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Sunday, 30 July 2017

God's Country

Imagine, if you will, that there is a place you’ve always wanted to visit. It sounds as though it’s really wonderful – permanently great weather, fantastic scenery, lots of great places to visit, lots of walking, or swimming, great bars and restaurants, you name it, this place has it! And you long and long to go there, but you don’t know how to get there, and what’s more, you don’t know anybody else who has been there. All the things you’ve heard about it are rumour or hearsay.

And then one day someone comes along who very obviously has been there, and he starts to tell you all about it. But – oh dear – it’s not at all what you thought! Weeds everywhere, attracting masses of birds which could and did eat all the crops! And the food, far from gourmet, is rotten bread made by women! And then, he goes on to tell his special friends in private – but you hear about it later – the place is so infinitely desirable that people sell all they have to get tickets there!

Well, the place is, of course, the Kingdom of Heaven, or God’s country, which Jesus is telling people about. Unfortunately it seems to be the kind of place that doesn’t go into words very well, and the parables that Jesus uses to talk about it are, although we don’t hear it much as we are so familiar with them, really not what his listeners would have been expecting.

To start with, the mustard seeds – well, you know mustard seeds. I expect you use them in your cooking, as I sometimes do. You can buy the seeds, or you can buy the ground seeds as a powder to make your own mustard – lovely in salad dressings and cheese sauces – or you can buy ready-made mustard with or without various flavourings. I’m sure they used mustard as a seasoning back in Bible times, too – but it was, and is, a terrific weed. They tended to use the wild plant, because if you cultivated it – well, it was like kudzu or rhododendrons, or even mint – you’d never get rid of it! Nobody would actually go and plant it, any more than you or I would plant stinging-nettles in the fields. And, of course, it doesn’t grow into a terrific tree, never has and never will. But it does attract birds – and you don’t want birds eating all your other crops, either! Yet in God’s country it seems as if you plant mustard and it does grow into a tree, and you actively want to encourage birds, rather than discourage them.

And then the second story is almost worse. You see, for Jews, what was really holy and proper to eat was unleavened bread, which you had at Passover. You threw out all your old leaven – we’d call it a sourdough starter, today, which is basically what it is – and started again. I remember being told in primary school that this was a Good Idea because you need fresh starter occasionally. But the thing is, leavened bread was considered slightly inferior – and the leaven itself, the starter – yuck! It isn’t even the bread that is likened to God’s country, it is the leaven itself! And did you notice – it was a woman who took that leaven. A woman! That won’t do at all! Again, for male Jews, women were slightly improper – and who knew that she wouldn’t be bleeding and therefore unclean? And she hid the starter in enough flour to make bread for 100 people! She hid it. It was concealed, hidden.

Not what people would expect from God’s country, is it?

And yet, in the stories Jesus told his disciples privately, a little later, it’s like treasure hidden in a field, and it’s worth selling everything you own just to get hold of that field, and its hidden treasure. Or the one perfect pearl that the collector has been searching for, and he finds it worth selling the rest of his collection to buy it. God’s country is worth all we have, and all we are.Li

It’s all very contradictory. God’s country is totally not what we might expect. It’s not a comfortable place – when Jesus told the story of the lost son, he explained that the son was reduced to looking after pigs, a job which the Jews, then and now – and Muslims, too, incidentally – thought was really disgusting. Perhaps we could think of him as working in a rat farm, or a sewage works.... not a pleasant job, anyway. And yet the father went running to welcome him home – and men in that day and age never ran. The story is taking place in God’s country!

And if we want to be part of it, part of God’s country – as, indeed, we probably do or we’d not be here this morning – if we want to be part of the Kingdom of God, then we need to expect the unexpected. Someone once said that God comes to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable, and I think that’s very true. Often we are called to do things we never expected.

I read an article in the Guardian recently*, about a parish in Stoke on Trent who finds itself called to minister to Muslim refugees, many of whom have found themselves turned away by their local mosques, and some of whom have come to faith in Jesus. But, sadly, the congregation isn’t very receptive to what has been happening. The vicar, the Revd Sally Smith, is quoted as saying “I have had a lot of opposition. Criticism, negative attitudes and trying to undermine the work that we are doing – that’s from the white British congregation.

“I have lost lots of congregation members because of what has happened at the church. They don’t want the hassle and they don’t want the church being messed up. They see the church as having a very definite role and opening the doors to refugees isn’t one of them.

“They expected a vicar’s role to be looking after the people inside the church and one of the insults often levelled at me is: ‘She cares more about the people outside the church than those inside.’ Well, this is what I am meant to be doing and you’re meant to be doing it with me. We should be doing this together.”

Indeed, surely the church should be the institution that cares more about those who are not yet its members! And it’s a great pity the regular congregation has reacted like that. Sadly, though, not surprising – look what happened when the Empire Windrush came over and the people on it turned up in Church their first Sunday, only to be turned away. Of course, God used that for good and we saw the rise of the Black-led churches, which have done so very much good in our inner cities, but even still.

Anyway, another thing I found interesting from the article came a little further on. Again, I quote the minister: “With the mass movement from across the world we have got people of faith coming into secular society and faith really matters to them. And they are not too bothered, as bothered as we may think, about how that faith is expressed.

“In our secular mindsets we have all these great divides from different faiths but what I am finding is that they don’t conform to these divides and they just want to come to a place of worship, whatever that place is – they don’t seem to distinguish as much as we would have expected them to. Our help that we offer is in no way related to converting them. The most important thing for me is for people to be able to pray in our church whatever their faith.”

“The most important thing for me is for people to be able to pray in our church whatever their faith.”

That, to me, sounds like God’s country – doesn’t it to you? Of course, the church works hard to provide basic necessities for the refugees, and I think an awful lot of the burden falls on the vicar, but I imagine that as people become more settled they will be able to help.

In God’s country, values are turned upside down. It’s not the wealthy, the educated, the important who matter. It’s the poor, the downtrodden, the refugee, the single mum on benefits.... Remember how Jesus said that at the last day, he will say to those who did nothing to help “You didn’t help me!” and will commend those who did help for helping him.

Talking of single parents, do remember, won’t you, that this can be a very hard time of year for many families – they might just be able to cope in term time when the children get a meal at school, but in the holidays they struggle and have need of our food banks, so do give extra when you can.

I don’t know about you, but I am not very good at recognising Jesus in the beggar outside Tesco, or even the checkout operator inside the store. And yet we know that in God’s country, we are all loved and valued, whoever we are and whatever our story is. And, as we heard from St Paul earlier: “Nothing can separate us from his love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below – there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And however disconcerting we may find God’s country, we know that because of that love, it is worth all we have, and it is worth all we are. Amen.


Sunday, 16 July 2017

Sowing the Seed

The story that Jesus told of the sowing of the seeds, and what became of them, is one of the first we ever learn, isn’t it? We drew pictures, in Sunday School, or in our primary school Scripture lessons, of the sower, with his trayful of seeds, and squiggly seagulls swooping down to grab them before they could take root, hot sun shining on others, and lovely scribbly weeds choking still others.... and a few, just a very few, ears of wheat standing up in a field.

And then, perhaps, as we grew older and began to stay in Church rather than go to Sunday School, we would hear sermons on this parable, and if you are anything like me, what you heard – not, I should emphasize, necessarily what had been said, but what you heard – was that Proper People, or perhaps I should say Proper Christians, were the ones who were the fertile soil, where the Word could take root, grow and flourish.

But, of course, if you were anything like me, that just made you feel guilty and miserable – what if you weren’t the good soil? What if you were the stony places, or the weedy patches? And I’m sure that there are times when we do allow other things to take priority, perhaps when we ought not. And there are times when we do rather wither up, in times of spiritual drought. All of us go through them, of course. But it doesn’t help when the preacher starts banging on about how dreadful we are if we are not 100% fully fertile soil, and bearing fruit 100%. We just end up feeling guilty and thinking that we must be terrible people.

But I don’t think Jesus meant us to think that! After all, we are told over and over again how much we are loved, and St Paul reminds us, in the reading we heard from his letter to the Romans, that if we live according to the Spirit, we won’t be the barren ground Jesus talks about! Of course, again, if you are like me, you’re apt to think that you can’t possibly be living according to the Spirit, because, pride.... but that’s stupid! Why would we not be, if we are committed to being Jesus’ person? You might remember last week’s reading, where St Paul was being upset about the fact that he found it nearly impossible not to do wrong things, but now he is triumphant – God’s Spirit enables him to live as he should. And us, too.

Going back to the story of the sower for a moment, I think that it’s not so much that any given one of us is barren ground, or weedy, or stony, or fertile – but that each of us has all of those characteristics within us. Think, for a moment. Sometimes it’s really easy to be God’s person, we can’t think of anything else we’d rather be. Other times, not so much! Times when we are tempted to sin, or times when we want to do something that isn’t necessarily sinful, but isn’t going to help our spiritual lives. Times when we know God is asking us to do something that we would really rather not.... you know the kind of thing.

But the thing is, if – or rather as – we are living according to the Spirit, we are able to allow God to help us grow and change. We don’t have to struggle to be good, we don’t have to struggle to turn ourselves into fertile ground! That part of it is God’s job. All we have to do is to be willing to let that happen.

And, meanwhile, sometimes we are the sowers ourselves – often, maybe, we don’t even know it. Again, it’s probably as well when we don’t – nothing worse than a rather forced presentation of the Gospel as someone tries to explain, embarrassed, why they follow Christ. But sometimes, who knows, just a “Good morning”, or a smile in the right place can tip the balance for someone who may have been despairing; a box of pasta or even tampons in the food bank box might make all the difference to someone’s summer holidays.

I was reading about a church in Colorado whose congregation was mostly elderly, with no young families, but who wanted, and prayed for, a youth group. One day, their minister was sitting in a coffee shop when he was approached by a group of young people who asked whether his church was a place where people could say goodbye to friends who had died. He explained that it was, and they explained that one of their friends had just died of an overdose, but his parents had taken his body home before there could be any funeral. The young people were allowed to use the church to hold their own funeral – no hymns or prayers, but they spent time telling stories about their friend, and then ate a meal that church members had prepared for them. One of them said “Oh, I wish we could eat like this every week – it reminds me of my grandma’s cooking!” And the church members said “Well, of course you can – we’re here every Sunday; you come and bring your friends!” Those young people may never attend worship at that Church, but the congregation still loves them and cares for them and feeds them every Sunday.

Nearer home, a friend of a friend had four tiny children, including twins, when her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was left widowed, but her local church stepped up to the mark and started to care for her, bringing her meals, babysitting, finding clothes for the children that, perhaps, their own children had outgrown but which were still good, and generally caring for her. I believe that she is now a pillar of that church, although before her husband died she had no idea of faith.

What I’m trying to say is that often it’s not what we say that is the seed we are sowing, it’s what we do. And not putting pressure on people – the church in Colorado knew that they would lose the young people if they started insisting they came to church, or even conformed to any kind of dress code when they entered the building. My friend’s church knew that someone with four small children would find coming to church very difficult, even if they had wanted to come.

We may never be in exactly that sort of situation, but there will always be times when we are called to love people into the Kingdom of God. Our duty is to do the loving we’re called to do – and it’s God’s job to worry about the results! Whether the seed falls on the path, or on stony ground, weedy ground, or a fertile field isn’t our business – our job is to sow the seeds. And our job is also to allow God the Holy Spirit to live in us and transform more and more of us into fertile ground in which God’s Word can bear fruit.

I want to conclude this morning by giving a brief testimony of God’s love and care for me. I got a bad pain in my ribs last week, and because it wasn’t going away, I took it to the doctor. Who decided that it was probably nothing, but that I ought to go to A&E anyway, just in case. So I hopped on the first bus that came along and went up to Tommy’s. Well, if you’ve been to hospital lately you’ll know how much of it is hurry up and wait. To be fair, most of the waiting is while test results are coming in – and they did do a great many tests, and ended up keeping me in overnight. And then in the morning they said I would have to have a CAT scan. Which duly happened, and then it was hurry up and wait all over again. I was just thinking that if I’d known there would be all this palaver, I wouldn’t have gone to the doctor in the first place, when they came to tell me that not only did I have a chest infection, I had blood clots on both lungs!

Well, that part of it is all under control with various medications, and I’m fine – but what if I hadn’t gone to the doctor? What if the doctor hadn’t sent me to A&E, which she only did as a precaution? What if....

Well, we are never told what would have happened, but I get a bit cold thinking that I had rather a narrow escape! And I can’t help thinking how wonderful God is to prompt me to go to the doctor in the first place, and to prompt the doctor to send me to A&E – and, maybe, to prompt the medical team there to ensure I had the CAT scan. God is good!

God is good, and, going back to our theme, if we say “Yes” to God, God will help us become more and more fertile ground for growing seed and producing fruit; God will help us live by the Spirit, the life that leads to life. And God will help us sow seeds that may or may not fall in fertile ground. Amen.