St Bride's: A Point Of View

The parable of the Sower

Matthew 13: 1–9

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13 The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side.

And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore.

And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;

And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:

Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:

And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.

And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them:

But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.

Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

The parable of the sower occupies a singular position in the teaching of Jesus; mostly the parables- the pearl of great price, the mustard seed, the leaven, the widow's mite have one simple identifiable meaning and there is a school of thought which asserts that this immediacy is something of a guarantor of their authenticity. But the Sower is not just a vivid depiction of the human character as it hears the word of God (and anyone with a chance knowledge of gardening will know how various settings perform with alarming difference), but comes with its own commentary a few verses later, suggesting that the disciples were a bit dim or - more likely - that the early church had an allegorical turn of mind and wanted to use the words of Jesus to encourage new Christians to examine themselves and to discover the sincerity of their conversions. Certainly the presence of this explanation in three of the Gospels suggests that it was widespread in the early church. Perhaps it was part of catechesis as we know that the Lord's Prayer certainly was.

The idea of different soil will perhaps not strike us with the same sense of moral or affective value and personal attribution, but perhaps more with the sense of the variety of human personality type, the understanding of which is a tool in management, in life skills and in ministry. Differences in churchmanship, once argued so painfully and tiresomely as matters of truth and falsehood are now seen as more likely to be based in personality - this one only gets ritual and this one gets the concreteness of literal description - and it may be hoped that both would emerge over time from their trenches - suggesting that under spiritual light real change is possible.

And type indication has been the bread and butter of some schools of psychology for decades. I took a personality type test shortly after I was ordained and found that the scales fell from my eyes - I suddenly realised why I was so difficult in some settings and so cheered by others. And my personality is such that taking the test three decades later I was delighted to find myself unaltered!

Notwithstanding baptism is about personality and about transformation. A good deal about Rufus and Elsie will already be cast in stone - the balance of nature and nurture may shift and yet is undeniable. Holy Baptism engages our human condition at exactly this point. As a sacrament it is specifically proleptic (forgive me but that is not a word that I get a chance to use so very often, although I'm sure it is very current in this parish); it is anticipatory, establishing today what is only fulfilled in an uncertain future. Symbolically what we do for Rufus and Elsie today is discovered only in a lifetime of access to God's well spring of forgiving and accepting love and ultimately in an eternal destiny when he is remade for - and with - God.

Recently I was at the traditional site of the baptism of the Lord at a crossing place of the river Jordan; over centuries Christians on pilgrimage have immersed themselves in the water of the Jordan at this spot as a reminder of baptism - but a paddle is equally efficacious and more Anglican. The site is on the border of Jordan and Israel and remains militarised and to get to the spot you have to take a managed path through a minefield - not in itself a bad image of Christian initiation and nurture.

The Church of England has of course largely eschewed both pools and outdoor sources of water for Holy Baptism and remained loyal to the Western baptismal font. The one here at the west end and inconveniently sited has eight sides, representing Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives - as the human remnant rescued from the destruction of the flood. Just to emphasis the point, the Grinling Gibbons font at St James's, Piccadilly has the ark carved on the side. But lately font design has moved on somewhat; you may perhaps have seen the remarkable new font in Salisbury Cathedral, designed not by an ecclesiastical architect but by a water sculptor, William Pye and out of the most lovely material. But what is remarkable about the Salisbury font is that it is ever-flowing; at each corner there is a lip or spout providing a stream of water which worshippers may tap as they pass and bless themselves on their way into worship. But full as this flow of water is, yet the surface of the font, always brim full is like a sheet of undisturbed glass - so that persons may see themselves perfectly and clearly reflected as in a glass. So striking is this that a Japanese tourist is reported to have rested her hand bag on the surface - with predictable results!

Intended or not, this helps me to understand baptism. First it is ever-flowing; what we do for Rufus and Elsie today is life -long and eternal - because of his baptism they may always have recourse to the stream of God's Grace and the assurance of his acceptance and forgiveness. And secondly it is about reflection. Although modern psychology has been unusually useful to the church's pastoral ministry (not least that analysis of type) yet Christians do not believe that we are here to become our more true selves - we are to become more like Jesus. So when we glance at our reflection, it should not be in admiration of what we see, still less with despair at the depredations of the years but simply, as in a font, to note how much we have yet to travel to become more like Him.

So Rufus and Elsie well done for surviving the waters of baptism - we who have been through them ourselves welcome you on the far side; like Noah who escaped by the waters of the Flood, the Hebrews who escaped slavery through the Red Sea and like Jesus who was buried in the deep waters of death, you have earned your freedom.

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