Vicar's Sermon - 16th July 2017
Parable of the sower:
Straight commas lose SATS marks for primary children: that was a newspaper headline from earlier this week. I’d had a ‘heads up’ about this story from our own teachers at Green Lane School when the SATS results for the school had been published. Just in case you don’t know what I’m talking about SATS are the tests that children take in Year Six (their final year of Primary School) and the results form a large part of the Government’s school league tables.
But can it be true? A child knows where punctuation needs to be inserted into a sentence, inserts it correctly but doesn’t get the mark for the question because their comma is too straight…or their semi colon doesn’t have its two parts in exactly the right place on the line. Tough if you have problems with motor skills…or handwriting like the vicar’s: you’ve failed. Unfortunately, it is true. The guidance from the company that administers the marking of the texts is a pedant’s delight: ‘The comma element of the semi colon inserted should be correct in relation to the point of origin, height depth and orientation…. Where the separation of the semi colon is excessive, neither element of the semi colon should start higher than the letter I and the dot of the semi colon must not be lower than the w in the word ‘tomorrow’. I do hope you’ve got that because on such things your children and grandchildren are judged and our church school is now being assessed and judged. Which makes me want to say ‘what on earth is the point of it all? What are we trying to do ? What is the end result we are looking for in education at the moment?
I had the same questions reading today’s gospel: the parable of the sower. You know it. I know it. You’ve read it. I’ve read it…lots of times. What on earth can be said that’s new here? Sower. Seed. Different types of ground, some bears a crop…other soil doesn’t. Message? Be the sort of person who hears God’s word and responds. End sermon. Time to move on.
Except ‘What’s the point? What is the sower looking for? Are we allowed to ask ‘What’s the crop the sower is seeking: the 30 fold, the 60 fold, the 100 fold crop?’
There’s a problem with parables. You can push their analogies too far, you can break them easily by reading too much into them. Maybe the message is meant to be vague: when God’s word comes close ‘respond’ as best you can. But what was Jesus looking for as he preached? What counted as ‘success’: was it numbers of people converted…and if so what were they being converted to?
The gospels give us stories of individuals who responded to Jesus message that the kingdom of God was near but totting them all up there weren’t that many of them. The twelve, of course: but their following all came unstuck under pressure. There were the crowds who gathered at the lakeside or on the hillsides to hear him preach but, for all they enjoyed a free picnic lunch and laughed at his stories and the occasional swipe at those who thought too highly of themselves by Holy Week they have swapped sides. There’s a Zacchaeus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus: not many others.
The church is obsessed with numbers. You are too…don’t try to wriggle out of it...you notice how many people are in worship on Sunday’s each week. It’s not like it was is it? We’re an anxious people – we pretend not to be (after all, we are the Church of England, Jesus himself would have been a member given a choice), we have to manage our affairs well, we ‘have to look after the ‘pence so the pounds will take care of themselves’ but we’re thrashing about nationally and locally ‘reshaping’ and ‘restructuring’ and ‘receiving’ endless reports with recommendations that ‘if we only did this…or that…or the other…decline could be resisted, finances increased, revival would break out and the nation be converted…to what exactly?
That is the question isn’t it? Converted to what? I don’t think it’s numbers this parable is about. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see this place full more often just as you would but I don’t think the 30 fold, 60 fold and 100 fold responses are to do with church growth. They seem more focussed within each individual person. ‘As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word…’ There it is: This is the one who hears: the individual who responds.
So again, the question comes back at us: what response is Jesus looking for? From you and from me? What’s the difference between a 30 fold response and a 100 fold response. Is it ‘commitment’ he’s after? ...and how do you measure that? If you went anywhere in the Church of England at the moment you will find Senior Staff talking about discipleship. Discipleship is clearly important…we’re all called to be disciples, followers of Jesus, people who ‘learn from him’ but what are the marks of discipleship. Can you measure ‘how you ae doing’? Is it in the number of people who attend bible studies…or worship services? Is it in the amount of hours devoted to prayer…or to serving the church? Does being on the PCC make you a better disciple and push you up to being a ‘hundredfold’ variety of Christian?
It doesn’t seem right does it? Is ‘discipleship’ actually about the church at all? There’s long been the complaint that church actually sucks energy out of people preventing them from serving their families, workplaces and communities as they should.
So is it ‘character’ that he wants? A particular lifestyle…a way of living that is different, that owes something to His influence on our lives? My guess is that this is more in view than ‘numbers’ or ‘discipleship’ – at least when discipleship is seen through too church focussed a lens. But we’re still left with the question ‘what is the Christian character that Jesus is looking for in us, what marks us out as His followers?’
Which brings me back to where I started which was ‘Education’ and ‘schooling’ and the question ‘what’s the point’? The other week members of the Church Council met up at our church school for what is called a ‘twilight’ session alongside all the teaching staff and teaching assistants to talk about ‘God in schools’. As a church school we place great value upon our ‘Christian Ethos’ but Bishop John Pritchard (who led our discussions) really pushed us hard to define what it is that shows that we are a Christian Community. That was hard. It’s hard to nail it down, let alone work out how to live it.
Some of the things that we landed on were these: Respect. But more than respect, ‘respect for each individual as made in the image of God’. ‘Inclusivity, hospitality, an openness to others’: you’d want every school to be a place where all felt ‘at home’ where, in the jargon ‘Every child matters’ but these things seemed important to us as followers of Jesus, for they seemed important to Him.
Respect, inclusivity, …space for the sacred. Somehow finding space (physical space but also time) to pray, to worship…space for heaven to become real to us in how we look at and see reality. How do you measure up: what does prayer mean to you? Is time in God’s presence a priority or an afterthought?
And then ‘story’. Christians live within a particular story. We interact with a tradition that stretches back thousands of years: we bounce our experiences against the experiences of people shaped by Judaism and Christian tradition. Knowing our story seems an important way of locating who we are in relation to one another and the world in which we are set, so where (for you) is there a place for learning the faith, delving into the story, understanding the scriptures a little more?
Respect, inclusivity, space for the sacred, knowing the story…sacrifice. There is no Christian discipleship without a place for the cross…and a sense that giving up oneself for others (putting their needs above my own) is part and parcel of the faith. So, our response to Jesus will involve learning to give ourselves away. There is, quite rightly, a ‘rights’ agenda in schools but Christian Schools and Christian people might cultivate an ethos or character that is willing to say that ‘my’ rights can be given up in favour of yours.
And celebration: Worship. Joy; the embodiment of our faith in praise of God, in celebrating His goodness, receiving and using His gifts of music and movement and word and action… a Christian life will have joy running through it and a place for worship….that really is where ‘church’ matters, being with others in worship.
Respect, inclusivity, space for the sacred, living in the story, sacrifice and celebration. These things are hard to measure, far harder than the slope of a comma or the spacing of a semicolon – the exam boards would struggle to find ways to quantify their presence – but somehow we recognise them when they are present and we miss them when they are not. My guess is that the crop is looking fairly healthy both here and up at the school. But the sower you’ll remember is pretty profligate with the seed: if we were to look a little further it wouldn’t surprise me if we were to find signs of his Word taking root in the most unexpected places, for that we rejoice (the sower has been hard at work) for didn’t he himself say the ‘harvest is plentiful’?