A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 30 July 2017 by Canon Edward Probert, Acting Dean. Readings Romans 8.26-end; Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52.
“Have you understood all this?”
This is the question Matthew tells us Jesus asked towards the end of what we know as chapter 13, during which chapter Jesus tells 7 parables, plus delivers private explanations of two of them, plus comments on why he speaks in parables. We heard the five short ones just now; we didn’t hear the longer parables, of the sower, and of the weeds in the field, or their explanations.
‘Have you understood all this?’ he asks. ‘Yes’, they say. At which it would be fair to add, ‘Up to a point’, or ‘Perhaps’. Because, while it’s possible that those who sat or stood around Jesus as he taught grasped what he was getting at, it seems pretty clear that the later generations of christians who came to write all this down found it a bit perplexing. Why else, given how simple are these little stories about a man sowing his field and wasting a proportion of his grain, or the man sowing his field and finding that weeds grow up amongst the plants he wants - given how simple these two stories are, why else would they each require the detailed analysis and explanation which the gospel writers provide? And why, if these writers were not puzzled by such stories, are we twice told in this chapter that Jesus taught in parables in order to confuse people?
So, if you don’t immediately grasp these stories, or know quite what to make of them, you are not alone. It’s obvious that plenty of people have been at a bit of a loss with them since they were first told.
So here’s my opinion: it’s best to keep it simple. These aren’t complicated stories, nor do I think their meaning is complicated. Bear in mind that the mission of Jesus was to proclaim the Kingdom of God. The mustard seed, the yeast in the dough, the pearl in the field - these are about tiny things which make a massive difference. The fields where the seeds grow with patchy success, or with weeds mixed in - these are reassurances that, while apparent success is mixed, God is in charge; he will sort it out in his good time, and his intentions are good. In all these stories the simple point is that you should trust God.
A few days ago I received a letter from the Christian Enquiry Agency offering to provide cards for us; they sent a sample. On one side there is a short summary of what christians believe, and on the other an invitation to return the card and find out more. This is a really well meant suggestion, aimed at helping churches such as this one, which draw in large numbers of visitors who come for reasons other than worship, and who may have little knowledge or understanding of the faith we represent; the card offers a simple thing for the casual enquirer to take away.
Give a short summary of what christians believe to a person like me, and I will spend twenty minutes analysing it, noticing what it oversimplifies or misses out, and thinking of ways it could be improved. And that’s before I come to discuss the text with any of my colleagues! It is spectacularly hard to express the core of Christian belief in a few sentences; every single word in the creeds which we recite at our services represents the fruit of countless discussions and disputes. So the jury is out for the moment about whether we here will use that actual card so kindly offered.
But beyond the question whether the text on it is quite good enough, that card raises more important questions, and and these were raised too by the question Jesus’ asked: ‘Have you understood all this?’
How far do we need to understand?,
How much do we need to know?
How high is the bar set for the high jump of Christian believing?
The answer from our scriptures is: ‘Not high.’ Can you compare your faith to that pathetically small mustard seed? Is it like a little jewel under the soil in a field? Remember the shout that came back from the father who, having brought his child to Jesus to be healed, was asked ‘Do you believe?’; ‘I believe’ he cried - ‘help my unbelief’. You don’t need much!
Just so with praying. St Paul helpfully reminds us that while we also are pretty useless at this praying business, it isn’t a problem. ‘We do not know how to pray as we ought, but ….the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows…’ We aren’t alone in this, desperately trying to convince God that we know enough, that we’re doing the right things in the right ways; he has got there before us. The relationship which is represented by prayer is deeper than words, and more important than us; because it begins and ends with God whose love is always reaching out to us.
About a decade ago we were honoured that former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a great church hero of the apartheid era in South Africa, agreed to come and preach here. We had working for the diocese then someone who had been a colleague of his in Cape Town, and just before the service he said to me: ‘Desmond only has one sermon: God loves you.’ And so it came to pass: the archbishop preached his sermon, and in it he said repeatedly ‘God loves you’. And everyone in the building, myself included, hung upon his every word.
Perhaps that ability to keep it simple was a key part of Tutu’s heroism. If we are to know and express and live the Christian faith, then what we need to know first, and last, and always is: God loves you. ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.
If this were a court of law, I would say now: ‘I rest my case’. And so I do.