Harming Ourselves and Others

Sunday 17th July 2011
Year A, The Forth Sunday after Trinity
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Matthew 13:24-30
Matthew 13:36-43

I wrote the notes for this sermon during a trip to Ghana to promote the interests of the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the low, the blind people of Africa who were meeting together in solidarity, with partners from richer countries, to improve their lot; and the first thought that struck me might be a little trite, but it does not hurt to repeat the obvious if it is in danger of being ignored: those African people who were once the tares of the field, less than human, sold into slavery, are now the wheat in churches at the forefront of Christian mission. If you want to paint a picture of Christianity today it is, in truth, young, black and rapturous.

It would be wrong to become sentimental at this point; there is no use pretending that there are not aspects of the new Christianity that do not raise cause for concern; but, then, we could say that about our own church, not least the Bishop of Lewes.

But the point I am trying to make is that there is no fixed definition of wheat and tares. If we think about our own lives, we know that celebrities come and go, built up and knocked down by the press with our connivance; we know that fashions in hair and clothing come and go with dizzying speed and at a fantastic cost; and most of us here are old enough to have seen radical changes in political, cultural and social patterns of behaviour which came home to me most recently with the BBC's celebration of the light music of such composers as Eric Coates. When I was a child almost all music broadcast on the radio was light music, epitomised in such programmes as Music While You Work and other throw-backs from the Second World War, but then came Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, then the Beatles, and popular music could never be the same again; and just as the light music of the 1940s was a kind of escape from the terrible world we lived in, it is now a vehicle for little more than nostalgia.

We might also consider the idea that we are all highly opinionated about wheat and tares. We have very strong ideas about who is worthy and who is not. For people who are told by our leader over and over again not to Judge, Christians have a long and shameful record of judging other children of God. But I suspect that we are all somewhat naive about our own power. We slip into the judgmental mode without giving it a thought; it is our natural role to opine on everything from the scandalous shortness of skirts to the outrageous behaviour of neighbours. In spite of Jesus' wisely relaxed attitude to the growing tares, we cannot help getting down to a good session of weeding which has the twin benefits of making us feel good while we think we are doing good; but this habitual judgment has two serious consequences: first, it lowers the self esteem of others and, perhaps worse still, it enhances our own self esteem. We manage, simultaneously, to widen the gap between ourselves and those we judge by diminishing them and aggrandising ourselves.

Perhaps the most important message of our Gospel reading, then, is profoundly counter cultural; it is that when we see something that we think is wrong, we should do nothing. So as not to be misunderstood, I am not referring here to our role as Christians in civil justice where we should quite properly report crime to the police and, if they require it, to report suspicious objects or behaviour; but that is quite different from a chronic tendency to moralising at every opportunity. We should therefore think very carefully before we plunge into the field to do our spot of weeding. We must ask whether we are doing it for our own satisfaction or for the good of others. Clearly, the Christian position is that we should not do anything primarily for our own satisfaction; but I also have to say that we should not act primarily for what we think is the good of others without their consent; and we must not use our superior power - in whatever that lies - in order to impose ourselves or to extract consent. No matter what we may think, we cannot save others. Only God saves in the power of the Spirit through a voluntary turning back to God and a voluntary affirmation of love.

The second thought that struck me in Ghana was that it is difficult to comprehend our own power until we have come up close and personal with the powerless. For most of us this would be a daunting task; but at least we should use our social imagination. There has never been a time in history when the world has known so much about so many things but this has apparently led to what is called "compassion fatigue". It remains one of the sad and puzzling realities of our land that the poor give a higher percentage of their money to good causes than the rich, at an individual and at a community level so that, for example, Chichester is almost at the bottom of the Church of England league table for church giving. The point I want to make here is that as we get richer the more difficult it is for us to imagine poverty. And it is only a short step from an inability to understand difference to using it as a way of distinguishing the wheat from the tares where we, naturally, are always the wheat.

But the final thought from Ghana was much more uplifting. When I first went there in the mid 1980s after the Gerry Rawlins coup d’état, Ghana was on its knees; so bad that its largest hotel had no air conditioning and no catering but now the country is progressing by leaps and bounds; so that, even if we are tempted to write off someone or something, they deserve a fair chance. African countries are making progress against immense odds and in the face of criticism from the very institutions that are making their task so difficult. And I would like to think that one of the reasons for progress is the capacity for maintaining good humour under pressure - Ghana must have the highest per capita laughter rating in the world - and one aspect of that good humour is the way in which it infuses their intense Christian witness; they sang hymns with a smile.

And the more we smile, and see Jesus in each other, the less likely we are to hanker after that spot of weeding which assuages our irritation but which can do so much harm to ourselves and others.