The smallest of seeds - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

The smallest of seeds

For those of you who were alive at the time, I wonder if you can remember where you were on 13th July 1985?  Because, interestingly enough, a surprising number of people, not only in this country but across the globe, will be able to answer that question very precisely, even those who had no particular interest in the event that took place on that day, which made it so very memorable - an occasion that really did rock the world, both literally and metaphorically.  It was, of course, the date of Live Aid - the single biggest rock music event in history, which raised over £40 million in response to the devastating famine in Ethiopia.

I can certainly tell you where I was that day.  I was a student in Cambridge at the time, and I was taking part in a day's retreat at Little Gidding, so I missed the beginning of the televised concert, although I was certainly glued to the rest of it.  And at least two members of our congregation here at St Bride's were actively involved in it: one was a rock journalist who was actually on the stage ... and another was working for the BBC and had a key role in its live broadcast.

Now, my reason for mentioning this is that a few days ago I happened to catch on BBC iPlayer the two-part documentary that tells the story of how Live Aid actually came about, which really was a revelation.  The odds were so stacked against it even happening, and the obstacles were so immense, that it was an absolute miracle that the event happened at all, let alone that it should have proved such a staggering success.  Because initially everybody simply dismissed the idea as insane.  None of the big-name bands who were invited to take part wanted to have anything to do with it.  There were massive logistical and personal problems with the American side of the venture, which was the key to making it a global event.  And it faced opposition from every imaginable quarter, including (bizarrely enough) the major charities who were themselves trying to support famine victims in Ethiopia - because they feared that Live Aid would draw money away from their own projects.

And the scale of the venture was immense on just about every level: it was an attempt to address a humanitarian disaster on an unthinkable scale - it seemed ludicrously ambitious to contemplate even attempting to make a difference there.  And it would take a ludicrously ambitious fundraising event to try and make that happen.  The whole thing was utterly insane.  And at the heart of the whole absurd situation was the most unlikely individual on the planet: a scruffy, disreputable, loud-mouthed, arrogant, Irish rock singer, whose own career was in decline at the time, and who was notorious for being staggeringly rude to people and putting their backs up:  yes, it was the famous Bob Geldof.

While I was watching that documentary the other day - and it really does make for fascinating viewing, by the way - I became aware of the strangest sensation - that there was something about that remarkable story that felt oddly familiar -  something that was ringing bells for me.  And it suddenly dawned on me that, of all things, it felt Biblical.

Obviously I need to unpack that rather surprising statement very carefully, but I hope you will come to see what I mean.  Because if you look at the stories in the Bible, many of them seem to take precisely that kind of form: in other words, the most unsuitable person imaginable, manages to pull something off something absolutely phenomenal, against all the odds, and in the face of insurmountable obstacles. 

An example I often cite is that of Moses.  The Israelite people needed to be rescued from slavery in Egypt, so whom does God use to undertake that extraordinary task of liberation for 600,000 men and their families?  Moses.  Moses is a fugitive murderer, whom the Israelites don't like and don't trust, because he was brought up in Pharaoh's house by Egyptians - the very people who were their slave masters.  And Moses doesn't even want the job.  Eventually, and very reluctantly, Moses goes to Pharaoh to ask him to release the Hebrew slaves.  Pharaoh not only refuses - he responds by making the slaves' work even harsher.

Eventually the Israelites do manage to get away, only to be faced with further impossible challenges: the impassable barrier of the Red Sea; followed by forty years of wilderness wanderings, during which they face thirst and hunger and uncertainty.  And are they grateful to Moses?  Not in the slightest!  On the contrary, all they ever do is moan and complain the whole time about how much better off they would have been had they still been slaves.  And they are also utterly faithless - the minute Moses' back is turned they abandon any hint of their allegiance to God and start worshipping the Golden Calf instead.  The whole extended drama is a combination of the ridiculously daunting and the utterly shambolic, from beginning to end.  And yet somehow, remarkably, Moses pulls it off.

Now, I should pause for a moment here to be clear about what it is that I am not saying.  I am certainly not suggesting that Bob Geldof, remarkable though he is, is any kind of saint - although actually, having said that, neither was Moses.  Nor am I suggesting that we can attribute the extraordinary success of Live Aid to some kind of divine intervention.

No, the point I want to make is a more subtle one, and it relates to this morning's Gospel reading, which recounted the parable of the mustard seed.  As we heard, this is the smallest, most unpromising, and most insignificant of seeds, but it is the one seed that grows into a tree so great that birds can nest in its branches.  And Jesus uses that parable to speak about the kingdom of God and how it works.  Because the ways of God are always far more surprising and unexpected and subversive than we ever expect or imagine.  It is absolutely routine in scripture for God to use the most unsuitable and inappropriate of people to achieve the most impossible of tasks, and to do so against all the odds.  And this is where we can see a parallel of sorts in the whole Live Aid story - an event that incidentally completely transformed our view of what is possible in the most extreme situation of utter despair - the kind of human catastrophe that would otherwise have left us shrugging our shoulders because it was simply too great for anyone to deal with it - there was nothing to be done.  Live Aid showed us otherwise.  And it shows us how the most unlikely of human activities and gifts and contributions can be taken up and transformed into a mechanism of profound change.

Fast forward to today.  We are all very well aware that we live in difficult and uncertain times.  The experience of lockdown has been hard enough, but it would seem that some of the biggest and most far-reaching challenges are yet to come, given the likely long-term economic and social consequences of the pandemic.  And those challenges will affect us all.  With forces as powerful as that, and as uncertain as that, shaping our lives and our futures, it is so easy to feel dwarfed by the sheer immensity of the task that lies ahead.

But all that it takes is for one person, however unlikely or ill qualified - to catch fire with a passion to do something; to get involved; to make a difference - for the unthinkable not merely to become thinkable, but reality.  And it seems to me that that is the reason why the parable of the mustard seed really is a parable for our times, and for our individual lives.  Because it says to all of us: do not be afraid.  Do not give up hope.  Be prepared to imagine that things can be better, and believe in that vision, and then help to bring it about.

Today's Collect - the special prayer for today, addresses God as 'the author of all good things' - because all good things have something of God deep within them, regardless of how pious or ungodly or frail or broken or unlikely the person who is acting may appear to be, to those of us who are looking on.

God's love and grace really is that extraordinary, and that powerful, and that amazingly and wonderfully subversive.

And thanks be to God for that.  Amen

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