Cry, the beloved country

Genesis 25.19–34

Psalm 119.105–112

Romans 8.1–11

Matthew 13.1-9, 13.18-23

By Rev’d Richard Browning

Introduction – Cry, the beloved country

Beware the preacher and their recently read book?

You be the judge.

‘Cry the beloved country’ is a classic. Written and set in South Africa post WWII and a land groaning under the brokenness that preceded the full descent into separation known as apartheid.

The book follows the story of two fathers – who turn out to be neighbours – and traces the intersection of their sons who meet only briefly one short and tragic. The black father is an Anglican priest whose son he discovers is charged with murder. The white father and wealthy land owner grieves over his murdered son and in the process discovers his son’s writings. The son’s language is full of grace flowing from an intelligent, open heart turned towards healing. The piece I am about to read to you, in my view, is the centre around which the story spins.

The father reads:

“Therefore I shall devote myself, my time, my energy, my talents, to the service of South Africa. I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only if it is right. I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie. I shall do this, not because I am a Negro-phile and a hater of my own, but because I cannot find it in me to do anything else. I am lost when I balance this against that, I am lost when I ask if this is safe, I am lost when I ask if men, white men or black men, Englishmen or Afrikaners, Gentiles or Jews, will ap-prove. Therefore I shall try to do what is right, and to speak what is true.

I do this not because I am courageous and honest, but because it is the only way to end the conflict of my deepest soul. I do it because I am no longer able to aspire to the highest with one part of myself, and to deny it with another. … it would not be honest to pretend that it is solely an inverted selfishness that moves me. I am moved by something that is not my own, that moves me to do what is right, at whatever cost it may be.

How is it possible for a heart and mind to desire the right, the good, the best for others? Even at great personal cost? Where does this heart and this desire come from?

The First Question

As you probably know it is possible to open our scriptures and find a text to support slavery.

Those same scriptures contain many a text that can condemn slavery a call for its deconstruction.

It is possible to open our scriptures and find a text to support the subjugation of women to men, in the home and public in life.

Those same scriptures contain texts that unravels the very practice of subjugation.

It is possible to go door to door in Jerusalem and evict Palestinian residents and occupy their long held homes as is happening as we speak, and find a text in our scriptures to support such action.

Those same scriptures contain texts that condemn this practice out of hand.

It is possible to see in God a heart of violence and find a text in our scriptures that says so.

It is of course possible to open those same scriptures and find text after text a God in whom there is no violence at all.

As Rachael Held Evans suggests, maybe the question is not so much what do the scriptures say, but rather, what is the reader looking for? But there are earlier questions:

What is the desire that shapes our seeking?

And what has shaped our desire?

That’s it. What shapes our desire and how might God’s Spirit form it? A forming of desire by the Spirit will lead us to love the true, the good, no matter the cost. What is the star that does not play false? What is the compass that does not lie?

Parables as formative devices

Parables are a unique device used by Jesus to provoke a radical listening, creating an inner conflict that leads to movement. It seems Jesus goads the hearer’s heart into a response. Parables are less about a particular meaning and are more about what questions are provoked and movement stirred within.

A parable is like an incendiary device, provoking a response. The closest analogy to a parable I can think of is Northern Territory cracker night, July first. I was recently in Darwin and experienced it myself. It was the loosest thing I’ve ever seen. Well before the sun sets, off they go. And they did not stop until well after midnight. Outdoor restaurant seating on the bay is three metres from the action, and off they go. For hour after constant hour the sky lit up and for kilometers around the bay. They go up, they go sideways, they go off. People are ducking. People are running. People are hiding behind people. Just in front of me a cracker went sideways and literally shot up the leg of a bloke’s pants, went off with a splat and as two puffs of smoke bellowed from each trouser cuff he stood up and saluted to the enraptured crowd. One guys hand was cut off. It happens, keep going. It’s sewn back on the next day. That happened, keep letting them off. I found myself constantly laughing. And I wasn’t quite sure why. It was fun, it was wild, it was loose, it was noisy and colourful and beautiful. But it was also dangerous, and hugely expensive, starter boxes were $250. It was wasteful – the foreshore was covered in waste. It was also very very white.

There is no escaping the cracker experience. It confronts your senses.

So it is with a parable.

Parables do not ‘contain’ knowledge; they cannot be understood as we might understand a moral tale … or even a statement. Parables are used by Jesus to stimulate engagement and precipitate internal action. They are an irresistible provocation, compelling engagement, forcing the hearer or reader to a crisis or collision, a scandal that requires movement. In New Testament terms this is an either/or: either our hearts harden, or open. Either we stumble and are handed over to the consequences of our desire or we undergo a change and enter a new becoming; we either continue to enact a lie we already desire, or our desire is shifted from within and we start to transform more into Christ likeness, shaped by the spirit.

The lie we enact according to a pre-formed desire is closer to Paul’s use of the word flesh (today’s second reading). Spirit is a remodelling of desire that turns our bodies into beds receptive to the potential of God’s word to participate in life and peace.

I am a student of Robert Farrar Capon’s writing. His book 

“Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus”

is a force. The two paragraphs above resonate with his writing but come from

“The scandal of the Gospels, Jesus, story and offense” by David McCracken.

See chapter 5 “Parabolic Lies, Parabolic Truth,” pp. 71ff.,

and chapter 6, “Training the Scribes of the Kingdom,” pp. 90ff., whose focus is Mtt 13.

The Parable of the Sower

So let’s return to the parable. It is first about the sower. There is an extravagant recklessness to the sower that is breath taking, scandalous if you will, for not one corner is free of the virulent potential of the Word, the vibrant energy through whom all things are made. No worn path, no thin and weedy soil, no hostile thorny ground. All of it is sown with potential, all of it worthy of God’s attention and bountiful possibility. And to what end? That human beings might participate in the action and life of the Word. How impossibly affirming is this to the good of humankind, and our worth as co-creators with the Creator. Does that get your attention and provoke a response?

The soil

The parable is also about soil. As a would-be-home-gardener, growing things is first about the soil. Soil is not dirt. Soil bursts with life, shot through with bugs and critters and nutrients and bio-organisms and fungi and neo-cosmic networks of mycelium. Soil is the womb of life. The journey of worn paths and thin, weedy and thorny dirt patches into rich soil is through the guano of birds (and other critters) and the biomass of plants and weeds that fall to the soil. The parable is a story of grace, that the Word sown by the Sower is never wasted and is a part of the very process that produces rich dark soil.

It is such a shame that the Gospel reading today misses the dialogue of the disciples. The very chosen ones of Jesus don’t get it. They ask, “ah, why talk in parables, what is going on? We don’t get it?”

The questioning of the disciples IS the parable, and through their grasping comes an even deeper mystery. The parable is not a farming allegory, it is about the lifegiving power of the Word. And people can be a part of it.

This gospel message can be found in Jacob’s biography. The twin, who snatches at Esau’s heel and tricks him out of his brother’s birthright and later deceived his father into giving him his blessing is, lo and behold, tricked and deceived for the rest of his life, by his own children no less. This is not a surprise. Some would call this karma. In our tradition this is called being handed over to the consequences of our sinful desire. But this is not why the story is remembered. The story is remembered, in part because Jacob is flawed, and failed, and deceptive, often shallow and enraptured by broken desires yet despite all this God is still pleased to work through his life a blessing that becomes a nation.

This is how Jesus speaks to the heart of the hearer provoking a response. The parable tends to the heart inviting movement.

What if the Psalm sung by the choir was to resonate from our own hearts and God’s Word was a lamp to our feet?

What if we longed deeply for a good that tends to the cries of neighbour and country that we give ourselves in its service?

May the desires of our hearts be formed by the Spirit.

May we find in the Word the star that does not play false – the same star the forms our faith.

May we find in faith a compass that does not lie, and therein discover our desires leaning towards the healing of others, even country, and our bodies turned to this world, ready to serve.

And there find a harvest 30, 60, a hundred fold brimming with life and peace.