What do you see when you look at this glass of water? This is an old old question of course – is it half empty or is it half full? When you look at it do you see the space at the top which is devoid of water, or do you look at the bottom where you see the water in the other half, still available, still present to quench thirst. Is the glass half full, or is it half empty?
It may be that if we reflect for a moment, we might find that we live our whole lives in the way that we respond to that question. Do we live in the knowledge that we are blessed with the water in our glass – our homes, our families, the peace which we enjoy here; or do we live in the world of the half of our glass which is empty, in the world of not having as much as other people around us, where we have not fulfilled all of our dreams and ambitions, where we haven’t collected around ourselves all of the possessions which we aspire to own? It may be that we can identify ourselves in one of those two categories (and I’m not going to ask you to declare your hand), but it is more likely I think, that our lives are far more complicated than that. When we look at that glass of water, with others looking on as well, it becomes quickly clear that this is a matter of perspective.
On Wednesday evening after the Catechuminate Group I went home to hear the news that the Olympic Games in 2012 will be held in the city of London. I realise that that announcement was not of earth shattering proportions to people here in Perth, but in London it was a wonderful moment for all those who live there. One of the reasons that it is such good news is that the chosen epicentre, the chosen heartland of those games will be Stratford in East London. I know Stratford very well, I lived about 5 miles from there when I was growing up. And that part of East London is, in comparison to most other large cities in the developed world, an extremely poor area. Poor in terms of the housing, poor in terms of the disposable income available to those who live there, poor in terms of the education and employment opportunities for many of the people of the area. It was in Stratford that I first discovered in my naïve youth that families could experience multi-generational unemployment, where none of the men in the family had ever been able to get a secure job. And so we were celebrating in our house on Wednesday evening because the Olympic Games will be really good news for the people who live there, because the investment in the resources in that community will lead to new opportunities and new hope for the people of East London in the future.
But of course the reality is that those people in Stratford who live in a poverty unknown on a large scale here in Perth, live in absolute luxury when compared to the people of many of the nations of the Two Thirds World. In the poorest countries of the world it is not so much a matter of having a glass of water which is either half full or half empty, it is more the case that there is no glass of water at all. And so just as it is a matter of perspective for us to stand back and look at our lives, so our lives within the perspective of the lives of others around the world will begin to look very different. We are suddenly very fortunate when we become aware of how some other people have to live. That’s why people have been clicking their fingers three times over the last few weeks – you may have seen the advertisements on the television – because as we have been hearing through the massive “Make Poverty History” campaign, every three seconds a child dies in poverty.
It depends from which perspective we are looking, when we make a decision about whether our glass and our lives are half empty or half full.
The writers of the Gospel of Matthew remember Jesus telling a story (we have just heard it together) about a sower, a farmer who goes out into his field and sows the seed. And as he sows he uses the broadcast method which would have been well known to the first hearers of the story. The seed was scattered as widely as possible, tossed out in all directions, and only after the seed had been scattered was the ground ploughed, so it was impossible for the farmer to accurately know where he was planting. The seeds were thrown everywhere in the hope that they would grow somewhere. But the story has a surprise to it, because the people who heard this parable of Jesus knew the reality of the yields which would return from a broadcast method of sowing. And yet in the story the returns are nothing like the 5 fold yield which they expected. “One hundred fold, sixty fold, thirty fold,” says Jesus. This sowing which was a normal part of the life of the people who heard the story, is likened by Jesus to the work of the community of faith, the growth of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is saying to those who will hear him – “it is time to change your perspective: when this seed falls on the good soil, the returns will be more abundant than you could ever have imagined. The harvest which will be reaped will be so large, so extravagant that you will know that the Kingdom of God is here.” The normal interpretation which the Church has given to this story, this metaphor of the sower in the field is that the seed which falls on the path dies there because of the hardened hearts of those who hear it; the seed which falls on the rocky soil lives for a while and there dies there because of the distracted hearts; the seed which falls in the thorns cannot compete with the weeds and so dies because of the defeated hearts; and finally the seed which falls in the good soil lives and grows and flourishes because of the hopeful hearts which have heard the Word of God.
In the 1950s and 1960s miracle seeds were developed and made available to some of the poorest countries of the world. It was hoped that these seeds would be a solution to hunger and poverty in the developing world. Some of these seeds were enormously successful, at least for the first few years. But farmers in that early period of bio-technology soon found that the seeds which they had invested in were no miracle at all. The high yields of the first few years went down and down, as the once rich soil became drained of its resources artificially quickly. Allegations were made that these types of seeds were produced and given away by manufacturers knowing that those who planted them would need to buy fertilisers for many years to come, there was even a miracle seed produced in order to ensure that it did not reproduce, so that new seeds had to be purchased every year.
You see, this story isn’t just about the seed – the Word of God, the hope of Jesus for each one of us – it is about the soil as well. You can plant a miracle seed anywhere but if the soil isn’t rich enough the soil will be drained and the seed will die. Sometimes we are in danger of concentrating so much on the seed, that we forget about the soil. The massive anti-poverty campaigns of the last few weeks should have been led by the churches, because Jesus is clear that the seeds will grow to their potential only in the good soil. So conversely, whenever we see people in poverty, whenever we see those struggling even for a clean drink of water, we know that however strong their faith, they will never grow into the full potential of renewed and transformed life here on earth in the Kingdom of God. The mission of the Church must be to provide not only the seed of the Word of God, but also all of the resources necessary for the person who receives that seed to grow in human terms into the full stature of their potential in God.
Londoners went from their celebration on Wednesday evening, about the Olympic Games, to the terror of bomb blasts on Thursday morning. We live in a world which is desperately in need of a broadcast sowing in every direction of the love of God, embodied yes in the hope of Christ, but accompanied to with all that is necessary to meet the basic needs of the world’s poor, to ensure that the soil is good. Because we know that just as those terrorist attacks were evil and cowardly, so too they were borne out of a fundamentalism which grows in the hearts of those who have no other hopes here on earth. Poverty around the world leads to the death of hope.
The seed in the parable which we have heard this morning is the seed which leads to the transformation of life, to the long term re-orientation of lives away from hopelessness towards the hope of resurrected living. But Jesus is clear that that seed will only grow to its full potential if it finds living soil. The work of Jesus, and the work of the Church is both spreading the good news and sharing our resources so that the basic needs of the whole of humanity are met, and not just those in the richest countries. This is our work: because the sower in the story is the Church. We are the ones who are called to shower the world with the message of God’s love in Jesus, and to ensure too that all the peoples of the world are free from the rocks and thorns which blight their existence.
Luisa and I were watching last night the repeat of last week’s Live 8 global concert, the concert designed to bring pressure on the G8 leaders to bring to an end the poverty of the world and the destruction of our environment. And there was one young lady on the stage of that concert who embodied the message of the campaign better than any of the words that were said. She was the girl who was on the cover of newspapers around the world during the massive Ethiopian famine of the early 1980s. A young malnourished girl then, who had no hope of survival. Except that she did survive, because she received emergency care thanks to the aid work that took place 20 years ago. And now she is a fully grown and beautiful woman. She embodies a story which leads those who see her to know that we must do everything in our power to end poverty and corruption which leads to poverty, and injustice which leads to poverty around the world.
I don’t think that the clergy make very good politicians, and so I don’t want you to misunderstand me. Our task is not act as politicians and economists in this arena. We are called to answer the question, “what would Jesus?” our task it is to bring to people’s attention the mandate of the Kingdom of God. Our role is to remind people of the perspective of Jesus, that all can flourish and grow – 100 fold – if we do not deny them the resources which we take for granted.
The ordinand in the next room to me at the college at which we were training for ordination had a postcard on her door which said, “if there is no dancing in heaven then I don’t want to be there.” I found an ancient prayer on the internet site of another friend of mine just a couple of days ago, written by St Brigid of Kildare about 1,500 years ago which ends with the words: “I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings. I would like to be watching Heaven’s family drinking it through all eternity.”
The kingdom of God is a kingdom of extravagance and abundance. It is never half empty, it is always full and overflowing, with more than we could ever imagine – with love and life and hope and even dancing and drinking beer! That’s why God’s love is good news to the child soldiers in Northern Uganda, and the children living with AIDS in India, and the oppressed people’s of Burma, and the starving people of Zimbabwe. It is good news because it is not just words, the Word of God (Jesus) is embodied in us – he lives in us by his spirit – which causes us in turn to be extravagant and generous with our response in the face of the problems of the world.
So when poverty is brought to the forefront of our minds as it has been during this period of the G8 leaders meeting, and when we are faced with the terror of bombings in London and the ongoing wars around the world, it is with Christ and not a particular political persuasion that we claim hope for all of the people’s of God’s world. It is isn’t just a Left wing fantasy that all the people’s of the world can be treated with equality, and given the basic resources to survive, it is the hope of Jesus. A hope that will bring about change: because the Kingdom of God is not just a matter of words, but of actions, actions which will transform. Actions which will begin in each of us.