Sunday, April 23, 2017

Seeds of faith – reflection for St Giles, Exhall 23rd April 2017

I agreed to be with you tonight a good few weeks ago, at a time when a comfortable interval had elapsed since the death of anyone whom I loved. I thought that it would be a purely professional matter for me to come here and share with you whatever God gave me to say as together we ponder the sadness of farewell and the hope of Resurrection.                                             I should know better by now! That kind of thinking is often misplaced...and, in fact, the reality is very different.                                                                         You see, on Easter Monday a much-loved mentor, my former bishop, died – far too early, thanks to a brain tumour. Among many other gifts of holiness and wisdom, he was a life-long teacher, and had continued his ministry as a teaching bishop even as he approached death, leaving his wife with a wonderful letter which she sent to us, his friends, together with news of his passing….                                                                                                   Despite the letter, which shone with faith and confidence, I found myself plunged into all the stormy uncertainty of grief that will be familiar to many of you...and wondered if it would, after all, be possible to bring anything at all helpful to the table this evening. But actually, most authentic preaching begins by speaking to the preacher...and somehow the past week has, in fact, reaffirmed my own confidence in that “sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life”.                                                                               It’s not about science, though.                                                                         It’s all about mystery, about faith…which is deeper and more wonderful than anything that can be demonstrated q.e.d.                                                           So, let’s go with that as our launch pad.

A seed is an act of faith.

If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, I should plant a tree today..
So Martin Luther King summed up the faith and hope, the determined investment in the future that is represented by each seed consigned to the earth.
When we look at a single seed it is so ridiculously tiny and fragile – it doesn't look as if it could amount to anything.
I dropped an open bag of poppy seeds in my kitchen last year – and despite my best efforts to retrieve them so many individual seeds were quite simply lost, among the dog hair and house dust on the floor.                                 Lost – and yet within themselves, each and every one of those seeds was replete with potential.

We recognise this potential whenever we place a seed in the ground.
We trust that, though most of us probably don’t understand exactly how it works, given a bit of care and reasonable conditions, that seed will germinate and grow to provide new life where there was none before.
And we are able to believe this because we’ve seen it happen for us, year after year…but nonetheless, each planting is, truly, an act of faith.

Jesus talks about a grain of wheat falling to the ground to die - and we know that, if we dug up a seed a few weeks into the germination process, there would be little of the familiar shape left. It can only reach its potential by ceasing to exist in that original form. That's the sort of truth it's quite hard to deal with, when we use it as an analogy for our own experience of loss.
Most of us are here because we have had to face the reality of of saying Goodbye to a beloved body, put aside by the person we love. Perhaps we have seen it laid in the earth – and we certainly don’t need anything else to remind us of just how perishable, how fragile that precious shell the body can be. We are living with the consequences of that fragility, day after day after weary day.

So actually a clever analogy with gardening frankly doesn't help! We know the science but translating it to another context is a different matter. It can be so hard to visualise any sort of bodily resurrection. Even if we’re sure that we’ll see our loved ones again, it’s very difficult for us, this side of the divide, to imagine quite how that will turn out. I'm not expecting to find myself wearing a white robe and a crown, or playing the harp – because I think that sort of picture language is just that. A picture – someone's best guess, but a long way short of reality. And that's fine...I get what they’re aiming for – and on a good day I’m quite content to imagine that those whom I miss are living a glorious resurrection life that involves endless joy, praise and the nearer presence of God.
But there are bad days too, days when any number of images of saints in glory are no compensation for the absence of one particular flawed but beloved human being.
Days when the fact that I can’t explain how things actually work seems to make it almost impossible to believe in any of it.
I’m afraid I don’t have any sure-fire answers for days like that, because, of course faith is never the same as knowledge, and we can’t use the same objective reasoning to confirm our hopes for eternity.
It just doesn’t work that way.
It’s one of those times when we can only lean on our faith- if we have it - or the instinct that confirms for us that something, someone we have loved so much cannot simply vanish as if they had never been.

I believe that…
I believe it from my own experience of the death of my parents and some much loved others…I believe it from my current experience of adjusting to the loss of Bishop Michael.
I believe it because I have Jesus’s own promise that it is so…but I cannot, in all honesty, tell you exactly how it will come to pass in God’s economy, in which nothing and no-one is ever wasted.

So, though I do want to think about seeds I’m not actually going to explore Paul’s words any more for now.
Who can really understand the Resurrection?
In God's good time we will all experience it – but for now...let's think about other seeds, seeds that are here in plenty today.

Those are the seeds of faith and hope that lie in each one of you, the seeds that have enabled you to carry on even when grief is sharpest, on the days when your feelings of loss are almost too much to endure.
Sometimes, I know, those seeds seem so fragile you doubt that they will actually grow at all…but each day you manage to get up and engage with life and remember to have breakfast you are saying
It IS worth it…Death, darkness, disappointment shall have no dominion over me”
Writing in a famous passage in his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul reminds us that we carry within us seeds that can bloom and flower in our relationships, the seeds that make us fully human....and that these seeds are, in fact, all that we really need to cling to when the chips are down.
These three remain - faith, hope and love”

When we are grieving the loss of someone dear to us, it’s tempting to say  "I’ll give up on love – because that way lies only hurt and desolation…”
That's sad – but sometimes understandable. We feel vulnerable and unwilling to risk further wounds. But even if we no longer feel ourselves able to give or receive love, we are still surrounded by it – and it comes in many different forms. The love of our families and friends is a huge comfort – but it’s not something that we are all blessed to enjoy – and that can make life feel specially bleak. The love of a community, a church, a social group, feels rather different – sometimes a little impersonal…but it’s still worth having, still love. And even if we feel cut off from all those everyday experiences of human love – even then, we are still shaped and held by love…endless love, love stronger than anything in the whole of creation.

We may not be able to say that we understand what happens next, but we can continue to nurture the seeds of faith, and trust that all shall be well, that the God whose who nature is love did not create anything to be destroyed or wasted. Whether we mourn a beloved parent or partner – or a myriad other losses, disappointments, wounds we have been dealt through life...we can try to believe in the coming of spring.

We can hold onto those split-second reminders of God's greater reality, the moments when an unexpected kindness, a child’s smile, the sound of birdsong, the sight of a tree in full blossom, turns the world bright again for us, just for a moment…
We can cherish those seeds of hope and keep them warm and close to our hearts, the place where they most need to grow.
Their growth may take a long time, for after all we’re not planting for the short term, something to spring up and die back in a season, but looking for something to sustain us each day.

So, no quick fixes, but I promise that as we journey on in faith, the glimpses of hope, the hints of love will slowly grow and come to fruition until we can each own for ourselves the promise
'Love is not changed by death and nothing is lost, and all in the end is harvest'

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