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Home » Sermon – 16th June

Sermon – 16th June

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    Readings: 2 Corinthians 5: 6-17 and Mark 4: 26-34

    When was the last time you longed to be in the shade? Not just lately, I know; but with our fairly variable weather in Britain we don’t seem to enjoy long periods of unbroken sunshine. Of course in Mediterranean lands and the near-east the story is quite different. For week after week the sun rises early and sets late, and if you’re outside you find yourself at its mercy until the cool of evening. Just last week we were reminded how dangerous extreme heat can be, with the sad death of Dr Michael Moseley on the Greek Island.

    In the short parable of the mustard seed which we heard in today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, we’re invited to consider how that plant, which, when sown, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, grows to become the greatest of all shrubs, so that the birds may rest in its shade. And Jesus likens this to the Kingdom of God.

    This image of the mustard seed is ironic; perhaps even satirical – maybe Jesus meant it to be. You might expect the Kingdom of God to be compared to the tallest and strongest of trees, but Jesus here likens the Church to something that sprouts up quite quickly from almost nothing, and then develops into an ungainly spindly shrub that barely holds up a birds’ nest.

    When a new church starts, and plenty do, it’s normally with a few people. They may soon outgrow their venue and have to move into or build new premises, and they grow in numbers, and in influence. But this new church might not always show tidy growth, just as the full grown mustard shrub would not always be considered a thing of beauty to look at. The Church will be rambling, extensive and just a tad jumbled. Maybe church life isn’t meant to be always neat and tidy.

    Nor can we predict what will become of small beginnings. Churches may have growth strategies and mission or development plans, but the growth of the kingdom is a mystery, and the growth doesn’t come from us. One experienced and wise parish priest once commented, “I reflect gloomily on 45 years of what might loosely be called Christian ministry, and I recognize that any good that has come of it bears scant relation to anything planned.”

    We often get caught up with the anxiety over ‘bums on seats’ – or at least I do – but that isn’t something Jesus would have been much interested in. His mission was much wider than that. In these two little parables of the seed secretly growing and the mustard plant, we’re encouraged to ponder and wonder about growth in the soil. ‘Someone’ – says Jesus – scatters seed which sprouts and grows secretly. The man who planted it doesn’t know what’s happening to it, which is ironic since he does every day what the seed is doing – going to bed and getting up again. So God’s kingdom grows almost without anyone noticing it. We have a part in it, but just as the earth produces of itself, we do not create the Kingdom. We can prepare for its growth in us and in others, but God gives the increase. So we sow the seed, and trust.

    Most people overlook the kingdom of God and its growth. But things look very different to those with the eyes of faith than to those without. Our task is to train ourselves to see those signs of God’s kingdom growing, and to encourage that growth, by using chance encounters for doing good; seeing odd coincidences as something more in God’s plan; by looking for good purpose in situations that appear negative, or, as the saying goes – by seeing the glass half-full rather than half-empty, or even seeing it full rather than half-empty.

    I’ve given you an interpretation of the parable of the mustard seed, but it seems the general crowd who heard Jesus didn’t receive one. Privately to his disciples, says the text, he explained everything; but generally the meaning of parables is left to the hearer’s or reader’s interpretation.

    It certainly seems that the growing mustard seed and the shrub that results speaks of the empire of the Church, with the birds representing the nations who find shelter there. The bible scholar William Barclay, talking about this passage, suggests that the Church should be big enough not just to encompass people from different geographical regions, but of differing opinions and theologies. He points to the great tolerance John Wesley showed, which came as a surprise to me. Wesley said “We think, and we let think. I have no more right to object to a man for holding a different opinion from mine than I have to differ with a man because he wears a wig and I wear my own hair.” Barclay comments, “It is good for people to have assurance that they are right, but that is no reason why they should have the conviction that everyone else is wrong.”

    These days people talk about a ‘new puritanism’ that seems rife at the moment, with self-appointed moral guardians telling us not only what we ought to think now but what we ought to have thought when we were teenagers. Anyone who falls out of line with their comments or tweets or texts, must be exposed and pilloried, it seems, or, as modern parlance has it – ‘cancelled.’ Most of us are guilty of judging other people, and sometimes voicing our opinions. I remember my Lay Reader back in Kent repeating the old adage, “If you can’t say something positive about someone, then don’t say anything at all.”

    Reading between the lines of the passage from 2 Corinthians, it appears that St. Paul had been the subject of some adverse criticism. It seems that the church there had been judging him by certain standards and finding him wanting. In fact, it reads as if they didn’t think Paul and his companions were in their right mind. They wanted him to stop giving them sensible instructions and telling them off. But what Paul is saying in his response here is that he sees his task is to teach them about the love of God in Christ, and how to see the world in the light of that reality. This follows on from last week’s passage, where he teaches that our human bodies, our earthly frame, is temporary, and that we should look for the eternal habitation we shall have, made possible through the life and death of Jesus.

    This Christian understanding should shape our bearing towards others, because Christ died for all. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” How different the world would be if people stopped to consider how they were judging other people; do we see other people merely from a human point-of-view, or as people made in God’s image?

    Of course, there were times when Jesus was filled with righteous anger over the actions or words of other people, and expressed that anger – like the occasion of the cleansing of the Temple, when he overthrew the tables of the money-changers. But in the parables, his teachings were designed to cause people to look at their own lives, not those of others, and not even he condemned the woman taken in adultery. ‘Let the one among you without sin be the first to throw a stone’, he told her accusers, before telling her “Go, and do not sin again.”

    Later, we’re going to sing the hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”, with the lines:

    The love of God is broader / than the measures of man’s mind;

    And the heart of the Eternal/ is most wonderfully kind.

    But we make his love too narrow / by false limits of our own;

    And we magnify his strictness / with a zeal he will not own.

    There is plentiful redemption/ in the blood that has been shed.

    There is grace enough for thousands. “

    A prayer for this week: ‘Dear Jesus, may I be trusting as a small seed, and willing to put down my roots in the soil of your gospel. Through prayer may I grow strong; through good works may I grow loving, until the time when you are ready to gather me into your kingdom. Amen.’

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