Sunday, 10 July 2011

A sower went out to sow

“A sower went out to sow,” said Jesus. “Right” said the crowd, “we know about sowing – here’s a story for us”. I’m willing to bet that every single person in that crowd grew-their-own to some extent, just as many of us do today.  They were probably more expert at it than us too, because they depended on the food they grew for their survival.

Jesus went on. “Some of the seed fell on the path, some of it fell on rocky ground, some of it fell among thorns and some of it fell on good soil…”  And I can just imagine that crowd muttering, “well, he wasn’t a very good sower then, was he?”

I mean, fancy sowing your seed on the path! It’s not going to grow there. Or on the rocks – didn’t he know his field well enough to know they were there just below the surface? Or amongst the thorns? The weed that’s referred to is the acanthus – bear’s britches to us. It is a great, big spiny thing.  You can’t miss it, even in the spring. What kind of sower sows his seed so indiscriminately as this? Most of this seed doesn’t stand a chance. He gets a good crop in the end, but frankly it seems to be more by luck than judgement.

The crowd went home with this puzzling story running around in their heads that day.And let’s remember that all they had was the story. The explanation was only given to the disciples, later on, in private. But Jesus said that if the crowd had ears to hear, they would hear the voice of God in it anyway. So I wonder, what did they hear? What might they have made of it? I’d like to suggest two things that they might have taken home with them that day, two things that were worth picking up from this.

The first is that, to put it baldly, you win some and you lose some. This sower might have seemed particularly blasé about his sowing, but even the most careful farmer wouldn’t have managed to get every seed through to maturity and a fruitful harvest. There are many obstacles to a seed’s growth, however much trouble you take; ask any gardener.
The same is true of the rest of life. Some things go right and some things go wrong. Some people go right and some go wrong. And it is often difficult to fathom out why, even in hindsight, let alone beforehand. We can come up with all sorts of explanations why people succeed or fail, live good lives or live bad lives. Perhaps it’s in the genes, or their upbringing. Perhaps it is society’s fault, or government’s fault. But however much we mull it over, crunch the statistics, argue among ourselves, we can never really predict who will end up in trouble, making a mess of their own lives, and causing pain to others, and who will end up triumphing over the challenges that face them. We can make a link, for example, between poverty and crime, but many people live in appalling circumstances and yet wouldn’t dream of stealing, while the very rich may fiddle their taxes to accumulate money which there is no way they really need. Some people live exemplary lives facing all sorts of struggles for many years but are then pushed off the rails by some comparatively small thing – who would have thought it?

Human beings are fallible; human life is prone to frailty, and that puzzles and bothers us. We’d like to be sure of ourselves and others, to know for certain where the good seedbeds are – who and what we can trust – but life’s not like that.

You win some and you lose some. The early church for whom Matthew was writing this Gospel knew that very well. They came face to face with their frailties on a regular basis. They lived with the ever present threat of persecution. They wanted to stay loyal to the message of Jesus, to have courage in the face of trouble, but the reality was that some of them caved in under pressure and turned away from their faith. That was a real challenge to the rest of the church.  Why did one stand firm while others seemed not to be able to? How did you know who might betray you? And people wondered about themselves too. When the chips were down, when the time of trial came how would they respond?  Would they betray others?

You win some and you lose some. Whatever else this story was, it was an accurate observation of the way life was, and still is – uncertain, unpredictable, uncontrollable.

But if that is all we take away from the story, then it is a pretty gloomy tale. Fortunately there is more to be found in it, a message of grace which helps us see our frail and fallible lives in a different light. To understand it we need to go back to that rather blasé sower and have another look at him.

As I said earlier, my suspicion is that the crowd were probably pretty unimpressed by this man. He sows blindly, indiscriminately, not seeming to care whether his seed falls on good ground or bad. Why on earth would he act like this?

There are two possible answers. The first is that he is a compete fool who knows no better. The second is that he knows that he has an unlimited supply of seed. If that is the case he can afford to throw it around without any need to ration it or worry about wasting it. If you have unlimited seed, it is actually worth sowing as indiscriminately as this – in fact you would be a fool not to - because there is always a chance that between the stones, in a space between a clump of weeds, at the very edge of the path, one stray seed just might grow in a place where you never imagined it could. I have a magnificent clump of hollyhocks growing in a tiny crack in the paving by my garage. There’s no way it should survive, but it does. I’d never have sown it there myself, especially if I only had a few seeds, but it put itself there and it seems to be perfectly happy. 

The parable of the sower tells us that God’s love is infinite, inexhaustible. He doesn’t need to ration it, and those who try to spread that love, in word and deed, don’t need to ration it either, second-guessing where it might grow and where it might be wasted.

At the time of Jesus there were many who felt that God couldn’t possibly want to spend his energy on people who, in their eyes, didn’t deserve it. What did God have to do with tax-collectors, prostitutes and all the other ragamuffin sinners who hung around on the edges of society? What good could they do him? Why would he bother with them? But that was where Jesus seemed to put most of his energy. His critics were scandalised. And yet the seeds Jesus threw around with such abandon took root in the cracks and crevices, finding good soil among the thorns and stones, in the lives of people who no one would ever have thought of as places where a crop of righteousness might grow.  And those unlikely people became a community which spread across the world, taking that message with them as they went. That growth could only happen because Jesus, and those who followed him, were so indiscriminate in their seed sowing, refusing to prejudge the soil on which their words and deeds might fall.

It is no different for those of us who are called to sow God’s seed today – and that means all of us. The minute we try to calculate and ration, to work out who might be worth spending time with, who might be worth listening to and talking to, we begin to dwindle. I’ve seen it happening in churches where, perhaps, people start making judgements about those who come asking for baptisms or weddings. “Oh, they just want a pretty backdrop – they aren’t really interested in Christian faith. It’s just a social occasion” people say. It’s no surprise that the families concerned get the message that they aren’t welcome, and the genuine interest that brought them to the church is snuffed out. The truth is that we don’t know what God is doing in people’s lives; all we can be sure of is that he loves them because they are his children, and he welcomes them, so we should too.

Just this week a report came out in the media about the singer Lily Allen, who got married in her local parish church recently. Her young life has been, to outward observers, a bit of a mess, a wild life. Many people assumed that when she opted for a church wedding it was just for the pretty setting, but that turned out not to be the case at all. Last year she had suffered her second miscarriage, and the local vicar, whose family had been through the same trauma, got in contact to offer his support if she wanted it. His non-judgemental quiet care made a deep impression on her, and that was why the wedding happened where it did. That might not represent a lasting turn-around in her life but it is a testimony to the importance of just loving those around us – not judging, not calculating, just loving and letting God do the rest.

We have no idea what is going on in other people’s lives; we often have very little idea what is going on in our own. Soil that looks rocky or thorny, or too trodden down for the kingdom of God ever to take root might produce a crop that will surprise us. The story of the sower tells us that though we win some and we lose some, God never gives up on us, never sets limits on his love for us, and he calls us to be just as generous as he is, both to ourselves and to those around us who need our love.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Being a citizen; St Thomas' day

Ephesians 2.19-22, John 2.24-29

“You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God…”

I’m a UK citizen. It was simple for me getting that status – both my parents were UK citizens, so it was automatic. I’m glad it was simple, because if you want to become a citizen in adulthood, you have to take an exam to do so and having looked at the kind of questions it asks, I’m not too sure I’d pass.
I would probably have managed “What and when are the Patron Saints' Days of the four countries of the UK?” but I’d have been in difficulties with some of the rest.
• What are the powers of the devolved administrations in the UK? Which areas of policy remain under the control of the UK Government?

• What is the earliest legal age at which children can do paid work, and what documents must they have before they can work?

I don’t think I’d stand a chance…
The trouble with the citizenship exam is that it is a very blunt instrument. We know intuitively when we feel part of a community, whether it is a nation, a neighbourhood, a workplace or a church. We have a sense of belonging, a connection and commitment. What happens there is our business. We have a stake in it. It has to do with us. But it is very hard to find a way of measuring all that in legal term, and it always has been. .

Immigration has been in the news again this week, with debates about how many foreign workers there should be in the UK, but this dilemma is nothing new. Deciding who is in and who is out, who belongs in a particular community and who doesn’t has always caused problems. It goes right back to the time when we first started moving from living in tribes – extended families – to living in cities where we were surrounded by lots of people we weren’t related to. Who was entitled to the support of the community now? Who could you count on in this mass of strangers?

The ancient Greeks were the first really to think about citizenship. They lived in city states, places like Athens, Sparta or Thebes. Each city made its own rules for deciding who belonged, but the fundamental assumption was the same. If you were a citizen you had rights, but you also had responsibilities. You were expected to take an interest and play your part. They took a very dim view of people who kept themselves to themselves and didn’t participate.

The Romans developed those ideas. They’d built a vast Empire spreading far out from their city state of Rome, and they soon realised that citizenship was a wonderful incentive to loyalty in the far-flung outposts of that Empire. So they gave out citizenship as a reward to retiring soldiers or foreign officials who helped them. St Paul’s father, a Jew from Tarsus, seems to have been given citizenship for his service to the Romans. Paul inherited it from him and he was glad of it, because it gave him protection on several occasions when he would otherwise have been flogged or even executed on the spot. It was ok to treat a non-citizen like that, but you couldn’t just punish or kill a Roman citizen without trial. It was a status worth having.

For most of those who lived in Paul’s world, though, Roman citizenship was way out of reach, and they knew it. For slaves and for the poor – who made up much of the early church - there was no chance of becoming citizens. They had nothing the Romans wanted.

So when Paul talks about citizenship in his letter to the Ephesians he is using a word loaded with meaning for them. And it wasn’t just Roman citizenship which was a fraught issue for them. There was another sort of belonging these early Christians cared deeply about. The early church was a mixture of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, and both groups had reasons to feel insecure. For the Jewish Christians their new faith was really just a development of what they had always believed, a faith which went back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were still God’s chosen people as far as they were concerned. But the Jewish authorities didn’t agree, and gradually they were being pushed out of the synagogues. They weren’t part of their ancient household of faith any more.

The Gentile Christians, those who hadn’t grown up in Judaism, had problems of their own. Many of their Jewish brothers and sisters in the church looked askance at them. Here they were, sauntering into God’s family at the eleventh hour, without even having to keep the Jewish laws– could these Johnnie-come-latelies really belong on the same terms? It was hard for the Gentile Christians to feel secure when they kept being told they were gate crashers.

So citizenship – who belonged and who didn’t, and who got to decide – was a very live issue for many in the early church. When Paul starts talking about citizenship he knows his hearers will sit up and take notice. Pretty well everyone who heard his words would have felt like an outsider for some reason, a fish out of water, yearning to know they belonged somewhere to someone.

Paul’s words to them were a wonderful reassurance.
“You are no longer strangers and aliens,” he tells them, “you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…” It doesn’t matter what Rome thinks about you. It doesn’t matter what the Jewish authorities think about you. It doesn’t matter what other members of the church think about you. God says you belong. You are a part of his household, his sons and daughters, you are a citizen of his kingdom, and there is no belonging that is more secure than that.

That was very good news, but it was also challenging because, as we saw earlier, being a citizen is about more than just having the right passport. It’s about connection and commitment, letting that sense of belonging make a difference in practical ways.

In today’s Gospel reading, I think we see the moment when for one man, the penny drops, that connection is made and he really starts to belong.

Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus first appeared to his friends after the resurrection. He didn’t feel part of what had happened. He couldn’t connect with this strange story the others were telling of meeting the risen Jesus. It was as if they were all living in some new kingdom, while he was still stuck over the border in the old one. He’d caught glimpses of that kingdom as he had travelled around with Jesus during his ministry, watching him heal and teach and meet people with love, but when Jesus died he had convinced himself that those glimpses had been an illusion.

If Jesus hadn’t come to him, hadn’t shown him his wounds and invited him to reach out and touch them for himself, I suspect Thomas would probably have just walked away, gone back to his old life and written off his time with Jesus as a brief spell of madness. But when he sees him standing there, when he hears that familiar voice, it all becomes real. He crosses a boundary and he knows he can’t go back. It’s not just that he realises the story is true, but that the story matters to him and makes a difference to him. Suddenly he isn’t just looking at the kingdom of God from a distance, like a curious traveller, just passing through; he is right in the thick of it. He has become a citizen. This new world, with its new demands and its new perspectives is one he can’t turn his back on.

Jesus talks about his new- found belief, and about those who will believe in him later.
To us “belief” tends to be something we do with our heads. It is about intellectual assent to some set of statements. But that isn’t what the New Testament writers meant by it. To them belief was much broader and deeper. It was about throwing in your lot with someone, letting your life be changed by that allegiance. In a sense it is the same as becoming a citizen, really belonging, acknowledging the claims that this new place, this new community, this new perspective has on your life.

Tradition has it that Thomas travelled eastwards with the message of Jesus after this encounter and ended up in India, where he was eventually martyred. Unlike many ancient legends, it is entirely possible that this one has a basis in fact. There were well-established trade routes from the Middle East to India, and there are very ancient Christian churches in India, which claim to have Thomas as their founder. Whether that is true or not, Thomas’ meeting with Jesus changes his life completely. “This is about me,” he realises. “This is where I belong; I am not just an onlooker, a visitor passing through; I am a citizen of this kingdom that Jesus has died to establish, and nothing can ever be the same again.

It is a wonderful thing to belong, to feel secure, to feel at home. But real belonging isn’t just a matter of passing a citizenship exam or getting a passport – you can have all the official documents you like and still feel like a stranger, disconnected and alone. That is true of nations and of neighbourhoods, of churches and of any other group we belong to. It is when we let that place and its people make a claim on us, when we find ourselves giving as well as receiving that we really start to feel that this is our place, our business, our responsibility. It is especially true of the kingdom of God, a kingdom where there are no citizenship exams, no quotas, no passports, where everyone is welcome. There are no strangers in God’s household, but it is up to us whether we choose to let that welcome become real to us, make a difference to us, and whether we are prepared to live as people who belong and who want others to know they belong too.