Sunday 20th July 2014
Year A, The Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Matthew 13:24-30; 13:36-43

I suppose we have all experienced the sensation, thoroughly predictable, but usually quite shocking, of pulling a thread in a garment in order to make it good, only to find that we make a large hole which cannot be repaired. We all know we shouldn't pull; we all know what the consequences will be; and yet, we can't help ourselves. We know better, we can make a fool of history and experience.

That is what happened in Western Europe in 1914 between the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the outbreak of the First World War. Blemishes that might have been left alone were not left alone; it seems that monarchs and politicians could not help themselves.

In 1973-4 I spent a year at Harvard trying to untangle the events of July 1914 which led to the Great War, without much success, I should say, but my overall impression then, which has never left me, is that the great powers, and particularly their diplomats, were obsessed with hypothetical minutiae: if a) does this then b) must do that and if b) does that then c) must do the other. Europe tied itself up in a mass of consequential knots which couldn’t be undone. If the diplomats had stuck to Pimms and croquet the only chance of war breaking out would have been as a response to naked aggression. This was a case of diplomats starting a war rather than stopping it.

This is precisely the place where we find ourselves in today's Gospel. The monumentally stupid steward says: "Weeds over there, guv'nor, why don't we pull them up and burn them?" To which the wise reply of the said governor is: "Don't be silly, if you pull up the weeds you will damage the crops," the agricultural equivalent of pulling a thread in a piece of cloth.

If only we could learn from history instead of repeating its mistakes in every generation; if only we could teach ourselves to leave well, and even not so well, alone. If we had asked anybody in the battles of the Second World War they could have told us what they were fighting against, and almost all of them could have told us what they were fighting for; but if we had asked almost anybody on the battlefields of the First World War what they were fighting for, they couldn't have told us; they would have had to resort to abstract concepts like honour and glory in contradiction of the practical. And it was that fatal vacuum of self-knowledge into which Hitler plunged. It is in that context, among many others, that we need to think about the First World War.

But what of us and our power of self-restraint? How many of us get through the day without wanting to pull up some moral weed or other? How many of us pick at the flaws in our neighbour's cloth and unravel hard-won coherence and self-esteem? Our usual defence is that religion is all a bit abstract but that ethics, or morality as we now usually call it, is a concrete way of understanding how to live the worthy life. But the opposite is actually the case: ethical and moral codes are highly abstract phenomena which tell us just about nothing about anything. All our judgments are highly contextual and unique whereas the reality of God is absolute and is only abstract and vague if we choose to overlook the promises God has made and which have been kept. If we read the Gospels and believe what they tell us, what else is it that we need to know?

And if we find this paradoxical, or hard to take in, here are a few brain teasers for the Summer holidays when we get bored with our page turner:

I'll give you the last answer but leave the rest to individual reflection: we are neither wheat nor weeds, we are hybrids, which is why the story of the wheat and the weeds is so eye-openingly far-fetched.

But I sense that in all of this we are left with the rather uncomfortable feeling that, as compassionate and upright human beings, we cannot leave things as they are, we cannot let wickedness prosper. But, I fear, we need to learn to live with the discomfort: we are here to do good, unconditionally, without return, without contract, without even feeling in some way better for it. You can analyse the whole of the condition of our planet and find the occasional volcanic eruption that kills and the devastation of an illness that cannot be accounted for; but almost everything that happens on this planet for ill as well as for good is the result of the choices we make; and if we make more choices for love then there will be less starvation, illness and devastation: cutting down trees causes landslides; burning more fossil fuel increases the power of hurricanes; inequality forces people to live in dangerous places; poverty causes sickness and death. And, at a more personal and less cosmic level, acts of cruelty, carelessness or wantonness arise from, and perpetuate, a lack not only of love but from a lack of being loved. People who are loved rarely lose an understanding of the value of loving even if, at times, they feel incapable of giving what they should.

The real failure of moral characterisation, of making moral decisions in respect of the behaviour of others, is that it spares us the responsibility of fixing what we should fix. We are here not to harvest but to plant. Let that be enough for us.