Sunday 13th July 2014
St Mary’s Hadlow
Heavenly Father, May the words of my lips reflect something of your written word, and so lead us closer to your living word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
As most of you probably know I spent last week in the Isles of Scilly, which lie just off the coast of Cornwall, enjoying a little bit of rest and recreation in one of my favourite places in the world, excepting Hadlow of course. I spent a little bit of time bobbing about in boats and if anyone is worried that a sailing holiday is not sufficiently priestly I was pleased to see in this week’s gospel that when he needed a little bit of peace and quiet Jesus himself was not averse to going off in a boat.
The Isles of Scilly are an archipelago of both inhabited and uninhabited islands and rocks the particular island we stayed on was Tresco. In case you don’t know the difference between an island and a rock I can tell you that an island has enough grass on to support one sheep for one year – any less and it is a rock. If you remember nothing else, remember that!
It is difficult to explain but there is something about those islands which brings me closer to the raw creative energy of God. Perhaps it is the waves crashing on tumbled granite rocks, the wind blowing straight off the Atlantic, the enormous blue skies, and even sometimes the enormous stormy skies which reminds me that when God brought the universe into being in a huge explosion of energy that his creative word was sheer, elemental power. I am going to come back to something else about Tresco in a moment.
Because our imaginations are almost unable to deal with the scale of creation in the universe it seems to me that we often like to tame God, to make God smaller, in the way in which we talk about him, in the way in which we think about him, and the way in which we pray to him. Sometimes the God we talk about is, perhaps, a little bit older than us and, perhaps, a little bit wiser than us, although we still often think that we know better. And yet, if we take seriously the thought that God created the universe then, although he may not inhabit time and space in the same way that we do, nevertheless the mind of God has seen 13 billion years of our time pass, he has seen or will see goodness knows how much future time pass, and he is equally God of the whole universe as he is of this planet.
This is not a small God, this is not a tame God, this is not a God whom we can assume shares our prejudices and tastes. This is not just a God who sits with us watching cricket on the village green, this is a God whose imagination bestrides the whole of creation. Yes, he created the wind and the waves and the granite but he also created the storms of Jupiter, the dust of Mars and the mountains of planets we have not yet even dreamt of in galaxies we have not glimpsed.
Our God is truly a great, big, God.
But when start to think about the vastness of God as evidenced by the vastness of creation we shouldn’t make the mistake of shrinking ourselves and imagining that we are somehow unimportant. On the contrary the bible tells us that each and every one of us is precious in God’s sight. Psalm 139 reminds us that God made us individually and knew us before we knew ourselves:
“For you created my inmost being;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
And the Gospel of Luke reminds us that there is no part of his creation that is not precious to God:
. 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
And of course the vastness and the literal universality of God does not detract from the truth that God created humanity in his image and that God then created himself in the image of humanity by being born into the person of Jesus Christ. And I make no apology for having said that before because this is one of the central truths of our faith and bears proclamation week after week:
The God who created everything, everywhere from the beginning of time also created you and me and he knows us better than we know ourselves. And despite the fact that he knows us he still loves us and he was born as one of us in order to save us, in a sense to pull us out of the vastness of an ever expanding universe in which we seem small, into the vastness of his ever expanding love in which we have infinite value and are of infinite worth.
And yet, here is a paradox worthy of much thought: through the power of his spoken word God brought the universe into being and through the power of his living word, Jesus Christ, God redeems creation from its fall. But God never forces his word on anyone and in today’s Gospel reading Jesus reminds us that when hearing and responding to the word of God, the seed of the good news, God never seeks to take away either our individuality or our free will.
In the parable of the sower Jesus talks about the seed of God’s word being sown into different types of soil, which is the receptiveness of people’s hearts and souls. In some people there is no openness at all and the seed of God’s word never gets a chance to germinate, in those with shallow soil it may germinate and spring up quickly in a rush of enthusiasm but then wither away and die in time of drought because there are no roots to draw on deep streams. In others the word of God seems to flourish for a time but is then overtaken by the cares and concerns of this world and never reaches its full potential. We shall hear more about the parable of the weeds next week. And in some the word of God germinates, reaches its full potential and bears much fruit or grain for the world.
Although I am slowly getting into the joys of gardening I am not, on the whole, someone who thinks too much about different types or depths of soil. You may or may not be relieved to hear that, I don’t know. But when thinking afresh about the imagery of this parable I could not help but be reminded of Tresco. I told you I would come back to that. The southern, sheltered end of the island is home to the famous Tresco Abbey Gardens. It was started over 150 years ago by the owner of the island and it is an amazing collection of sub-tropical plants, growing in the open, as they hardly ever get frost or snow there, and the woods
around the garden feel more like a majestic jungle than any part of England. There is undoubtedly good, deep soil there capable of supporting all this life. And yet only a two mile walk to the northern end of the island tells a very different story. On top of the hills there is no shelter from the Atlantic wind and waves and the only plants growing there are gorse and lichen clinging on to the granite in millimetres of poor soil. A grain of wheat sown at the southern end would take well, although the gardeners would not be best pleased, but one sown at the north would either be blown away or eaten by a seagull.
Whatever type of imagery works best for us, I am sure we have no trouble understanding the truth behind the imagery – that some people are open to God and bear fruit and others do not.
But there is another interesting angle on this, and I am very grateful to someone here who corresponded with me during the week on this reading who put this at the forefront on my mind. Because of the nature of the parable it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the sowing of the seed of God’s word is a one-off event – the seed drops to the ground and will either germinate or not depending on what soil it finds. This feels a little random for many people, and this is the interesting part, does not take account of the fact that people change over time, even day to day and hour to hour. I can’t speak for you but I know that some days my heart is totally open to God and willing to bear fruit for him and other days may be, let’s say, different. Some people may be totally open to God as youngsters but become hardened as they get older, conversely others may be a million miles from God as children but more open as they mature and become more reflective. So what if the seed falls at the wrong time, when we are the wrong age or in the
wrong mood, do we miss our chance forever and are doomed never to bear fruit for God?
Well, of course, even using the language of the parable sowers don’t generally just sow seeds once in a lifetime – they may sow seeds once or twice or even three times a year. And of course this is just a parable. The reality of God, at least as I have experienced it, is that we have endless opportunities every single day to recognise God at work in the world, to hear his call and to respond. God the sower never stops sowing. At college I made a particular study of a second century Christian called Justin Martyr who wrote on the parable of the sower and he wrote how God sows his word, or logos, throughout the world and continually throughout time – this is not a one off event but a constant rain or, perhaps more positively, like standing in the beams of the sun.
And although we have free will to reject God if we wish we also have the free will to say yes to the sower of the good seed whenever we wish. And even if we feel that our hearts are like granite, covered in a thin layer of moss, that is not the end of the story because if God can create the universe and can knit us together in our mother’s wombs he can also change our hearts – in the words of Ezekiel 36:26
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
God wants nothing less for each of us than that we should receive his love with open and receptive hearts and that we should each allow that seed to blossom and bless the world through us. Harden not your hearts, ask God to take away your heart of stone and to give you a heart made of flesh.
Our God is a great big God. But God knows you – God loves you and wants to be known and loved by you – how will you receive him today?