‘Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how’ Mark 4:27
The old canon was ordained before World War II and spent his ministry in small country towns. The communities were settled places, one generation after another fulfilling the trades and running the businesses. Being secure made some people relaxed; it made others obdurate. These were not places given to change, what had done for the past would do for the present.
The old canon had suggested changes in the parish that were not universally well received and a meeting had taken place. Heated words were exchanged and the canon, still a young man in those times, feared that he had lost the support of one of the leading members of his church. In a small community, such a division could reverberate for years to come. The row could have provided gossip amongst the whisperers of the town for months ahead.
Sunday morning came and the inexperienced young rector, who would grow into the wise old canon, approached the morning service with a great deal of trepidation, with the sinking feeling in his heart that the tension from the previous week’s meeting would be carried into the church that Sunday morning.
Looking down the church as the worshippers filed in, he caught sight of the man who had been his chief protagonist, sitting in his usual pew. With a great deal of uncertainty, he walked down the nave, in his cassock, and put out his hand to shake hands with his opponent and to wish him ‘Good morning’. The man smiled at the rector and shook his hand warmly.
“Thank you for coming this morning”, said the rector.
The man looked quizzical. “What do you mean ‘Thank you for coming’? Am I not here every Sunday?”
Wrongfooted, the rector searched for words. “Well, yes, what I mean is ‘thank you for coming this morning after the disagreement last week”.
The man looked the young clergyman directly in the eye, “Barry”, he said, “always remember whose church this is”.
The old canon told me the story after he had retired in the early 1980s, the story came from the late 1940s. He pondered the man’s words again, as he must have done countless times over the intervening years, ‘Always remember whose church this is’.
“I never forgot those words”, he said, “never forgot them: ‘Always remember whose church this is’”.
The old canon died a few years ago, but that conversation from the 1940s is as meaningful now as it was sixty years ago.
The church does not belong to anyone; it belongs only to God. No hierarchy, no synod, no diocese, no parish, no cleric, can change that fact. The very word “church”, comes from the New Testament Greek word ‘kuriakos’ meaning ‘belonging to the Lord’.
Had that one simple fact, recognized by an ordinary member of an Ulster country parish in the years after the War, been more recognized by the church down through the centuries, perhaps history would have been very different.
‘Always remember whose church this is’, said the man. His words help us understand what Jesus is saying as he talks to his friends. Jesus talks of the Kingdom of God and says it’s like a farmer who has sown seed upon the ground, “Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how”.
The life of the plants sown by the farmer was beyond his understanding; the world did not belong to him, it was the place where he lived but not the place he controlled. In similar way, the Kingdom of God, the thing the church is supposed to represent, the thing the church is supposed to build up, does not belong to any member of the Kingdom, it belongs to God himself. The church belongs to God.
As the life of the plants is beyond the knowledge of the farmer in the story, so the life of the church is beyond human comprehension. For any group of people, or any person, to pretend that the church belongs to them is for them to put themselves in the place of God. The church, says Jesus, does not depend on people, “Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows”. The church has a life of its own which is beyond any human control.
Had that one simple verse of Scripture been taken seriously, had people accepted that the church belonged to God and to no-one else, history may have been very different. President Obama would not have had to appeal to the Muslim world, as he did on 2nd June, because the sad and violent history of relations between Christians and Muslims would not have progressed as it did down through the centuries. No Christian could ever have contemplated killing someone else in the name of religion if they had realized that it was not their church, and it was not their place to speak or act as if they were the church.
In our own country, had we realized that the church was not ours, but belonged to God, then we would not have heard a debate on the Report of the Ryan Commission in this past week because the church would not have become embedded in the life of the State and would never have grown to have had the power it exercised and would never have become a place of opportunity for abusers. Corruption and the abuse of power come from people putting themselves in the place of God.
From the international stage, down to the life of the local parish, it is one church, one ‘kuriakos’, and it does not belong to us. ‘Always remember whose church this is’, said the man in Co Antrim, sixty years ago.
The church is like the seed sown by that farmer, ‘Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.’ It was, it is, and it will always be, God’s church.
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 14th June 2009