Saturday, June 13, 2009


Mark 4:26-34

When Joseph, our new Ghanaian friend, first came to live with us, I took him on a tour of the house and garden. When we went out into the garden, I proudly showed him our pond, our wildflower border, and our carefully trimmed bushes. I then pointed to what, last year, was a feeble attempt at a vegetable patch. I told Joseph that we had grown some rather pathetic vegetables there last year, but that this year we were planning to grow some more wildflowers and meadow grass. His response was fascinating.

"Flowers!" he said, "Flowers! You can't use God's good earth to grow flowers! Earth is for growing food!"

I protested. "But we can get all the food we want from the supermarket - for a lot less hassle!"

"And where do supermarkets get their food from then?" asked Joseph. "And how much do they charge you for them? You could get all the food you want from your own garden, for free!"

I have to confess, his logic was irresistible...and so began the task of preparing the ground for new vegetables. It was back-breaking work...but now that we've got potatoes, and courgettes, and tomatoes and beetroot and lettuce and all sorts of other lovely stuff popping up through the soil...I think its going to be worth it.

If the slugs don't get there first!

Jesus, of course, lived in an agricultural community. Unless they could till the soil, or throw out the fishing nets, most people in Jesus time would have starved. That's why Jesus' parables are so often connected to the land, or the sea, in some way. It was an image drawn from everyday life. People knew straight away what he was talking about. So when he talked about growing seeds, or the tiny mustard seed that becomes one of the largest of all plants, we can imagine the people around him nodding, agreeing, empathising with what he was saying.

But for us, unless we've grown our own food, some of the intimate connection with these stories can be missing. Of course, we all know the theory...we all know something about how seed grow, for example. But unlike the people of Jesus' day, we are not engaged with growing crops every day. We do not have those daily reminders that people who live off the soil have. Once you have heard the parable of the sower, it is impossible to sow your own seeds without being reminded of the story. As you are sowing, you see some seeds fall onto stones, or onto the path, or into the good soil...and you remember the parable. But that is not the experience of most people. In fact, I'm quite sure that if Jesus had lived today, he would have used some very different stories.

Many - if not most - of Jesus' stories are aimed at illustrating what the Kingdom of his father is like. Perhaps if Jesus had been talking to us, he might have said something like...

"The Kingdom of heaven is like a woman who goes shopping on North End High Street. As she wanders down the road, she decides to spend her money in certain shops. In the first shop, a bakery, she finds some delicious cream cakes, which she eagerly consumes But verily, the fat from those same cakes has attached itself to her thighs...and she feeleth miserable! A little further along the road, she wanders into a betting shop (of which there are a plethora on North End High Street!). Tempted by the slimmest chance that her life would be better if she had more money, she puts a £20 bet on a horse. And verily, the horse falls over at the first fence, and the woman is sore afraid of what her family will say. Her sorrow and fear is such that her next stop is in the Wetherspoons pub, where verily, there is a special offer on. The woman decides to drown her sorrows in a vodka glass or three, and reviews her situation. She realises that she has now gained weight, lost money, and is thoroughly bazooka'ad. What will she do?

Overweight, skint and drunk, she staggers into the St Mark's Community Cafe, where she sits exhausted with life upon a chair. A Cafe volunteer comes over to her, and hears the story of her awful day. He gives her a free cup of strong coffee, and some free advice on the benefit of eating five fruit and vegetable portions a day. He encourages her to be strong when passing the door of one of the many betting shops... and to use her money to bring pleasure and health to her family, rather than to the family of the book-maker. Strengthened by his sound advice, the woman decides to change the whole pattern of her life...and lives happily ever after!

It's a crude analogy, I know...but I genuinely think it is the kind of parable that Jesus would have told. It's a bit of a blend of the Prodigal Son, and the Parable of the Seed, and the Good Samaritan!

One of the points of such parables was to demonstrate that we have clear choices to make, about the kind of people we want to be. The Kingdom of God is a place of growth and positivity. It's a place where people choose to live in a way that embraces life in all its fullness, not fullness as a substitute for life. In other words, the Kingdom of God is a way of living that brings fullness of the spirit... not a way of living which wrongly assumes that being full - of food, of possessions, of bank-account - is the way to happiness.

But there's more. Not only is the Kingdom of God about the choices that we make - its also about the choice that God makes...a choice to keep on acting in our lives, and in the world, drawing us ever onwards, deeper and deeper into the Divine Life. That is one of the possible meanings for the first of Jesus parables in the Gospel reading we just heard.

Jesus says, essentially, that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who scatters seed in his field - and then goes off and forgets about it. He sleeps, he goes about during the day doing other things...but all the while, the seed is sprouting and growing - until it becomes ready for harvest.

One way of looking at this parable, is certainly to say that God's seed in our hearts, his seed of love, has a way of keeping on ever much we forget him. We might forget God, but God never forgets us. God is constantly at work within us, and around us, and through us. We can forget God, obscure God, seek even to run from God...but God never stops reaching out to us.

That's why, as the choir will sing a little later, God sent Jesus into the world. Because, you see, God so loves the world, that he sends his son - not to condemn the world, but to transform it, to re-make it, to build it, to heal it, to 'save' it. And, like the Hebrew mustard seed which grows into a mighty bush, Jesus' actions among us and for us and in us keep on growing.

Of course, there are other ways of looking at this parable of the 'growing seed' - other ways that are just as in tune with the purposes of God. That's the beauty of parables. They can have many layers of meaning, all wrapped up in simple story. One other way, for example, is to view the farmer as us, instead of God. We are capable of sowing seeds. We are capable of touching other lives with small gifts of love - and then going about our own business oblivious to the growth that then takes place. Consider, for example, the potential effect of, say, a gift of five pounds, given to save the sight of one child in Africa. Imagine that child, then, as a result of not having lost their sight, going on to become a politician who solves the current crisis in Zimbabwe...or who becomes a doctor that saves the lives of thousands of others. Five small seed...can indeed become a mighty tree.

And that's not just true for Africa. It's true in the life of our own church. The mustard seed of time, given to raise money for our ministry here, means that week by week, day by day, people in this parish are being blessed by our presence among them. School assemblies, people who are mourning, people celebrating their marriage (as a couple did here yesterday) people growing in their own walk with God, lonely people needing visits in their own home - all of this takes place because of the seeds YOU sow, every time you give up time, or indeed money, to keep this church running.

So may you be encouraged this morning; encouraged by the knowledge that God never gives up on us, however much we forget God. May you be encouraged that even the smallest gift that you sow, can grow into a mighty tree. May you be encouraged to know that we worship a God who is on the move; in us, around us and through us...planting his seeds as we plant our own. Amen

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Holy, Holy, Holy - the Three in One God

Preached at St Nicholas' Church, Battenburg Avenue, Portsmouth on Sunday 7th June 09
Note: This sermon is loosely based on an idea of Rob Bell from his DVD "The God's Aren't Angry" .

Once upon time there was a cave woman, who lived in cave-women did in those days. Outside her cave was a tree. And verily, it came to pass, that Cave-woman noticed something about this tree. She noticed that when it rained, the tree seemed to come alive. She also noticed that after just the right amount of rain and sun, and at certain times of the year, the tree produced delicious fruit that she could gather for food.
Now Cave-Woman had a cave-husband - who wasn't especially interested in fruit. He preferred his food to have been running around before he killed it and ate it, fresh. Cave-husband used to go off with his mates to hunt animals. Sometimes they would be gone for days at a time...and when they returned home, they would talk about the hunt, around the campfire. Each hunt was different. Sometimes it would be an easy hunt. Sometimes they would have to chase their prey for days and days. Cave-husband and his mates used to talk about each hunt as if it had its own spirit. They wondered why each hunt was so different. Could it be that someone, or something, was affecting how each hunt went?
Cave-woman would listen to these stories around the campfire. She saw similarities between the hunters' talk about the hunt, and her own observations about her tree...the one outside her cave. She had noticed that the amount of fruit her tree produced would alter from season to season, and by how much rain or sun there had been.
One night, Cave-woman said to Cave-husband, "I wonder whether there are forces that interfere in some way with my tree, and your hunt". "Hmm," replied Cave-husband, "perhaps you are right." That would explain why every hunt is different. I wonder if there is a way to communicate with these make them do what we want them to do for us?" Cave-woman thought for a moment. "Where do you think these forces might be?" she asked. "Well," replied Cave-husband, "I reckon they must be up in the sky...looking down on us. After all, that's where the big burning yellow thing is. And that's where the rain comes from. They must be sent by these forces".
"I know!" said Cave-woman "What if we were to put some of my fruit, and some of your last hunt up on the top of that hill...and maybe set fire to it? Then the forces will smell the smoke from our food, and will know that we are grateful to them...that we are not keeping it all for ourselves. Maybe then they will help us to find more food?" "Great idea," said Cave-husband. "Let's do it!"
And so began the practice of making burnt offerings to the forces in the sky...forces that came to be known as 'the gods'. There were gods for everything. Gods of fruit, gods of rain, gods of the hunt, gods of the lake. One of my favourites is the god of beer! And the more that people thought about these gods, the more connected to them they became. But, over time, this business of trying to please the gods became a bit of a problem. People began to puzzle over why the gods didn't always respond to their offerings and prayers. A time of drought would come; but no matter how much food was burned on the top of the mountain - as a gift to the rain god - no rain would fall. More and more food was offered, but still the rain didn't come. Now the people found that they had burned all their food...and still there was no rain. People started to ask themselves whether something more was required by the gods. Perhaps the gods were angry, and needed something even more. An even greater sacrifice.
"Perhaps," they said to themselves, "perhaps if we were to cut ourselves, and let some of our blood fall onto the hill-top...perhaps the gods would then know how sorry we were for whatever it is we have done to offend them. Perhaps then they would send the rain?". So people began to cut themselves, and whip themselves, letting their blood fall on the mountain-top. But still the rain didn't come.
"What else can we do?" the people asked themselves. And then, one day, some bright spark said, "perhaps the gods need an even greater sacrifice, before they will come to our aid. Perhaps we must sacrifice something that is so precious to us - something we could not bear to live without. Perhaps we should sacrifice one of our very own children?!" There was initial horror at this suggestion. "Surely not! No! We can't do that". But still the rain didn't come. And after many weeks of arguing, it was decided to draw lots, to see whose child would have to be sacrificed on the hill-top. Eventually, one family, unwillingly, desparately, for the good of the people, agreed to let one of their children be sacrificed.
And the day after, the rains came. That did it. That happy co-incidence meant that now people thought they understood what the gods wanted. And so all sorts of horrific sacrifices began...human sacrifices, child sacrifices. Children's bodies were built into the walls of houses - to protect the house from evil, by pleasing the local gods. Children were carried up to mountain-tops, at key points of the year, and sacrificed to bring the spring.
Into that kind of world, and that kind of culture, the Bible tells us that a certain man came. His name was Abraham - and he was a traveller. He explored the world around him, and travelled for many miles around the world as he knew it. As he travelled, he became convinced that all these small gods were false, that at best they were pale manifestations of one supreme being, one God above all other gods, one creative force that bound the universe together. For a while, however, he still imagined that this one God had the same bloodlust as all the small gods. And so when, at a great old age, he unexpectedly became a dad, he thought that his duty was to sacrifice his new son to God. So he set off for a nearby mountain-top, to carry out his duty.
But when he got to the mountain-top, he had what we think of as a mountain-top experience. Suddenly, it all became clear. "Why," he thought, "would God give me the wonderful gift of this son, just to have me kill him as a sacrifice? It doesn't make any sense. Surely there is another reason why I have been given a son at such a great age?" At that moment, he noticed a ram, with its horns caught in the bushes on the side of the mountain. He saw this as a sign...a sign from God that indeed, the sacrifice of children was not what God wanted. Joyfully, he caught hold of the ram...and sacrificed it instead, as a substitute for his son. A new day had dawned in the world's understanding of God.
Over the centuries that followed, Abraham's descendants slowly began to change the world's understanding of what God was like. Abraham's many-time great great grandson, Moses, eventually managed to write-up a body of law which limited the sacrifices that people could make to them to something rather more reasonable than the sacrifice of a precious child. A dove, a sheep, a cow - a simple transaction which amounted to: sacrifice this thing, and walk away, knowing that you've done all that needs to be done. Sacrifice just this much, and no more, to be sure that God is pleased with you.
But even this limit on sacrifice didn't go far enough for some. People known as prophets rose up from among the people and said to them "Don't bother any more with your sacrifices of animals. God doesn't want you doing that anymore. He isn't interested in you trying to earn his love...he loves you anyway. What he wants is for you to live as he calls you to live openly, honestly, generously and lovingly towards your neighbours." But these prophets were largely ignored. Thankfully, their words were written down for us...we can read their frustrated cries in the pages of the Hebrew Bible. But they were still ignored. After all, the leaders of the people, the priests, had grown very wealthy on the system of sacrificing. They had lots and lots of very good financial reasons to continue going on just the way they were. Until another man entered human history...
That man was none other than Jesus of Nazareth - a man who was so in touch with God, so obviously connected to God that people began to speak of him as the Son of God. He was a man like no other. He talked to God in an intimate way...setting aside the language of fear and awe which had been used of God in the past. Instead, he spoke about God as a heavenly Father...someone whose whole being was bent on loving the world, on caring for it, on making it a better place. He introduced the people to a God whose actions in the world were always for the benefit of the world...the world which he himself had created.
But this Jesus was ahead of his time. Those religious leaders who had so much wealth invested in the old system of sacrifice - they saw him as a threat to their way of life, to their power. And so they killed him. They arranged for him to be nailed onto a cross of wood.
And then something wonderful happened. Somehow, the Jesus who had been murdered, came back to life. He appeared again to his followers, and promised them that he would always be with them. And he promised that the loving, heavenly Father that he had taught them about would always be with them too. And, even more than that, he promised them that God's Spirit would always be among them...leading them ever onwards into a deeper and deeper understanding of who God was, and who they were.
And that, dear friends, is why today we celebrate the feast of the Trinity. We believe in a God who is anything but a small rain god, or an insignificant fruit-tree God. We believe in a God who is anything but some kind of force who may, or may not, respond to human attempts to gain his favour. Instead, we believe in a God who is the Creator of the Universe, the source of everything that exists. We believe in a God who loves his creation with a passion so great that he turned round the whole idea of human sacrifice by sacrificing himself. His message to the world, on that cross of wood, was "Look! I don't want your sacrifices of blood. I'm going to sacrifice myself just to show you how little I need your children and your animals to be slain. Look! I can do all that is necessary myself...your animals even your own children could never be as precious as me. I don't want your blood...I want your love. I don't want you to try and appease my anger...I want you to just start living right - I want you to have life to the full!
We believe in a God who is so devoted to his creation - like a mother is devoted to her children - that he gives us his own power, deep within us, to draw us ever onwards towards the depth of his being. We believe not in a god who is angry, capricious and blood-thirsty - but who is Holy, Holy, Holy. We believe in a God who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of the world. Mother, healer and life-force. Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Cave-woman and Cave-man - perhaps their names were something like Adam and Eve - they had caught a glimpse of this God. They had understood, deep down, that there were divine, spiritual, other-worldly forces at play...that there was more to life than just the molecules on which they stood. They took the first steps towards trying to understand that nature of those forces...but, like all of us, they made mistakes.
Their story is also our story. We too have glimpsed something of the divine nature of the universe...but our human senses are too weak, too frail, too cluttered with the very business of surviving to be able to completely understand the nature of the divine force which surrounds us and sustains us. We are still on a journey of discovery.
We still don't understand entirely how our bodies manage to operate. We don't understand how the taking in of the oxygen we breathe manages to keep us alive...we just know that it does.  So how could we imagine that we are ready to know how the creative force of God sustains all things?  But we are learning. Like our ancestors who, piece by piece, assembled the jigsaw that we call the Bible... we are beginning to get it. We are beginning to understand that God, Father Son and Holy Spirit; Mother, Healer and Life-giver; Holy Holy Holy is intimately bound up with our existence... creating us, healing us, sustaining us.
There is much that is still mysterious to us. There is much that people will tell us we must believe that we ought to be wise enough to hold a clue to the true nature of God, but not the final word. But there is much that we can be certain of...much that is worth embracing. Love, healing, wholeness and life to the full...these are the stuff of a worthwhile, continued search for the three-in-one God. Amen?