Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Reading Mark 4.26-34
The Gospel reading tells us that Jesus made extensive use of parables – pithy, teasing stories – in his teaching about the kingdom of God. What material would he use if he were telling parables now?
In his own world, Jesus uses the good, the bad and the weird – an eccentric farmer, a corrupt manager, a compassionate enemy, a bad judge – to speak of the reality of God. In our world he’d find some things much the same: the illusions of money, people losing things and finding them again, crime, people taking crazy risks. His merchant blowing everything on a pearl of great price could turn into the businessman (it usually is a man) sinking his last millions in his local football club. The lost sheep? a child left in the pub. The house built on sand, the exclusive new development created on a flood plain. And on the theme of judgement he could look to some banks, where the Archbishop of Canterbury said last week there needs to more hope of heaven and fear of hell than of bigger or smaller bonuses.
Jesus would also see parabolic potential in things unknown to the ancient world: the speed of our vehicles, and the time we spend in them standing still; the boundless freedoms of the web, and the many forms of addiction it can enslave us to; and the mobile phone – at our sister church, St Matthias, on the top of a hill, the only place you can get a signal is right by the altar.
So here’s a thing to try: compose your own parable. Look at the things in your life’s routines – good, bad, weird – that that have the potency to speak of God, and then say to yourself, ‘The kingdom of God is like…’ and see what comes out. Send them to me and we’ll put them on the website.
One big thing that sets his world apart from our North Atlantic world, we see today. We need the same stuff as they did – food and drink, heat and light – but we are remote from the means of production. They gathered wood, we turn up the central heating; they lit oil lamps, we flick a light switch. Jesus’ world is rooted – note the word – in peasant life. The mental scenery of those he meets is filled with sheep grazing and crops growing, or failing to grow. They know, with an urgency that we do not, how life depends on the harvest. We have lost crops after the coldest spring for 50 years, and this will bring distress to farmers and low-income shoppers but won’t bring famine to the population. For first-century Palestinians it is a matter of life and death, that annual wonder whereby the tiny seeds they put in the ground put up shoots which then – as the year turns, and if the seasons are kind – produce ripened corn.
And this, Jesus says, is the way of God. God has willed a world to exist in which the tiny can give birth the great. In the first of today’s parables, Mark describes Jesus setting out a sequence:
First, scatter your seed;
Second, do nothing: go to bed, get up in the morning, get on with your life; wait and don’t interfere, as ‘the earth produces of itself’, as the tiny seed receives the colossal resources of rain and sun and puts up shoots, and ripens;
Third, harvest; you need to judge when the moment is right and then you have to go for it. Nothing gets in the way of the harvest. That’s next winter’s food, that’s survival. Nothing matters more.
God has willed a world to exist in which the tiny can give birth the great. What a time to hear this reminder of the fertility of things, when everywhere budgets are cut and risks are shunned. Our Diocese of Southwark is running a deficit of £600 thousand a year. To eliminate that by economies alone means losing thirty vicars (about ten percent of our paid clergy workforce) by 2017. And as we say goodbye to our Team Vicar Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski in the Summer we are under scrutiny.
Everywhere there is the rhetoric of retrenchment, yet here is this gospel image of plenty. Let’s remember, though, that first-century Palestine was unimaginably poor by our standards, yet Jesus could still talk like this, so we have to ask, even in these times: where the signs among us of potential plenty?
Let’s talk money first. A couple of weeks ago some of us attended a meeting to discover how much St Mary’s will be asked to pay to the Diocese. It is likely to increase by £25k a year. That is a lot of money to find, but a tiny amount to spend – except in the church. Because money goes such a long way in the church, because the church – because this service – is such stunning value for money, the small really can give birth to the great. That figure will cover the pay, housing, pension and other overheads for half a vicar in an area of South London much poorer than this. Think about that when the collection comes round.
God, though, is interested in more than ecclesiastical bills. God has willed a world to exist in which the tiny can give birth the great. So have a think. Look at the broader life of our churches. Or your work, or your family or friendships. Look at the public and political arena, think of the G8 meeting this week (a gathering at which sometimes the great give birth to the tiny). Ask yourself: where does God want things to grow and ripen? and what might God be asking you to do about it? Remember Jesus’ three-stage sequence.
Are you called to sow a seed? What is it? Where should you sow it? And is this the time to do it? Pray for discernment and imagination.
Or, has the seed already been sown? Is this the time to do nothing, to wait and not interfere (very hard for people who care), to let growth happen of its own accord? Pray for discernment and patience.
Or is it time for harvest, to turn all the promise into something real and palpable? Are you sure it’s the right moment? If it is, you have to act. Nothing takes higher priority than the harvest. Pray for discernment and energy.
God has willed a world to exist in which the tiny can give birth the great. When the tiny thing is a seed, it is matched by the colossal resources of rain and sun. When that tiny thing is the faith of a human heart, it is matched by God’s infinite resources of grace and love. But there is one difference: if the conditions are good, the seed has no choice but to grow; but the heart can choose. The seed needs no faith to play its part in the wonder of the harvest, but we are more complicated. You and I need to ask, ‘Can I see my life this way?
Can the tiny give birth to the great in me, among us? Is there a willingness here to be open to the elements of God’s creative love?’ At another moment in the gospels, the disciples say to Jesus, ‘Increase our faith.’ He replies,
‘If you only had faith the size of a mustard seed…’ (Luke 17.6)
Parables Eccentric farmer, Matthew 20.1-16; corrupt manager, Luke 16.1-8; compassionate enemy, Luke 10.25-37; bad judge, Luke 18.1-8; pearl of great price, Matthew 13.45f; lost sheep, Matthew 18.12-14, Luke 15.4-7; house built on sand, Matthew 7.24-27, Luke 6.47-49; judgement, eg Matthew 25.31-46.
Three phases This owes much to Charles Elliott’s Praying the Kingdom – Towards a Political Spirituality, DLT, 1985, pages 88-93.
Write you own parable Thanks to Julia for this
The kingdom of heaven is like the public transport system. If a commuter is suddenly overcome on their journey, hitting the emergency button on the escalator or the train will bring everything to a halt. However, it may be wiser to wait for the natural pause, where the right people can help, rather than find yourself surrounded by the confused and frustrated, stranded between the nodal points.