Sunday 18 August 2013

Sowing the seed

Address given at the annual ecumenical service of thanksgiving for the Lough Derg Yacht Club Regatta on Sunday 18th August 2013.

Every year members of the Lough Derg & Loug Ree Yacht Clubs join with friends from near and far to share time together sailing on the Shannon, in competition but also in friendship and love. It is a great blessing. And it is very right that participants should also join together to give thanks to God for blessing them in this way. The Regatta Service has been held annually for more than 70 years. It is a lovely tradition, and one I hope will continue for many years to come.

Do you find it difficult to remember the point of a sermon you’ve just heard, 5 minutes later?
I do - it’s as if what goes in one ear comes straight out the other! But I do remember one sermon preached by Stephen White, then the Dean of Killaloe, at a Regatta Service like this one several years ago.

He likened our different Christian traditions to a flotilla of yachts racing on the lake. We may look as if we’re sailing in different directions as we tack to find better air, but we are all sailing to the best of our ability to reach the same mark – which is God’s heavenly kingdom. Stephen was not a sailor, and may not have intended it, but I had to laugh when I thought of all the shouting and roaring which so often goes with racing, whether it’s the crew arguing about tactics, or shouts of ‘Starboard!’ or ‘Water’ to other competitors. How like our different churches so much of the time!

The point I took from his sermon is that we are all sailing the same race together, and there is so much more that unites than divides us. I remember it of course because the image Stephen conjured up was so vivid and familiar, and appropriate to the time and place.

Jesus was also a master of the vivid, familiar and appropriate image to make his words stick.
Let us enter in our imagination the scene of the reading from Mark 4:1-9 we have just heard, what we now call the ‘Parable of the Sower’.

So many people wanted to listen to Jesus that he used a boat as a pulpit to address the crowd on the beach. The beach was on a lake, the Sea of Galilee. I’ve never been there, but I see it in my minds eye as rather like Lough Derg: it’s about 40% larger in area, and wider but not so long. Imagine the people crowded on the beach at Dromineer, and Jesus in a lake boat talking to them.

Did Jesus see a man sowing in a nearby field? Perhaps this prompted the parable, and everyone could literally see what he was talking about. The sower wouldn’t be using a seed-drill; he would be broadcasting the seed by hand, just as our ancestors would have done only 150 years ago. The seed would be in a bag or a basket, and he would walk steadily up and down the field, taking a handful of seed and throwing it out as evenly as he could. Even at a distance it would be quite clear to everyone what he was doing: they had seen it hundreds of times before, and many had done it themselves.

And Jesus describes just what the crowd can all see:
§         Imagine a big field divided like allotments into strips farmed by different families, with paths between them, beaten down hard by the passage of many feet. The crowd can see the birds following the sower swooping down to gobble up the seed that inevitably falls on the path, for all the sowers skill.
§         Everyone would understand that different parts of the field are of different quality.
§         Some parts would be stony. Don’t imagine small pebbles - imagine great sheets of rock just under the surface, with just a few inches of soil on top. The soil above the rock would warm early, and the seeds would germinate quickly, but without a depth of soil the young seedlings would soon run out of nutrients and water and shrivel up in the sun.
§         Some parts of the field would be infested with perennial weeds: imagine scutch grass and creeping thistle, which would quickly outgrow the delicate crop, choking it.
§         But other parts of the field would be good land, with a deep, clean soil. Here the crop would have nutrients and water enough, and little competition. It will flourish and produce a harvest of thirty, or sixty, or a hundred times the grain sown on it.

‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ Jesus finishes.
·        But when the crowd has left his disciples are still uncertain what he meant – as we are so often uncertain. So Jesus interprets it for them himself, in the passage that follows - perhaps to reassure them that they do indeed understand what he is getting at.
·         The seed sown on the path is the word spoken, but not understood. Satan snatches it away, before it ever has the chance to sprout.
·         The seed sown on rocky ground is the word received with joy, but by a person with shallow roots, without character, whose initial enthusiasm cannot withstand trouble or persecution.
·         The seed sown among thorns is the word heard by those who are so trapped by worldly cares and the lure of wealth that they cannot act upon it.
·         And the seed sown on good soil is the word heard by those who understand it, and act upon it. Only such people will yield a harvest of good.

The point of Jesus’ sermon is just the same as it was on that lake shore 2000 years ago.
If we are to be the good people God wants us to be, we need to cultivate our characters so that as good soil we yield a rich harvest.

Each one of us has to develop the character traits of attention, persistence, and concentration. Attention so that we do not miss God’s call when it comes. Persistence so that we can withstand opposition when we answer God’s call. And concentration so that the cares of the world and the pursuit of wealth do not distract us from acting on God’s call.

And I suggest these 3 marks of character are also needed by any winning sailor. Attention to the wind, the water and other boats. Persistence to overcome temporary setbacks. And concentration to make the most of the conditions we encounter.

I was never a winning sailor, as most of you know. But my prayer for every one of us is that we may never cease striving to build up our character – our powers of attention, persistence and concentration - so that we may be better sailors - and more like the people God wants us to be.

May you have fair weather and good sailing in the year ahead!

Sunday 11 August 2013

Hoarding stuff

Address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 11th August 2013, the 11th after Trinity

Are you a hoarder? I know I am – as Marty will confirm if you ask her!
I am surrounded by ‘stuff’ – the attic is full of it, so is the garage. Some stuff  has sentimental value, such as things I’ve inherited which I remember from childhood. Some stuff I don’t need right now, but a nagging voice tells me it might just be useful sometime. And then there is some old stuff which I tell myself I might be able to sell, if I ever find myself down on my uppers – little enough, for in truth most of it is just junk.

And it doesn’t stop there either. There is something inside me which covets more stuff than I have already, and which covets the security that money and wealth brings. There is that urge to accumulate in most if not all of us, I think.

It is this covetous human nature that advertisers constantly play on in this consumer market economy. Their siren voices tempt us to buy that new car, the latest smartphone, cosmetics to make us young again, exotic foreign holidays – ‘because we’re worth it’. If we cannot have it all we feel cheated.

Those unlucky enough to have no paying work are made to feel inadequate as they eke out an existence on welfare, unable to afford what is advertised. And begrudged by those better off who pay their dole. While those with good incomes feel an inner void, finding that despite the siren voices all the stuff their money can buy does not make them happy after all.

The market economy has created great wealth, and a high standard of living for the majority in rich societies like Ireland. We have all come to believe that we will have more than our parents did. But it depends on ever growing consumption which the finite resources of our beautiful planet cannot sustain. When growth inevitably falters - as it has done - those with the least suffer the most, and all of us become fearful for the future. We worry that our jobs and pensions are precarious, we see our children and grandchildren emigrate and fear their lives will be harder than our own, we are anxious about the damage being done to the natural world about us, and we dread the prospect of massive climate change.

Today’s Gospel reading (Luke 12: 32-40) has a lot to say to us in present circumstances.
Jesus understands that people are often selfish and greedy because they are anxious and afraid for the future. So he tells the disciples – and through them, us – that we should put aside such anxiety. God knows what we need, and God will give us all we need when we work for his kingdom – in other words, when we try to be the people God wants us to be, loving God and his wonderful creation, and loving our neighbours as ourselves. ‘Do not be afraid, little flock’, he says, ‘for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’.

God has given us all that we have so that that we may be generous with it, not hoard it. What we give away, to those who need it more than we do, is ‘an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys’. If we want to be good Christians we must focus on that kind of spiritual wealth, rather than accumulating material wealth, ‘for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’.

And we must be alert at all times for opportunities to respond generously, as and when God prompts us to do so. As Jesus puts it, ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit’. We should not put off calls on our generosity, waiting perhaps for a better time or a more pressing need to come along. We are mortal – we do not know when God will knock on the door to call us out of this life. ‘You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’, says Jesus. And it would be shameful, when he does come knocking - as we know he will - to admit that we wasted the opportunities he gave us to act like the good people he created us to be.

Jesus calls his disciples, I believe, to live lives of holy simplicity and generosity.
In the passage immediately preceding the one we heard, Jesus talks of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. ‘Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither store-house nor barn, and yet God feeds them … Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Soloman in his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field … how much more will he clothe you.’

As Christians we need to live like the birds and the lilies. That does not mean that we should not work and plan for the future. Unlike the birds and lilies we must sow and reap, build store-houses and barns, toil and spin, and we must do so communally with others, because that is what it means to be human. That is how we have evolved to make our living, how God has made us to be - just as the birds and the lilies have evolved to make their different livings. But we must also recover a sense of what it is to have enough. We must resist the temptation always to seek more than we need, more than God has already given us. And we must cultivate a generous spirit.

So I commend to you Rae Croft & Marty Sanders’ lovely initiative to send pencil cases to help children in schools in Swaziland. This simple action can make so much difference to children who have so very little, as Bishop Ellinah of Swaziland told us when she visited our diocese in Adare a few months ago. Please have a look at the poster on the noticeboard, take a leaflet, and give as generously as you can. As their Lenten project the children in St Mary’s No2 school have already sent 97. Surely we the grown-ups can do just as well!

To finish, our globalised world is like an over-wound clockwork toy.
The spring that drives it is ready to snap. We face disastrous consequences unless we can release the tension. Our example of holy simplicity can show others how together we can ease the tension, how we can return to a way of living which will enable everyone to continue to flourish in the wonderful world God has given us, alongside the birds and the lilies.

Holy simplicity is liberating, and our world needs liberating now as much as it has ever done. Let us live simply, so that others can simply live!