A parable for our time

This is a real-life parable – it happened at holiday club this week. It could have been played out in any classroom or playground anywhere. Or perhaps on the world stage…

I look across the room and see Child B snatch a ball from Child A, at which point Child A hits Child B over the head, repeatedly. I rush across to them and say “Stop! Now!”

It could be that Child A had been the first to snatch the ball, and Child B was just retaliating. It could be that Child A has already kicked Child B, or Child B has bitten Child A earlier in the day. I don’t know.

Certainly both children need to say sorry, and tell me they’re not going to do it again.

But none of that matters until one child stops hitting the other. In that moment, when damage is being done, the only thing to say is “Stop!”

Let anyone with ears listen.

Sermon for All Age Service of the Word 27th July 2014 (Romans 8.26-end; Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52)

Before the gospel, I gave each child a symbol of one of the parabes: mustard seeds, yeast, a pearl, a treasure chest and a fishing net. When they heard their item mentioned in the gospel reading, they brought it up and placed it on a table at the front.

May I speak in the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Here in front of me we have five items: some mustard seeds, some yeast, a pearl, some treasure, and a fishing net. I wonder, is there anything they have in common?

Jesus uses all sorts of things to help people understand more about what the kingdom of heaven is like. None of them tells us what the kingdom of heaven is exactly. The God’s kingdom isn’t a mustard seed, or a pearl, or a fishing net. But each of them tells us something about what the kingdom of heaven is like.

And we need these ways of exploring, wondering, thinking more about what God’s kingdom is like, what God is like. Because the kingdom of heaven is beyond any words we might use to describe it, and so is God. That’s why stories, parables, are important to help us come closer to understanding that which is beyond words.

This brings us back to the start of our first reading: “The spirit helps us in our weakness”. God knows that we can’t understand everything about the kingdom of heaven. And so, just as the Holy Spirit prays through us with sighs too deep for words, so too the Spirit speaks to us beyond words in these parables Jesus told.

In the way he uses parables and stories and examples to reveal things about God and God’s kingdom, Jesus shows us that there are more ways to approach and understand God than just by the intellect. The parables are a starting point, and jumping off point for exploring and discovering more about what God is saying to us. And that often works better when we explore and wonder together.

I’d like us to explore one of these parables together this morning. Please could everybody take a mustard seed.

[mustard seed reflection]

? [silence – reflect on another object]

? [Taize – The kingdom of God is justice and peace]

So what can we say about the kingdom of heaven? Many things, perhaps. But one that I want to say is this: the kingdom of heaven is already here.

Some churches are fond of talking about “building the kingdom” but I don’t think that’s what we’re called to do. God has already built God’s kingdom, which is both now and not-yet, both here and to come.

“The kingdom of God is among you” Jesus tells the Pharisees, and it is among us too, if we will only have eyes to see. The kingdom of God is among us because God is with us and, as Paul reminds us in today’s first reading nothing – absolutely nothing – can separate any one of us from the infinite love of God, on which God’s kingdom is built.

Our task is simply to abide in God’s kingdom, to look for it amongst us, to seek it out and to point it out.

And parables help us with that. They help us to make sense of what we experience but cannot fully understand. These stories Jesus told become interwoven with our own stories, as we seek and see the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

When priests are ordained in the Church of England, the bishop reminds them that “they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation.” That task is shared by all of us. I wonder what signs of God’s kingdom you see? In your workplace, school, family, neighbourhood? What signs are there of the kingdom of heaven, God’s new creation, in this church? How is love shown, prayer answered, blessing given?

Watch for those signs, wait in expectation, and when you see them, be ready, be eager, to proclaim the coming of the kingdom.

Amen.

 

 

Wheat and weeds: a sermon on Matthew 13.24-30,36-43

I am posting (unusually) the version of the sermon I preached at 8 o’clock BCP Holy Communion. What I preached at the 9.45 All Age Eucharist bore little resemblence to what I’d written for it, and I haven’t written down what I said, so that one’s lost to posterity! But the basic jist was the same.

May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Of all the stories Jesus tells, this morning’s gospel reading is one of the ones I find hardest to understand even though, unusually, Jesus does provide some explanation. But stories, especially difficult, challenging, ambiguous stories, are important. Stories are key to the way we understand and communicate our faith. Bible stories, our own stories, stories of the saints, all part of God’s story. The church is a story-formed community. Our stories are part of who we are and who we say God is. They are part of how we live out our faith.

Jesus knew the power of stories. He used stories to teach, told parables, not to tell people information, but to encourage them to think and ask and wonder, to frame questions and look for answers. And that’s a process we’re still doing – asking questions together, not with an expectation of finding a “right” answer, but in the belief that this is how we learn more about who God is and who we are as God’s people.

This week I have been at a conference where I heard the eminent American theologian John Westerhoff speak about how we share and nurture faith. He had this to say about parables: “If you hear a parable and don’t feel uncomfortable, assume you don’t get it and go back and try it again.” Parables are intended to unsettle, to subvert, to make us ask questions which will lead us to new understandings of God.

And this parable, about the wheat and the weeds, the mingling and growing together of good and evil, certainly raises questions. What is evil? What is good? How do we tell the difference? Is anyone entirely good or entirely evil? How do we distinguish between good and evil in the world, in ourselves? These are big questions, important questions, questions to keep on wondering and thinking and talking about.

But what I want to focus on is this: the wheat and the weeds are intertwined; good and evil are mixed together, inseparable, hard to know which is which. And that’s true – it can be very hard to distinguish between good and evil in the world, even in our selves. It isn’t like separating out the goodies and baddies in a fairy story. This isn’t that kind of story.

Evil exists in the world. Suffering exists in the world. That much couldn’t be plainer, if you turned on the news at all this week. Does God cause evil to exist in the world? No. Does God allow evil to exist in the world? Yes. Can we fully understand that? Perhaps not.

But there is an intrinsic link between suffering and death on the one hand, and life and growth on the other. That’s one of the things this parable tells us. It’s also what the greater story of God and humanity tells us. Later in the service we will hear another part of that story re-told: at the altar Hugh will recall in the words of the Eucharistic prayer the story of Jesus’ last supper as he prepared for death on the cross, with all the suffering that entails. But those very words are life-giving, the ultimate suffering of Christ preparing us to receive new life in his body and blood every time we gather together.

Good and evil are intertwined. We can’t separate them out any more than the wheat and the weeds can be separated until God’s time is right. That’s part of the story, the question, the mystery we live with. All the stories we use, all the language we use, about God is metaphorical. It’s a tool to bring us closer to the mystery at the heart of God’s being, which is beyond language.

And that unknowable mystery is the good news we have, the gospel we proclaim. God is greater than we can know or understand. But God chooses to be in relationship with us, and so God gives us stories, to reveal something of what God is like. And those stories, even when they puzzle, confuse or unsettle us, are good news for us and good news to share.

Let us go on wondering and questioning and growing together as we live out God’s story in this place.

Amen.

After the vote – what next?

In the last 24hrs I’ve cried in public, been asked by several complete strangers what I’m grinning about, and literally bounced up and down, quite a bit! And why have I been making such an exhibition of myself? Because the General Synod of the Church of England has passed legislation enabling whomever God is calling to be bishops to be ordained as such, irrespective of gender. And I’m really excited! (Also relieved, delighted and a bit overwhelmed.)

I’ve no ambition to be a bishop or even a priest. The ministry to which God has called me has long been open to women. So why does this mean so much to me?

This is not just about recognising the calling of individual women to the episcopate. It’s not even just about women. It’s about justice. It’s about the outworking of God’s kingdom. It’s about the Holy Spirit leading the church one step closer to the truth that God’s love and grace and calling are given freely, generously, and to everyone.

And perhaps the most exciting thing about synod’s decision is this: we are about to see a generation of women who have never been told by the church that there are things they can’t do because they are women. A generation of women who have never had their vocation denied, or seen another woman’s vocation denied, by the church because of their gender. A generation of women in the church who have never been told “God doesn’t call women to x”, never been ‘put in their place’, never been told to sit down and shut up. A generation of women who have grown up seeing strong female role-models in the church – lay and ordained – and thought nothing of it, just seen it as ‘normal’.

And we shouldn’t underestimate that. The girls I see now in my toddler group will, God willing, be that generation. And that generation, men and women, will grow up in a church where limiting according to gender the ways in which someone can follow God’s call is no longer acceptable. For this generation, for the church to discriminate on grounds of gender will simply be unthinkable.

And I hope and pray this will make them more attuned to other inequalities, less tolerant of the discrimination which the church still perpetrates against LGBTI people, disabled people and others. I hope this generation, who have never known sexism enshrined in the canons of the established church, will be outraged by the injustices they see. I hope and pray they will lead the church into a more equal, more just way of being, closer to the kingdom of God. And I’m excited about that.

I’m excited too at the prospect of a generation of women who haven’t had to spend so much time and energy justifying their very existence to the church they serve. I’m excited about what God will do with and through that generation. I don’t know what the Spirit will do with the freedom and liberation conferred on this generation by synod’s vote yesterday, but I think it will be a sight to see….. watch this space!

At morning prayer this morning we prayed Psalm 89:

” I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my lips I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.”

This is a great move forward for the Church of England. It is a step towards the total liberation, grace and love which God offers to all. And it is good news for this generation and generations to come.