Sunday, 20 July 2014

Never Google Symptoms: A Sermon

One of the Ten Commandments of living happily in this digital age, along with ‘take everything on social media with a pinch of salt’ and ‘live with the fact that there will always, at any given time, be someone on the internet who is just plain wrong’, is surely, ‘never Google symptoms.’ In fact this new golden rule has become so embedded as part of our collective wisdom that if you google ‘never google’, the next word to pop up in your search engine box is, almost certainly, ‘symptoms.’ The neologism ‘cyberchondria’ made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in the late 1990s as a perfect summary of this very modern malaise of using the internet to confirm the worst fears that lurk in anxious minds. 

It’s easy to see why people Google symptoms, though – The Information Standard, which produces evidence-based health and care information for the British public, released figures last year suggesting that around four in ten of us put off seeing a doctor. But of course there are at least two good reasons why Dr Google is never going to be an adequate substitute for a real GP: firstly, because it has no way of sifting wisely through the morass of possibilities to lead to a reasoned conclusion as to whether that headache is merely the result of sitting too long at a computer screen googling symptoms, or does indicate something more sinister, and secondly, because we, the reader of all this information on a screen, are not suitably qualified to judge which of it is likely or unlikely to have been written by a mischievous fifteen year old after their bedtime. We and the screen are equally handicapped by our limitations. Sorting the wheat from the weeds is well-nigh impossible.  

This evening we’ve heard the parable of the wheat and weeds, or tares, which may seem at first glance to offer some terrible agricultural advice: let the weeds grow up among the wheat, and sort it out when it comes to the harvest. I walk my dog alongside fields which are heavy with wheat at the moment, and can’t imagine the farmer possibly thinking that a few weeds here and there wouldn’t do much harm. It’s useful to know, though, that the type of weed referred to in this parable was well-known across the ancient world, and had slightly different names in different languages; in Aramaic, the language which Jesus spoke, it was called ‘zuna’, and what made zuna even peskier was that it looked very similar to wheat in its early stages of growth. It was genuinely difficult to tell what was wheat and what was zuna, which is why what seems to be appalling agricultural advice may well have been the only way of protecting the crop.  

In any case, it’s a mistake to read the agricultural parables as the biblical equivalent of ‘red sky at night, shepherd’s delight…’ These are not homely scraps of rural folklore handed down in an agrarian community. They are exasperatingly provocative, subversively profound truths about the nature of the kingdom of God.         
So what does this parable of the wheat and the weeds say about the kingdom of God? Well, if we think for a moment about the metaphor of wheat growing in a field, we see that the kingdom of God is about life, and growth, and health. Wheat nourishes; wheat satisfies; wheat sustains. The kingdom of God is not just for decoration. It’s not a pretty flower to be admired. It’s whet for feeding people. We, as part of God’s church, are to show this in the way in which we live. Our church is not here for decoration; it’s here to feed the deep hunger inside human souls. Mother Theresa, a woman who gave her life to feeding both bodies and souls, said ‘the hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.’ 

We live in a spiritually starving world, and we are called, as Jesus called his disciples when he fed the five thousand, to ‘give them something to eat.’ And that has to start with ourselves and our own spiritual hunger, which is why we come this evening to be fed with the bread of life in the Eucharist. We become partakers of Christ, and we take into our week ahead, into our lives that same Christ so that we might be more ready to notice, and respond to, the deep spiritual hunger of those who have not yet tasted and seen that the Lord is good.    
But this parable isn’t just about wheat, it’s also about weeds, weeds that are all the more dangerous and insidious because they so closely resemble the wheat that is life-giving and good, and which therefore must be left in situ because who knows, they might turn out to be wheat, after all. That medical advice read off a computer screen might just turn out to be life-saving.

So this parable is about living with ambiguity in a complex world – Jesus’ time was no less bewilderingly complex than our own. It’s about living with the uncomfortable reality that our own hunger for spiritual bread lays us open to the possibility of weeds, too; our own hunger and thirst for righteousness could so easily tip over into something altogether less life-giving and less Christian – into judgementalism or the championing of causes that have little or nothing to do with the kingdom of heaven. The Norweigan writer Jostein Gaarder put it succinctly: ‘many things have been done in the name of Jesus that heaven is not happy about.’
Yet the resounding conclusion of this parable is that we cannot possibly be the ones to make that final distinction; the harvest has not yet come, and as yet all we have is a field before us, which we are woefully under-qualified to separate out into wheat and weeds.

 St Augustine famously took this parable as the basis for his book ‘City of God’, which if had been written by anyone else would be his magnum opus – in Augustine’s case, City Of God was just one several works which changed the way the world thought; in this case, a way of thinking about the world as two cities, the heavenly and the earthly, which co-exist in this bewilderingly complex world. It wasn’t that Augustine saw the church as the heavenly city, the bread, and the Roman Empire as the earthly city, the weeds – he saw both the church, and the world beyond the church, as being populated by those whose love is for God, and those whose love is for themselves. Only at the final judgement, Augustine believed, will the two cities be separated. For the moment, we just have to live, loving God, witnessing to his presence in the world as Isaiah puts it in the passage we heard, and trusting in him for that ultimate judgement.     

Now trusting in final divine judgement might sound rather perverse – we think of judgement a as scary thing, used as method of control and instilling fear. Yet Augustine, who writes at such great length about final divine judgement, writes at even greater length about grace – God’s utter, unbounded love for all people, God’s ever-present invitation to us all to come and be enfolded in the divine embrace that will satisfy our spiritual hunger for need forever. The God who will judge us is the God who loved us so much that he laid down his life out of love for his friends, who , as the hymn puts it, emptied himself of all but love. No greater love exists; no greater love is possible. It is this ultimate love that will judge us all, which will look upon us all with eyes of love.

In the meantime, living with the ambiguity of the world’s good and bad does not mean not caring. It does not mean not listening, not engaging, not thinking, not praying. It does not mean not speaking out against injustice; it does mean being open to the possibility that we ourselves might get it wrong. Not judging does not mean ‘do nothing’.

It does mean recognising that we are not the farmer; we are the field. Going back to the googling of symptoms, this parable recognises that the only way of getting a proper diagnosis is to do that hard thing that forty percent of put off for as long as we can, and going to the doctor. What this means is facing up bravely to all within us that would rather please itself than please God, and seeking to love God more truly, as we trustingly await his final, loving, verdict on who we are. Am

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