Readings Ezekiel 17.22–end, Mark 4.26-34
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
The Gospel reading tells us that Jesus made extensive use of parables – pithy, teasing stories – in his teaching about the kingdom of God. So 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 good Samaritan, 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, crime, people losing and finding things, or taking crazy risks. His merchant blowing everything on a pearl of great price could turn into the business owner sinking his last millions in the local football club; the lost sheep might become a child left in the pub, the house built on sand, the exclusive new development created on a flood plain; and the travails of banks and Euro would provide rich material on the theme of judgement. He 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 makes us prey to; and the wonderful world of the mobile phone – in this building, 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 routines of life – good, bad, weird – that that have the potency to speak of God, and then say to yourself, ‘The kingdom of God is like…’ what?’ 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 in today’s gospel reading. 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 on the central heating; they lit oil lamps, we flick a light switch. Jesus’ world is rooted – note the word – in peasant life. The mental world of those he meets is filled with sheep grazing and crops growing, or failing to grow (we have gardens, but it’s not the same). They know, with an urgency that we do not, how their life depends on that annual wonder of the harvest, when first they put tiny seeds in the ground and then – as the year turns, and if the seasons are kind – the shoots grow and the ears of corn ripen.
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 (no doubt you need to give thought to when and where).
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. A new bout of redundancy notices went out to those in the armed forces last week. Some of us go to a meeting this week to hear that 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) in three years. Everywhere there is the rhetoric of retrenchment – and this isn’t even Greece or Spain – 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 of potential plenty among us? Let’s talk money first.
In this building back in April we had a great evening to launch our stewardship campaign, and we sent out packs to everyone in our three congregations. So far, sixty people – less than quarter – have responded, but even the first fifty responses will boost our giving by £13 thousand a year. Because money goes such a long way in the church, because the church is such stunning value for money, the small really can give birth to the great. That figure goes over a quarter of the way to paying and housing one vicar, or (if you prefer) pays for the three organists in the churches of our team ministry.
But God 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, and ask: 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 actual? 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 that 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. There is a difference, though: 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; good Samaritan, 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.