What about me?

I have been away leading a retreat, and am writing this from my bolthole and forgot to bring a copy of the lectionary with me. The lectionary is the little booklet that sets out a pattern of readings throughout the year. I googled and the first verse that came up was from Exodus,

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.

Exodus 16:2

I wondered where this might take us, or even if it was the correct passage. To put this verse into context, the Israelites have just been freed from Egypt, remember the 10 plagues, the parting of the red sea, the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to guide the Israelites to the promise land? If we didn’t know the full story we might think that the Israelites would be excited to be breaking away from Egypt and making their way into the free world. The reality was that it took time for them to get used to their freedom, their feet were sore, the food (even if it was quite literally heavenly) was monotonous and boring… oh for a little meat.

It struck me that perhaps we are just likethe Israelites: it isn’t Egypt that we have been set free from, but the lockdown. OK so there are still restrictions, but our children are at school, many of us are back at work, and as long as we observe the ‘rule of 6’ we can meet with friends and family. Our churches are open for worship again, even if there are still some restrictions. We should be joyful, but I still hear some grumblings…

Perhaps this passage isn’t the right one, perhaps I misgoogled? The gospel passage for today confirms it though. It is the story of the owner of the vineyard who hires labourers to work on the land. Some he hires at the beginning of the day, some the middle, and some at the very end. He promises to pay each a ‘fair day’s wage’. At the end of the day those hired last are paid first and they are payed as if they had been working since dawn. The other workers get excited to see this and expect that the market price has been raised and that they will get a bonus for working longer hours; however nobody was hired on an hourly rate each was offered a ‘fair day’s wage’ and each accepted the agreement. And each was paid the same.

Perhaps this wasn’t fair, those who had been working the longest certainly thought so; but perhaps God doesn’t do ‘fair’, perhaps God does more than fair.

Those who were waiting in the market place were those closest to destitution: they had no regular employment and if they weren’t selected for work on any particular day then they would have nothing with which to feed their family. At the beginning of the day anyone needing work would meet in the market place and hope to be picked, by noon they could be pretty sure that they had missed out for the day. The big question here is why were there any workers still present? It was unlikely that there would be any more work on offer, but these men had remained hopeful and willing until the very end of the day, never giving up; and they were rewarded, unbelievably, with a fair day’s wage.

During lockdown some rather exciting things happened for clergy and ministers. As we arose to the challenge of on-line worship we found that our congregations were actually growing! Imagine that, the church (building) closed for business, but the church (in action) grew!

It was exciting to see people who wouldn’t normally feel able or comfortable enough to come to church become committed to tuning in and meeting with God in very real ways. Alleluia!

However, some of those who felt highly comfortable with the ‘sacred space’ of a church building, the prayers and liturgy, those how know when to stand up and sit down and who usually sits where, started to grumble. Not everyone, but some just didn’t like the idea of ‘online’ worship, were offended that holy moments were happening through social media of all things! Some didn’t now how to use ‘facebook’ and had perhaps, secretly thought that it was an instrument of the devil. So some stayed away, and grumbled.

Sad to say, some resented the time that the vicar was spending on worship that they weren’t personally tuning into. Some mourned the loss of income and quite naturally wondered how the church bills would be paid, and resented the ‘fact’ that they were giving financially, but those connecting with God online didn’t give. It wasn’t fair. But then, remember, God doesn’t do ‘fair’, God does grace and love and generosity beyond our comprehension.

Currently we find ourselves right in the mix: traditional worship is now taking places within our churches, even if it is without singing, or shaking hands, or the shared cup of communion; we are also trying to keep the connection with those who have found themselves enveloped in the love of God through the most unusual ways imaginable: through their phones and laptops.

The ‘old school’, those who were employed at the start of the day feel it is only right that these people should now ‘come to church’, fit in with tradition, and put their pennies in the collection plate. Perhaps they are right? How else can we be a ‘fellowship’ if we aren’t connected physically? But perhaps they aren’t? Perhaps these who were chosen at the end of the day have been abundantly blessed with unimaginable generosity, and who are we to judge?

There is no resolution to the parable, and I have no glib answers here. Each of us who have been blessed, nurtured, loved, supported by God this year need to find ways of acknowledging that with joy, and not with grumbles.

Read the story of the workers in the vineyard here.

In the beginning: Dinah

Dinah was the only daughter of Jacob. She had grown up amongst the boys, 12 in all, some older and some younger than her. She had been given perhaps more freedom than most girls her age and an early maturity from having only grown women as female friends. She observed the behaviour of her mothers, her birth mother Leah, her aunt and step mother Rachel, and her father’s two mistresses Zilpah and Bilhah, the envy between them and sense of competition regarding who could bear the most children. She saw their glow when they returned from his tent, and the sickness that preceded the growth of their bellies. She noticed how their hair would gleam and their cheeks become rosy the larger their bellies grew, and then witnessed the cries of anguish and pain as another brother was brought forth, which turned to joy as the child was cradled and nursed for the first time and a name given which flaunted their own pride.

Dinah watched her own body grow and change and likened herself to her mothers. She knew that she had been blessed by good looks, avoiding her mother’s weak eyes. She knew that her reputation as Jacob’s only Princess would stand her in good ground, and when she was given permission to visit the neighbouring women she was not blind to her advantage in status and stature.

She noticed Shechem before he cast his eye upon her. Shechem prince of the neighbouring region was handsome and strong and passionate, and as his soul was drawn towards her she was powerless to resist his charms, or his strength.

No permission had been given. Neither her father or her brothers had been addressed, no betrothal, no bride gifts: Shechem had acted too swiftly, his tender, loving words may have wooed Dinah, but her father saw only that his daughter had been defiled, and her brothers cried rape.

Hamor, Shechem’s father was sent to repair the damage, to mend bridges with his neighbour and to honour Dinah and her father with a generous and proper proposal of marriage. All was agreed, Dinah would be Shechem’s wife, and one day his Queen. Jacob’s sons though were still angry, their honour had been defiled along with their sister. It was not enough that a generous bride price should be paid, marriage could not restore her reputation, always she would be known as the ‘Queen’ who had been treated as a mistress, a whore. They plotted and schemed, their devious nature coming to the fore. How could they allow their daughter to be married to one who had not conformed to the covenant rituals commanded of all Jacob’s heirs? Unless Shechem, his father, and all their men were circumcised the marriage could not take place.

Shechem was too much impassioned with Dinah to refuse: his courage was notorious he would lead the way. His father was only too relieved that a peaceful resolution had been brokered between his neighbour, and felt this a small price to pay. No one spoke to Dinah.

As Dinah received the attention and pampering of a bride to be, her fiancee subjected himself to the knife. As his bride was bestowed with marriage gifts, Shechem tenderly nursed his wounds. As all looked forward to future unions, Dinah’s true brothers, Simeon and Levi, sought revenge for the slight upon their sister and their own reputations. Seizing the moment of greatest weakness, they ‘rescued’ Dinah and slaughtered the men of Hamor’s kingdom, himself and his son included. They raided the region, plundering its wealth, its women and its children: a whole nation enslaved or slain.

But Dinah, Jacob’s princess, now Shechem’s widow, was not vindicated, she was shamed and reviled. There could be no future marriage for her, she would be her brothers’ burden, no longer could she look forward to being Shechem’s Queen. Those who would have been her subjects were now her father’s prisoners, widowed themselves and centring their grief and anger upon Dinah, the seducer who had stolen Shechem’s heart and his life.

You can read Dinah’s story here, You may also like to read The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.

Keep Ploughing on… Harvest Festival in a Pandemic

I asked a local farmer what life in lockdown had been like on the farm. He told me that it was a game of ‘spot the difference’; despite all the other restrictions on our lives this year, farm life has continued much the same as it always has.

Seeds are sown, plants are grown, crops develop. The animals still need feeding and taking care of. The days grow longer, and then shorter, and the harvest ripens ready to be brought in.

Of course there were changes in the farmhouse, home-schooling for one, and the change in daily routine with no after school pick-ups, and shopping became a new adventure as it did for all of us.

Otherwise, the world kept turning and the seasons changing. Nature flourished and the fruits of labour blossomed and bloomed.

I was struck by this conversation of how God has been with us through such an uncertain year, never changing, always faithful.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

Genesis 1:1, 26, 31

For many of us the change in the way we lived our lives was counterbalanced by a deeper understanding of the constancy of God’s love and provision for us. Even in the scariest of times, God’s love and peace was to be found in gentle evening prayers shared online. The abundance of nature was a healing reminder of God’s ability to create and re-create, we were delighted with images of sheep taking over the streets in Wales, of deer in Devonian High Streets, of Kangaroos in Australian neighbourhoods. The seas become clearer and the ozone layer began to repair itself.

And in this, there is a challenge: we have known for so long that the way in which we have lived our lives has not been healthy for the planet, for God’s creation, and yet it has seemed impossible to mend our ways. Goals for climate change were years, decades in the future: there was no other way, our governments told us, that it could be done more quickly. Yet as soon as human life was in danger we found a way to stop damaging the earth. We hadn’t intended to care for the world in which we live, it just sort of happened as we took care of ourselves.

We spoke about lessons to be learned, we enjoyed peaceful streets, and observing wildlife free to be wild again. We took time to speak to our neighbours, at a distance. So quickly though, the beaches and countryside have become littered, the roads heaving, pollution levels up and the wildlife have returned to hiding.

As we gather in the harvest we are reminded of God’s provision: yes we have to work with the land, and give thanks for the farmers who do so day in day out, not just enjoying the fruits of the vegetable patch and flower garden, but growing food for everyone. As we gather in the harvest let us also be reminded that we are not the only ones to occupy this planet, and be mindful of the whole of creation, and the duty of care we have for this beautiful place we call home.

Let us be thankful too, that in season and out the Creator is with us, God is for us, and no matter how scary life may get, we are never alone.

No more pyjamas?

This is a rather momentous Sunday.

This Sunday is (hopefully) the last of the lockdown doorstep communions. Over the past few months, well most of this year, I have been celebrating communion from the Rectory doorstep and live streaming it so that others can join in from their homes.

The ‘doorstep challenge’ was one of those wonderful accidents: I had planned to film from my backgarden for Easter Sunday, but the internet didn’t reach that far, so I moved closer to our little black box, which just happened to lead me to the front doorstep. I began to realise quite quickly that this meant that others could join in from their doorsteps, and every week I have had someone join me in person. It has been a wonderful blessing.

Next week, the church door will be open for live worship, and everyone is welcome to join us. You are welcome to join us. Admittedly this will mean not worshipping in your pyjamas, decent coffee and tea will not be available on tap, the pews are not as cosy as your sofa, and the loos are a little further away.

We are now presented with a huge challenge: will we still worship God when it is more difficult to do so? You don’t have to dress up in your Sunday best, but a little more than pyjamas may be expected. You can of course bring a cushion with you to make the pews cosier, and I would be more than happy for anyone to bring a carry-out coffee to sip throughout the sermon.

Sometimes the challenge isn’t getting up on time, or the comfort of the pews, it’s actually entering the church building. It’s not knowing where to sit, not wanting to come alone, not knowing what will be expected of me. Perhaps it is the memory of the last time we were here, perhaps a funeral, a painful time. It’s a fear of not being welcomed, of people looking at me, even judging me.

I repeat, You Are Welcome.

Jesus was aware that people wanted to follow him, come close to him, feel that amazing sense of love and acceptance that seems to be available no-where else. Jesus was also aware that his followers might not be quite so ready to take the rough with the smooth.

Shortly after Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah and that he will follow him to the ends of the earth, he draws back into a place of comfort. Jesus speaks about his own imminent death and Peter tries to protect him. Peter is doing all the wrong things for the right reasons, or is it the right things for the wrong reasons?

Peter loves Jesus, he loves the sense of adventure following him brings, the danger, the wonder, the miracles, the real sense of making a difference. Peter flourishes as one of the ‘called’ ones, known and loved by God. However, when the danger becomes much more real, he is not so sure. Here he denies that Jesus should die, that this adventure should come to an end, the friendship be broken. Jesus has to speak sternly to Peter, to let him know what following Jesus, giving your whole life to him really means.

There are times when the adventure will be frightening, challenging, heartbreaking, too hard to bear. There will be tears, and scars, and Jesus will be the first to suffer, but others will too.

And this isn’t just for those holy disciples back then, but for any of us who choose to follow Jesus now. The truth is, Jesus will love and affirm us and bring us a sense of peace beyond all understanding, and that is just what’s available here on earth. There will be occasional glimpses of heaven, but nothing like what is to come.

So how about it? It’s not too much to ask to get dressed and venture out of the house on a Sunday morning, is it? When compared with the pain and discomfort of the disciples, who all at some time suffered for their faith, not knowing where to sit, or when to stand, isn’t that big a deal really?

We know that coming to church on a Sunday morning isn’t the most natural, or emotionally ‘safest’ thing for everyone to do, and we will try and make it as easy as possible. We won’t envelop you in a bear hug as soon as you walk through the door. There are no reserved seats (although some pews may be closed to enable social distancing). There will be no singing so it won’t matter if you don’t know the tune. And we will all be wearing face-coverings so nobody will know if you are grinning or grimacing.

It’s about taking the next step of faith. It’s saying to yourself that every encounter you had with Jesus during lockdown was real and valuable. It’s about saying your ‘yes’ to God.

If you want to read Peter and Jesus’ story click here

Our help is in the name of the Lord: or is it?

Today I am making a break from the set gospel passage in order to look at one of the Psalms.

Throughout the Lockdown we have found much comfort from the evening service of Compline, which includes a daily psalm. Some of these psalms have been challenging and others have felt like a holy hug. There is always honesty in the psalms, sometimes quite brutal. We experience the poet’s despair and anger, as well as joy: always there seems to be a sense of drawing closer to God and a renewed faith at the end of the outburst.

Today’s Psalm is one of the Songs of Ascent, attributed to King David.

A Song of Ascents.
If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
   —let Israel now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
   when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
   when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
   the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
   the raging waters.
Blessed be the Lord,
   who has not given us
   as prey to their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird
   from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
   and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
   who made heaven and earth.

Psalm 124

The Songs of Ascent tend to be more cheerful and full of hope. There are several suggestions as to why they are referred to as ‘Songs of Ascent’. Each reasoning has a sense of travel to a higher place, physical, spiritual, or both: perhaps they were sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for one of the three major festivals, or by the Levite priests as they ascended the 15 steps towards the holiest part of the temple in order for them to fulfil their priestly duties. Or perhaps they were first sung at the building of Solomon’s temple, or Nehemiah’s rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls?

Often as readers we travel with the psalmist from a place of questioning, despair, fear, anger… to trust in the Lord and praise of God.

This Psalm can be viewed as three smaller psalms which carry the reader (or indeed the singer as the psalms were intended to be sung) nearer to the closing declaration of trust in God.

To begin with we are reminded of what God has already done, a ‘recollection of past deliverance’ (James L. Mays). The Old Testament is peppered with instructions to remember; feasts and festivals are built around this injunction, whether annually such as the feast of Passover, or weekly as in the Sabbath meal. The New Testament featured these Jewish traditions too, and built upon them with the Lord’s Supper, still a central part of the Christian faith whether referred to as Eucharist, Mass, or Holy Communion, and whether celebrated in a cathedral with smells and bells, at a hospital bedside, or even via zoom!

Exactly what is being recalled is not clear: the specific language of ‘raging waters’ could refer to the crossing of the river Jordan when Moses lifted his staff to part the waters, or could be symbolic of any of the times when Jewish people have come under attack. It is important to remember that God has delivered in the past, as this confirms our hope and trust that God will deliver us this time too. It is not a guarantee that there won’t be further troubles or difficult times, but as we recall God’s presence with us in the past we learn to trust that God will be with us in the future too.

The recollection of deliverance leads us into the second part of the song, or lifts us into the next verse. Recalling how God has faithfully stood by in the most terrible of times brings us to praise, to worship…

Blessed be the Lord

verse 6

In the depth of fear and tragedy, or even a pandemic, we can draw closer to God than perhaps ever before: recognising our own frailty and looking towards the Almighty for reassurance and salvation from the current terrors. We call out to God in fear and learn to praise and even worship with a deeper sense of integrity than ever before, we bless the Lord for the blessings we are receiving even in these darkest of times.

How we remain in that close proximity when life returns to normal, when we are no longer isolated by our fear, when we busy ourselves with becoming prosperous again, leads us to the final declarations: declarations of trust, of ‘corporate trust’.

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Verse 8

When John Calvin, the french theologian and reformer of the 1500s, set about writing a new set of prayers for the churches in Strassburg and Geneva, he began with this verse. A statement of the gathered church that we are together because of God’s saving grace. The sense of togetherness is important for us as human beings, hence the hashtag #inthistogether which punctuated social media feeds throughout the darkest parts of the lockdown. We missed family and friends, we missed neighbours, being sociable, we missed worshipping together in church. We missed this sense of togetherness so much that we found creative alternatives, clapping from our doorsteps, front garden VE Day parties, face-timing and of course zoom. Early on, it was declared that the church had broken Zoom as it crashed due to an overload of people tuning in to worship virtually in real time.

As the lockdown lifts, ascends, will our relationship with God also do so? Will we remember how it felt for God to be present with us at home, for our living rooms and bedrooms to be transformed into sacred places? Will we allow those memories to be consigned to the scrapbooks of family history and lore, or will we remember? Will we remember with laughter, the relief we felt when the vicar was caught out on screen mid domestic, and how suddenly we no longer felt alone struggling with our own children? Will we remember seeing the faithfulness of others, still praying when the energy had gone to wear makeup or anything other than pyjamas, and feeling that perhaps everything was OK after all, we weren’t the only one? Will we remember in the midst of this broken humanity, that sense of faithfulness, and that inner tug to keep tuning in; and how when we did, we discovered that in the midst of the yapping dogs, attention seeking chickens, dropped books, and broken mics, that God was so very present?

Yes, we have lived (are still living) through an amazing part of history, but there is a future too. Into that future we have to project ourselves and decipher what the truth is for us. Is the God we met in our desperation true? Can God be trusted? If so, will I place my trust in God, and will I align it with others who are also learning to trust? Will I seek to make connections beyond the screen, will I allow myself to be brave and to join with others, perhaps even in ‘church’, to declare together, ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord.’

In the beginning …… Leah

Leah was the elder sister, the firstborn, but also the overlooked one. She was not as dynamic as her younger sister, was not as flirtatious as Rachel, her eyes did not sparkle and delight in the same way. Leah was thoughtful, gentle…plain. She would make a good mother, a good homemaker, her parents always told potential suitors, but they were looking for more than that for their sons. So Leah remained unmarried, Rachel remained with the sheep; Leah waited for marriage and Rachel waited for her turn for the matchmaking; but no proposals came.

The first proposal that did come was not good. The proposition was for Rachel, Leah had been overlooked again. If Rachel was allowed to marry Jacob Leah would carry the shame for ever, but Rachel was in love and the match was a good one. Their father agreed.

What could Leah do? Her chances and opportunities had gone. Her father though, was not prepared to support a spinster daughter into her old age. Laban was a cunning man, and when the women gathered to dress Rachel for her wedding night everything was turned upside down. Beautiful Rachel was pushed to one side as her father entered with orders that Leah was to be decorated with wedding finery, and presented the most beautiful and heavily laden veil she had ever seen. As it covered her head, she could hardly see through the thick lace, her view obscured with golden embellishments. As Leah was led out to the marriage tent Rachel wailed in anguish and she knew that her sister could never be her friend again.

The plan worked: the tent was dim and Jacob had no reason to suspect that it wasn’t his wife who was brought to him, they laid together and no words were spoken, the ritual that sealed their betrothal was all action. Both spent from a night unlike any either had experienced before, they slept. In the morning, the veil flung aside and day light flooding into the tent, Jacob was filled with anger as he understood the depths of his father in law’s deception. Jacob stormed out as Leah tended to herself, hoping that this night together would seal their union and that a child would already be nestling into her womb and her husband’s heart.

Leah tried not to listen as her husband yelled at her father, tried not hear her sister weeping, tried to be happy in her married state. Jacob returned that night and fulfilled his duties for the rest of the week, but never again was he as passionate as he had been when he had thought that she was Rachel.

After the week had passed, she left the tent. She was now a married woman and treated as such, but no-one could look her in the eye, there was no respect. Rachel replaced her in the wedding tent, and resumed her place in their husband’s heart.

The child did grow in her belly. Her parents were right she was a good mother. She carried easily and began a family so large it would become a tribe for Jacob. Her sister, despite her beauty and vitality, could not conceive. Leah hoped that with the birth of each son her husband would love her a little more, and somewhat bitterly she hoped that he would love her sister a little less. But no, if anything he seemed to love her more.

When they travelled, it was always Rachel who would be given the most protection. It was always Rachel who received the kindest and most loving looks; Leah only received looks of lust, or duty.

Eventually Rachel did conceive. In total she gave birth to two children, just two boys, whilst Leah produced son after son, and their only daughter. A girl, a woman to be her friend in a community where no-one else valued her, where there was only ever enmity or occasionally pity. A daughter who would also be a source of grief for her, but that is Dinah’s story.

Leah was rescued from the disgrace of being left behind, without husband or sons to define her… but she never had love. Her sons became as deceitful as her husband had been, with few redeeming features and her daughter also suffered the fate of being a powerless woman.

Leah was Jacob’s first wife and his last, outliving her sister; but she never received the love and respect every woman should receive in marriage.

Read Leah’s Story here.

Feeding the Thousands

The story of Jesus feeding the thousands is one of my favourite stories. I love it because the abundantly generous hospitality that Jesus offers; I love it because the one who gives the provisions for Jesus to work with is a child. I love the image of a shared meal in the sunshine and thousands of people seeing Jesus for who he truly is as they eat a basic meal of bread and fish.

Today though, I read the story and see something new.

The disciples are concerned, it is getting late, they are hungry, everyone around them is hungry, what is Jesus going to do? Jesus doesn’t respond with words of affirmation, ‘don’t worry guys, I’ve got this,’ he tells them to do something.

The disciples are already concerned and have expressed all their concerns to Jesus. In Matthew’s retelling the disciples have already discovered the fish and loaves and show them to Jesus.

I can imagine Jesus sighing heavily as he looks to heaven, as he takes the bread and fish, as he blesses the food before him and then begins to hand it out to the disciples to distribute.

The multiplying of the food is obviously a miracle of heavenly proportions, caring for those gathered is not. The disciples first thoughts was to send them away to get food, their second was that Jesus was the only one who could serve them. Jesus shows the disciples, that if they are willing, they too can serve.

Reading this today has hit home. Despite living in the 21st Century clergy are still expected to work to a Victorian model. Contemporary disciples still look to their ‘leader’ to be the one who does God’s business. They do not hear the words of Jesus

You give them something

Mattthew 14:16

When it comes to ministry, to sharing the gospel, to feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and lonely, we are all in this together; we have all been called and at our baptisms and confirmations responded to that call. On his own Jesus could bless and multiply the bread, but all the disciples were needed to distribute it.

Perhaps our ministers, clergy or lay, are the teachers and preachers, but we all need to be the disciples who distribute the gospel, who provide pastoral care, who feed the hungry.

When the disciples picked up the challenge and played their part on sharing the heavenly food, all were fed, men, women, children. There was an abundance, plenty left over which could be taken home and shared too, or taken elsewhere to provide sustenance for those who could not be present at the time.

We are finally coming to a time where we are beginning to move away from that Victorian model which rotates around the work of one person in a dog collar. It is not sustainable and I wold argue it is not Biblical, even if it has become traditional.

This week’s challenge them is what are you going to do? Will you pick up a basket and feed and nourish your neighbours, or will you sit back and wait for the vicar to do their job?

Read the story here.

The Smallest of Seeds

This time Jesus speaks about a farmer who is very precise in his farming techniques: he takes a single seed, the tiniest of them all, and carefully sows it in his field. He hasn’t flung his seed far and wide, he doesn’t turn a blind eye to the weeds that encroach on his crop; he takes a tiny seed and plants it specifically in a field where he knows that it will have the space to grow. This space is important, because the tiny seed will grow to be one of the tallest of bushes, so large (it could grow to 8 or 10 feet) that it was often referred to as a tree. Everyone knew about the miraculous growth of the tiny seed into a large tree; in our culture, in a similar way, we could say ‘from tiny acorns might oaks do grow’. So the kingdom of God is like an acorn, but even smaller.

The thing about seeds is that they take their time to grow and we need to be patient to wait and see what has been happening in the dark of the soil. Trees take even longer to grow and to reach their full height.

For the first Christians (or even ‘pre-Christians’ as the term had not yet been coined) there was an excitement that Jesus was going to do something dramatically different and to do it now. They were eager for change, eager to see this kingdom take shape and to be a part of it.

At one point in Jesus’ teaching he asks if his listeners understand the parables and stories,

‘Have you understood all this?’

They answered, ‘yes.’

Matthew 13:51

I wonder if they really did, or if they just wanted to please Jesus? Jesus’ contemporaries were expecting the Messiah to be earthbound, to be a warrior, a champion to release them from Roman occupation. The Kingdom Jesus speaks about is not one that will suddenly explode into being with a clash of swords and chariots. The field of the kingdom of heaven will not be soaked with the blood of enemies and heroes. No medals will be awarded, no seats and titles of privilege.

The kingdom of heaven, will grow to be as large as a mustard tree. It will provide shelter and protection, but it will take its time to grow, and as people of faith, members of the kingdom, we need to have patience: our timing is not like God’s. Which can often be frustrating: come Lord Jesus we cry, even though we have somewhat lost hope that it will happen in our lifetimes.

Hare describes this (and some of the other parables) as

enigmatic utterances teasing the mind into reflection and response.

Douglas R A Hare

Those who nodded at Jesus’ question may well have understood, but had they taken the time to reflect and respond. Perhaps this was to come for them. It must have done, as the church is still with us, somewhat misshapen currently, but alive and kicking all the same. Perhaps, more alive than it has been for many years. Or perhaps we just haven’t seen what has been growing deep within the soil, within the young leaves of the sapling, in the spring blossoms and new buds, and autumn fall….

What can be understood clearly is that this tree didn’t just grow accidentally. It wasn’t a rogue seed which just happened to fall into fertile soil; it wasn’t left to the ravishes of the weeds amongst the crops: this seed was chosen by a farmer who placed it in the ground at a particular time and in a particular place, knowing that this particular field would be able to offer everything that the seed would need to grow and flourish.

God took action. Not a remote being who spun the world into being and then sat back to watch what would happen, but one who lovingly interacts with the world that s/he created. God took action.

Perhaps I should leave off here and allow you to reflect and respond? You can read the story in full here. It’s just a small one.

Or read on if you want to unpick the story and piece it back together again.

The field… well we could say this is the time and the place that God chose as the most fertile growing place for the church. It was situated in a holy place, many Jews travelled this way at least once in a lifetime to complete pilgrimage, some would do it at least once a year, every year. It was on good trading routes, travel was relatively easy, so God’s news could also travel.

The farmer… that is Jesus. God incarnate, with us, not remote and distant. God takes root in the human world, born into a family, learning a trade, getting bumped and bruised, experiencing joy and sorrow.

The seed… the story which we carry with us. The story of God’s love which sent Jesus to the cross. The story of the life that could not be fully extinguished. The story of hope, and love, and acceptance for everyone; but also the people who carry it. Not wealthy, or educated, or privileged, but outcasts, fishermen, vagabonds. Women and servants.

The tree….. that is the church. Not the building that dominates our landscapes, not the walls seeped in prayer, the cold hard pews, the mice that nibble through the organ bellows. Not the out of tune singing, or the weak tea and soft biscuits, not the complicated words and terminology of the prayers.

The church is you and me. The church is the love and welcome that is shared within it. The church is the place in which we come and discover our own place within the story, and that we are valuable and worth investing in.

And the birds of the air that build their nests? Perhaps they too are the misfits who finally find a place they can call home.

Wheat and Weeds

Jesus continues with the farming parables.

As anyone who has ever planted a field, a border, or even a window box will know, weeds appear from seemingly no-where. Weeding can be a tricky job, if we leave them we end up feeding and caring for them alongside the plants we want to grow and be strong and healthy. There is also a risk that they will completely overtake the space and throttle the plants that belong there. However, if we pull them up, the roots may be tangled in the ‘good’ plants and we risk pulling them out as well.

In Jesus’ story, the farmer is advised to allow the two to grow alongside each other, and weed out the unwanted plants at harvest.

Of course, this is a parable and Jesus isn’t really giving gardening tips. He was no Monty Don, his profession was as a carpenter, or perhaps even an odd job man! So what is he talking about.

We are back to the sowing farmer who scatters the seed far and wide, quite profligately. God wants everyone to have a chance to get to know of the abundant love God is and has for them. By scattering seed far and wide, there is a chance that those who do not normally listen, might be able to hear. Likewise with the weeds and the wheat, there is a hope that those who don’t seem to belong, may also find their way.

Throughout the spring, the usual growing time, we have been in isolation. It is as though we have been planted in soil which is pure from any weeds or birds that peck, or stones in the ground. This means that as we have tuned into worship in whichever way it has been offered to us, we have been able to grow unhindered.

With the coming of summer and the relaxation of lockdown, the unwanted seeds and weeds are being blown in: of course there are good and worthy elements that are being blown in: children being able to return to school, businesses re-opening, jobs that had been put on hold resuming. We are able to see more of our loved ones, again, and other activities are opening up. And all the things which once prevented us from coming to church are also returning.

Before we come to the time of harvest, our church buildings are beginning to re-open for worship. Many of us will continue to provide online worship too, but will you continue to engage? Will you continue to tune in to use these resources to tune into God? Or perhaps you will decide to discover whether the ancient walls provide a sanctuary for prayer? Are you eager to return to holy buildings?

The warning of the parable is that we need to be careful not to allow the ‘weeds’ to take control of the whole of our lives, not to let them tear us away from all that we had discovered was so important during the lockdown months: loved ones, health, the wellbeing of our planet, caring for our neighbours, connecting with God… Let us spend the rest of the summer fruitfully. Let us come even closer to God,and to make a holy commitment to make prayer a regular part of our lives, so that we are ready when the harvest comes.

Read more the full story here.

Sowing Seeds

During the period of lockdown and closed churches, it feels as if the church (and clergy like myself), have been sowing seeds just like the farmer in Jesus’ parable. We have been livestreaming, pre-recording, youtubing, zooming, emailing and even good old fashioned Royal Mailing. There have been telephone calls and socially distanced conversations. The Word of God has been sown far and wide.

In the parable Jesus explains that this far flung approach to farming is not necessarily the wisest of most productive. Some seed would have fallen upon fertile soil and taken root and produced a good crop, others would have tried in rocky soil, but withered and died, other would have been eaten by birds, or choked by weeds…..

Ministry can feel very much like a foolish farmer. We keep telling the story, keep praying, keep worshipping, hoping that the soil will be fertile enough for the seeds to take root.

There are times over the past few months when I have looked at the stats for livestreaming and been astounded. The online toddler group especially has reached hundred of people, sometimes thousands. Sunday worship has reached more people than we were across our whole team of churches prior to lockdown, and Compline has connected with people in a completely unexpected way.

There have also been time when something I have prepared has only reached 2 people!

As everything begins to open up again, I wonder if our numbers will drop?

There are important questions for us to ask: are people tuning in because it is the only solace and hope they could find in a dire situation? Are people tuning in because they are bored, because it is a thread of connection with an outside world? Are viewers connecting with the presenter or are they connecting with God?

As a reader, as a viewer, how would you respond? What has online worship meant for you?

The challenge isn’t just for the preacher, the minister, the vicar, but for each person who has tuned in. Are you willing to let what you have heard and experienced take root in the whole of your life? Are you willing to feed and water these new shoots of life.

Read the parable as Jesus told it here.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑