Martin Fletcher's Sermon, 30 July 2017

Trinity 7
30 July 2017

(1 Kings 3:5-12;  Romans 8:26-end;  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52)

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

 

It is worth reminding ourselves that Matthew wrote his gospel primarily for Jewish readers, people he wanted to help to understand that Jesus really was their Messiah, the Christ. His gospel therefore emphasises how the words and deeds of Jesus fulfilled so many Old Testament prophecies: it is littered with the phrase, ‘This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet…’

And out of respect for his readers Matthew never uses God’s name: where the other gospel writers refer to ‘the Kingdom of God’ Matthew uses the expression ‘the Kingdom of heaven’.

Our gospel passage today is centred on Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom, with its powerful images of the mustard seed and the yeast. Those images show how small things can have a big impact – and they also underline the inexorable growth of the Kingdom. We believe that at the end of the age, when judgment comes, all that is evil will finally be defeated.

Thanks to today’s ‘Ride London’ event we are small in number. And please don’t get me wrong, in no way am I saying that cycling is evil (!), but for some of us today’s road closures are testing our commitment to put God first, testing our discipleship. So our witness in being here is making a statement; small things like our determination to maintain ‘business as usual’ can have a big impact.

Now I know that many of you use daily Bible study notes. Thanks to Des and Anne-Marie Humphrey, there is quite a network of us who use Bible Reading Fellowship commentaries – and if you would like to join us then do please have a word with them.

I use the Bible Reading Fellowship’s ‘Guidelines’ notes. I have been struck by the present series of reflections by the writer John Leach, on the theme of ‘Discipleship Today’. In his introduction, John Leach observes that in recent years there has been much thinking on what discipleship means. He says that as numbers associating themselves with churches continue to fall there has been renewed interest in the quality of our witness.

So his series of reflections looked first at what Jesus calls his disciples to do, and then at various contemporary factors which gnaw away at our commitment, making us weaker and less effective as Christians. It is this which, in his words, is damaging God’s reputation and that of his Church.

I was particularly struck by his comments on the subject of tolerance. He points out that these days any organisation seeking to identify their values would probably place ‘tolerance’ near the top of their list.

But then he says this. ‘If ‘tolerance’ means we live in a more diverse society without being cruel to others who are different I don’t have a problem with it. But the fact is that it often means something quite different – a refusal to confront evil. Or a laissez faire attitude in which right and wrong no longer matter and everything is relative. And as if that is not bad enough, we have created a lovely postmodern God: a God of love, yes, and certainly not a God of judgment.

He illustrates this idea with this thought. ‘In a recent church service we were invited to repent of ‘tolerance’ during confession, rather than praying for it in the intercessions. God is not tolerant: he is forgiving, which is a very different thing. God does not tolerate my sin, my weakness in discipleship or my lack of integrity – and neither should I. Rather, he forgives me and works with me by his Holy Spirit towards my perfection. There are times when we simply cannot tolerate an action because it is just plain wrong. Do we really believe that God reacts any differently?’

And here is an illustration of my own. I was shocked this week when it was announced that diesel and petrol vehicles will be banned from the year 2040. In the various reports I heard and read I was trying to find a way for those of us who are ‘petrolheads’ to continue to enjoy the pleasures of internal combustion! I came across an article in which the journalist – and what do journalists really know about anything?! – referred to the exhaust gases of engines being ‘purified’ by things like catalytic convertors.

Purified! Such an inappropriate word! ‘Made less harmful’ might have been a more accurate phrase.

It is small particles of soot in diesel vehicle exhausts, usually invisible to the naked eye, which are damaging our lungs. In modern systems these are captured so that exhaust emissions are cleaner and we can be more tolerant of them. But the new legislation to be introduced from 2040 will not tolerate them at all; offending vehicles will be thrown into the furnace – or onto the scrapheap!

In a similar way, the wrongdoing we commit often consists of very small things. In the name of tolerance, we can try moving the goalposts to make them seem not so bad, but at the end of the day they are still wrong.

So rather than wait until society or the law changes, rather than drift passively towards judgment at the ‘end of the age’, we should be taking action now. And the wonderful thing is that we do not have to do all the work ourselves. God by his Holy Spirit wants truly to purify us, if we will only allow him!

As Saint Paul said in our second reading today: ‘The Spirit helps us in our weakness.’ That reading ended with Paul’s profound assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus: not even our own wrongdoing.

So let us begin with small things – like the mustard seed; like the yeast. Let us take small steps as we seek to align our will with God’s will after the example in our first reading of King Solomon. As we do so, we will see that slowly but surely we become better disciples and begin to become the people God would have us be.

How about making a start by committing to regular Bible study, perhaps using Bible Reading Fellowship notes? ‘The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword… it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.’

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.