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Sermons on the Black Letter Days
Or Minor Festivals of the Church of England
by John Mason Neale

London: Joseph Masters, 1872. Third edition.


S. Anne. July 26.


OF the blessed Saint of this day I cannot speak to you, because nothing more is known of her than that which you may read for yourselves in the Kalendar of the Prayer Book. She was, as the Church teaches us, Mother to the Blessed Virgin Mary. And a more glorious honour we can scarcely imagine than to be the Mother of the Mother of GOD. But all that I could say to you would only be what we might imagine, not what we know, of S. Anne.

I will rather, this evening, as you are listening to so many sermons, speak to you of preaching itself; why it does so little good; why it has so little effect; why you so often come and hear me, and go away and continue in old habits and yield to old temptations. And we will attend to what our LORD Himself has taught us concerning sinners.

"A sower went out to sow his seed." You have heard those words many hundred times. Did you ever sit down and think how much there was in them? This sower went out. We never read that he turned back. And why not? We, GOD'S Priests, are the sowers of His Words. When the Bishop laid his hands on our heads, and set us apart for His service, then we made a vow that was to last as long as our lives, the same which you heard in the Second Lesson last night, that we should " preach the Word, should be instant in season and out of season, should reprove, rebuke, and exhort." There is no turning back here. "No man," our LORD says, "having put his hand to the plough and turning back is fit for the kingdom of GOD." We must in this be like those living creatures which Ezekiel saw in his vision: "When they went, they went straight forward; and they turned not when they went." There was once a very holy and a very learned man, who had written more than a hundred books in the service of GOD. When he was old, a friend one day told him that now he had fairly earned a little rest. "Rest!" he cried. "Shall I not have all eternity to rest in?" Well, then; a sower went out to sow his seed.

"To sow his seed." We must not go on too fast. Sowing here is a type of preaching. But how is sowing done? You all know, with the hand. This should teach us that the real true preaching, that which GOD approves, is done more by works than by words. If you hear a good sermon, and see that the preacher leads a bad life, which will weigh with you most? No: good words without good deeds are like powder without shot; it makes a noise, and that is all. The sounds which David struck from his harp, and which drove away the evil spirit from Saul, how did he make them? With his hand. We must do what we say, or we may as well let alone the saying it altogether. When S. John the Baptist preached repentance, the multitudes saw his hard and rough life, and they knew he practised what he preached. So it must be with us; preaching must be done by works, just as sowing is done by the hand.

Yes; and the oldest preacher now existing in the world proves this. Who do you think that is? The oldest preacher in the world is the sky. David tells us so. "The heavens declare the glory of God." And yet at the same time he says: "there is neither voice nor language." The heavens declare GOD'S glory by their works, not their words; by the order with which the stars know their appointed time, and keep to it; by the beautiful manner in which all, great as well as little, obey the law that GOD has laid down for them.

Let us go on. "A sower went out to sow his seed." His seed, and not any one else's. Let us see what that means. It tells us that Priests are to preach to their people of their own, not of what others have written or taught. Each Priest knows best what his own people want, and what they do not want. Night after night I might preach to you far better sermons written by others, than I can write myself; but then they would not be my own; and I should not be like our LORD'S servant, that went out to sow his seed. So we read that when CHRIST called S. James and S. John, they were mending their nets; their nets, not because they had bought them, but because they had made them. Sermons are a net that no one can use well, unless he has made them for himself.

"A sower went out to sow his seed." We must stop at that last word, seed. Our LORD does not say seeds. I do not profess to know anything about farming; but I fancy that if a sower were to mix wheat, rye, barley, millet, and oats in a basket, and then sow them, the crop would fetch little in the market. So, when we preach, we must preach of one thing at one time. S. John the Baptist did. He preached one word,--Repentance; and he converted multitudes. Jonah did: he preached one thing,--the overthrow of Nineveh; and all the city repented. Very well, then: "A sower went out to sow his seed."

And he was very unsuccessful. "As he sowed, some fell by the road-side, and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it; and some fell upon a rock, and it withered away; and some fell among thorns, and the thorns choked it." All nature conspired together against him,--men, animals, plants, stones. Men trod it down, birds devoured it, thorns choked it, stones withered it. Could anything more unfortunate be imagined? Wherever it fell, it did no good. Either it never took root at all, as that by the highway,--or if it sprang up, other plants sprang up too, and choked it, as that among the thorns,--or if it fairly took root, it withered away, as that among the rocks. But what then? Did the sower turn back? I read no such thing. He went forth; but he never returned.

And did you ever think, that what happened here to the seed, has also before now happened to the preachers? In those early times, when the kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers took counsel together against the LORD and against His Anointed, all that is here written of the seed happened to the sowers. The seed was trodden under foot, suffocated, parched, eaten. Trodden under foot and despised GOD'S preachers always have been; but some of them also have been eaten up, as S. Ignatius, who was torn in pieces by lions; some of them have been parched, as S. Laurence, who was broiled to death on a gridiron; some of them have been suffocated, as S. Cassian, who was thrown into a river with a millstone about his neck. But none of these things moved them; neither counted they their lives dear to themselves so that they might finish their course with joy.

Three-fourths of the seed, then, was lost; but what became of the quarter that remained? "And other fell on good ground, and bare fruit an hundredfold." This comforted the sower for all the rest. CHRIST says, brought forth a hundred for one: and I should be very well content that it brought forth one for a hundred. If for every hundred sermons one sinner were converted, the world would very soon become holy. There were never in the Church of GOD so many sermons as now, and never so little fruit. Why is this? First I will tell you what is not the reason.

The parable says, that some of the seed was lost by reason of the road-side, some of the thorns, some of the rocks: but notice what it does not say. It does not say that any of the seed was lost for want of due sun or rain. What does this teach us? That the reason why sermons are now-a-days of so little use, does not lie in GOD. His grace is as ready as ever. The LORD'S arm is not shortened that it cannot save.

No; it lies partly in the preacher and partly in the hearer. To come home to ourselves: it lies partly in you, and partly in me. How it lies in me, you may see by what I have been saying. I have been telling you how GOD'S Priests ought to preach: you know how far short I come of this, and I know much better than you, and GOD knows much better than either of us. But the fault also lies in you, as your own conscience bears you witness.

But before we end, let us learn one thing else from the parable. How often we hear people saying, If I do so and so, if I give up such and such a thing, if I do not act as my neighbours, they will laugh at me. Oh good reason for a servant of JESUS CHRIST! Let them laugh, let them ridicule, let them scoff, but let us do our duty. Now see how the parable teaches us this.

Which of the seed was it that the birds--by which our LORD tells us that evil spirits are meant--came and devoured? Was it that which fell among the thorns? No. Was it that which fell upon the rocks? No. It was that which fell by the way-side, and was trodden under foot of men. The devil left all the rest alone; but that he took care to destroy.

This means that the only teaching which Satan is afraid of is that which men tread under foot and despise: other teaching, other preaching, such as men like, he has no objection to, because he knows that they can do him no harm. But the teaching which is trodden under foot, that he will destroy if he can. The devil has no objection to any sermons but this sort; and indeed, he is a preacher himself. One of his sermons we read in the Gospels. He took for his text--"He shall give His Angels charge over Thee, to keep Thee;" and from that text he tried to stir up our LORD, not to be despised and rejected, not to be trodden under foot of men, but to make Himself glorious in their eyes--"Cast Thyself down," that they may see this so great miracle, and may admire Thee.

There were once two famous preachers who delivered a course of sermons before a great king. When they had finished, one of the noblemen inquired which of the preachers his majesty liked best. Why, said the king, when I come out of church from hearing the one, I am beyond all measure pleased with him: when I come out of church from hearing the other, I am beyond all measure displeased with myself. Which of the two do you think did GOD'S work most faithfully?

The thorns choked it, the stones withered it. What are we to do, then? Why, we must "sow again, and again, and again, on the stones and the thorns. "In the morning sow, and in the evening withhold not thy hand," says the wise man. It may be that some day these stones will, as our LORD said, cry out in His praise; it may be that these thorns will one day form a glorious crown for the Head of their King.

And now to GOD the FATHER, GOD the SON, and GOD the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.

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