Few people in the UK can have missed the recent gathering of world leaders down in Cornwall for the G7 summit, it was not just a political gathering it was a full-on performance, with carefully staged photo opportunities and shows of national pride and strength. From posing as a happy group on the beach, to the fly past by the red arrows, president Bidens armoured motorcade of a dozen vehicles to warships in the bay it was carefully staged. Now of course some of these details are about the security of the world leaders attending, but most of it is also quite deliberate theatre, designed to show power and success. ‘We are the big boys and girls of politics come here to sort out the world’s problems, we have got this!’ And with the show comes the big announcements on Covid, on the global economy and the environment, grand plans and even more grandiose statements individually delivered by countries leaders principally for a home audience to show those voters ‘look I am one of the big hitters and I have come here and got stuff done on your behalf’.
As I have watched the show from afar I have been giving some thought to the kingdom of God, to be fair I give quite a lot of thought to that most of the time as you might expect, but this week I have been considering it through the lens of some of Jesus’ parables, specifically those involving seeds and planting (the parable of the sower, the seed growing and the mustard see, all in Mark’s gospel for example)
Recently across our enlarged mission community I have spent a considerable amount of time talking about challenges and change including the probability that some churches will close and other might see radical changes in the number or types of services. I am conscious that, as crucial as it is I initiate this conversation, many folks, already anxious because of the last eighteen months of Covid will find the idea of changes in their church or worse the possibility of closure deeply upsetting. It might surprise you to know I find many of these conversations equally difficult and am challenged by the idea of being the priest in post remembered for ‘closing churches’.
What has this got to do with the G7?
Well, Jesus uses parable a lot as a teaching tool, these simple stories use the familiar and relatable to force the listener to think. It strikes me that Jesus is big on that, on us thinking things through, and the position many of our churches find themselves in requires a lot of thinking through which is why I want us to talk about them.
The parables which involve seeds, planting, and growth hint at some powerful truths for both individual Christians and for our churches.
The pressure to look like we are successful and achieving by worldly standards can make us tempted to be a bit like the G7. Church can often feel like a bit of a competition, is your church congregation bigger than mine? Is our church doing as well as the one down the road? The diocese may often assure us the success of a church is not measured by ‘bums on seats’ but it is the owners of those ‘bums’ or more importantly their money and their time which keeps the church open and pays our common fund (the money we must pay to the diocese every month). This is why small rural churches are disproportionately disadvantaged in the current race for sustainability, we do not ‘look’ like we are successful’, why is that? Well, so much of what we do simply cannot be measured or assessed, our foodbanks, our pastoral visiting, the time we spend outside of the building making a difference in the lives of folks, work in our schools or care homes, all of it remains largely invisible. However, here is something we can learn from the parables Jesus tells of seeds and sowers. Unlike the world in which we live where those who have wealth and power or aspire to get it are keen on big shows of their status or influence, where successful lives are carefully choreographed and staged for the media God’s business often goes on unseen, often hidden. Seeds sown in the dirt and muck of the world, covered, underground, take root and grow where no one can see them through a force none of us can detect or control.
Small things, insignificant things grow into significant and life-giving things when God gets involved.
And, the seeds are planted where a harvest has already grown and been reaped, the soil turned and rested and then sown again. Seasons come and go, some for planting, others for growing, others for reaping and some when we just rest and the land rests also.
This is exactly what church is like and this is exactly what ministry in our parishes is like.
And these parables tell us something a bit more specific.
We have a job to do. We are called to sow seeds by our words and our deeds, and this will probably involve getting our hands dirty.
We may not always see the results of our labours, but that does not mean there aren’t any, we don’t get to choose the time scale on which this process takes place, that is God’s business.
In our lives there will be time for this, it may well not be every day, but it will always be a task which waits for us as seasons come and go.
And it leaves us with questions to ponder and work through:
Are we ready or frightened of change?
Are we ready for the ground beneath our feet to be turned, shifted, and ploughed anew?
What sort of seeds will we scatter? We are in charge of what we do and how we act, and it matters. We get to choose each day what part we want to play in God’s plan for the world.
In our lives and the life of the church not every season is the same, some will require a different sowing. Then there will be times to pause, take stock of previous harvests, and consider what we do next. It may be a time to do nothing, to let the land we have charge of rest or it might be a time to plough up the land, shake things up and get ready for a new and different crop.
Does that all sound a bit metaphysical? Well, that’s parables for you.