Broken Soil - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Broken Soil

About a week ago I did something that felt so unusual that I was moved to remark upon it to my elder daughter.  What was this unfamiliar experience?  Basically, I went into a shop - an ordinary shop that wasn't a supermarket - and I bought something.  Just like in the olden days.  I had quite forgotten what normal shopping felt like.  Isn't it extraordinary how, without us even realising it, those weeks of lockdown have changed so many of our conventional patterns of behaviour - including things that, pre-pandemic, we took so much for granted that we didn't even notice?

I have also become aware of how my spending habits have changed over the past four months.  Unlike many, I was fortunate enough to have had both a regular income and internet access throughout the lockdown - and yet throughout that time I spent very little on anything other than food and household essentials.  I ordered a couple of books and one or two birthday presents online - plus some necessary computer equipment (the failed delivery of which was the subject of a previous sermon) - but nothing else. And, if I'm honest, at no point did I feel I was missing out.

But something else was happening, too. I rediscovered items of clothing at the back of my wardrobe that I had completely forgotten were there.  When one of my sandals broke, I repaired it - and it is still going strong.  (Pre-lockdown, I would simply have chucked those sandals and bought new ones without giving it a second thought.)  It really was chastening to discover quite how wasteful I had become pre-lockdown in my attitude towards my possessions.

The relationship that we have with our wealth and our belongings is complex.  Money in itself is not inherently bad - on the contrary, properly used it can be an amazing force for good; money can make things happen; it can provide opportunity and quality of life to those who otherwise would be deprived of both of those things.  The right kind of investment can bring hope into situations of despair; it can revive broken communities.  These days money is something that we simply cannot live without.

But money is also very powerful and very seductive, and once we have it - particularly when we find that we have more than we actually need - it can have an alarmingly corrosive effect upon our assumptions, our priorities, and even our relationships, without us even realising it.  Above all, it can completely distort our sense of 'normal', and not usually for the better.

I was born into a family home that, at the time, had no refrigerator, no telephone, no television, no central heating and certainly no car.  But we never regarded ourselves as poor or disadvantaged - because in the neighbourhood where we lived that was normal for most other people, too. 

But during my lifetime I have seen my own sense of the things that are 'essential' change out of all recognition.  There have been some major cultural shifts, too - for example, in our attitudes to debt.  When I was growing up, debt was a thing to be feared, and a profound source of shame.  But somewhere along the line, the language of debt turned into the language of credit - and in the process, debt not only became socially acceptable, but turned into a global business.  Such that, so many of us these days end up 'spending money we don't have, on things we don't want, to impress people we don't like', as the saying goes.

However you define it, 'quality of life' certainly doesn't look like that.  And current statistics, revealing unprecedented levels of mental health problems, eating disorders, patterns of self-harm, substance abuse and even suicide among our young people are truly frightening - particularly when they affect those who, in purely material terms, have everything that they could possibly want or need.  Something has gone badly wrong somewhere.  Wealth and affluence can have a profoundly pernicious effect upon us if we don't watch it.  They can change who and what we are, and not always for the better.

In our gospel reading this morning we heard one of the most famous and well-loved stories told by Jesus - the parable of the sower - although, if you think about it, the story is not really about the sower at all, nor indeed about the seed that he casts.  Rather, it is about different kinds of soil. And, as we learn from the parable, the soil represents our own receptiveness to the seed that is the Word of God.

Let's reflect further on that image for a moment.  Because it seems to me that our wealth and material circumstances can have a very significant impact upon the kind of 'soil' that we become.  Far from being liberating and bringing peace of mind, having more wealth than we need can render us anxious and inward looking - all too easily we begin to fear the loss of what we have, or to covet more.  In the process, the outer edge of our souls can become hard and impervious.  When soil is like that seeds cannot break the surface to take root, and life-giving water runs off it, unable to permeate to the depths to bring refreshment and nurture new life.

Indeed, for soil to be able to receive seeds and nutrients readily, it needs to be broken.  Then, what is planted can take root and flourish and in time grow into things of beauty and sustenance for others to enjoy.  And so it is with human life: our ability to receive and to give back can sometimes be very closely related.  If you want to know the true nature of generosity, don't look first to the wealthy, rather, look to the poor; to those who have little, but who have learnt the vital importance of sharing what little they have.  Look to those who have known their own brokenness and need.  In saying this I am emphatically not romanticising poverty in any way - but simply recording a truth I have observed in some starkly different social contexts. I have seen a generosity in the most unexpected of places that has certainly put me to shame.  And allied to all of this is our ability to recognise, with thankful hearts, what it is that we have, and never to take it for granted. 

A couple of nights ago I watched the repeat of a documentary about the actor, author and playwright Alan Bennett.  In it he described how, as a young man he had been very religious, but had lost his faith as he grew up.  And he then said that the one thing that he really missed about not being religious any more was not having someone or something to be thankful to.  Feeling a need to be grateful, without being able to express that.  It brought into my mind the remark of the C14 German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart, who said: 'If the only prayer you ever say in your life is 'thank you' that is enough.'  The problem with a society driven by materialism and the quest for wealth is that it can generate a sense of entitlement, rather than one of gratitude.  And that, too, causes the soil that constitutes our lives to harden around us.

 

Lockdown has caused many people to review their priorities; and re-evaluate their lives.  I am sure that is one of the reasons why online acts of worship, such as the ones that we have been able to provide, have taken off in such a big and unexpected way.  Some are starting to glimpse their own profound sense of need - in a society that has promised so much in material terms, yet leaves its people spiritually starving - and that is particularly the case with economic hardship now in view. 

And perhaps it is timely for all of us to review what kind of soil we are: have we become hardened by fear and avarice, envy and self-centredness; or has our topsoil been broken open, so that we can both give and receive?  So that we can give thanks for what we have, with truly grateful hearts, and share what we have with others, liberated from the need to hoard it, or to squander it, ourselves?

Today is the Sunday in the year when we invite everyone at St Bride's to reflect on the theme of Stewardship; to review what we have, and to consider how we might use the gifts that God has given us, including our material wealth, for the benefit of others.  Our role as a church community has never been more important, in our service to this parish and community, and also through our ministry to journalists - and at the same time, our need for financial support has never been greater.  If you would like to review your giving to us, or consider planned giving yourself, see the note at the end of your order of service.

But Stewardship is not simply about money.  It helps to define what kind of soil we are, and indeed could become.  So I would like to leave the last word to the poet Malcolm Guite, and the words of a poem that I first heard read in this very church by the poet himself.

I love your simple story of the sower
With all its close attention to the soil
Its movement from the knowledge to the knower
Its take on the tenacity of toil.

I feel the fall of seed a sower scatters
So equally available to all
Your story takes me straight to all that matters
You understand the reasons why I fall.

Oh deepen me where I am thin and shallow
Uproot in me the thistle and the thorn
Keep far from me that swiftly snatching shadow
That seizes on your seed to mock and scorn.

Oh break me open, Jesus, set me free
Then find and keep your own good ground in me.

Amen.

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