Sunday, 20 July 2014

The world as it is, the world as it should be

This sermon was presented at St George's Barcelona on Sunday 20th July and is based on the readings Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Romans 8:12-25.

I don't know about you but sometimes I struggle to watch the news. In this age where information is at our fingertips, whether online, through television and radio, the very worst of the conflict and suffering in the world is right in front of us. It can make us feel helpless, that the world is out of control. It can also, for many of us, lead us to question our faith.

It is a rare person of faith who has never asked why God would allow the kind of suffering and evil we see in the world. It is one of the major reasons why people find faith hard to accept. How can there be a loving God when there is such suffering in the world? Even if we acknowledge that much of the evil in the world is man made, how can God stand it? Why doesn't he intervene?

In the passage we have just heard from Romans Paul describes that even creation itself is groaning under the burden of the sufferings of the world. We can quite believe that when we look at the effects of humanity on the natural world, the depletion of resources, pollution, even major changes in the world's climate that may yet affect millions of people in some of the world's poorest nations.

This is where the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds comes in. In this parable Jesus is trying to make sense of the world as it is. Importantly, the parable tells us that evil is not from God. The field is full of good plants, that will produce a good harvest. Evil is the unwanted addition. The weeds in the field. This reminds us that Genesis describes the creation of the world as 'very good', plants, animals and human beings.

As well as seeing the suffering in the news reports we see this goodness too. In those we love, in moments of kindness, in the beauty of the natural world. I experienced something for this yesterday on a  visit to the Sagrada Familia and seeing the beauty of nature reflected there in the architecture and use all the colours of the rainbow for light.


And yet even though evil is not from God, the parable tells us that God allows evil and good to grow up together. The parable suggest that God does this so that what is good and evil can be seen for what they are. It is for this reason that we are instructed not to judge others. The parable warns us not to try to uproot the weeds ,or even perhaps, attempt to identify the weeds at all. Our judgement is often inadequate or premature. By doing so we can even uproot what is good, a stark warning indeed.

Other New Testament writers have also written on this theme of why God allows suffering and evil in the world. As 1 Peter puts it, 'The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.' God, then, wants people to turn from doing wrong and seek forgiveness and for that he gives us time.

So if the parable of the wheat and the weeds helps us to understand how things are then our reading from Romans allows us to see how things will be. God has not simply waited in the face of human suffering and evil in the world. He hasn't let the evil and the good grow up without intervention or without letting us know his intention for the world. This truth is at the heart of the Christian story.

Our reading from Romans reminds us that God has intervened personally in the world. He has come, in the person of Jesus, as Matthew's gospel puts it, 'to proclaim what was hidden from the foundation of the world.' In Jesus' life God enters into the suffering of the world and by Jesus' death God conquered death, defeating all that is opposite to him.

The days of the weeds in the field, 'the causes of all evil' as Jesus puts it, are numbered. And God has done this all at his own cost. This intervention is a very personal one and it tells us what the parable also reminds us that God is not the cause of evil and suffering and is, in every way, opposed to it. God will always intervene to restore what he originally intended, a good creation.

And this, Paul tells us, affects how we live our lives in the here and now. It affects how we deal with the reality of wheat and weeds in the world and in our own lives. At the centre of this change is a change in relationship. We know God as he is. And that relationship is one of a child to a Father.
We hear God spoken of as Father so often that sometimes it is easy to overlook the significance of it. God, the creator of the Universe and orderer of all things wants us to call him our Father. Me and you, just a few of the six billion people on the earth today and yet he loves us as his children, That, when you let it sink in, can really blow your mind Knowing God in this way means we live, as Paul puts it 'in the spirit of adoption'. We are God's children and he cares for us. No longer do we have to live with, as Paul puts it, 'a spirit of fear'.

And this change in relationship produces one of the foundations of the Christian life, hope. No matter what the world looks like, despite all those weeds, all those news reports that are so hard to watch, we know that God has a better plan. This plan has already begun through Jesus and through the power of the spirit in our lives. And this gives us a new life now even though we don't yet have what we hope for, an end to evil and suffering in the world.

So our readings today tell us two things, about the world as it is and the world as it will be. This is the basis for our hope in the face of the many weeds in the world and in our own lives. We do not have what we hope for yet, an end to evil and suffering, but we have seen a glimpse of it and because of that we have hope. And this hope can transform our lives here and now allowing us to live our lives as children of God, calling God our Father, and living without fear.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Last Supper

Two thousand years ago a man sat down with his friends and ate a meal.It could be argued that no meal has echoed down the centuries quite like this one. That meal is the Last Supper and this moment is remembered by churches around the world by eating bread and wine in memory of the man who first did it, Jesus.

If you haven’t read the account of the Last Supper before, or would like a refresher, then you might like to turn to the gospel of Mark in the New Testament and have a read of chapter 14 verses 12 to 26.Theories about the Last Supper, and how we should practice our remembrance of it in the church today, are widespread and numerous. It seems there are as many opinions as there are grains of sand on the seashore! But perhaps there is more to draw from the accounts of the last supper than a simple set of rules of how we should or shouldn’t conduct our church services.

Picture the scene: The tension is rising in this group of 12 friends. Their leader, friend and spiritual teacher Jesus has been confronted by the authorities many times.They are aware that Jerusalem is not a safe place for him to be yet he insists on going there to celebrate the Passover, an important festival in the Jewish calendar (see Exodus 12 for its origins).Two of the disciples head into the city early to prepare a space for the celebratory meal, the others follow.The meal starts off well. They sit back in their chairs, enjoy each others company and then suddenly the man who called this motley crew together changes the atmosphere. “One of you will betray me,” he says.

The reaction of these friends and disciples of Jesus is fascinating. They immediately ask the question ‘Is it me?’ I think this, and Jesus’ response, says something big about us and God.
The disciples loved Jesus, they had given up their homes and livelihoods to follow him and yet they still thought to themselves and said out loud, “Could it be me that betrays him?” I think we universally know this potential in ourselves.Words slip out of our mouths that we wish hadn’t. We make wrong choices out of anger, sadness and disappointment. We wish we could take things back, daily sometimes.

But what is really interesting is Jesus’ response to this rag tag bunch, none of whom is confident that they are not his betrayer.He picks up a loaf of bread and says ‘Take it, this is my body,” and a cup of wine saying “This is my blood which is poured out for many.”
Jesus sees their inability to be what even they want to be, to even know if it is they who would betray the one they love.Later that evening he tells them they will be scattered like sheep when he is taken from them, a prediction that comes true alarmingly quickly after this cosy meal among friends.And to Peter, one of his closest friends he says, “Tonight, you yourself will deny me three times.”

It is with this full knowledge that Jesus performs these powerful symbols of what is to come, his death within days on the cross–An act to unite people ever falling short with God who desires to give them a fresh start as many times as they need it. This offering of bread and wine at the last supper is the gospel in a moment. In this act Jesus says, I know you fail, that you can’t even be sure of yourself, but here is the solution: “Take, eat – it is given for you.”

Sometimes Christian life can feel like you are ever striving. Striving for a perfection that even you know you cannot reach.This story shows us that God knows full well our struggles and our inabilities. It is into this reality that he offers himself, going to die knowing that the closest people to him will run from him at the time he needs them most.

And to this he says, I have the answer. The answer is me.

This post originally appeared on the Underground Blog in 2010. I recently rediscovered it and now that the Underground has closed down it seemed like a good idea to give it a new, permanent home. Thanks for reading.

The Parable of the Sower

You can read the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, alternatively you can watch this cartoon. Yeah, you're going to go for the cartoon aren't you?!

My first degree, before studying Theology, was in Biology. A large part of my work in that course was practical field work and we often found ourselves in muddy English fields assessing the plant life and collecting soil samples. We would then take it back to the lab and analyse it. Did it have enough nutrients? Was it acidic? Were there any toxins lurking about?

Sometimes I think we can approach the parable of the sower in much the same way. Rather than hearing the 'Parable of the Sower' we hear the 'Parable of the Good and Bad soils.' We quickly get to work on analysing ourselves, doing a soil sample on our own lives. Are we enough for God's word to take hold? Are we choking the good things God is doing in our lives? Of course a clear headed appraisal of ourselves can be a good thing from time to time but when we immediately jump to this interpretation we often miss a really important part of this parable. The parable is about the Sower.

And what kind of Sower is he? Well, he's not the kind of sower who does a thorough soil analysis before scattering the seed. No, instead he spreads it liberally throwing it over any and every ground. The seed is not scarce. The ground is not assessed for its worthiness. The seed is sent out everywhere.

In the interpretation of this parable Jesus associates the seed with the Word of God. Sometimes the 'Word of God' has been interpreted to be the Bible but the Bible itself points to something more than this. The Word of God is depicted in the Old and New Testaments as a powerful force in the world. The Word is associated with the creation of the world, as Genesis reads 'Then God said, Let there be light, and there was light'. This link between the Word and creation is used by John in the opening chapter of his gospel. Echoing the Genesis story he begins his gospel with the words 'In the beginning' and writes that the Word is none other than Jesus, as John writes, 'the Word was with God and the Word was God'.

The Word is also described as influencing historical events and changing individual lives. The prophets speak into the circumstances of their time with the phrase 'Hear, the Word of the Lord' seen at the start of many of the prophetic books. For the prophets the 'Word of God' has something to say to all human life. To Kings and exiles. About wars and about reconciliation. Isaiah describes the Word as not only powerful but effective, he writes,

'For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
 and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be, that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it'

I recently planted some lettuces in my garden. They grew up well and I was so pleased with them. Then one night what must have been one very hungry slug (or perhaps he brought friends!), came and ate up all my lettuces in one night. I was very frustrated. I didn't, however, go back to my husband and say, 'Oh well, that's it then. No salads this summer!' No, I sowed more seed until I got a harvest.

Likewise the parable of the Sower can be read negatively as the final verdict. Some people are rocky ground, others are all choked up by the cares of the world. In the worst case this can be used to cast judgement not only on ourselves but on others. Suddenly we move from our own soil testing to testing others and finding their ground to be somewhat lacking too. The parable is quickly turned from an observation of the ways of human beings into a lifelong sentence on individuals.
But the Bible doesn't talk about a God who gives one chance. Who drops one seed and if it doesn't take hold, then that's your lot. No, the Bible talks about a God who sends prophet after prophet, speakers of his word, to his people. He is the Father of the prodigal son who wait and wait and waits, never giving up hope for his lost child. He is the shepherd who goes out looking for his one lost sheep until he finds him and then he celebrates with joy. The sower sows again and again. He sows generously and into all types of ground.

And we see that when the seed finally takes root that the harvest from this one small seed is abundant, thirty, sixty or a hundred times what was first planted. We see this at work all around us. In the natural world there is not one type of flower by over 250,000 different kinds. God the sower sows in abundance and nature testifies to that fact. So when reflecting on the parable of the sower lets remember that the parable is primarily about the Sower who is generous, who sows again and again and on each and every type of ground without discrimination. We can trust this sower and that this seed, his word, 'will succeed in that for which he sent it' and that we, too, can bear much fruit.

From a sermon given to St George's Church in Barcelona on 13th July 2014.