Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 6 Sunday 23 July 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie, TRINITY 6
My Godmother, a splendidly down-to-earth woman called Dorothy Harris, who’d been a missionary deaconess in India in the 1940’s, wrote an autobiography at the end of her very long life entitled ‘God’s Patience’. The title, quoting Romans 2.4, succinctly comunicates her Gospel. Having dedicated herself to serving God cheerfully in a series of difficult contexts in mission, mental health chaplaincy, healing ministry and finally in caring spiritually for her neighbours in a retirement facility, she had learned that God’s tireless, loving patience, a quality closely allied to the mercy about which Pope Francis speaks often, is the quality of God which ultimately brings us home to him.
The parable of the weeds among the wheat is about that, about how God puts up with us all. It certainly does not tell us how to run a farm. The farmer in this story lets the weeds flourish among the wheat: that is as absurd, my farming relatives tell me, as a shepherd abandoning 99 sheep to find the lost one (Luke 15). But this is the ‘kingdom of heaven’, not Australian acreage: it is the story of God’s ways, however counterintuitive they may seem to us. Sensible farmers do eliminate weeds; this one refuses to do so. But, to quote Paul again,
‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom’ (1 Corinthians 1.25).
The mad way God works is to weed out no-one: ‘let them all grow together’. Followers of Jesus have always found this maxim hard to stomach. Repeatedly, sickeningly, across the centuries, the Church, or groups within it, wonderfully confident that they know which are the weeds and which the wheat, have sought to incinerate the former in order to maintain the purity of the latter, sometimes literally.
By doing this, seeking definition against the world, institutional Christianity paradoxically sinks into conformity with the ways of the world and its prejudices, rather than seeking first the kingdom, the ways of God. This offends against the basic premise of Catholic Christianity: the generous offer of forgiveness. An obsession with the purity of the Church, with us from our origins, is always a betrayal of God’s ways. It is the sacramental life, grace, gift, not our own efforts, that puts us right with God.
My favourite novelist, Graham Greene, was fond of quoting the 16th century antiquary William Camden:
‘Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, mercy I asked, mercy I found’.
The quotation appears repeatedly in Brighton Rock, where the flawed anti-hero, Pinkie Brown, continues to live badly, consoling himself that he will have an opportunity for last-minute redemption. But Greene also often returned to the phrase in his letters as a source of personal comfort.
The instinct to exclude is not only found at the institutional of Inquisition and Excommunication. Many priests have wrestled with the paradoxical character of a congregation where committed members, with perceptive visions about what the church ought to be and do, exist side by side with those who are indifferent or who apparently are motivated only by self-interest. Often the opinions of the indifferent and the smug prevail over the opinions of the passionate and committed, and the whole congregation is affected. And plenty of congregations have struggled with truly awful priests. Who has not wanted to be rid of the bad apple that spoils the barrel? But that theology was viscerally opposed by Jesus; the kingdom, he tells us repeatedly, is not like that.
The Pharisees and the inherited purity laws of the OT were fundamentally neurotic; they privileged taint over blessing. It was horribly easy to be tainted, rendered impure, even by accident, while blessing had to be acquired by anxious and guilt-ridden law-keeping. The first law of thermo-dynamics, as relayed to me years ago by Flanders and Swann, is that ‘heat won’t pass from a cooler to a hotter’. ‘Heat’ trumps ‘cold’. The Pharisees, similarly, believed that impurity trumped blessing: if a ritually pure person touched an impure person the blessing was wiped out and the pure person was infected with impurity. This is ‘one rotten apple’ theology. The Gospel is Jesus’ reversal of that equation.
The Pharisees, those whose very name means ‘the separated ones’, criticised Jesus for associating with the wrong people. But Jesus knew that all communities are a mixture of the good and bad, the crooked and the cracked. And that it isn’t always easy to tell which is which. Of course, in the end, Jesus is the one weeded out by the authorities and thrown onto the killing fields, proving his point.
The church is a temple with a hundred gates and pilgrims enter from every angle. Through every door, and by all kinds of paths, we enter the house of God on Sunday mornings. The church exists not for those who believe they are good, but for those who know they are not good. For some, the presence of sinners in the church is a cause of scandal. The American Archbishop Fulton Sheen (the first tele-evangelist, whose cause for canonisation has now passed the first hurdle) wrote:
He came to put a harlot above a Pharisee, a penitent robber above a High Priest, and a prodigal son above his exemplary brother. To all the phonies and fakers who would say that they could not join the Church because His Church was not holy enough He would ask, ‘How holy must the Church be before you will enter into it?’ If the Church were as holy as they wanted it to be they would never be allowed into it! Our Blessed Lord brought a religion where the admission of sin is the condition of coming to Him. ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are ill.’
God is more tolerant, more patient, as my Godmother would have said, than we are. Today’s first reading from Wisdom 12 says of God,
18 Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness,
and with great forbearance you govern us; for you have power to act whenever you choose.
19 Through such works you have taught your people that the righteous must be kind, and you have filled your children with good hope, because you give repentance for sins.
That is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. While distinguishing conscientiously between good and evil in ourselves, we are to aim at being as forbearing and mild in judgement of others as God is. The time for judgement is not yet; the prerogative is not ours. The church belongs to God. The kingdom of God is still in the growing stage. Now is the time for conversion, our conversion.
Repentance and forgiveness are the core of our faith. Even at the eleventh hour, even ‘betwixt the stirrup and the ground’. Pinkie Brown, in Brighton Rock, as it happens, dies unprepared; but as a priest says to Pinkie’s young widow Rose at the end of the novel,
‘You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the appalling … strangeness … of the mercy of God.’