Brecon Cathedral 17th June 2012
I thank Bishop John for his warm welcome and Dean Geoffrey for his kind invitation to join the Friends of Brecon Cathedral, this former Benedictine church, for your celebrations on this Festival Sunday.
“So we are always confident, for we walk by faith, not by sight.” These words of St Paul from today’s Second Reading from the Second Letter to the Corinthians tie in well with the two parables of the seed told by Jesus in the Gospel passage from St Mark. Both texts have in mind Christians who are losing heart because things don’t seem to be going well. In the case of Jesus, people are turning aside from his teaching or are simply misunderstanding what he is saying about himself and about the kingdom. So he asks, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” Interesting that Jesus should ask himself in public, “Now what can I say?” In Paul’s case, it’s the tension being felt between present afflictions and hope in what is to come: the future reality promised us by the Lord’s Resurrection, his victory over sin and death. Although the New Testament was written two thousand years’ ago, these are the very tensions we experience today and which cause us much suffering and anxiety.
Perhaps you saw the headline in yesterday’s Times that the Church in this country “faces certain death if it clings to its outdated ways”. That sounds rather like what the Bolsheviks said about the Church in Russia in 1918 or what Enver Hoxha asserted in 1950: that in Albania religion no longer existed. Visit those countries today and you will find that, thanks to the blood of the martyrs and the perseverance of the faithful, both Christians and Muslims are flourishing, For all his terrible crimes, was Hitler able to put an end to the faith and culture of the Jewish people? When are journalists and bloggers going to learn that debate and disagreement are signs of life and not of death and that, ultimately, the desire of all Christians, no matter what their denomination or churchmanship (if that word is still allowed), all want to discern the will of God and pray each day for the grace to do that will. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I say this acknowledging that there are serious debates going on and still to be had in both our Churches.
But let’s get back to the Scriptures, the source of inspiration, understanding and doctrine for all Christians, through which God speaks to us today in his living Word, Christ Jesus our Lord, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. You will remember that Chapter 4 of St Mark begins with Jesus teaching beside the sea. There’s such a crowd that day that he has to get into a boat and, sitting there on the water, teaches the people gathered on the seashore. It’s an evocative scene. We are told that he teaches them many things in parables. The parable recorded by the evangelist is that of the sower and the seed. It’s the first of three seed-parables, but the second and the third are part of a more private teaching session when he is alone with the Twelve and his other disciples. There his teaching begins with an explanation of the parable of the sower, followed by the parable of the lamp, “for there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” Then follows today’s Gospel passage. The day ends with a boat ride to the other side of the lake, a great storm and the calming of the waters. All those with him are filled with awe. “Who then is this, that the wind and the sea obey him?” That question gives us the meaning of the whole chapter, the whole day’s events, for it is not only miracles but parables too that show us who Jesus is. But the parables of the sower and the seed, the seed that grows by itself and the mustard seed tell us more: they tell us about our own hopes and fears, our lack of faith and understanding. They also tell us how God sees things, which is quite different to ours.
In the first parable the emphasis is on the different kinds of soil. According to the interpretation given by Jesus himself, only some of those who hear the Gospel message accept the proclamation of the kingdom, and even among them there are failures. Yet the seed has its own power and will ripen in its own time: it is like the mustard seed with a small beginning and a large growth. Mark intended us to see these parables as explaining failures and disappointments that we all experience and as a sign of hope that ultimately there will be tremendous growth and an abundant harvest. That is our experience too. We see failure in ourselves. I am sure that most people give up the practice of the faith because they cannot live up to their own standards or those they feel are expected of them. They seem unable to grasp the extent of God’s mercy, forgiveness and love. Perhaps the Church doesn’t make that clear enough. We tend to scold rather than encourage. The problem now is that we are often dealing with second and third generation lapsed Christians, hence many children and young people haven’t the faintest idea of what the Christian faith or the Gospel are all about, or even who Jesus really is. Many, it must be said, are also very disappointed with the Church and feel let down, marginalised and rejected. The Catholic Church, for example, has simply lost the “working classes”, who once formed its nucleus, thus becoming the shadow of its former self.
Woven into the seed-parables are explanations about the purpose of the parables. What Jesus says after the parable of the seed and the sower can appear offensive if we do not understand the biblical approach to divine foresight where what has in fact resulted is often presented as God’s purpose. Mark is really describing what he sees as the negative result of Jesus’ teaching among his own people, the majority of whom did not understand and were not converted. We often feel frustrated as we try to proclaim the Gospel and strive to make Christ known. Where do we begin? What do we say and how do we say it? To make things easier and lest we think our task is hopeless and that we cannot hope to compete with all the things, mostly entertainment and other distractions, that keep people so busy today, let me say this: What usually brings people to Christ are not words but actions, not argument but example. The best way to preach the Gospel is to live the Gospel. The only way we can make Christ known is to allow him to live in us and say with St Paul, “It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me.”
Now the two parables in today’s Gospel are parables of contrast. In the first, the seed growing to harvest, it is the contrast between the inactivity of the sower after the initial sowing and the certainty of the harvest, for it is God who brings about the growth of the kingdom. Remember what St Paul said to the Corinthians in his First Epistle Chapter 3, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Jesus encouraged his disciples and he encourages us today: in spite of hindrance and apathy the seed is being sown. Its growth is the work of God who will bring it to harvest. We have to learn to leave things to God, and by that I don’t mean laziness, indifference or apathy on our part, but rather that we allow the Lord to do his work in our lives and in the lives of others. Only he can see into the heart of Man: our faith is known to him alone.
The parable of the mustard seed is another parable of contrast, this time between an insignificant beginning and great achievement. The detail of the branches, on which birds nest, comes from Ezekiel Chapter 17, this morning’s first reading. Jesus is answering such questions as: can the kingdom really grow from such inauspicious beginnings? This must have been a concern of the disciples both during his life with them on the road and even after his Death and Resurrection and the Gift of Pentecost. Perhaps today it’s our objection, whether latent or expressed. Can the little things I do or that we do together as Church make a difference? Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. I am with you. No matter how small the seed you sow, God will give it growth. I am the Lord. I have spoken; I will accomplish it.” Yes, the growth is due solely to the power of God. After all, the kingdom is nothing other than the saving presence of God made manifest in Christ Jesus our Lord. That is why Jesus can speak with such confidence in the final stage of the kingdom.
Like St Paul, then, we must always be confident, for we walk by faith, not by sight. So let us rejoice in the Lord and share that joy with all the world. I am convinced that there is a big revival in religious belief and practice about to take place. You can see the seeds being sown. The question is whether we are prepared for it. Never forget the parable of the mustard seed.