On Sunday, I climbed into the pulpit to deliver a sermon for the first time. Having been involved in public speaking in the past (I was the head of the Student Forum (student council) at secondary school, which involved a good amount of public speaking) my confidence was knocked when I started university, to the extent that I felt unable to raise my hand to answer a question in lectures. So having had very little opportunity for public speaking since, the prospect of finding myself stood in a pulpit about to share my thoughts and musings on the Bible passages of the day was a daunting prospect. But it was also an exciting and humbling prospect: the opportunity to share how God was speaking to me through these passages with two congregations who have welcomed me warmly since I arrived just 9 months ago was a huge privilege. Thankfully the event wasn’t captured on any sort of recording, but I thought that I’d share the ‘script’ that I used to encourage others to consider having a go at giving a talk, homily or testimony in their own churches, home groups, or other setting – if I can do it, anyone can
Readings: Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34
Opening prayer: May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord our rock and our redeemer.
Now unfortunately for you all, [incumbent] has decided to let me loose in the pulpit today, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I share some of my thoughts about our readings today.
I’m sure you’ve all noticed that there was a lot of talk about seeds in our gospel reading today. You may have heard the parable of the mustard seed plenty of times before, but perhaps haven’t heard the first parable as often. Unlike the parable of the mustard seed it doesn’t have an official title; instead, it’s referred to by many different names, my favourite of which is “the parable of the seed growing secretly” – I think it’s the element of mystery in this title that I’m drawn to! I’m sure that you all remember planting cress seeds as children: sitting a little pot on the windowsill with your seeds in it, and – if you were anything like me – overwatering it in your enthusiasm! – then watching with amazement as over the next few days it sprouted, and green shoots emerged from the tiny little seeds. No matter how many times I planted these seeds, the result never failed to amaze me. There’s something about the life and growth of seeds into their various forms that sparks a childlike curiosity within me, a curiosity which is always amazed to see that the seeds have grown while I wasn’t looking, and which is always fascinated by the mysterious workings of seeds as they grow secretly. So just for fun, as I had seeds on the mind this week, I decided to replicate the cress seed experiments of my childhood with mustard seeds, and grew this little pot over the past week. It serves no purpose other than to confirm that I am still fascinated by the mystery of seed growing!
But as well as seeds, there’s other talk of life and creation in our readings today. In our epistle we hear St Paul trying to explain what Christ’s death means to him, and encouraging the Christians in Corinth to change their perspective on life, love, and creation. We read,
“For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
For me, this passage speaks about two things: the first is the “new creation” that comes through Christ, his actions bestowing love on all creation and making everything new. Nothing is regarded “from a human point of view” any longer – there is a unity between all of creation, a unity which we are a part of. Thomas Merton, a monk and great spiritual writer, describes this unity in one of his writings as follows:
“There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom. I am awakened, I am born again at the voice of this my Sister, sent to me from the depths of the divine fecundity.” (“Hagia Sophia,” Emblems of a Season of Fury, p61.)
This unity with creation is what leads me to reflect on the second aspect of this reading: which is that this unity serves as a reminder that Christ died, rose, and ascended because God loves us and all his creation. It is this love that urges St Paul on and to which we are called to respond, living as if we have been born into a new life, urged on ourselves by Christ’s love. So how do we respond to such a powerful act of love?
For some, like Merton, this “urging on” comes in the form of desiring to know God in a deeper, more intimate way – he writes of the “yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of his word, for knowledge of his will and for capacity to hear and obey him.” For others, responding to God’s love means doing new things, giving up old things, or adopting a radically different lifestyle. But I’d like to suggest that our response to God’s love may begin simply with our accepting life as a gift bestowed on us by our loving God, and allowing ourselves to be guided by love, seeing God’s creation the way that he does. When love becomes our driving force, urging us on, we allow it to govern our thoughts and actions. Love works in us, and through us, in ways that we don’t often understand or see happening – just like the seed growing secretly in Mark’s gospel. We may make a conscious decision to do a good deed or to say a kind word, but just as the seed grows in the soil as the sower gets on with his life, love works in us in the same way, unseen, constantly growing and developing, always at work even when we can’t see it happening, as we too get on with our lives.
But what role do we play in the life of the seed? If our response to God’s love is to share that love with others, allowing ourselves to be guided by the spirit of love, then we may become like the sower in the first parable, scattering seed on the ground whilst getting on with our lives. We may find ourselves prompted to do and say small things in love, whether it be donating to a food bank, speaking kind words to a troubled friend, giving a homeless person the change in our purse, choosing to buy eco-friendly products, or any number of things. In doing so, small acts of kindness become seeds, which in their very sowing share the good news of God’s love for all, and we become the sower, scattering the seed and getting on with our lives whilst “the earth produces of itself”. We are told nothing of the sower, or of the progress of the seed – all that we know is that the seed was scattered, and “when the grain was ripe” it was harvested. Perhaps what this means for us is not to be concerned with the progress of the seeds we sow, but to continue to scatter them anyway, and be ready for the coming harvest.
We all know that harvest is a time of great celebration, particularly in the days when a good harvest meant security through the harsh winter months, and was traditionally celebrated by both peasants and gentry. Cornwall is renowned for its harvest celebration, known, and probably pronounced incorrectly, as Guldize. This was a celebration at the end of the harvest, which began with a tradition known as crying the neck, to celebrate the gathering of the last neck of corn. After this, the celebrations would continue with a feast at the landowner’s home where he would sit down to celebrate with his workers. This scene may sound familiar to Poldark fans, when Francis marks the end of the harvest season (in series 2) with this celebration. All of this gives me the impression of a big celebration where the whole community comes together to celebrate the harvest. So, when our first parable tells us that the sower returns to the grain “because the harvest has come”, I think that we should add to that “and it’s time to celebrate.” We can be the sower who scatters the seed, sharing the news of God’s love with others through simple but meaningful actions and words, but we are also invited to the harvest celebration, to be the workers sitting down at God’s table to eat, drink and celebrate with him. We may not know what happens to the seeds once we’ve scattered them, but I think that it’s important that, encouraged by the spirit of love, we continue to scatter those seeds of love on as much ground as possible.
But why the mustard seed? Jesus describes the mustard plant as “the greatest of all shrubs”, but the people listening would’ve considered sowing mustard seeds as likely as we would consider planting knotweed in our veggie patches! It’s not a seed that most people would sow; it grows, spreads and is hard to eradicate; it’s a seed which is unlikely to produce a good harvest, is hardly as magnificent as Jesus makes it out to be, and gets blown in the wind and stuck to hikers’ shoelaces so that it grows where it wills. To humans, it’s a nuisance, but to the birds it’s a place to nest in and make their home. This then, is the metaphor for the seeds that we are sowing: seeds of love and good news which do as they please, spread far and wide, and produce an unlikely harvest. The earth produces of itself the fruit of the seeds that we scatter in its own time, and I hope that as we continue to sow seeds of love, we are eagerly awaiting the harvest celebration.
And so, I end with some questions to think and reflect on: What does it mean for you that God welcomes you to his table to celebrate the harvest with him? How might you sow seeds of love and kindness with the people you meet? And what is the harvest that you’d like to see in your community?