Looking for toads…sermon for Adel Parish Church 5th Sunday after Trinity

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Looking for toads…sermon for Adel Parish church, 5th Sunday after Trinity, 2020

Matthew 13: 1 – 9, 18 – 23

I’ve always loved reading stories. I remember as a young child coming across a book of Aesop’s fables at my grandparents’ house. These are a collection of stories supposedly by an Ancient Greek – Aesop; you’re probably familiar with ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’ and ‘The Boy who cried wolf’.

At first, I rather liked them. I was transported into the strange world of talking animals and my imagination got busy. But I soon became irritated by the way each ends with a fairly trite moral, which the story apparently illustrates…’be content with what you have’…’a kindness is never wasted’…they made the stories narrower and less exciting.

Today’s gospel story contains perhaps the biblical version of Aesop’s fables…a parable. In my bible it’s called ‘the parable of the sower’. A sower sows his seed – but it falls on lots of different types of ground. Only one type is ‘good ground’ and there the seed gives a fantastic yield.

If you look for a definition of a parable, you find this sort of thing…’a parable is a simple story that teaches or explains a moral or religious idea.’ To me that’s a rather sad little summary of something far, far richer. But it’s very typical of our age…we like things pinned down, categorized…explained.

We suggest that Jesus used parables to help simple people understand…so we look for a simple message. We assume each parable has one meaning, and our job is to work out what it is, to link each part of the story to what it represents.

In fact, in today’s reading the puzzled disciples ask Jesus to explain – and he obligingly tells exactly what kind of person each type of soil in the story represents.

However…if we look at where the reading comes from, we find a chunk is missing. A chunk where the disciples rather exasperatedly ask Jesus why he speaks in parables. Clearly, they don’t find them simple…and they want to know why he doesn’t just tell them the meaning in the first place.

Jesus’ reply is no simpler…but he seems to be saying, “I speak in parables because I want people to listen, to think, to discover for themselves.” I think parables are not meant to be simple, they’re meant to challenge us, to suck us into the story…to spark our imagination.

But the disciples still struggle…I can almost hear Jesus, in despair, saying ‘Ok, if you must have a simple explanation…you could understand it this way…’ And we, who like things cut and dried, often stick with that.

Today I’d like to offer another definition of parables…’parables are imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’ They’re fiction, they’re completely made up…but hopping around inside them is truth…real stuff. And because it’s in a strange, imaginary world it disrupts, it forces us to look at it differently.

So, for a moment let’s forget the four sorts of people represented by the four soils…and our expectation for Jesus to end…’and the moral of the story is…be good soil.’

Let’s go back into that imaginary garden and let the real toads surprise us.

Jesus said…’a sower went out to sow’.

Is this then, a story of a sower? If so, he’s an odd sort of sower. No prepared soil, neatly ploughed, for him. No careful use of precious seed…keeping it away from the path, the rocky ground and the hedgerow…where it’s less likely to grow.

So let’s wonder about a sower who seems to waste resources so foolishly, who seems happy to fling seed just anywhere. And if we think the sower might be God…what picture does that give us?

Does it suggest that ‘just anywhere’ is in fact exactly where God works? Does the casting of seed in rocky, barren, broken places suggest such places are part of God’s vision for his Kingdom?

If God is the sower, we have a picture of wasteful, profligate God. A God who knows it’s risky, foolish even, to throw seed onto poor, rocky soil, but who does so anyway. I’m reminded of Jesus who had to plant his seed again and again and again in the hearts of his closest followers; who saw them betray, deny and abandon him, but still cast his seed on them once more.

And I stop worrying about which type of soil each of us is, because I know that I’m all 4 at different times, and sometimes all at once. Often I don’t understand. All too easily I forget to spend time putting down roots, time with God, to support the rest of my life. Sometimes, however hard I try, the cares of the world get in the way.

But this is the story of the sower, who continues to throw seed at me, and you; who is willing to risk his love again and again in the hope of finding a small patch of good soil.

So, I let my mind wander in the imaginary garden of this parable. I go to the thorny edge of the field, and see, miraculously, some heads of wheat or barley growing amongst the brambles. And I recognise the ‘real toad’ of that definition…a precious truth. Because I’ve seen examples of God’s love flourishing in the most unlikely places…in the work of prison chaplains…in places of extreme poverty.

And the parable of the sower has escaped from the neat package with the moral at the end. It stays with me as I try to work out how to nurture God’s kingdom. It creeps into my decisions.

This is no more the ‘right answer’ than wondering how to be good soil. But I hope it might lead you into the imaginary garden of this parable…to be surprised by the real toad you come across.

And I pray that you do so trusting in the risky, wasteful, profligate love of our God.

Sensible middle way…or sticking with things as they are? Sermon for Adel Parish church 4th Sunday after Trinity.

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Sensible middle way…or sticking with things as they are? Sermon for Adel Parish church 5th July 2020.

Matthew 11: 16 – 19, 25 – end.

Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the first bowl of porridge.

“This porridge is too hot!” she exclaimed.

She tasted the second bowl. “This is too cold,” she said.

So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge.

“Ahhh, this is just right,” she said happily and she ate it all up.

 I’m sure you know the story…I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that Goldilocks belonged to the church of England. She seems to like the middle way…nothing too extreme.

 A book I often dip into is Richard Giles’ ‘How to be an Anglican’. Looking at our approach to the bible, prayer, sacraments…he describes Anglicanism as ‘the middle way’. Between seeing the bible as literal truth at one extreme or useful moral stories at the other…between seeing the Eucharist as the actual body and blood of Christ or just a special remembrance of Jesus.

 I rather like the idea of being the church ‘in the middle’, so I can sympathise with the crowd in today’s gospel.

 John, with his strict, lifestyle and his uncompromising call to repentance, was too stern for them. Lighten up – they said – be part of the world – dance to our tune.

 But when Jesus came, ready to dance…making every day a feast or a party…as long as everyone was invited…they struggled with that too. It seemed a bit too relaxed…they just wanted a middle way.

 But if we look closer that’s not quite how it is. John and Jesus are preaching the same gospel…the kingdom of heaven is near and to engage with it you need to change.

 John calls to people who have forgotten their need of God: telling them God’s kingdom is coming; sternly reminding them that being ready for it requires hard work…turning away from selfish worldly values. Jesus is the one who brings the Kingdom – but it looks very different to what people are expecting. Accepting it needs a serious change of perspective.

 Perhaps the people rejecting both John’s harsh call to repentance and Jesus’ message of extravagant welcome and love, aren’t really looking for a middle way – but hoping to stay more or less as they are…because for most people, that’s the easy way.

 The problem with taking either John or Jesus seriously was that it changed lives. Both pushed people into uncomfortable places…not of extremism…but of taking the gospel seriously. A place that required hard work and change.

 And as usual the same challenge is there today. The challenge of spotting the difference between a valuable Anglican middle way…and the easy way of keeping things as they are. I think there are two issues facing the church today where we have to accept that change is needed, and there’s hard work ahead.

 The first is how we emerge from this pandemic.

It’s forced us out of what we knew…forced us to be church in very different ways. We’ve been inventive and creative in our response. It feels in Adel that although we’ve lost much, faith is growing and flourishing, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Online worship is a wonderful opportunity for those who physically struggle to get to church each week. It’s been a way for the curious and nervous to tentatively engage with faith. It can’t replace worshipping together in our beautiful, holy building. But is it something we should try to hold on to in some way?

 People have stepped out of their comfort zone to help lead that online worship. How do we maintain that increased lay leadership?

 As things ease, there’s talk of ‘going back to normal’. But this is surely a time to be brave, to risk following our radical saviour, to dare to change. It’ll be a challenge though, and holding onto new ventures may mean letting go of some other things.

 The second challenge facing the church, along with the whole country, is the realisation of how racist our society is…the question of our response to this. Have we confused taking the middle ground for hanging on to the status quo – because the alternative was just too challenging.

 I look at lists of statues which upset people…not just slave owners, but the founder of scouting, explorers, greatly loved Prime ministers. I look at groups claiming to be protectors of those statues, but who are clearly just looking for violence. I think…there must be a middle way.

 But although we probably do need a compromise on the question of statues…we can’t let one issue distract from the need for a radical change in the way people of colour are viewed and treated in Britain today.

 I suspect the crowds listening to John and Jesus really wanted to welcome God’s kingdom…and be part of it. But perhaps they were scared of the change needed, or couldn’t face the task they saw ahead of them.

 Both our reaction to racism, and our response to what lockdown has taught us, will need courage and commitment. They’re not easy, or comfortable. For most of us the easy route is the status quo. But we are followers of Christ.

 There are challenging, and exciting discussions ahead about what ‘church’ looks like post-COVID. Please pray for our PCC as we begin to tackle them. Please get involved in the discussion – speak to me or someone on the PCC with your ideas. One or two of you already have – thank you.

 I’ve begun to take seriously my ignorance on matters of race. I’m reading and listening. It would be good to do this in the company of others from the parish…not because we’re overtly racist, but because like many others, we’re waking up to how damaging the status quo is for many people.

I’ll be starting some discussions…do consider joining…contributing…helping this parish to be a small part of the change so long overdue.

 And when this seems scary as well as exciting, remember Christ’s promise…when we are weary or heavy laden – he will share our burdens and give us rest.