Fifteenth Sunday of the Year 2020
When Jesus is with people something always important is happening. He uses their language to communicate something about God and about ourselves. Jesus refers to the openness of heart to the message of God’s reign with various descriptions of soil. We often ask Who is the sower? God? Yes. Jesus? There probably is no right or wrong answer except that God is always sowing life in ours. St. Paul today says, ‘The Spirit of God dwells in you’ (Romans 8:9, 11). Without minimising God and Jesus here, we might need to expand and enlarge the possibilities so that the words of scripture might be given great chance to take root in our lives, to bloom in new ways, and to grow into something we never before imagined or thought possible.
The seed cannot take root or flourish on clean and superficial, polite and polished, smug and proud surfaces. If the seed is to be transformed and grow it must take root in soils consisting of waste, rotten vegetables and mouldy fruit – in the shadowy interiors, the smelly regions, and in the shadow lands. It is in these parts of our lives and our history that we try to hide that God is present; the parts in ourselves we, or others, regard as of little value, shameful, unacceptable. This is where God’s word is found and thrives. Jesus reveals God’s abundant generosity by scattering seeds of gospel love, generosity and compassion so that we may replicate these in the human community and where nothing is lost in God’s eyes. No ‘basket cases’ or ‘lost ones’! This is where God is.
So too for the church. “Yes, I'm profoundly convinced that, precisely in circumstances where the church was crushed and trampled into the dust like a seed, that seed ought to bring forth fruit at last. It doesn't look as though the fruit will be an outwardly flourishing church, if by that we envisage full churches and seminaries, nor need it necessarily be a clear flame of new theological thinking. Maybe what can and should emerge is a new boldness to approach those ‘others.’” (Tomas Halik, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing In Us)
All we need to do is let the word in - into the dirt - deep down. In John 3:16-17, we hear that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may not be lost, but have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world; instead, through him the world is to be saved.’ There is a lot of rot in the world but it is this world that God loves and wants to heal. The earth is our home, the place where we come into being. The world is given to us as the place and object of our work. It creates our identity. But as we desecrate its beauty and resources we destroy our home. The devastation of the earth is a result of greed by those with power and wealth. Then there is the devastation of peoples’ lives because of that greed. This is not new. It happened with slavery, genocide of peoples, deforestation and removal of people from their ancestral lands. Nevertheless, God is with us even in this desecrated place and in the people whose images have been desecrated.
The signs God gives in our lives may seem unseen, unheard, unfelt, untouched, and powerless. Paul alludes to the abundant and generous Spirit of God that makes us God’s own people and extends freedom to us: freedom to love, to serve, to take risks, to speak the truth of God’s presence amongst us and be aware that God continues to speak to us, and through us, to confront the disrespect afforded to the many human images of God. James Baldwin said: ‘Every human being is an unprecedented miracle.’ Bearing fruit involves translating God’s reign of love into ongoing gestures of solidarity with others. It happens in those who do the advocating, participating, dissenting and everyday caring in their lives. The fruits we are asked to produce are justice and mercy, hospitality for the stranger, for the person who is different, to be a voice for the dispossessed or wronged; the vulnerable; for the unborn, the single mother, the homeless person who might come to our door or accost us in the street. Here, as Isaiah says, is God continually creating. Creation is not once and for all. God is constantly speaking and creating: through us, in prayer and contemplation, in works of art and creativity, in friendship and solidarity, in expressions of love and intimacy, in the love one shares with a spouse or partner. God is creating despite what we do. God is still creating and Jesus’ followers participate in this creating. In the face of God's activity and generosity, we need ask ourselves: where am I marginalising God's word? Where does it meet hardness of heart in me – towards my neighbour, towards creation, towards myself? Where is God's word taking root in us or enabling us to witness for the reign of God?
Jesus' gospel is one of hope and surprise. It is a gospel of reversals. Is this not happening in the cries for freedom, acceptance, fraternity amongst so many of our sisters and brothers – the First Nations peoples among us in particular? Might that be seen in the rotten ground of colonisation, racism, prejudice and bigotry be challenging us to look at ourselves as individuals and communities and churches with regard to our racial blindness? Are we not called look at our so-called ‘white fragility’ that leads to excuses and justifications? Are not the churches called to focus and listen to those who are not at the centre but on the margins; to focus on the heart rather than rationalism and logic; on praxis rather than dogma; and focus more on people than on bricks and mortar. Are not the churches guilty at times, maybe often, of saying a lot of what God says so little and very little of what God says much. We have perfected the art of explaining away Gospel demands with excuses. The modern variant of the ‘that’s nice, but it doesn’t apply to me’ excuse stresses how different our lives are from people who are often abstractions and beyond our experience. We make those excuses when we talk about black deaths in custody and black people living with mental illness killed by the police. So often we hear that our faith is not political except when it comes to issues such as abortion and homosexuality. We overlook the 2,500 Scriptural verses that refer to love, justice, care for the poor and vulnerable. When we refuse to be silent we continue the creative work of God with our bold words, challenging words, dissenting words, supportive words, words of solidarity, compassion and caring. Advocacy work of any kind is like sowing seeds – a few take root and many fall by the side of the road. Some of our words go unheeded and seem to die. Some are heard and quickly forgotten or lead to opposition. Others are accepted and lead to change, transformation, betterment in small ways for people. Always, but particularly now, we are called to be the seed of God by responding to those in need, to speak out against injustice, to care for God’s creation. When we act in justice and love - in our families, our communities, and beyond - we (even if only one of us) ensure that God’s Word does not fall on rocky ground, that does not return empty, that achieves God’s purpose in our lives and our world. but on allow the seed to grow and spread in our lives.
Where is the Good News? Where is there hope? Isaiah and Matthew tell us that we will not be deserted. Our God always offers the other cheek. We seem to living in a period of turmoil which is often a precursor of drastic change. Could the protests around the world wake us up to racism and its hallmarks and towards a more peaceful, more inclusive world? Pope Francis readily says that ‘all is linked’. Matthew illustrates this superbly.
We have the realities of oppressive structures all around us that limit access to certain resources - whether healthcare, housing, or food - which more than provides for some people and is inadequate for the majority. We see this as so many people who succumbed to the CoronaVirus were black, dark skinned or poor. The parable teaches us to listen most of all to the victims of unjust laws, oppression and injustice. Listening, looking out and responding to suffering and victimisation must inform and shape how we relate to one another – and care for the earth. This is God speaking through the victims whose voices have an authority over and above all other voices and noises that we are subject to. As we listen to the voices of people who are poor, indigenous peoples, asylum seekers, young people, and those marginalised because of their status, may our hearts be a place - good soil - to hear what they are saying and result in critical participation. Our listening ears necessitates critical examination of our attitude towards the victim. It also necessitates not just empathy for the victim but a conversion where we see from the point of view of the victims - not that of the loud noises and powerful among us - to the voice and vision of Jesus. It must lead to action and change. We need to be humble which also demands empathy, to stand where the other person stands, to feel their pain and fury, and maybe sit with them.
We have seen many white people joining protests for racial justice around the world after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police. The present pandemic might have been helpful here. As churches were closed and pews unavailable for Christians to sit and pray, they needed to go out onto the streets. They could not respond with tradition prayers and vigils which usually prioritise civility, courtesy and order and neutralise the radical and costly message of justice. It is hard to image a God who affirms order above all else being the God of Jesus. Where dialogue is emphasised, we implicitly put friendship and reconciliation and order above wholesale change. Here Frederick Douglass’ words ring true: ‘I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.’ Many people prayed with their bodies after leaving the safety of churches and conventional responses to call for and embrace change. The softened calls for unity were ignored by bold calls for justice. Those who said there was no need for violence despite the anger had not been unjustly treated or lived with constant fear and being guilty for being black or coloured or poor. We must be willing to look at things through the eye of the person who has been denied justice by a disordered system that is deaf. As the protest took place during Pentecost, unlike the disciples, and many religious leaders at least in this country, who keep safe in the upper room, the Spirit was on the streets, with the people, speaking the language of #BlackLivesMatter, the language that would no longer tolerate injustice, dreaming new dreams and proclaiming another world is possible.
As Bishop Michael Curry, a US Episcopal African American bishop says: ‘We need some Christians who are as crazy as the Lord. Crazy enough to love like Jesus, to give like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God— like Jesus. Crazy enough to dare to change the world from the nightmare it often is into something close to the dream that God dreams for it. And for those who would follow him, those who would be his disciples, those who would live as and be the people of the Way? It might come as a shock, but they are called to craziness.’ Again, Tomas Halik says, “Maybe what can and should emerge is a new boldness to approach those ‘others.’”
Claude Mostowik msc