Sermon for 16.07.17
Last Thursday the children in Year 6 at St Paul’s School performed a very entertaining and informative play about learning from history, leading up to the vision of a future where the environment is blighted. The play challenges us to realize that the events of today are the history of tomorrow, and we can make a difference to how that history will be written by taking responsibility for the planet.
When I was the same age as the Year 6 pupils, like every other American child I learned about an early environmentalist known as Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman. He was born in 1774 in Massachusetts, but he made his name in the Midwest, where he was famous for planting apple trees far and wide. The part of Ohio where I grew up was in the heart of the area where he was most active. The picture we all had of him, though it’s not quite historically accurate, was of a barefoot itinerant, scattering seeds at random from the big sack he carried on his back as he marched on through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. We used to sing a table grace based on his story, thanking God for giving us the things we need, the sun and the rain and the appleseed. Johnny was a missionary preacher and a vegetarian, quite a character in his day.
The result of this Midwestern education is that I am quite incapable of hearing the Parable of the Sower without thinking of Johnny Appleseed. And I don’t think that’s a bad analogy. According to the legend, Johnny scattered seeds as he went along and didn’t worry about which ones became trees, though in actual fact, to give him his due, he was careful about planting nurseries and leaving them in the care of others. In any case, he planted in hope and trusted God to give the increase.
Jesus famously told this story to his disciples, and then took the trouble to explain it in detail, to prepare them for the ministry of sharing the good news that he was entrusting to them. He warned them not to worry about the results of their work. I think he must have foreseen the world of annual diocesan returns!
We are obsessed nowadays with measuring outcomes. Of course there are many good reasons for this. A careless attitude to the use of limited resources means that we may waste a lot of time and money on doing things that have limited benefits. It is important for the NHS and schools and the police to scrutinise their costs and calculate the results of the choices they make. They are spending our money, after all. And businesses rightly comb through their spreadsheets to see how the shareholders’ profits can be maximised by wise decision-making throughout the process of designing, manufacturing and selling their goods.
But the Church, though it is undoubtedly an institution, and probably the longest-surviving one in the world, isn’t a public service or a for-profit company. It isn’t just a charity, though the law regards it as such and expects the same kind of accounting that any charity must provide.
The Church is the Body of the risen Christ. Its members are the baptised, and its identity and purpose are found in the Eucharist. Its task is to be sent out after every celebration of the Eucharist, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to live and work to God’s praise and glory. We are fed here in order to scatter the seed beyond the walls of this building.
And scattering, or sowing, is the right picture, I believe. It’s a kind of planting, but it’s a bit different from the orderly business of preparing soil and then planting and watering and weeding.
We hear a lot about church plants these days. There are two quite near us, one at Holy Trinity Swiss Cottage and one at St Luke Kentish Town. Both of them are part of the Holy Trinity Brompton family of churches, and they follow a well-thought-out template, where a struggling or defunct parish is carefully prepared for an influx of committed, usually young, Christians from a thriving church. They engage with their community, put on lively worship services and offer a very warm welcome to all comers. These are excellent things to do and the numerical results have been really encouraging. The Diocese of London is strongly committed to this model of church growth and we even have a new Bishop of Islington, Ric Thorpe, whose whole focus is on helping parishes plant new congregations and fresh expressions of church.
But this isn’t the only way, or the only right way, to be part of God’s mission in the world. A very different model has been on TV over the past few weeks, in the series Broken starring Sean Bean as a middle-aged Roman Catholic priest in a depressed northern town. His character, Fr Michael Kerrigan, is not a successful religious professional with a five-year Mission Action Plan and SMART targets. He seems to be reactive rather than proactive. He struggles with his own history of childhood abuse and he is painfully aware of the problems his community members face – austerity, addiction, racism, corruption and all the disadvantages that go with being poor in a rich society.
In the midst of all this, what Fr Michael sows is hope. Not a sunny Pollyanna type of good cheer, but the hope that is born out of suffering, death and resurrection. He speaks little, but he listens intently, and his words and actions are always deeply personal and honest. He makes mistakes and he must live with some catastrophic failures. His annual returns to the diocese probably make depressing reading. But the encounters he has with people in need are profoundly moving. It is clear that just being listened to, loved and forgiven is transformative for those who are in despair.
What Fr Michael has to cope with is the impossibility of controlling outcomes. If you haven’t yet caught this series, I don’t want to give any spoilers, but sometimes the results of his pastoral encounters are not what he has hoped and prayed for. Sometimes people are overwhelmed and defeated by the trials they face. And Fr Michael has to live with these failures in the lives of his parishioners and also in his own damaged personality. In the end it is the crucified Christ he looks at, as he prepares again and again to preside at Mass, and he knows that he is no hero but just the instrument of a love that is infinitely deep.
He sows that love and that hope, wherever he can, and leaves the outcome to God. That is what priestly ministry is. It is also, in many ways, what parenthood is, though of course as parents we always have the opportunity to till and tend the soil and nurture the growth, because we are connected to and responsible for the young plants. But though our loving connection never ceases, our responsibility does. We want our children to be independent adults, and the time comes when we must watch from the sidelines as they make their own choices and their own mistakes. Their successes are their own, even though we have done what we can to make them possible. There are no guarantees in childrearing except that we will be transformed by the experience of loving another so profoundly and with such protective passion.
As Christian parents we try to sow the seeds of faith, but the results are beyond our control. The seeds may fall on the wayside because our children are not ready or interested to receive what we are trying to offer. They may have good early results but not long-lasting ones. I often reflect on the keenness of children aged eight or nine to become communicants, who then find Sunday morning tennis or dancing or rugby or parties to be more enticing than coming to church week after week. As young people grow up and think for themselves they may become entangled with the thorns that assail any Christian in our day – the forces of materialism and atheism and the ethical challenge from those who rightly condemn the Church’s many failures to protect children or welcome diversity.
We may hope for good growth and an abundant harvest, but the results are not under our control. And let’s be perfectly honest, it’s not just children growing up who face these problems of thin soil or choking weeds and thorns. It’s all of us.
We can only do what Fr Michael does in Broken, and continue to listen intently, respond honestly, and acknowledge our failures. Again and again we have to look to Christ, crucified and risen, who carries the pain of the world, and not to our own strength. We are just the travellers with the sack of seed. It is God who gives the growth.