Sunday, 19 July 2020

Wheat and Weeds: Trinity 6

What impression did today’s Gospel story leave you with? What feelings did it evoke in you? If the answer is “anxiety” then I think you wouldn’t be alone. All that stuff at the end about weeping and gnashing of teeth, fiery furnaces and so on, is very vivid. There are the righteous shining like the sun too, of course, but bad news tends to stick in our minds more stubbornly than good, and deep down I suspect all of us know that we can be a bit more weedy than wheaty at times.  

Back in the Middle Ages, when churches were often brightly painted with scenes from the Bible, there was often a painting over the chancel arch called a Doom painting. Doom paintings depicted the end of the world, as their name suggests, with the blessed going up to heaven on the right hand side of the picture, and the damned being dragged down into Hell, often in graphic detail, on the left. The message to those who sat in church face to face with it was clear. You’d better behave, or else!
It was a message which was often used to control and coerce people into doing what the authorities of the time wanted. Be good. Do what you are told, or this could be you. Make sure you are wheat not weeds…!

But when we read the story in context in Matthew’s Gospel we find that’s not really what it’s saying at all.  

When he told this story Jesus had been on the receiving end of harsh criticism from the religious establishment, those who saw themselves as experts. He’d been healing people who others thought didn’t deserve healing, forgiving them in God’s name. He’d been eating with tax-collectors and prostitutes. He’d been telling all and sundry – and some of them were very sundry – that God loved them. He’d been inviting those who “laboured and were heavy laden” to come to him, not just those exhausted by the normal trials of life, but also those who were being crushed by trying to keep impossible religious rules. With two thousand years of hindsight, we might applaud Jesus for his message, but many in authority at the time thought he was a scandalous troublemaker, who was being disrespectful to their time-honoured values, dragging God’s name into the mud by suggesting that these sinners and outcasts were part of his kingdom, accepted and welcomed.  

So Jesus tells a series of stories about the kingdom of God, God at work in the world. And in these stories, like the parable of the sower which we thought about last week, we hear of God’s kingdom being freely given, open to all who want to be part of it. The sower we heard about last week threw his seed about with reckless abandon, on the off chance that some of it might find good soil amidst the stones and thorns. Jesus talked about the kingdom being like yeast hidden in the dough – you couldn’t see it, but it was there, working away in secret- or like treasure buried in a field, underground, not obvious, something you have to go looking for, maybe getting pretty mucky in the process. God is at work, said Jesus, in places, in ways, in situations, in people that his tidy minded critics never imagined.  

Today’s parable continues that theme. It’s another story of seed sowing, but this time, something’s gone badly wrong. The field has been sown with a mixture of wheat and weed seeds, but no one realises this until the grain starts to ripen. Why does it take so long to spot the problem? It’s because the weed in question is darnel, It’s a type of grass, and, like most grasses, like wheat itself, it’s green, narrow-leaved – grassy, basically. It’s only when the seeds start to appear that you can tell the difference, because darnel seeds are black. The problem with it isn’t just that it competes with the wheat for space, water and food, it can also be dangerous, because it’s often infected with the ergot fungus, which can cause severe illness and even death.

So it’s no surprise that when they saw it, the slaves who tended the crop panicked and came straight to their master. “Master, did you not sow good seed…?” they say. Actually I’d be pretty sure that the master didn’t sow the seed at all – you don’t keep slaves and sow the seed yourself.  They are probably terrified that he’ll accuse them of sabotaging the crop, by accident or design. They’re frightened, and they want to deflect the blame away from themselves. But they needn’t have worried. Their master seems completely unbothered. “An enemy did it…” he says, in an off-hand manner. There’s no blame for them - and no suggestion of revenge on this enemy either. It is what it is. It happens. There are bad things in the world, Jesus seems to be saying, and in each of us too – it’s an inescapable fact of life. But what should we do in response?

“Shall we rip up the weeds….?” say the slaves, seizing the opportunity to look good in their masters eyes, since he seems to be in such a good mood.  “No” he says, “just leave them– you can’t pull up the weeds without destroying the wheat as well” Darnel has a sneaky habit of tangling its roots around the roots of the plants it grows among.” We’ll sort it out at harvest-time…” he says. I wonder how those slaves felt about that answer? It was one less job for them, but what about his reputation? What would other people think of him when they saw this contaminated crop in his field? What kind of farmer was he?

The answer is that he was a farmer who didn’t want to risk losing one precious grain of wheat by wading in too early, a farmer who was passionately concerned to preserve every little bit of good that he possibly could. That was far more important to him than what anyone else might think of him, far more important to him than apportioning blame or seeking revenge, just as it was far more important to Jesus to rescue and love the battered and burdened people, than to look good in the eyes of respectable religious leaders, those who had set themselves up as arbiters of what was right and wrong.  

Of course there are times when we need to make judgements about people, for our own safety and the safety of those around us, but this story tells us that we’re never called to declare anyone beyond redemption. For a start, in doing so, we condemn ourselves, because there is not one of us who is all wheat and no weed. It isn’t our job to sort the world into good and bad, friend and enemy, and decide that some people aren’t worth bothering with. It is God alone who searches us and knows us truly, as today’s Psalm reminded us, God alone who knows how his broken creation can be made whole again. And if those other stories Jesus tells are anything to go by, in his limitless, indestructible love he will be far more generous than we can ask or imagine, despite our fears about fiery furnaces and gnashing teeth – and I think they are our fears, not God’s intent. Our job is to nurture what’s good. Our job is to bless our enemies, and not to curse them, because they’re God’s children too. Our job is to look for God’s presence, in others and ourselves, and discover - maybe to our surprise, certainly to our delight - that God is at work where we least expected to find him.

Monday, 13 July 2020

The Generous Sower: Trinity 5

Today’s Gospel reading is a very familiar story, one of Jesus’ most famous parables. If you’re a gardener – and many people seem to have taken up gardening during lockdown – then you probably know all too well the scenario Jesus describes. You start out hopefully sowing your seeds in little seed trays or out in the garden as the gardening gurus tell you to. You wait and watch. Soon, if you’re lucky, some energetic little seedlings poke their heads out of the earth! Success! But not so fast…! As the weeks go by, some shrivel and die, some are overcome by weeds. Even if you mollycoddle them indoors until they are sturdy little plants, the first night you plant them out they are often reduced to ribbons by slugs or caterpillars or birds or rabbits, or dug up by cats or squirrels or another of God’s wonderful creatures who, quite reasonably from their point of view, look on them as a generous gift you put there just for their benefit. It’s enough to drive you to despair…

It was ever thus. As the old saying goes, “One for the rook, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow.”  Jesus description of the wide variety of ways a crop can fail is something every one of his listeners would have been familiar with, just as we are.

And yet, there’s something odd about his little story, and as a gardener it is glaringly obvious when you spot it. Frankly, this sower sounds a bit daft. What is he doing sowing seed on the path, and in the thorny ground or among the rocks? Surely he knows his land. He knew where the path was. He could see that some of the land was rocky. And those thorns are, according to the Greek word, acanthus plants, Bear’s Britches is their common name. They are huge, tough perennials – you can’t miss them if you ‘ve got them. I can imagine Jesus’ audience shaking their heads in bewilderment. In fact the whole scenario is a bit comical , , over the top. If this sower is meant to represent God, what does it say about him?  What kind of person behaves like this, let alone an all knowing deity?

They were right to ask those questions. Humanly speaking, this sower is acting stupidly, because human resources are limited.  If we are sensible we take care of what we do with our resources. We ration them out , whether they are seeds or time or money or love. We’re afraid we’ll run out if we don’t.

You can only behave like this sower if you know your resources are limitless, infinite. God, says Jesus, throws his love around with reckless abandon, because there is no end to his love. He doesn’t need to ration it out, only planting it in lives that are perfect. He lets it fall wherever it will, in the hope that one stray seed might find a gap among the weeds or an unseen pocket of richer soil between the rocks, or be missed by the birds and grow on the path anyway.

This story is meant to sound a bit ridiculous, like many of Jesus’ other parables. We often read them in a po-faced, serious way and miss that. But what kind of shepherd abandons ninety nine perfectly good sheep in the wilderness to go after one who has been daft enough to wander off? What kind of father gives half his money away to his prodigal son, and when he wastes it on parties, welcomes him back again without a word of “I told you so”? How does he know that he won’t just sell the robe and ring he’s been given and do it all again? How does he know he’s really learned his lesson? He doesn’t, is the answer. But the father does it anyway, because he loves him.

Jesus tells stories, again and again, of a God who is ridiculously generous to human eyes, who gives and gives and gives again, beyond anything that we would think was sensible or proportionate. It’s meant to shock and challenge us, just as it did his first hearers.

Of course, human beings are limited, with finite resources, but God isn’t. We sometimes forget that, or never get our heads around it in the first place. That’s why Christians have often been so determined to set boundaries on God’s love, conditions that they say people must meet to receive it, and to police those boundaries, as if they are God’s guardians, as if God needs guarding. They tell others that God will only love and accept them if they live in certain ways, observe certain rituals, believe certain doctrines, say certain prayers, belong to a certain group… Those who’re on the receiving end of that sort of judgement often internalise it, convincing themselves that they deserve it. People tell me they aren’t good enough to come to church. They tell me that they aren’t certain enough of their faith, that they might do the wrong things, or not do the right things. They worry that because of something they’ve done, or something that’s happened to them, God really won’t want to be bothered with them, that he wouldn’t want to waste his time and his love on them.

But all those assumptions rest on the idea that God’s love is a scarce resource which must be hoarded, rationed, doled out carefully, after a proper risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis to make sure it’s not being thrown anywhere except the 100 per cent pure and wholesome soil. This parable tells us otherwise. God’s love is limitless. He is quite content to scatter it about with reckless abandon, on the off chance that a stray seed might find an unlikely, overlooked pocket of soil to grow in. He doesn’t need to hoard, guard, or reserve it for those who can prove they know what to do with it, and we shouldn’t try to do it on his behalf either. The ultimate demonstration of this reckless generosity is in his gift of Jesus to us, the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies at Calvary, and is buried in a stony tomb – the unlikeliest of unlikely soil. And yet, from that death comes resurrection, and new life which is thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold greater, spreading out through the world and across the ages.

God will win some and lose some as he scatters his seeds of love in our hearts and in our world. There’ll be times when we don’t respond, when our hearts are stony, or choked with weeds, times when the seed never germinates at all, but it only takes one seed to germinate and grow. One plant can fill a field, if you give it long enough. One act of kindness, one word of encouragement, one decision to trust in the goodness of God, to hope rather than to despair can change our lives, and the lives of everyone around us too.

Our God is a God whose generosity is beyond anything we could ask or imagine, a God whose resources are limitless, and whose love is limitless too, a God whose “paths overflow with plenty” as the Psalm reminded us. May we rejoice in that plenty, and walk in those paths, generously giving as we have generously received.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Trinity 4: Rest for the heavy-laden

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”.

I expect that line of the Gospel reading spoke to many people today. It certainly did to me. Many people have told me that over these last few months, their concentration is shot to pieces, their sleep is disturbed, and that they’ve found it hard to settle to anything, and hard to rest. Even those who are retired or have been furloughed or aren’t at work have found it wearing and wearying, let alone those who have been working, worrying, suffering or grieving through this time.

It’s understandable that we’re weary, but it’s also worrying, because we’re not through this yet. The virus is still out there. There’s no cure, no vaccine. And we are now dealing with the financial and social impacts of lockdown too, and will be for years to come. The danger with weariness is that it easily turns inward into depression, or outward into irritability and anger, as people either collapse or explode in response to it.

So it really matters that we look at our weariness, and hear Jesus’ words. “Come to me…and I will give you rest” he says.  That sounds pretty good to me right at the moment – “I will give you rest”  - a comfy chair, a G & T, a long lie down, a bit of a holiday. Bring it on, Jesus!

But then he spoils it rather in the next line. “Take my yoke upon you…”  he says. “Take my yoke upon you…”  That doesn’t sound like rest at all. It sounds like work! Yokes are the things you put on the necks of oxen so they can pull a plough, or that dairymaids and labourers used to use to carry heavy buckets…

But perhaps our problem is with this little word “rest”. We tend to think of it as the state of doing nothing – that long lie down. Sometimes that’s really important and just what we do need, but as anyone who is bedbound will tell you, you can be lying down all day but still not feel in the least rested. There’s more to true rest than the absence of work.

In the Bible, of course, the idea of rest is inextricably linked with the idea of the Sabbath, which drew it’s inspiration from the story of creation in Genesis 1. God worked for six days, creating the world and all that was in it, and then he rested. He didn’t rest because he was tired – he was God, after all! – he rested  because he knew a good thing when he saw it. He delighted in it. He could have made an extra animal or two, a bit more ocean, another mountain… he could have kept tinkering, but he didn’t. It was enough, just as it was. It was very good. That’s why he stopped, so that he could enjoy it!

Many years ago I was telling this story of creation to some children. When we got to the end, I said to the children “and then God rested”. They looked at me blankly. What? He’d just made all those wonderful things – trees and worms and whales and all the rest – and now he rested. Clearly in their minds rest was what happened when your dad sent you to bed early, or that your mum came in from work and wanted to put her feet up and not be bothered with demands.  Boring, in other words.

I realised that they were right. A lot of what adults call rest probably is pretty boring. So I wrote a poem, in which I imagined that God was like one of these children, and I thought about what they would do with a new-made world. It’s called , the Seventh Day, or what God did on his day off, and it goes like this.

On the seventh day
God played with his creation.

In the morning
he ran down early to the sea’s edge,
and in the crusted rock pools teased
the waving fingers of sea anemones. 
He let the sand, like powdered silk,
run through his funneled fingers
and the shallow water play around his feet,
drawing a sandy wake around them.
Crashing on the rocks the waves leapt
to greet him with sprayed salt.

In the afternoon
he kicked up leaves,
musty in the dark woods,
and chased the spidery seed children of the
rosebay willowherb,
tumbling idly into their new generation
over dry earth.
He dammed the icy streams
to sail twig boats down rocky rivers
and climbed into the branches of rough oaks
looking for secret squirrels

But in the evening -
in the evening he wanted to talk.
So he sought out man and woman by their campfire,
finding worlds within its embers.
Late into the night,
they listened, with their arms around each other,
to the songs of night creatures,
and invented music.

And God thought the seventh day was good,
because he played with his creation –
and the whole earth joined the game.

The truth is that rest, real rest, isn’t about doing nothing. It’s about finding delight in the life we have and the world around us, and anything which helps us do that can be restful, whether it’s climbing a tree or reading a book or meeting a friend or planting a garden, or whatever does it for you.
Most deeply, it’s about finding the God who plays alongside us, who delights in our lives as we learn to delight in them ourselves. Even the things we’re paid to do can feel restful, or aspects of them can, - if we’re lucky enough to enjoy them and find them worthwhile. Real rest can be quite energetic. It can leave us physically tired, but with a sense of satisfaction and completeness, a sense that we, and the world around us, have somehow been set right, healed, even if only in small ways.

The Sabbath was meant to be a time when people had a foretaste of that “set-rightness” – or “righteousness” as the Bible puts it.

And that, I think, is where the “yoke” Jesus talks about comes in. God’s true rest, that deep sense of peace, comes to us as we share in his work of setting right the world. “You’ve got to be in it to win it,” as the saying goes. We won’t find God’s peace by sitting on the side-lines, carping about what is wrong with the world like the children Jesus talks about in the little parable he tells. In other places in the Gospels he tells stories about weddings whose invited guests refuse to come. They don’t want to be part of what’s happening, and as a result, they miss out on the party. A wedding in the Bible, especially a royal wedding, like the one today’s Psalm talked about, is always shorthand for a new age, a new kingdom. In the ancient world, Weddings weren’t about romantic love; they were about creating a new future for the kingdom – the sons the Psalmist says the king in the Psalm will have and the new household the royal bride will now be part of. The Psalm’s language may sound archaic to us, but the point the Psalmist wants to make is that here is a new world, and the bride and groom can help to make it.  

Our weariness, our exhaustion, is ultimately rooted in our awareness that things aren’t as they ought to be – in ourselves and in our world. No one has a magic wand, and sometimes simply stopping and remembering to breathe is the most important thing that we can do. But if we want to find the deep rest, the Sabbath, the delight God wants for us, we will need to hear his invitation to join in the dance, to walk with him, to work with him, to play with him as he sets his creation to rights.