Sowing and Reaping - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Sowing and Reaping

Galatians 6: 7-16

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Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.

And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.

10 As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.

11 Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand.

12 As many as desire to make a fair shew in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ.

13 For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh.

14 But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.

15 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.

16 And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.

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A true story.  When I was growing up, we were close friends with a young married couple who lived nearby.  The husband was incredibly bright, extremely able, and he was clearly destined for a highly successful career in business.  He was also very opinionated, very controlling, and a bit of a bully.  I never particularly warmed to him, not least because I found him immensely patronising.  He was particularly fond of beginning sentences with the phrase: 'Well, of course, when you are out in the real world ...' before he set me straight on some matter or other, about which I had presumed to express an opinion.

However, the man's wife (who was the main reason for my family's association with the couple) could not have been more different.  She was very self-effacing, but she was also extremely intelligent, witty, excellent company - and she was also very kind.  Indeed, during my days as a starving student, she would secretly slip me the occasional tenner, which at the time, really did make all the difference to my survival.  Given the appalling way in which her husband routinely spoke to her, bullied her, and controlled every aspect of her life, none of us could work out why on earth she put up with him - but she did.

Fast forward about twenty years, when the day came when she did finally leave him.  By that stage, her husband was extremely wealthy, with all the trappings of material success that he had always wanted - the vast executive home, prestige car, and the lifestyle that went with it.  None of it actually belonged to her.  He had made sure of that.  So at the point when she left him, she left with nothing: she had nowhere to live, and there was little money she could access.  It was unbelievably brave of her.

But the reason why I am telling you this story, is because of what happened next.  Because the minute she left her bullying (and I later discovered, occasionally violent) husband, the most unexpected people suddenly came out of the woodwork offering her help and support.  One man that she knew had a small property that he had been renovating, which he let her live in rent-free while she sorted herself out (and which, eventually, he enabled her to buy from him for a peppercorn amount).  A female friend of hers came into an inheritance, and gave her half the money, saying 'actually I think you need this more than I do.'   Other friends came up trumps with legal advice, personal support, and the marvellous gift of traditional good old-fashioned friendship.  One of the more surprising things was that some of those who rallied round were people who should have been her husband's friends rather than hers - they were former work colleagues of his, and even members of his own family.  When it mattered, even they were there for her.

And the reason why they were there for her was because throughout the preceding years, in ways that were quiet, and often hidden, she had inspired their love and affection through her kindness; her compassion; her gift for friendship; and her generosity of spirit - and all of this despite the unhappiness of her own life.  So at the point when it really did matter, she found herself reaping what she had not even realised she had sown.

Her husband, on the other hand - the man who appeared to have absolutely everything, ended up losing the lot.  Even that which he had was largely taken away.  Not only did his years of appalling, selfish behaviour cost him his marriage, but he also discovered that many of those whom he had assumed were friends simply melted away - because they, too, were people he thought he could safely bully and belittle believing that they admired him and were in awe of him.  For the same reason, his own family relationships started falling apart, too.

And worse was to follow.  He lost his highly paid job with the company he was running.  The large house and flashy car both went.  His drinking was increasingly out of control, and he who had prided himself on being master of everything and everyone he surveyed, ended up with very little at all.

For me, this story illustrates starkly and cogently, the truth about sowing and reaping, to which St Paul refers in our first reading today.  The wife in my story was a woman who had spent her life sowing the tiniest of seeds, many of them completely invisible to the eye.  Seeds of kindness, and generosity, and compassion, and friendship, despite the unhappiness of her own life.  Her husband, on the other hand, with his cavalier disregard for anybody and anything other than himself, had spent his time uprooting and trampling down any glimmers of human love and kindness - so the most precious gifts of human life all withered and died.  And what was left was desert.

In human life - and above all in the life of faith, it is the small things that count, precisely because it is there that the truth about who and what we are is revealed.  A former Bishop of Winchester, John V. Taylor, once wrote this:

The real direction that a soul takes towards heaven or hell is mainly determined by an infinite number of almost infinitesimal choices, any one of which may be of ultimate seriousness.

... And if that thought does not give all of us the occasional sleepless night, it probably ought to.

Some of you may be familiar with the famous and very beautiful allegorical tale by the French writer Jean Giono called The Man Who Planted Trees.  If not, let me summarise it for you. 

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, a young man was travelling through a remote and inhospitable region of France.  The land was arid, desolate and deserted; nothing grew there, and the remains of a few small villages were now in ruins.  The few souls who did eke out an existence there were harsh and unforgiving, like the landscape. 

It was there that the young man encountered a shepherd, called Elzéard Bouffier.  He was a man of very few words, who had survived personal tragedy: the loss of his wife and only son.  But he offered the young traveller water, a meal, and a bed for the night.  The traveller watched with curiosity that evening, as the shepherd sat at a table sorting through a pile of acorns, carefully selecting a hundred of the best of them.  The following morning, the shepherd put them in a bag, soaked them in water, and took them with him.  And he planted those hundred acorns, in that deserted wasteland - as he had been doing every day for the past four years - and as he continued to do, day by day, as two world wars came and went.  The story is about the utter transformation of that landscape and the people within it over the next forty years, as a result of the simple actions of that shepherd, as he planted one carefully selected acorn after another.  A dead landscape devoid of people was utterly transformed.  Let me quote for you the end of the story, where the traveller says this:

On the sites where I saw only ruins in 1913 there are now neat, well-plastered farmhouses that speak of a happy and comfortable existence.  Ancient springs, fed by the rains and snows retained by the forests, have started flowing again, and the water from them has been carefully channelled.  Near every farm, amid groves of maple, the basins of fountains overflow onto carpets of cool mint.  Villages have been gradually rebuilt.  People from the plains, where land is expensive, have come and settled here, bringing with them youth and movement and the spirit of adventure.  Along the lanes and paths you meet men and women who are well-fed, boys and girls who know how to laugh and have rediscovered the pleasures of old rural sports and pastimes.  If you include both the former population, unrecognisable since their life became more agreeable, and the newcomers, more than ten thousand people must owe their happiness to Elzéard Bouffier.

When I reflect on the fact that one man, with only his simple physical and moral resources, was able to bring forth out of the desert this land of Canaan, I can't help feeling the human condition in general is admirable, in spite of everything.  And when I count up all the constancy, magnanimity, perseverance, and generosity it took to achieve those results, I'm filled with an enormous respect for the old, uneducated peasant who was able, unaided, to carry through to a successful conclusion an achievement worthy of God.

You see, it took both very little, and an enormous amount, to bring about that utter transformation of place and people: very little, because all it took was acorns.  An enormous amount, because it took the magnanimity vision and commitment of a single, solitary man, working without desire of reward, to make it happen.

In this morning's Gospel reading, Jesus sends out seventy disciples on a mission to transform the world taking nothing with them except the Gospel in their hearts.  Because sometimes that is all it takes.  And they return from that impossible mission with joy in their hearts.  But perhaps we shouldn't be altogether surprised at that.  We just need to believe - and, with the Spirit of God to support us and encourage us, to take the trouble to get out there and sow those seeds. 

Amen.

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