GIMP fridge_magnetAddress for WWDP Service 2013.

(Leviticus 19, 1-2,33-37; Matthew 25, 31-40)

 

When I was a teenager, I had a number of pen-friends from abroad: one in the USA, one in Norway, one in Germany and two in France. In the summer holidays before my O level exams, I spent 4 weeks with my two French pen-friends to improve my knowledge of the language.

 

I remember two things very distinctly about that holiday in France. The first was how home-sick I was. It was the first time I had been on holiday on my own without my family. The food, the money, the customs, even the toilet facilities were very different from those I was used to at home, and, although I was thinking in French by the end of the four weeks, at the beginning every conversation was a real effort. I can remember how I used to pretend not to have woken up, in order to delay starting the daily effort to understand, and make myself understood.

 

The second vivid memory was walking through the streets of Rouen with my friend Sylviane. In order to get from her home in an old apartment block to the tourist area around the cathedral and the Old Market Place where Joan of Arc was burned, we had to go through the immigrant quarter. I still remember the atmosphere of hostility and fear from both sides as we walked through that area. When I look back now, I realise that some of those immigrants were probably as homesick as I was, especially the Muslim women. At the time, though, all I absorbed was the fear of my hosts at the different and the new.

 

Later on, when I did French for A level, I had to learn about French culture and politics as well as studying their literature, and I learnt that citizens from the French overseas colonies were supposed to be treated as as French as those born in mainland France. The history of the French colonial empire especially in North Africa and IndoChina showed me this ideal was rarely realised, and explained the tense atmosphere I’d experienced in Rouen.

 

Current newspaper reports, and the testimonies we have heard in this service from women living in present day France, would indicate that things are not much better for strangers and immigrants to France than they were back when I was at school. But France has a long and proud history of being a place of asylum. Their political tradition – as the land of liberty, equality, and brother and sisterhood – as well as their dominant Catholic faith should prompt them to welcome the stranger as an equal.

 

The life-stories of women we have just heard – Vera, Françoise and Marie-Léonie, give us hope that things are improving In France. But are things any better in the United Kingdom?

 

Anecdotal evidence – remarks made to someone I know by people from overseas he sees at a charity he worked for, that they prefer living in London to other major cities, including Paris, because no-one takes any notice here of what you dress like, or what you do; and our own experience of welcoming people from overseas into our own family and church circles, could convince us that we are doing well.  But our news bulletins, the headlines in our newspapers and the demonstrations targetting immigrants and asylum seekers in some of our towns and cities should shake our comfortable assumptions of superiority. We have women and children who end up as sex slaves in this country too, we have people who have to work in the black economy, we have children torn from the place they regard as home and deported, just like those we heard about in France.

 

The first readings the women of France chose to guide our thoughts and prick our consciences today come from the book of Leviticus. We tend to think of Leviticus as a book that doesn’t concern us modern believers much – all about obscure regulations about what the Israelites could and couldn’t wear, or eat or have sex with, regulations designed to keep them pure and separate from anyone else. But the passages chosen here show that parts of it remind the Jews (and us) that a holy life involves justice and fairness for the strangers living within your country, that holiness involves actions as well as a state of mind. We must remember that Jesus took part of his summary of the law from Leviticus “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19.18).

 

The New Testament reading again challenges our beliefs about what makes us a good Christian. The parable of the Sheep and Goats tells us that it’s not what church we belong to, or  what we believe about God, or Jesus, or morality, that we will be judged on in the final instance; it’s how we act, and particularly how we act towards the homeless, the hungry, those without adequate clothing, those who are in prison, the strangers within our communities – in other words, all those who are the most vulnerable in our society and our world. We don’t usually behave as though that is what we will be judged on; it’s not what people outside the churches hear most about from us. How do we respond to that challenge?

 

In the hymn we will sing in a moment, we will commit ourselves to serving our brothers and sisters, to being Christ for them, in the ways which the parable of Matthew 25 outlined. In the prayers of intercession which follow, we will dedicate ourselves to reaching out to those who come to our country looking for asylum and work, to welcoming the stranger into our communities, and to caring for those who find themselves in vulnerable situations.

 

How can we make this not just a prayer, but a practical reality?

 

We can do it first of all by choosing who we listen to.  When we are confronted with scare stories about the strangers in our midst in the media, and especially in the tabloid press, and at election time, do we believe them, or do we listen to the voice of the scriptures, which tell us these newcomers are members of our own family, children of the same God, Christ in our communities?

 

We can do it by choosing carefully what we say. Do we repeat the scare stories that reinforce the suspicion and fear between immigrants and native born, between different classes and religions, between those of different customs, between those who live in relative security and those who are going through hard times? Or do we counter those experiences with our own positive experiences, however unpopular that may make us, and remind  our fellow citizens of the core Christian teaching about welcoming the stranger  – the teaching that really underlies our culture and our history.

 

We can make welcoming the stranger a practical reality by offering our help to the strangers and the vulnerable. There are so many opportunities to do so in our immediate area as well as further afield. We can make donations and offer time to the Food Banks and the Credit Unions; we can donate supplies to the Catholic Worker Farm here in Maple Cross which cares for female and child asylum seekers who would otherwise be homeless; we can join the volunteer hospital and prison visitors schemes; we can volunteer for Care; we can volunteer and donate to the Watford and Three Rivers Refugee Project; we can support projects for the homeless like the New Hope Trust and Herts Young Homeless. We can make our churches places where newcomers feel welcome.

 

WWDP logoThe WWDP service this year is not, as it often is,  about something that happens in a country far away – something we can pray about this afternoon, and then forget.  It is about something that affects us, in our own homes and neighbourhoods, as much as it affects the people of France who put the service together.

 

Can we see in these strangers in need Christ himself needing our help? Do we really accept that ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it unto me’?

Wheat and Weeds?

July 17, 2011

(Wisdom 12,13 & 16-19; Matthew 13, 24-30.) (Family Communion + Baptisms)

I’ve just planted a patch of earth in our garden with wild flower seeds. I cleared the earth of weeds before I sowed the seeds, but now they’ve germinated, I don’t know whether what is growing are flowers or weeds. I’m going to have to wait until they’re much bigger, perhaps even until they flower, before I do anything about the weeds.

And if I did then decide to remove the weeds what could I do? Well, I could use weedkiller. Trouble is, I would be likely to kill off all the flowers I’d planted as well. Or, I could use a hoe. That’s O.K. when you have clear rows of sturdy plants, but, with flowers, you are likely to chop off things you want to keep. Or, I could pull up the weeds. That would be very time consuming; and I would risk disturbing the roots of the flowers, so they might die. So I think I’ll just enjoy whatever grows in that particular patch – and hope the bees and the butterflies enjoy them too.

When Jesus told this story about the man who planted wheat in his field, and then found weeds growing up, he knew what he was talking about. The decision of the farmer not to try to separate the two until harvest time was the right one. In a field of wheat, it would be extremely difficult to tell the weeds, which would probably be a form of wild grass, and would look exactly the same as the wheat until the ears of corn were formed. Much better to wait until harvest time to sort them out.

The story says the man’s servants thought someone had come deliberately and sown the weeds in the crop. But of course, in an open field, or even in a garden, it’s very easy for weed seeds to get mixed in with the good seed. They are brought by birds or on the fur of animals, or blown by the wind. In any open piece of ground, it is inevitable that both the good things you want to grow and the weeds you want to get rid of grow up together.

I don’t know whether you saw a TV programme recently which featured the Blue Peter gardener, Chris Collins, talking about weeds. He made the point that many of our garden flowers started out as weeds. Then someone thought they were attractive, brought seeds to grow in better soils, cross-pollinated them and selected plants for their best characteristics, and so produced garden flowers.

But he also pointed out that some garden plants have now become weeds. Things like Japanese knotweed, buddleia and rhododendron were introduced as ornamental plants, but then their seeds spread into the wold, and now those who maintain woodland and look after railway lines spend millions trying to eliminate them. He also pointed out how useful some weeds are – for dyeing cloth, and as medicine. So it does seem that the old adage ‘A weed is merely a plant growing in the wrong place’ has some truth in it.

Jesus, of course, didn’t just tell stories to entertain. His stories, which we call parables, usually had a deeper meaning, which he left people to work out for themselves. This story is about the world, and the way the Good News of God is sown like a seed in a field. It grows and produces a good harvest in spite of all the evil around it. God, who is the farmer, will sort out the good and evil when the time comes. No matter how many weeds there are around, they can’t prevent God’s abundant harvest of good.

Because Jesus didn’t explain what his stories meant  we are free to find other meanings in them too. The church community for which St Matthew wrote saw the wheat and weed seeds as representing two different sorts of members of the church community. Some of them were inspired by Jesus, and their work was good. Some they thought were inspired by the devil (the enemy) and what they produced was evil. They hoped that the ‘good seed’ would be gathered in to God at the harvest on Judgement Day; but they expected that the ‘bad seed’ would be punished by being thrown into the fire.

In the story, Jesus warns his followers not to be too quick to judge which of his followers are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’. He doesn’t want them pulling people out and sending them away.  In the story of the farmer, he is telling them they are like the servants, not skilled enough to judge. Judgement, he says, should be left to God. His church should be tolerant of different ways of expressing faith, and leave God to decide which is right. That’s something some people in today’s church need to realise too.

Jesus also didn’t talk much about God punishing people. Like the writer of our Old Testament passage from Wisdom, he talked about a God who was kind and forgiving, who never gave up hope that bad people could be turned into good people, and who was patient enough to wait for however long it took for people to accept the Gospel and turn from weeds into productive wheat. Jesus talked about a God who, like the farmer in the story, will spare everyone punishment if possible. In the story, even the weeds have some purpose. When they go into the oven they produce heat to cook the bread made from the wheat; and they ash to spread on the ground as fertiliser for the next crop.

The story of the weeds and the wheat is a very good one for today, when we are going to baptise R and M, make them members of the community of the church, and ask God to send the Holy Spirit upon them to strengthen them to live good lives in the service of the Gospel. We hope and pray they will grow up to be wheat, rather than weeds in the world.  It will be the task of their parents and godparents, supported by all the rest of us, to nurture them and to promote their best characteristics, so that their lives are good and fruitful. Baptism and membership of the community of the church is one way that we are strengthened to grow as good seed and defended against the competition of the bad seed.

But of course, the reality is that all of us are sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes wheat and sometimes weeds. That is why we need God’s mercy, to forgive us when we go wrong, to patiently leave us growing and changing in the hope that we will all turn out to be fruitful members of the church and community, and to gently separate out the good and bad in us when judgement time comes.

Today as we support R. and M. and their family as they come to baptism, we will thank God for his mercy and pray for them and ourselves that we may grow into fruitful  plants, which help to spread the Gospel of God’s love and contribute to an abundant harvest of good things for God.

Amen.

Prayer for ‘weeds”

A prayer for those who do evil:

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will.

But do not remember them for the suffering they have inflicted;

remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to that suffering:

our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this;

and when they come to judgement, let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness. Amen