I was asked / invited / strongly suggested it would be a good idea over a pint (take your pick of the most convincing scenario) to preach again before I leave for college. I had nice comments (“my attention didn’t wander” “you weren’t lecturing us” “I couldn’t hear everything you said but I thought it was all right.”)
This is what I said.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength, and our redeemer.
When Teresa and I talked about possible dates for me to have a second bash at preaching, I didn’t look at the lectionary – I just went by the calendar. So when I looked at today’s readings, it was rather overwhelming; three passages which all have much one could talk about. It took me quite a long time to decide which bits to focus on and halfway through I wished I’d chosen different elements, which probably serves me right. I’m not going to pay much attention to Solomon’s request for wisdom (‘understanding to discern what is right’) except to note that in this case earlier discernment would have been helpful.
And that for once I think I may have just had enough insight to know that of all Paul’s writings to the Romans, the one bit I’m wise enough to leave well alone today is the topic of predestination. But perhaps I always knew that.
I think first I’m going to look at the quick-fire parables, then look at Paul’s letter. I can’t pretend I am an expert in any of the passages but reading these parables again, and borrowing all the vicar’s books, has given me something to go on.
Firstly, a reminder that these stories were like performance art. Parables were spoken, not read. Hear it; understand it – or not – and then we’re on to the next one. I do wonder, given how much we know the disciples got wrong, just how many of them really had ‘understood all this,’ (from verse 51) or whether any were, possibly, just stretching the truth a tiny amount? If they weren’t, they’re luckier than me and possibly also one or two of you. We can hear these stories many, many times and still be left wondering what the actual point is meant to be. How do we understand Entering the Kingdom of Heaven, for example? For me, it’s not a separate place; but it is what we do when we align ourselves with God’s will, and do his work.
The idea of a tiny seed that grows into a great shrub – well, we can cope with that, I think. And Mia’s work with the junior church garden gives us very concrete reminders of that on a day-by-day basis. Small beginnings, great outcomes. Plants that give us, and the birds of course, food or shelter. And an idea that isn’t mine, but I loved when I read it – the success of the plant might not be in its stature, but in how good a job it does in providing that food or shelter.
Jesus used everyday examples that would chime with his audience. Domestic baking, farming, fishing; a man in commerce and trade. Perhaps we’d have call centre handler, teacher, librarian, mechanic, IT consultant or accountant as the jobs that we’d understand.
I’m sure you all know that leaven came from previously fermented bread. We tend to think of it as yeast, but it was a bit different – still an active ingredient, though And my reading tells me that because fermentation was associated with something evil (think about Passover, when Jewish folk will clean every atom of leaven from their home) this would have surprised Jesus’ hearers. The Kingdom of Heaven likened to something bad? Well, not quite, but the illustration – the unseen action of an active ingredient – might well have been remembered more clearly because it had shock value.
The thing about living in Colchester is that there’s always the possibility of finding a nice hoard of Roman coins at the bottom of the garden. If we did find actual buried treasure would that be life changing? I’ve always felt a bit sorry for the original owner of the field, until discovering that Jewish law operated on a kind of finder’s keepers basis – so what looks like apparent underhandedness was actually perfectly legitimate.
I think there are two things we can take away from these parables. One, perhaps the obvious point, is that the Kingdom of Heaven is worth giving everything for. Remember, I think ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’ means ‘understanding and doing God’s will.’ Whether we discover the kingdom on purpose (like the Pearl Merchant) or by accident (the chap digging in the fields) the result is the same. It is worth selling everything for. Everything. Really everything? That’s a tough call – as one who is currently assessing every single thing I own to decide what to do with it, I know for sure there are some things I really don’t want to let go of. Am I falling short, right there?
What are we prepared to abandon, in order to find the Kingdom of Heaven? What might be getting in the way? Does it feel too hard? So do we just rebury the treasure, walk away, get on with the day job? Perhaps ‘doing God’s will’ sounds like such a major undertaking we forget that our small actions are vital. Tiny seed, big result.
The other point is that God is working with what is there. That tiny seed needs soil, water, and sunlight; the bread has flour and oil, and the chap who just happened to be furtling around in someone else’s fields certainly didn’t have a shiny beepy metal detector. It’s us – we are the raw ingredients – whatever shape or form we take. We are the raw materials that God has to work with. We who have much faith and we who have little. We who have tried to follow and we who have failed. We are not waiting around for a better version of ourselves or a perfect community to evolve before we can get on with it. And that invitation to get on with it, is an invitation for everyone.
The final parable in today’s Gospel talks of fishermen, bringing all their catch ashore. The kind of dragnet fishing that was common in Jesus’ time meant that all kinds of fish were gathered in at once, and the good, the bad and the ugly were separated at the end. In the same way, we cannot discriminate against those for whom the Kingdom is open – which, by the way, is everyone: the keen & the reluctant; those who we like and those we constantly struggle to try to love; the nice and the annoying. It’s not our job to decide who is a Proper Christian.
And this is my neat link into the passage from Romans, where Paul reminds us of this point. We don’t condemn, for it is God that justifies – I understand that to mean that God decides who is in or out, not us; based on our faith and our relationship to him. A bit like predestination, I’m parking that one there for today.
It’s enormously encouraging to be able to return to the idea that it is OK to not know how to pray. Sometimes the world just feels like too big a place, too violent a place to know where to start. I weep over one child killed in Gaza and already my heart and my head are too full of the other hundreds at risk that day elsewhere from violence or disaster – in too many places to be able to do much more than say ‘God, help them, help us to stop this, God, why is this happening?’
The Spirit helps us in our weakness.
We are not alone, left to work out ourselves how to be the transformation in the world, doing God’s work. I guess if you film a loaf rising in stop motion it would be obvious that there was something going on when you played it back. But standing next to it for a few minutes, you might not notice a difference. That’s sometimes how life feels, I think. We notice the major changes, but not, perhaps the smaller ones whilst they’re in progress. When we are brave enough to allow the Spirit to work in us we might find ourselves doing things that feel pretty obvious – we are called to be counter-cultural, to swim against the tide, to stand up and be counted (pick your cliché). Jesus was not one to stay quiet and not draw attention to himself: and he was a troublemaker. Being a Christian will make trouble for us. Paul pretty much promises us that. We, here in our safe suburban community, can only guess at the horror the Christians in Iraq are facing. Legal scuffles about workplace dress codes or who does what in a bed and breakfast fade into nothing compared to this real, frightening, life-taking persecution and we are helpless in the face of it. Protest feels futile – so all we can do is pray.
If I’m honest, I’m not a big fan of people quoting chapter 8, v 28 (We know that all things work together for good for those who love God). It can look like it is used a sticking plaster by people who don’t want to engage with someone else’s deeper pain. But, also, I know the sense that life isn’t random, and God is in control does need to be reinforced from time to time. Daily, perhaps, or hourly in those real times of crisis.
Paul really does mean ‘all things,’ not ‘all nice things’ or ‘all things with a happy ending.’ Look at the list of things in verse 35 – hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or sword. He wasn’t expecting Christians to have an easy time of it; and if this is a list of things we can expect – and that is after we’ve given everything up – he’s not exactly selling it, is he?
But. And it’s a big BUT. We are more than conquerors. And nothing, none of the nasties in the world, will separate us from God’s love. I do love the list here – neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation – just in case the list wasn’t comprehensive enough; Paul tacks on the ‘catch all’ at the end.
So, whoever we are, whatever is happening – we are assured of God’s love for us – it is up to us to decide how we respond.