Proper 10A 2005 Matthew 15:1-9, 18-23
“Let anyone with ears listen,” Jesus said to the crowds that day from his seat in a boat on the water. “Let
anyone with ears listen.”
One “gray afternoon in June, tourists in Tewkesbury Abbey in England experienced something rather unusual. A pure,
clear, child’s voice floated in the dim light. It reached into every corner, every chapel and chantry. No matter where
you were, you could hear it. It seemed to come out of nowhere and yet it was everywhere. The voice sang hymns—Advent
hymns, Easter hymns, everyday hymns—one after another for more than an hour. Reactions to the singing were varied.
Some tourists looked bothered or mildly amused. Others paused to listen and then move on. Some seemed drawn to find a quiet
spot to listen and then to pray. One tourist, determined to find where this lovely sound came from, found Brendan. Almost
hidden in the high, dark, richly carved wooden choir stall, nine-year-old Brendan, a chorister on vacation, sat with his hymnal
going page by page singing completely unselfconsciously his favorite hymns.
“At Evensong that afternoon, Brendan sat with his newfound tourist friend. The boy with the angelic voice was also
quite a character. He insisted on helping his friend find her place in the prayer book and hymnal. He whispered and squirmed
until other adults rolled their eyes and found new seats. He commented on the visiting choir’s anthem and was utterly
involved in the sights and sounds of everything that was going on around him. He missed nothing. Brendan even seemed to know
intuitively who would “play” with him—sing with him—and who wouldn’t. ‘ (1)
“Let anyone with ears listen.”
In the autumn of 1988, the year after I had retired from the Army, I was in England on business. The business that I had
required that I stay over the weekend, so early on Sunday morning, I caught the train to Canterbury, arriving there just in
time for the main service at Canterbury Cathedral. I loved being there so much that I decided to wander about the Cathedral
and the old medieval town until it was time for Evensong, leaving me just enough time to catch the train back to London.
Not many tourists were still around that evening as dark closed in; the few of us there were invited to sit in the Cathedral
Choir with the Men and Boys Chorus. I was in with the boys surrounded by those lovely voices, the men singing back across
the aisle. The story of Brendan the chorister at Tewkesbury Abbey reminded me of that time in Canterbury Cathedral. It was
that experience of such a lovely and holy day that set my feet seriously into the process toward ordination and eventually
here to this lovely place. I listened to the music and I heard God calling me.
“Let anyone with ears listen.”
In our Gospel passage for today, Jesus was having a bad day. He had healed a man on the Sabbath and the Pharisees of the
day attacked him about it, arguing that it was against God’s law to heal on the Sabbath. And rather than listening
to what Jesus told them about it. What Jesus said was this: “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” That
was not the answer they wanted to hear; it was not in line with their rigidly literal interpretation of the Deuteronomy and
Levitical code. And so they began to plot how they could kill Jesus, claiming that his power to heal was not from God but
from the Devil.
It was not a good day for Jesus, and so he left. But the crowds listened and heard and followed him. He continued to heal
and preach that day, finally climbing into a boat, with the crowd listening from the hillside bank. And he taught them many
One day during my time at Virginia Seminary, the preacher in chapel was none other than The Most Reverend and Right Honorable
Robin Eames, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, both northern and republican. Archbishop Eames was the chair of
the Commission that produced the marvelous and eminently sensible Windsor Report.
But his text was this, that from the boat Jesus taught them many things. What a wonder it would have been to be there, he
said, and heard it all. Jesus clearly spoke for some time, and we certainly don’t have it all in the Gospel. We couldn’t.
It is impossible for the human ear to listen and retain everything. Modern scientists who have studied these things suggest
that human beings can remember at best one fourth of what is heard and that that amount declines rapidly over time.
In this case we can only hope and pray that the most important of those many things did survive into our Gospels. But we
can only wonder at whether they did or not. During my time as a cadet at West Point I heard Billy Graham and Red Barber,
among other great preachers during mandatory chapel. And I can’t remember a thing any of them said – only that
they were there. The one sermon I do remember was the Sunday following an Army-Navy game when the Corps of Cadets returned
late, very late that Saturday night before. It was entirely possible that a few were hung over! He knew we would not be
attentive, so he shortened the entire service to 10 minutes and for a sermon, read a very short poem – about which I
cannot remember a thing except that that was what he did for us – and sent us back to bed. His popularity rose immensely
So we can only hope that a largely illiterate people steeped in the oral tradition were able to retain and pass on to us in
the Gospels the most important of the many things Jesus taught that day.
Those of us who are subject to allergies can relate to this parable of the sower. Wheat is being cut across the county and
the large fields surrounding the rectory were cut over the weekend, filling the air with clouds of dust, which the late afternoon
wind layered across house, yard, and vehicles. One of the ordinary miracles of our time is that modern agricultural technology
and techniques can wrest the hundredfold harvest of which Jesus spoke from the marginal soil that predominates in Northumberland
County. Specifically targeted herbicides eliminate the danger of thorns and weeds, and genetically engineered and selected
wheat seed are able to produce grain-bearing plants that resist both winter cold and summer drought.
Jesus describes the process and problems of wheat growing in the Palestine of his day in this parable of the sower. But then,
he stops to explain what he meant – at least, that’s what the gospel says. Some scholars think that any explanation
of the meaning of the parables is a later addition to the story by either the gospel writer or an editor. It doesn’t
matter. The beauty of Jesus’ parables is that for those who use their ears to listen to them with heart and mind and
spirit and soul, the parables will teach us the many things Jesus taught that day. And the other thing about parables is
like something about sermons: there is the one that’s written, the one that’s given, and the one that’s
heard – and they usually aren’t the same.
And even with the explanation, Jesus still leaves it up to us as to what we hear in the parable of the sower. Whether we
are seed fallen on the path, on rocky ground, among the thorns, or on fertile soil – that’s something only each
one of us can know and decide for ourselves. My own experience is that I’ve been sown on all of them at one time or
another and I suspect that we all have been.
So which one are we today?
1. The Brendan the chorister story is from a sermon by Susanna Metz for 3 July 2005, Selected Sermons for that day, at dfms.org.