Small is beautiful and God is in our midst.

July 30, 2017

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Preached by Canon Gregory Clifton Smith, using (1Kings 3: 5-12;) Romans 8: 26 – 39; Matt 13: 31-33 at Choral Communion on Sunday 30th July 2017, the Seventh Sunday after Trinity.

As my retirement draws ever closer, I have been doing a lot of reminiscing of what Lionel Bart in the musical ‘Oliver’ describes as ‘reviewing the situation’. In the two readings set for today, texts from both of them have leapt out at me as they make a connection with my past. From our gospel reading it is the parable of the mustard seed; from our epistle, it is its last two verses, give or take a few words.

I have been a Christian all my life. The niggle towards ordination began in my teenage years. As I lived in the then Borough of Croydon, the Bishop who helped be discern whether what I was sensing was in fact a call to ordination or whether it was not, was Bishop John Hughes. As well as being Bishop of Croydon, he also happened to be bishop to the forces. He seemed to have one confirmation sermon which was always based on the parable of the mustard seed. Whenever it comes up in the lectionary, I cannot fail to think of Bishop John who is one of a number of genuinely holy people that it has been my good fortune to meet. He had a particular gift for discerning and nurturing vocations. I have since learned from the Rev’d John Cutter (who is happy for me to share with you) that he was one of the panel at his Selection Conference.  I like to think he was spot on with us. Back to the mustard seed. I remember preaching on this text in Bonchurch Parish Church on the Isle of Wight. Because I had mentioned Bishop John (as I could not fail to do) after the service, a member of the congregation  came up to me and said that at one time in his RAF service career he had been stationed at RAF Aquitery, and had heard the mustard seed sermon preached by Bishop John at a confirmation service there. Have sermon will travel!

The passage from our epistle that resonated with me contained the following words:

‘I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us form the love of God”. The observant among us will realise that I have omitted the last five words of the text- ‘in Christ Jesus our Lord’. Allow me to explain.

These words take me back to my time as a hospital chaplain on the Isle of Wight. St. Mary’s began its life as a Workhouse with an accompanying cemetery which was just where the Trust wanted to build it’s new mental health unit. This required the removal of bodies and their re-interment after all the relevant protocol had been gone through. Once the new mental health unit had been built it was felt that there ought to be a memorial to those who had been formerly buried there. Because as a hospital chaplain your ministry has to be as inclusive as it possibly could, the addition of the words I subsequently chose to omit was felt to be exclusively Christian and therefore not appropriate for people of other faiths and people of no faith at all. Now I’m sure that some will think I gave in too quickly. I am a Christian chaplain, why shouldn’t those words be included? Backed up by 1 John 4: 16 which reads:  ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them’, I hope I have shown something of the wisdom of Solomon, but that of course is for others to judge. Paradoxically, Solomon praying for the gift of wisdom is at the centre of the Old Testament lesson set for today.

The parable of the mustard seed is just one of six ‘Kingdom of God’ parables of which we heard in our Gospel reading. The kingdom of God is variously compared to a mustard seed, to yeast leavening the dough, to buried treasure, a hidden pearl of great price and a dragnet of fish. Why does Jesus speak in parables? To use the everyday and well known to illuminate the spiritual realm. Jesus himself puts it thus: ‘to proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world‘. Each of these parables give us fresh insight into the kingdom of God. The mustard seed, whilst it is not actually the smallest seed (the seed of the cypress seed is smaller), it seems to have been understood proverbially to represent smallness. It tells us never to underestimate the power that one person can wield. Martin Luther might have been one person but this year we are remembering the 500th anniversary of his theses appearing on the door in Wittenberg.

In the parable of the leavening yeast, just as the yeast is transformative, we are encouraged to think of the transformative power of the kingdom of God. The greatest gift that belief in the kingdom of God can bring is to set our finite lives within the context of eternity. At Pentecost this year we prayed (as we pray every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer) that God’s kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven. Because people had no banks and it was customary for them to bury their valuables in the ground, it would not be unusual to find such treasure. And those who found it were entitled to keep it. In the buried treasure parable, that which is significant is that the kingdom of God can be found in the everyday.  The parable of the pearl of great price suggests that the Kingdom of God is a thing of great beauty that can be discovered just by chance. What is needed sometimes is ‘the wisdom of Solomon’ to discern it.

The parable of the dragnet is slightly different as it places the kingdom of God within the context of judgement. Whilst the kingdom of God is open to everybody, those who act in an un-kingdom like way, will never enter it. So we each need to examine ourselves.

I’d like to pick out one more passage from our epistle this morning and that is verse 28 which reads: ‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God who are called according to his purpose.” Do we? I’m going to share with you something quite personal now. I have had two major failures in my life. The first was my appalling A level results. The second was my failure as a secondary school teacher. But how you view things depends on where you are standing. Often it is only with the gift of hindsight that we realise the truth of Paul’s statement. My failure to go to university led to my going to music college which I enjoyed with a vengeance. But it has led to me playing academic catch up ever since! My failure as a secondary school teacher led to a much loved time as a primary school music teacher. But my processing my failure at the time was agonising. I felt a failure; I had let myself down, I had let my parents down, I had let God down. It was when I acknowledged my failure and my need of God’s healing presence in my life that true healing began. Learning how to process failure has probably been the most important lesson in my life.  And it has allowed me to come alongside others who feel failures.

The kingdom of God rooted in the love of God can be found in the strangest of places – in the ordinary and in the extraordinary; it can be found by chance when and where one is not actively looking for it; it is freely open to everybody. What is absolutely clear in discovering it, experiencing it can be absolutely transformative, but it does demand a response. Just like the mustard seed, its affects must never be underestimated, especially when the world appears to be a dark and dismal place. And has Paul has reminded us, nothing can separate us from the love of God because God through Christ has been there before us. He is our source, our destination, our companion along life’s pilgrim way. He empowers us, he calls us to live the fullest lives that we are able to live.  He longs to be found in us so that others may see and believe and catch something or our joy.