, and cultivate the kinds of things that God wants for your life.


Amen.

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