But he also thereby brilliantly illuminates the Gospel for this Sunday. The Lectionary has omitted some verses from the 13th Chapter of Matthew and in this way intensifies its rapid listing of short parables about the Kingdom of God. Jesus uses the different analogies he employs to impress upon his hearers – and upon us – this thought: when we sign up to Christian faith we are making a choice of the greatest significance. Initially it may seem a little thing, just as yeast makes up a very small part of the ingredients of a loaf of bread. Even so, it transforms all the rest. Faith that, despite so many contrary appearances and experiences, the world is under the control of a personal and loving God, and faith that the humblest and most marginalized can be valued participants in God's kingdom, transforms life from the inside. That is the point of the parable about finding a treasure so priceless that is to be preferred to everything else we possess.
Of course, to many people the Gospel these parables articulate is not new. They have grown up in the faith, and been “trained for the kingdom of heaven” to the point where sheer familiarity dulls the sense of its significance. But another parable speaks to them. Their task is to bring out of the treasure they have been given both “what is new and what is old”.
To gain or regain the gift of faith is not to be given guaranteed protection against sickness or injury, hardship or injustice. Faith is not a kind of cosmic insurance. Rather, Paul tells us, it is to know that, whatever injustices, illnesses, and temptations befall us, “in all these things we are more than conquerors" provided we view them all "through him who loved us”. This faith is especially relevant at times of widespread fear and anxiety, as for instance, in an epidemic. But it is also especially challenging. History has witnessed plagues far more devastating than the present pandemic, and in these Christians enjoyed no special divine protection. Yet, they continued to proclaim with confidence that “neither things present, nor things to come will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” and that is what matters. With the churches all closed in the name of ‘safety’, and surrounded by precautions when they re-open, it is less easy to say that the world has heard today’s Christians confidently affirm this same proclamation of faith.
When Jesus explains the parable to his disciples, the enemy turns out to be the Devil. To modern ears, any reference to the Devil (or Satan) sounds like one of those superstitious ideas science has taught us to abandon, a concept that only religious fanatics would use nowadays. Yet our news media are filled with actions and events that regularly seem to show forces of evil taking possession of human hearts and minds, and driving them to levels of blindness, wickedness and cruelty far beyond ordinary selfishness or indifference. This troubling phenomenon is not confined to individuals, the child molesters, drug traffickers or mass murderers who capture the headlines. The most problematic instances are social and cultural, those times and places when ordinary citizens, caring about friends and family, concerned with educating their children, maintaining the pattern of everyday life as best they can, also accept, sustain and staff truly evil systems of religious persecution, racial discrimination, or mass incarceration. Nazi Germany is, of course, the paradigm instance of this. Paradoxically, the evil of it all relied on normality. Unhappily, there are many other contexts closer in time, when ignorance and fear have swept through whole populations of decent people with, after a time, catastrophic results. Here, we might say, we find the decent and the devilish living side by side, and that is precisely the phenomenon that Jesus' parable depicts.
His reference to the Devil reveals that Jesus thinks that what is good and true and beautiful is always under threat, and must be defended against evil forces that are not alien, but lie close at hand. Whether we use the language of Satan or not, it is a fact of human experience that the world in which we find ourselves does have evil ‘tares’ growing alongside divinely planted ‘wheat’. An important part of the parable, though, is that the two are inextricably intertwined, and will remain so until God brings the harvest in. This alerts us to another danger. One of Satan’s favored strategies lies in exploiting our inclination to leap to judgment and to sort out the world for ourselves, placing our faith in political and social institutions -- strengthening the powers of police and judiciary, for instance, relying on new technology, or employing military might – and justifying this faith in ourselves by appealing to ‘science’.
From a religious point of view, the greatest error human beings can make, individually or collectively, is to think that they can be the means of their own salvation. Anyone who thinks this, explicitly or implicitly, has turned away from God. The inclination to do so at times of crisis is understandable, of course, but the wreckage brought about by these humanistic experiments, be they the dreams of fascist, communist or democratic regimes, is evident for all to see. Paul, in this week’s Epistle is also addressing a world that is waiting "to be set free from its bondage". But he tells the Romans that Christians must "hope for what we do not see”, and consequently “wait for it with patience”. Waiting of this kind is the real test of faith in God.
In this week’s Gospel Jesus says: ‘A sower went out to sow’. So begins one of the most famous of the parables by which he taught. It is a simple story of farming life, and though the agricultural world it imagines is long since gone, the parable still seems homely to most of us, thanks to its sheer familiarity. Yet this same familiarity may disguise its serious import, and lead us to miss its true meaning.
It is easy, and tempting, to think of the sower as scattering seed on virgin land. No doubt this is what Jesus had in mind, 2000 years ago when the Gospel he preached would have struck his first hearers as radically new. But in our world, the Gospel is no longer new, and this parable very rarely heard for the first time. To most people, non-Christian as well as Christian, this is an ‘old, old story’. The soil on which the seed must now be sown, we might say, has been farmland for so long, that both the sowing and the harvest are taken for granted.
Yet, if we look for it, the parable can still have radical application. The Gospel goes on being ‘sown’, week by week among regular as well as occasional church goers. Ordinarily, this happens in the course of every Sunday service. But the Word of God can be received in different ways – carelessly, half-heartedly, attentively, or reverently. These attitudes are not confined to the ever expanding secular world outside the Church. They are possibilities in the heart of the sanctuary also. Indeed, for the faithful there is this additional danger, that the story’s sheer familiarity will sustain an unspoken assumption -- that the Gospel has already found fertile ground in their own hearts. But has it? We could set ourselves a simple test. On Monday, without recourse to the weekly bulletin, how easy is it to recall the Bible readings from the day before, and especially the Gospel reading?
This simple test is not as easily to passed as one might hope. But the test is even harder when, as at the present time, there are no church services to attend. For several months now the question has been: Did you set time aside, in order, as Paul says, to ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ the week’s Gospel?
The alternative psalm for this Sunday, Psalm 119, contains a beautiful phrase: ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’. This simple image describes the way in which the Scriptures can accompany our journey through life. But it applies only if casualness, complacency, daily distractions, or worries and anxieties do not prevent the 'seed' of God’s word from properly taking root in our minds and souls. It is here that the great loss we sustain in being unable to gather for worship confronts us.
The real purpose of regular worship is to clear a space in the clutter of life, surround our attention to the Word with the shared experience of being the Body of Christ, so that we can hear the Gospel afresh. If only it can be properly rooted and regularly nourished, we can hope for life of a quite different order. As Paul says in this week’s reading from Romans “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” The task of the Christian is to find in worship and liturgy the means to be this Spirit's dwelling place, and make them so for others. That is why the absence of public worship matters so very much, and why it is a task to which every Christion should be straining to return.
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Christ Church Morningisde
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