14th June 2021
Build back better
A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Sunday 13 June 2021, 11.00, The Second Sunday after Trinity
Reading Mark 4.26-34
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Just under 200 miles in roughly that direction [West South West from Salisbury], some of the most powerful leaders in the world are completing digestion of their breakfast on the final morning of the G7. How would you approach laying on a summit Sunday breakfast? You could play safe and give each just what they liked – is the Prime Minister a Full English man? Chancellor Merkel, some muesli, perhaps? Would President Biden prefer pancakes? – or you could boldly go and wow them all (you hope) with Cornish kedgeree.
The Government menu for the work of the summit is of the ‘boldly go’ kind. The summit website says:
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will use the UK’s G7 Presidency to unite leading democracies to help the world fight, and then build back better from coronavirus and create a greener, more prosperous future.
‘Fight’ first; then ‘build’ and ‘create’. Combat, construction, creation. If any of our leaders make it to church today – and some of them do do God [the Bidens attended mass at St Ives] – they may hear our reading from Mark’s gospel (it’s also the one set for Roman Catholic, Methodist and other churches) and it may sound at best irrelevant to their agenda:
The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
There’s a gospel thought for the summit: sow seed – then chill, get on with your life, and don’t stress about not understanding what’s going on. Why? Because ‘the earth produces of itself’, automaté, says Mark’s Greek, automatically. Just leave nature to take its course – who’s up for trying that with the delta variant? Quite understandably, the G7’s language is more hands-on.
So: Fighting and building – and growing. This is language we hear from voices in the church, too. We talk less about fighting than we used to (when congregational hymns come back, ‘Onward, Christian soldiers’ will not be very high on the list) but we often talk about building and growing: we want to ‘grow’ congregations (look at the wording of adverts for clergy vacancies) and to help ‘build’ God’s kingdom.
The language of the New Testament, however, is not quite that: it’s the church that’s built (usually) and the kingdom that’s grown. You are Peter, says Jesus, and on this rock I will build my church; Paul talks of his work founding churches as being like a master builder (though he does talk about planting too); but I can find no reference in the New Testament to building the kingdom. Jesus in his parables talks about the kingdom of God in all sorts of ways – it’s like a priceless jewel, yeast in bread, a huge catch of fish, sowing seed – but (as far as we know) Jesus never said,
The kingdom of God is as if a builder drew up plans, estimated quantities, bought supplies, dug foundations and carefully laid stone upon stone.
And he grew up in a carpenter’s shop. He knew about this stuff (he talks once about someone who tried to build a tower then ran out of money). He’d have known about careful preparation – no doubt he could quote the Aramaic version of ‘measure twice, cut once’. But Jesus draws on none of that rich store of images in his short stories about the kingdom of God. When it comes to the kingdom, to finding and following God’s active purposes of healing and justice and forgiveness and joy, then (Jesus seems to say) we need less measured pictures if we are not to misunderstand what God is doing.
We don’t like this much. Faced with something big and frightening, many of us (especially leaders) like to impose order, to survey, analyse, plan – and construct. We have made colossal achievements in applying these techniques (some of you are sitting in one now) but in some situations it may be something more organic that we need.
For instance. As we seek to learn from this past year and a bit, let’s compare the shortcomings of Test and Trace with the success of the vaccination programme. The first has been developed and (excuse management speak) delivered centrally; the second has been local. The first looks like the building of a great edifice, the second more like scattering seed – not chaotically, though: clear objectives have been disseminated, but then local soil has been trusted to make it work.
No central directive instructed Salisbury’s cathedral, hospital and medical practices to work together on vaccinations. It happened, as the parable puts it, ‘of itself’. And would even the most inspired central planner have come up with the idea of organ music while you jab? For us, it was natural.
So, as our leaders have talked about big and frightening things, I hope they have come up with workable battle plans against the virus, and with blueprints to help us ‘build back better’. But if we are to ‘create’ – truly to create – ‘a greener, more prosperous future’, I hope they will remember the way some of the very best things in God’s creation come about – by germination rather than construction.
79 years ago the world was convulsed in fighting of a literal sort. Then too, even in the depth of world war, eyes were raised to what might come after and how it might be better. A powerful voice was that of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury. His book, Christianity and the Social Order came out in 1942 and was part of the creative compost from which grew the welfare state.
In it he said, ‘The art of government…is the art of so ordering life that self-interest prompts what justice demands.’
That is, when leaders say, ‘This is what we need for our world to be greener, more prosperous,’ they do it in such a way that the seed drops into the soil of the region, the neighbourhood, the village, the household, and people say, ‘Yes, I get that; that could work for me, for us – now, what can I do?’ and so the seed sprouts and grows, as ‘the land produces of itself’. For this we need poetry as well as plans.
Here in church, we have our big and frightening things. How much of the church will have survived, and in what form will it have survived, five years on from the pandemic? We too need to survey, analyse, plan and construct. The Cathedral is doing some of this, I hope you’re not surprised to hear.
But if the church is to be built back better, strategic plans will get us only so far. The propagation of the gospel will depend, as it always has, on people like you and me acting and speaking by the grace of God, whose Holy Spirit gives us words to speak and deeds to do – if the soil of our hearts is receptive. And if it is, then others may say, ‘Yes. I get that; that could work for me, for us,’ and then the seeds will sprout and grow.