Vicar's Sermon - 22nd March 2015
John 12: 24
Jesus said: Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
One of the most interesting books I have read over the last year has been Justin Marozzi’s book ‘Baghdad’. I read it last summer – it was one of dad’s ‘serious books’ that accompanied the family on our holiday to France. It’s a ‘biography’ – not of a person but of a city. In this sense it is a book with a number of eminent companions: If you ever find yourself in the history section of Waterstones you will find similar books about cities- Peter Acroyd has done one abut London, Simon Sebag Montefiore has produced a great tome about Jerusalem, as has Karen Armstrong. Marozzi ‘knows his onions’, as they say‘: he is a Trustee of the Royal Geographical Society, he clearly knows his history and the book makes a fascinating read. Now I can’t claim to remember much of the detail of the book – and there was no chance of me holding on to many of the complicated Arab names that pepper the history of the city but what left an impression on me from the book was the centuries old tradition of violence that has afflicted this part of the world. The book has a subtitle: Baghdad: City of peace, City of Blood. There certainly was a period when the city was the centre of the world for learning – even now you can find ancient manuscripts on sale in Baghdad’s bookshops- but this brief period of multicultural interchange and learning didn’t last long. Regime change has been frequent in the city’s history...and always accompanied by the most horrific barbarism. Saddam Hussein had a centuries old history of torture and brutality to draw on for his particularly sadistic form of rule, unfortunately so do the IS terrorists.
Which leads me to think that there is a great deal of truth in the saying ‘you reap what you sow’. Sometimes patterns of behaviour just become ingrained in people: ways of speaking, ways of acting. More than this, patterns of behaviour can become ingrained in whole societies – going against the grain (pardon the pun) is well nigh impossible. In the case of Baghdad, there was no way that Saddam Hussein’s overthrow could avoid being accompanied by bloodletting.
Not that our own culture can boast of much. At some point in the last century it seems that we lost the plot over how we express ourselves in sexual relationships. There’s hardly a day that goes by without some new revelation about sexual abuse: abuse that we now know (as if we didn’t all those years ago) can haunt individuals for decades and sometimes risks being passed down the generations (the abused becoming an abuser). It will be the work of many years to turn this particular mess around. You reap what you sow.
The other week we heard the Ten Commandments as part of our worship – they were read as our Old Testament lesson. Interestingly, one of the commandments seems to suggest that the consequences of our actions can echo on down the years. You reap what you sow.
4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
There seems to be truth here. The worship of ‘other gods’, turning away from the one True God has grim consequences. We might well struggle with the language of punishment in these verses but we all understand the language of ‘consequences’. The choices we make create the world we live in: we are co-creators with God. But what drives our choices? What if, with every decision we make we are simply compounding one bad choice after another? You reap what you sow.
Consequences: politically we heard much about consequences this week, the consequences of financial choices. Most telling for me were the words of the head of the National Audit Office who, in an interview for the Financial Times published on Tuesday said “If you’re going to do radical surgery it would be nice if you knew where the heart was. You’re slightly more likely not to stick a knife in it by mistake.” The bottom line is, after all, just one measure of a country’s health, not the only measure. As we argue over cuts and spending in this election campaign it would be useful to know just what is about to be cut out of our common life. Where will our choices on election day lead us? What is the vision our politicians are offering us?
‘You reap what you sow.’ It’s a spiritual truth but it can be positive as well as negative. In his letter to the Galatians the apostle Paul wrote Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. In these verses Paul offers the possibility of us reaping a spiritual harvest as individuals: what we put out into the world can bring back spiritual benefit for us personally, provided we sow ‘to the Spirit’.
Jesus, in the verse I quoted to begin this sermon, widens this thought: the harvest He envisaged is not just a harvest of spiritual benefit for himself but a harvest of goodness that embraces and includes others. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Jesus seems to suggest that his death will result in a great Harvest of goodness. Often, when we read this verse the focus is very much upon ‘the death and the sacrifice of Christ’ (and after all it is Passion Sunday today) but for now let’s focus on the Harvest – what comes from Jesus’ life of giving. The Harvest appears almost miraculously after the seed has been sown. The picture from Jesus’ parable of the sower is of grain that produces a 30 fold, 60 fold and 100 hundred fold increase. Just as it is possible to sow to our own flesh, to be more concerned about ourselves in the way we live our lives so it is possible to live for God and for others as Jesus did. Giving of ourselves opens up the possibility of transformational change - this counterintuitive insight is what motivates Jesus throughout His life and which takes Him to His death, a death that he sees as ushering in something new and magnificent. You reap what you sow.
If people and cultures are trapped in cycles of behaviour that are negative, unhealthy and destructive what they need is a change of heart, a new way of living...an explosion of grace. That is exactly what Jesus offered the world: a vision of life lived ‘openly’ and ‘outwardly’ towards God - the Father who loves us- and towards other people, made in His image’.
A Christian life then is a life marked by generosity and hospitality. It is involved in the lives of others, touching them with grace, gentleness and goodness. There is an energy about Christians that pushes them to serve (to give of themselves) – in charity shops, in schools and volunteering. It sends them to care for those who are frail, those who are hurt or ill, it sees them in places and with people that others have forgotten. It is an energy that looks beyond self preservation, that sees a bigger picture and trusts that small actions can have big consequences for good.
So much has grown from that one seed that fell to the earth in the person of Jesus. So much will continue to flow from His life poured out for us and through us. We call it grace. Grace, flooding down the generations – as the commandment said, grace showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You and I are now part of a chain reaction of loving kindness and mercy. We should never underestimate the power of our lives offered in God’s service: never underestimate the smile that changes a person’s day, the donation that saves a life on the other side of the world, or the listening ear for family friend or neighbour that shapes a decision and a person’s future. Giving, giving of oneself, that’s the heart of it: may this become a pattern of living ingrained in our lives. Life lived as a gift for God and for others - this changes the world. You reap what you sow.