18 September 2016

The Sweepings of the Wheat: Homily for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Year C, Most Precious Blood, Southwark, 18th September 2016

Unless my memory is very much mistaken, when I was a little boy doing errands for my grandmother, I am sure I noticed the hand of the greengrocer on the scales as he weighed the potatoes. It all happened so fast – potatoes rumbling into the pan, an array of weights onto the balance the other side and – I am sure – the greengrocer’s hand never left the potatoes. Was he holding them down? Was he making them seem heavier, so we got fewer than we paid for? It is easy to play tricks on a child, but something was suspect and you never forget these things.

The prophet Amos (Amos 8.4-7) tells us people were cheating with weights and measures two thousand eight hundred years ago. He is scathing, too, about those who try to charge for the sweepings of the wheat. Yet, it never ceases to amaze me how much we are prepared to pay for dross and junk, for food that is bad for you, for bad service, mad fashions, services that are no longer good enough, or even there; but we still pay out.

Then again, the apostle Paul (I Timothy 2.1-8) talks about those who are being saved; and into our religious imagination piles this idea that Jesus is collecting us like every little piece of cash and putting us in the bank, saving us up, not allowing us to be spent up as a wasted resource – either by others’ ill intentions or our own – so that a tidy sum can be built up, to buy something really worthwhile. Our Lord has a wry tale (Luke 16.1-13) about a steward who first creams off the top of his employer’s income to line his own pockets, then reinvents himself as a dodgy benefactor with someone else’s money. His boss lets him off, but Jesus makes the point that if you cannot be trusted with other people’s interests, how can God trust you not to ruin what he has already given you? St Paul’s image of Jesus the only one who does the saving, recalls Our Lord’s own clear advice: “Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven – for where you treasure is, there your heart will be too.”

So we have two human tendencies contrasted – the instinct to get what we want quick by cheating and exploitation, and the instinct to build up the resources that we need, by patient preparation and calculation based on trust. Perhaps St Paul and Jesus, with this talk of saving and accounts, are thinking of that wonderful story told by Jesus about the man who finds out that there is a pearl of great price buried somewhere in a field, and so he goes to the owner with all the money he has, to buy the whole field and be sure of getting hold of the treasure that lies unseen within it.

Jesus is speaking of course about our spiritual lives and making clear that (first) the Kingdom of heaven lies buried deep within our world and deep within our souls; and (secondly) that there are no short cuts to it. We can only get it to emerge by patiently working the soil, digging our own hearts, minds and souls over, so that the Holy Spirit can cultivate us, with the people and society around us, until the beauty of Christ in all His glory and power flourishes in the lives of those who live justly, compassionately, generously, truthfully, peacefully from the greatest to the least in all that we are and all the we do.

When I was a young man, a kind but earnest protestant friend asked me, “Are you saved?” He knew I went to Church but he did not think that Catholics or Anglicans came up to his standard of proper Christians. What he meant by “Are you saved?” was saved ”from” sin, saved “from” damnation, saved “from” myself. But this is not exactly how Our Lord and his apostle tend to use the idea of salvation. They mostly mean it as saving positively “for” something – for the Kingdom of God’s power to come as an experienced reality, saving for future hope, saving not for imminent judgment but for present blessings of confidence in what He promises, saved for being instruments of forgiveness and the good in the world. We know the worst of us, and we know the best too. So we know that this is all within reach.

Yet, looking at the world around us, it is easy to think that this could be Christian wishful thinking. We may talk still about the good of Christ saving us, but even those with a sense of spiritual desire dismiss the idea of needing to be saved as strange or presumptuous. It strikes me that nothing is either new in this. It is not news that people still waste their gifts and futures, people still hoard up the wrong treasures, only a few have the right priorities and values in life, only a few see where and how the hand of God is at work, only a few are actively involved in working their lives like that field that will one day flourish, and produce not just any old crop but the fruits of the Holy Spirit when the buried pearl is at last found.

It should not surprise us. God tends not to work on the grand public scale of dramatic shows of overpowering strength. He always works from within, and from the little scraps of what is left over from what we have. From within is how he came into the world through a single individual, Mary. He rescued the mere remnant that was left of His once faithful people Israel. Through brave, honest souls he brings healing and peace, transformation and hope. To this day, His miracles come from wIthin nature and not like magic against it. So, when the Church can seem to be a declining minority, all that is left of a spiritual life in Christ that was once second nature to everyone, it is easy to think that religion is a private viewpoint, a matter for the individual or a small group making a path through life, rather than the true account of the sheer basic fact of how the entire universe has been built and operates by Christ. It is easy to think we are a sideshow, mourning our loss of influence or relevance. It is easy to wonder if we have a future at all. Why would anyone wish to talk about Christ saving us?

But it is not like that. For the irony is that, when Jesus spoke of setting your heart on treasures stored up for heaven, He meant His own heart, Whose treasures are we human beings He is saving up to adorn His heaven. We are just like the sweepings of the wheat from the floor that no one in their right mind would buy, let alone invest in; and yet God has been prepared to pay for us the highest cost. We are pearls of great price, for whom Our Lord has paid up everything in His hands to buy the field we are in. We are part of his tireless labour of sheer determination to work the land, so that what it brings forth is seen to be full of goodness, of trust in what He has promised, His creative power to bring justice and delight, to keep on passing through adversity and emerge with inexhaustible forgiveness and the light of life.

To bring all this about there is no tipping of the scales, no short cut. It is not so much about our lonely perseverance, as about Christ’s painstaking labour in the field he has bought, working on us from the inside out until we produce the costly value buried within, to make His Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. That it may be happening in you and me, is because the whole earth is the Lord’s, being worked on constantly, inch by inch, soul by soul, heart by heart.

Every year in Holy Week, we recall the words from the Lamentations of Jeremiah (1.12), “Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by? Behold and see if there is any trouble like my trouble?” No, this trouble is not nothing – deep down, it is the happening of everything at the hands of Christ Who fills the universe and makes it to exist only for love.