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Saturday, July 15, 2017

'Farmer God...'?


Reflections for 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings:
  • Genesis 25:19-34
  • Romans 8:1-11
  • Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

    Typically I start my sermon for a Sunday about a week in advance – usually on the Monday or Tuesday as I review the readings and prepare the pewsheets for the coming Sunday.  This week has been no different except that the collect caught my attention – just as it did last Sunday with that extraordinary opening “Unpretentious God”.  These are experimental collects – but even so this week’s collect rattled me: ‘Farmer God’!  

    Farmer God, good soil brings forth a hundredfold of grain. May we be that soil; vibrant, deep and teeming with life. This we ask in God’s name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

    Anglicans are usually more circumspect than this in our prayer speech: it is our custom to be careful as we address the mystery, the glory, the wonder, the sheer otherness of God. ‘Farmer God’ hit me in one breath with its banality.  It just sounded wrong and the more I thought about it the image seemed to circumscribe God by so finite a frame of reference that ‘God’ was no longer God.


    Tissot, James Jacques Joseph, 1836-190
    That said, the meat of the collect is in the petition, voicing our burning desire to be a people who are fruitful, ‘vibrant, deep and teaming with life.’  Which is of course the always relevant question of ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Who are we becoming?’  This is the question, however worded, by which we take the measure of our days. Think for the moment, of those instances of self-doubt when we ask ourselves  –‘What does my life add up to?’ – or something of that sort.

    We may ask ourselves such tormenting questions as, “what would my life be like if I had done x and not chosen y?”   If I had made a different choice would I be a different person - i.e. vibrant, deep, teeming with life rather than as I may see myself now, depleted, shallow and driven by circumstances? 

    We may look back to a time when our world seem charged with rich possibilities and lament our present.  It is to this aspect of our human condition that the OT story of the brothers Esau and Jacob can speak.  Esau is the first-born son, the man born with the privileges of the first-born, a great start in life, and yet he takes the gift so lightly that he gives the blessing away lightly, casually, as if it is of no consequence.  He loses everything for the ‘mess of potage’, for a moment’s gratification.  We won’t speak of Jacob at the moment – the unspeakable trickster - but in the shadow of Esau we recognise the other selves we might have been, the shining possibilities that might have been us; the things we have taken for granted or disregarded.   

    Further back in time, back into the time of myth and creation, we may recognise the first Esau in Adam, who, after the fatal choice we call the Fall – has lost everything and the course of human creation has taken another and decisive twist.  When in our lives have we lost sight of who we might have been; lost sight of the really important things?

    Paul sees it all so clearly; he can be so irritating in that way!  

    He maps it out – you can live by the flesh or live by the Spirit.  One way is death-burdened, the other gives life; as he puts it: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (8:6) In terms of the collect, the life we seek, “vibrant, deep and teeming with life” is this life of the Spirit, this life that Paul recognises as identical with “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus”.  

    However we may agree or disagree with Paul, we know the truth about ourselves.  We have our good days and the days where faith, hope and love seem very diminished in us; where vibrance, depth and life seem minimal; and days when we wonder whether the Spirit of Christ is in us at all!  

    And yet we still turn toward Christ; we come to this Cathedral to join with all the others who seek to live in the Spirit of Christ, to be “vibrant, deep and full of meaning”.  Week by week we come, with our failures, and our successes, and on this Sunday we try to fix our mind on Christ and to hear again Paul’s assertion “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

    Parable of the Sower, 1180, Canterbury Cathedral
    And so we come to what we know as the Parable of the Sower. This is different from Old Testament saga and from Paul’s theological argument and debate.  Now we are in the story, like a multitude
    seated on the grass or among a crowd on a hillside.  We are hearing the stories and trying to make sense of them.  Except this is one we know – almost too well.

    Here the figure of the farmer as sower is like no farmer I know.   Farmers are careful, calculating and measured in their actions; nothing is casual about their sowing!  I have often preached on this text and recall how often I have seen it as a parable of the life of the Spirit: the times in our lives when we have been like the grain in shallow soil, or on rocks, among thorns – or even when we have been the good soil and fruitful.  In the course of that reflection we take ourselves back to the granary of memory and wonder at what has been wasted, lost or let die.   It is too easy for this parable to be used as a way of cracking the whip to stir us to better efforts; other readings are possible for the grace of the Spirit.

    Perhaps we are the infertile soil, the seed left to chance, the thorns, the rocks, the shallow soil, the open place with the birds – and so on – as well as the good and productive soil.  Perhaps in the generous love and grace of God – all options are in us and yet there is always still enough for all. To contemplate that is see the parable quite differently, and to be humorous and gentle.  

    For instance …  in his poem ‘New Reading’ the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins almost transforms the parable of the sower by reading it differently; by seeing in all things the transforming power of Christ’s love. This is far more than any 'Farmer God'!

    Although the letter said
    On thistles that men look not grapes to gather,
    I read the story rather
    How soldiers platting thorns around Christ’s Head
    Grapes grew and drops of wine were shed.

    Though when the sower sowed,
    The wingèd fowls took part, part fell in thorn,
    And never turned to corn,
    Part found no root upon the flinty road—
    Christ at all hazards fruit hath shewed.

    From wastes of rock He brings
    Food for five thousand: on the thorns He shed
    Grains from His drooping Head;
    And would not have that legion of winged things
    Bear Him to heaven on easeful wings.
    -Gerard Manly Hopkins 1844-1889


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