Sermon given at Matins on the Second Sunday before Lent 2023

Let anyone with ears to hear—listen!

The Reverend Prebendary Dr Tony Kyriakides Priest Vicar

Sunday, 12th February 2023 at 10.00 AM

A story is told of Franklin D Roosevelt, the thirty-second President of the United States of America, memorialized over there in Westminster Abbey by the West door. Apparently, he did not enjoy the protocol of long receiving lines when he would welcome distinguished visitors to the White House. He was convinced that no one really paid much attention to what he said. One day, during a White House reception, he decided to test this out. As each guest passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured the words, ‘I murdered my grandmother this morning.’ The guests responded much as FDR expected: ‘Marvellous!’ ‘Keep up the good work’. ‘We are proud of you’. ‘God bless you, sir’. Only at the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, were his words actually heard. The ambassador leaned over and whispered, ‘I'm sure she had it coming’.

In our reading from Luke’s gospel, Jesus says ‘let anyone with ears to hear, listen’: but did we? We heard the reading, but did we listen to it? Our ears enable us to hear the sounds of the surrounding environment but, while I don’t want to underestimate the enormous number of tasks that the auditory system must perform, for those of you who are not hearing-impaired, hearing simply happens. Listening, on the other hand, is quite different because it is something I choose to do. Listening requires me to concentrate, to process meaning drawn from both verbal and non-verbal communication. I listen to understand.

Let anyone with ears to hear—listen! Listen attentively but, more crucially, listen with what has been described as a third ear[1]: a third ear which is finely tuned to retrieve deeper layers of meaning, to discern what is intended but, paradoxically, not spoken. As the prophet Isaiah put it, to listen and understand with the heart.[2]

The parable of the sower is, for most of us, all too familiar and because of that familiarity has, I suspect lost its power to deliver a spiritual punch. Often when Jesus teaches in parables, he uses shock tactics and if we are not shocked, if our world is not rocked, it is because we are not listening with that third ear.

A parable should challenge our expectations. It will turn our world upside-down, for the way of Jesus is an ‘upside-down kingdom’. When we listen to a parable, deploying that third ear, we will be forced to question the sometimes all too comfortable way we relate to other people and to our world. Put another way, while Jesus sought to comfort the disturbed—instilling hope, healing and joy to those in need—he was also intent on disturbing the comfortable among whom, in his day and ours, sit the rich, the religious and the complacent. Where economic, social or religious systems embody selfishness and injustice, Jesus calls us to overturn tables.

What, then, is shocking about the parable of the sower?

First, the idea that inefficiency and waste is a good thing in the Kingdom of God! How else are we to interpret the actions of a sower, a farmer, who casts the seed here and there with no thought to where it will land? Valuable seed needs to be placed where it is going to produce a decent return, but this farmer behaves as if he has an unlimited supply of seed and has no need to take account of whether the ground is stony, or barren or weed-filled—unless, of course, he is casting around this message of salvation seeking to germinate faith in people most of us might ignore: the rejects and outcasts of society; people whose lives have been so damaged that they have become hardened and crusty, cynical and mistrusting. Equally, others whose wealth, status and power give them a sense of self-sufficiency and self-certainty.

Where’s that third ear of ours? Jesus preaches salvation to all and sundry, even to those who, at times, find the good news too difficult, too challenging, or too demanding. No one is beyond the pale.

Second, God rewards those who don’t deserve to be rewarded: a thoughtless farmer, who fritters away valuable seed on soil everyone knows is worthless, receives a bumper crop beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. We, of course, are the soil and in some mysterious way, sower and soil must work in partnership with one another. It is our responsibility, soil as we are, to seek the mulching, the watering and the tilling which will ensure we become ‘good enough’ soil bearing fruit.

Again, attend to that third ear for our responsibility is not just for the few square inches my wheat sheaf occupies but for every last acre of the harvest! We are called to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…[3]

Third, God’s work is exposed and vulnerable. Birds can devour it, the sun can wither it, and thorns can choke it. Following Jesus, as Jesus would have us follow him, will put us on a collision course with the world, its values and its priorities. For Paul, as we heard in our first reading, patient endurance meant ‘far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.[4]

Again, with that third ear we realise that Jesus has changed the world and requires lives be changed if we are to live as people of the new creation. It’s not about changing the world but living as witnesses to the world God has already changed. Discipleship is about making that change visible.

This parable of the Sower—or is it the parable of the soil?—is one intended to shock as Jesus calls attention to the reckless farmer, an undeserved harvest and the vulnerability of God’s work while, at the same time, encouraging us to take risks for the gospel, assuring us that there will be a plentiful harvest and preparing us for the cost of authentic discipleship.

This morning, and in every act of worship, there is a recurring problem: wax in that third ear.


[1] A concept introduced by the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik

[2] Isa. 6:9,10

[3] John 15:16

[4] 2 Cor 11: 23-27