Sermon: Daniel and the parable of the sower.
Preached on 18th November 2007
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
Daniel 6, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Durham Cathedral, Matins 18th November 2007
Recently there was an evening of old silent films at the Methodist Church to raise money for the Journey project. One of the films was a First World War version of Snow White which apparently influenced Walt Disney, and film buffs could recognise much of what he did later in his cartoon version in this silent film. It's much like biblical scholars can track the development of texts. I'm not that knowledgeable about Snow White films to identify sources, and did not need to know what it all meant but was happy to leave that to people who study the meanings and archetypes expressed in such stories. Instead, along with others, I simply enjoyed it as a good story and quaint old film.
Today, we've heard two good stories from our heritage as Christians. Occasionally I think that the lectionary readings, which we use at each service, are like London buses. The good ones hunt in pairs and we've got two of the best known passages in the bible, both vivid stories which stick in the memory: Daniel in the lions' den and the parable of the sower and the seeds. Since we learn much about ourselves and each other by telling stories about ourselves, some of which may seem unrelated at first but nevertheless need to connect because they are about our history, I want to let these two stories talk to each other and overhear the conversation. So, taking my lead from the Snow White film which needed to be enjoyed for what it was, I'm not going to tell you what these stories mean: in fact, apart from the explanation Jesus gave the disciples, I'm not sure that anyone knows precisely what they mean. I've heard sermons about the different types of soil, usually ending up with the rather obvious lesson that we should be like the seed that falls in good soil and bears lots of grain. I suspect, instinctively we as Christians all want to do that rather than be like the seed on the rocky places or the seed in shallow soil. It's rather stating the obvious. But what if we take the story of Daniel and let it interpret the parable of the sower and the seeds?
A bit of background may help to bring Daniel's story to life even more. The book of Daniel doesn't tell history in the way that some of the other books in the Old Testament are intended to do, and it is unusual in that it was originally written in two languages: the beginning and end come to us in Hebrew and the middle section, including today's story, in Aramaic. Scholars aren't sure about the dating; in its final combined form it appears to date from the second century BC but the Aramaic part may be a couple of hundred years older. And it tells of events about two hundred years before that - during the exile in Babylon which followed Nebuchadnezzar's victory over Egypt in 605BC and his subsequent conquest of Jerusalem. So if we were living in Jesus' time - when the book was certainly known - it would be between 150 and 350 years old, a bit like saying a book we read today is a mixture of mid Victorian and mid Seventeenth century material that tells us about events during the Wars of the Roses and is written in both English and, say, French. That gives you the feel of its mixed background.
And, pushing that analogy further - but remembering that it is only an analogy - just as Daniel draws on the history of the struggles of the people of God under the domination of rulers of other nations who oppressed them and had taken them into exile, to encourage the people now facing domination from the Greeks and Romans, so it's a bit like saying the stories from the Wars of the Roses are being retold to encourage the people living through the English Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars to cope with the ups and downs of events. And it might do that by telling stories of people who really lived, or it might do it by telling stories of fictional people but in a way that sounds authentic and is set in the historical context of the period. We don't know if there really was a person called Daniel and, if there was, whether these things really happened to him. But it seems that the authors of Daniel chose four young men to represent to faithful people of God in exile and then used those four to encourage readers undergoing similar difficulties to persevere and be faithful. For today's purpose, when we are letting the story have its say, it doesn't matter if Daniel was a real person or not. What is important is that we have the story of Daniel and his friends, and that we listen to it - not trying to force meaning from it, which means that we take control of it and domesticate it, but letting it get under our skin and convert us by telling us how to live faithfully so that the seed sown in good soil bears fruit.
The book of Daniel comprises several vivid stories like the lions' den episode - as the choristers who are hearing it read each Evensong at the moment know there's the writing on the wall, the king who starts to behave like an ass, and the fiery furnace - and also some more visionary, dream like material which falls into the category of apocalyptic writing, looking towards the end times when the Messiah will bring deliverance. That's the sort of writing (like parts of the book of Revelation in the New Testament) which has led the church into endless confusion as people try to treat it as literal prophecy and to force meaning from what is not meant to yield literal meaning, and has led some sects like the Jehovah's Witnesses into tortuous explanations of exactly what will happen at the end of time. We shouldn't treat stories in scripture like that but should let the stories sit in their context of exile, persecution and discouragement, coupled with the hope of eventual deliverance. And we must keep that eventual salvation in mind, otherwise the book loses part of its impact and ceases to be the source of vibrant hope to people through the centuries.
Against that background, let me refresh your memory of the story as it is told. Put yourself in the story, don't ask what it means but what effect it has on you. There have been some dynastic changes in Babylon and Darius is now on the throne, Daniel is prospering as a sort of senior civil servant in the palace and his success arouses jealousy among his peers - an immigrant worker has risen to the top over the heads of the local workforce. The only way his opponents can fault him is in relation to his religion. So, being a bit economical with the truth, they engineer the king's assent to a new law requiring worship of the king, Daniel finds this out but resolutely goes on worshipping his God faithfully without making any secret of it, and hey presto they are there to spy on him, accuse him before the king and force the king into a corner because they claim that the law cannot be revoked - hence the origin of the saying about the "law of the Medes and the Persians" when we want to say something is set in stone.
What would the story say to you if you were a Catholic in Reformation England, or an Anglican during the Commonwealth period? Or an immigrant worker from a different racial and faith group in England today?
And then there's the wonderfully told story of the lions' den into which Daniel is thrown and where he survives much as many of the northern saints were safe in the presence of wild animals. The king, for all his absolute power, is made to look pathetically weak, although never bad at least in this story where the real baddies are eaten alive before they even hit the ground. As one commentary says, "the narrator's sense of humour has had the better of his sense of taste."
If we put that story in dialogue with the parable of the sower, the seeds and the soil, then what do we get? What sort of soil does Daniel provide for the seed? It's obvious: his is the good soil that bears lots of harvest. But Daniel's story has told us that it wasn't an easy instant thing: here's good soil, here's an instant crop. Instead, here's good soil but there's also the danger of living in a foreign court among hostile colleagues, there's a cunningly devised new edict which curtails his religious freedom and forbids him to pray as he normally does, there's a manoeuvre in which the king is forced into a corner by his malicious civil servants and made to act against his own will, there's imprisonment in a den of hungry lions, and there's no doubt the underlying question of whether it is all worthwhile hanging on to his religious convictions in the face of such pressures. That's the good soil, it's not all sweetness and light. It was a case of fighting the good fight with all his might.
And so Daniel's story, linked to the parable, challenges us with what it costs us to say - as I hope we still do - that of course we want to be good soil, not rocky, thistly or shallow soil that is useless for crop bearing. But perhaps the rocks and thistles seem a little more attractive when we consider the cost of being planted in good soil.
We're in the month between All Saints Day and Advent when we do a lot of remembering, as Canon Kennedy reminded us a couple of weeks ago. We remember the saints, all the faithful departed, the fifth of November, the millions who have died or been injured in war, and Hild, Margaret and Archbishop Langley among our local saints. We've also remembered the recent tragic deaths of brave four fire fighters in this country, and the victims of various terrorist attacks around the world. They all knew the cost of commitment to a cause, and their stories could also contribute to the dialogue with dangerously familiar parable of the sower, the seed and the soil.
Remember Jesus' words when he told the story: let anyone with ears, listen. Don't think you know the story already. Listen today to the parable and to Daniel, let him tell us what the parable is about in practice. If we want to bear good crops we must be ready for the challenges that come, as they did for Daniel, in the midst of daily work and daily life. Listen too to the stories of the people we are remembering in this season. Then can we sing confidently with Daniel and with them of the streams of living waters springing from eternal love that well supply God's sons and daughters and all fear of want remove.