Canon Wendy Robins, Canon Chancellor
The sermon preached at the Choral Eucharist on Sunday 30 July.
The National Cathedral is closed and one man stands alone in it. He’s not a big man but he is the most powerful man in the world. The funeral has just taken place of his beloved assistant who was killed by a drunk driver, who ran a red light, as she returned from collecting the first new car she had ever bought. He starts to berate God for all that has happened and as he finishes, harking back to something that had happened earlier, he lights a cigarette, takes a couple of drags and then stamps it out on the floor of the Cathedral just before the altar.
As he rants he questions God’s actions and how these actions can be those of a loving God. He lists his achievements and then, in a moment of complete existential crisis, he tells God that he has done with him and his punishments. (I have to say that these are not exactly his words but I fear I could not speak them easily from a pulpit!)
I guess that many of you will know what I am talking about? Do you? This is Jed Bartlett, the President of the United States, in Episode 22 of Series 2 of The West Wing: Two Cathedrals. (I always think of it as happening later in the series but I have looked it up and it isn’t!)
I can pick out so many examples from television - mostly recently, I admit America Television - where the plot of long running series leads the characters involved, in one way or another, to question or to berate God. To say to God things that I know I have thought and I suspect that some of you here will have thought too. (At least I hope so!)
It is this ability in moments of fiction to reflect the unspoken thoughts of people in every day life that has always made me such a fan of well written series and one offs and of fiction in general. I am, you might, say an addict and pretty much have been ever since I have been old enough to read or to chose what I would watch on television without parental intervention.
It seems to me that well done drama be it televised, broadcast on the radio, or live in the theatre and well written taut novels (for me because of a passionate interest in the nature of forgiveness - crime novels) can help us to confront and learn about those things which it is hard to confront and think about too much in day to day life. Or that is at least true for me, as if I confronted all that I sometimes think about day by day I would become even more of an Eyeore (think Winnie the Pooh if you don’t get the reference) than I already am.
That’s why I love the parables as much as I do because they are stories - pictures in words - that Jesus used to try to teach his followers more about why he had come and what his coming meant and means. They are written for those who are willing to stop and to think about what all that they are experiencing means and not for those who are wowed by the miracles that they have seen but will not take time to think and to recognize Jesus as the much aniticipated Messiah.
The five parables that we have heard today that of the Mustardseed, the yeast, the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price and the good and the bad fish – part of the group of the parables known as the parables of the Kingdom, tell us - as they told Jesus’ followers when he was here on earth - more about the importance of the Kingdom of heaven or the Kingdom of God and of what we should do to try to obtain it or at least to become part of it and to try to bring it nearer to earth here and now.
The parable of the Mustardseed is one of my favourites, I love the parable because of its associations for me with a series of groups that I helped to organise and co-ordinate in my local church before I was ordained. In them we studied Scripture together, prayed together, ate together, went on retreat together and learned about what it means to be part of the Kingdom of God here on earth.
It wasn't always easy because people often disagreed and were not always sure about things but it was a time of great community and of fellowship together. You will imagine, I am sure, that we studied the parable of the mustardseed time and again working out what it might mean in our lives.
And that is what story, that is what parables, encourage us to do to think about the message behind them and what we can learn about God’s Kingdom. (I should say here that Matthew uses the term the Kingdom of Heaven whereas the other two Synoptic Gospels use the term the Kingdom of God because Matthew wrote predominantly for a Jewish audience who would have found speaking and hearing the name of God more difficult and this was not so for Mark and Luke who did not write specifically for them. The Kingdom of God, the parables of the mustardseed and yeast tell us, will start small here on earth but will grow.
How does this relate to today? In this last week we have heard so much about the fires that have started all over southern Europe and the effects of the temperature there. We are told that this will be the hottest July ever recorded. Mind you looking out of the windows at the grey here in London this is hard to imagine. I have spoken from this pulpit before about the effects of global warming that I and others have seen in Zimbabwe. We have not taken sufficient care as we have lived on God’s earth. We are not thinking and have not thought, enough about the consequences for future generations. Where is the Kingdom of Heaven in this?
The parables of the mustardseed and of the yeast speak to us about how a small thing can become very, very significant. How the smallest seed can become a refuge for birds and a tiny piece of yeast make sure that bread rises. Thinking back to the parable of the sower ,which we heard two weeks ago, even a few seeds that land in fertile ground can be significant if they are nurtured and cared for properly. We need to nurture and care for the seeds of faith in our lives no matter how small and troubled they are.
Jesus wanted his followers to know that the Kingdom of Heaven is worth sacrificing everything for because it is of such value. Jesus has spoken often of people giving up all they have to follow him: riches, jobs, homes, families - everything. And that is what the people in these parables do. They sell all they have to purchase what they have found and we should be willing, in a similar way, to give up all our plans, our desires and our possessions to follow Jesus and live as he would have us. What might, or have, you been asked to give up to forego in order to be the person God wants you to be and to live in the way that God wants you to? Were you able to do it?
And finally, in this run of parables, we are told that we, like the good and the bad, fish will be sorted and the bad will be separated from the good. And I find myself wondering what I am doing in my life to ensure that I am one of the good ones. What are you doing?
Are we beginning to take stands on issues of importance here in the Cathedral and in our community and country. What would make the Kingdom of Heaven seem more like it was here and now in no matter how small a way and how can we help to bring it in?
What are our priorities and are they God’s? It is this that the parables challenge us to consider and it is this that we as an orthodox, radical, faithful and inclusive congregation have pledged ourselves to exploring and taking forward.
Part of how we can do this is to remain questioning and open to finding things in our faith challenging. It has never been easy. Sometimes it is Ok to rail at God and to question what we see here and know. God’s Kingdom will grow like the mustardseed and the yeast did as we seek to make our lives full of God’s love and will and move towards thinking about how God’s will can be done here on earth for therein lies the beginning of God’s kingdom coming here on earth.