Morning Eucharist at Salisbury Cathedral

July 13, 2008

I bring you greetings from Taiwan, Micronesia, Guam, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands including the British Virgin Islands as well as the US, a convocation of churches in Europe, and the churches in the United States, all of the Episcopal Church. They hold you in their prayers and ask your prayers for us.

Yesterday on our pilgrimage from Old Sarum to this new cathedral, all the walkers got to see something of your countryside. There are rich and fertile fields out there, filled with nearly ripe crops, and hedgerows with a riotous variety of flowers, bushes and trees. That abundance is the result of seeds spread by birds and small animals, by the wind, and by farmers. At this season, most of that sowing seems well on its way to bearing abundant fruit.

But not every part of the world lets seeds grow quite so easily. In the desert, or in the mountains above the tree line, very few plants manage to prosper. Most of the seeds that fall never even germinate, let alone produce any fruit or seed. It’s a rare sight to see a plant above 10,000 feet – the seed has to have the luck to fall in a crevice or protected place where there is enough moisture to being to germinate. It’s still unlikely it will ever establish a root system, and find enough organic and mineral soil to begin to grow. There’s a small example on the west face of this building, up above the doors, where a little plant has found a home on the stone.

There are some other quite odd places that seem surprisingly fertile. My office is in the center of New York City, and I can look out and see potted plants and trees on various rooftops and balconies, many stories above the ground. People plant lovely things in those containers. Some of them are well-tended, and some are abandoned after a season. But everywhere there is dirt, things grow – grass, weeds, the odd flower. The seeds come on the wind or from birds, and they take root in all sorts of strange places. And then there are the very strange things that people plant along the street. I’ve seen a good-sized banana plant planted along a sidewalk – in a climate where it will never survive past October. No fruit will be harvested – why did somebody bother?

That doesn’t seem to be a question that bothers God. Jesus is more interested in reminding his hearers that God’s grace and favor is broadcast with far greater abandon than the birds or the banana-planter. The sower scatters seed without counting the cost. And that produces a real tension for many of us. It feels wasteful to throw away seed that has no chance of doing anything productive.

God’s economy is often a challenge to us. Perhaps that profligacy makes more sense when we recognize that a seed that does take root can produce 30 and 60 and 100 fold. That is something to celebrate.

Yesterday this cathedral dedicated a statue on that same West Front, of Canon Ezra, a martyr of Sudan. He was a priest of the Moro tribe, who translated the Bible into his people’s language. He was killed in crossfire during the civil war – on Good Friday in 1991. His witness continues to bear abundant fruit.

Think for a moment about the long line of planted seeds that has led to that fruit. Jesus’ disciples spread the word in and around their communities. Thomas is reputed to have gone east as far as India. Paul was one of the first to move around the Mediterranean. Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch who then went back to his native land. Within a relatively few decades, Roman soldiers knew the good news and spread it among their cohorts, some of whom came to Britain. When Augustine came here several centuries later, he found the seeds had already begun to bear fruit, although some of it was strange to his taste. The word continued to spread from here – even into enemy territory. Celtic monks moved farther afield. Sometimes, maybe even often, the seed did fall on dry and rocky ground. But the sowers continued to spread the word. Centuries went by. New sowers went out with merchants and adventurers around the globe. And less than a hundred years ago – yesterday in the history of this place – sowers went to Sudan. And the word grew deep roots in that place, and flourished. The Sudanese bishops tell me that the recent missionaries found evidence of the seeds planted in the baptism of the Ethiopian, just as Augustine found evidence here.

The recent mission work in Sudan could have come only after the church here learned something new about God’s profligacy. When much of the world practiced human slavery, including Britain and the United States, it was considered wasteful at the very least to bother planting God’s word in Africa. It required learning a deeper truth about God’s grace and favor, that it is meant for all human beings. It required Christians in the northern hemisphere to re-learn that there is no division in God – that in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. No division based on ethnicity, race or gender. That seed took a very long time to bear fruit. Some of it is still struggling to take root.

But the fact that it did had a great deal to do with the single-mindedness of people like William Wilberforce, who spent his life working to end the slave trade. His political skill, and the passion of abolitionist preachers, in a society deeply conflicted about the stature of human beings darker than themselves, finally altered the legal status of slavery here. It still took another 60 years to formally end – Zanzibar was the last, and it was the British navy that eventually convinced the ruler there to swear off slave trading in 1895.

The seeds of the gospel eventually made their way to Sudan, and quickly sprang up. The witness of many like Canon Ezra shows evidence of deep soil and fruitful harvest. Yet the links this diocese has had with Sudan over 35 years have brought seed here as well, seed that is beginning to take root in new ways. The fascinating thing is that seed long-dormant in two places has grown up in significantly different expressions, recognizably belonging to the same family. Those seeds continue to invite this diocese and the Episcopal Church of Sudan into far deeper understandings of what it means to be sisters and brothers in Christ.

God continues to do a new thing, even in unexpected places.

God’s grace and favor still falls on people some societies find inappropriate. Why plant bananas, indeed. Many even supposedly Christian nations find it difficult to treat immigrants as worthy recipients of full Christian welcome and hospitality. We often see the same attitudes toward gay people. At times we’ve treated the mentally disabled with equal disdain. Wars can only start when we decide that the enemy has no possible value in God’s economy. That limited view of appropriate seed-beds for God’s love knows no national bounds. We see evidence of tribal understandings all over the world, whenever we see people insisting that only this kind of soil can bear good fruit, but not that over there – it’s too rocky, or the climate is completely wrong, or why bother? There are no tribes in Christ, none who can be considered beyond the reach of God’s loving sowing.

Loosening the soil so that it might be fertile terrain has a great deal to do with softening our own hearts. When we’re certain that his person or that can’t possibly be a God-bearer, it is our own soil that fills with rocks, or grows massive thorns. It is a particularly religious, and Christian, challenge, for we search endlessly to be certain that we are doing “the God-thing” right. But when we get too certain about God and God’s judgment, our soil turned over by the surprising love of the gospel and the unexpected nature of divine economics.

Who are the banana plants for you – the impossible seedbeds of God’s word of hyper-abundant love? That is our opportunity to bear fruit – 30 fold, 60 fold, and 100 fold. Have a blessed plowing season.