john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    The Elemental Jesus

    Bridestowe, Lydford, Sea Sunday [1],

    Genesis 25.19-34, Romans 8.1-11, Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23
    They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep. For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind, which lifted high the waves. They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away. They reeled to and fro, and staggered like drunken men, and were at their wits' end. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven. [Psalm 107:23-30, KJV and NIV adapted]
    Sea Sunday reminds us of how closely we are attached to the elemental. The Mission to Seafarers is keen to remind us that each day we depend on seafarers for our daily food, that our breakfast tea, coffee, orange juice, marmalade, possibly butter, cereal, wheat for bread and milk are brought to us by seafarers, through sometimes dangerous and often difficult waters. Elemental waters - great forces of nature, strong in power and great in magnitude: today, we think of those who devote their working lives to them.

    And The Mission to Seafarers also tell us stories of international piracy, of pirates coming in small fast boats, armed with modern weapons, capturing ships and demanding a ransom for the ship, crew and cargo. Present-day pirates: driven by an elemental lust for money and goods. And the crews of the ships vulnerable to these seagoing hijackers: we think of them, possessed by an elemental fear of what those pirates might do.

    Sea Sunday reminds us of how closely we are attached to the elemental. The great forces of physical nature and human nature; the great forces of the natural world, and the great forces of our inner world too, the forces of our desires, our drives, our hopes, our fears. Not seafarers, most of us, but nevertheless those who sometimes throw ourselves into, or find ourselves immersed in, dangerous or difficult waters. Not pirates.. erm.. any of us (I hope).. but nevertheless people who are driven by our desires. We may domesticate all this like a breakfast teapot, and dress it up like marmalade jars in muslin cloth, but beneath it all there is no doubt, we are elemental people.

    A glance back at today's readings demonstrates this very well. I start with that famous quote from the King James Bible, saying, 'Now Esau was a hairy man and Jacob was a smooth man.' ... It's clear from the outset which of these twin brothers the writer of Genesis wants us to regard as elemental - if by elemental we mean wild, driven by desire. 'The first came out red, all over like a hairy garment, and they called his name Esau.' He was a hunter, a man of the field, the one his father preferred because he ate the meat he killed. Esau sold Jacob his birthright for just a bowl of red lentil soup, for he was famished, and the writer of Genesis puts this spin on the story: 'Thus Esau despised his birthright.'

    But what of Jacob, the quiet man who spent his time in tents, the smooth-skinned smooth talker. Wasn't he just as elemental as his brother, in his own way, if by elemental we mean driven by desire. For Jacob surely craved his brother's birthright; spent his time in tents plotting, waiting for the ideal opportunity, possessed by the need for possession. Jacob was every bit the hunter as he circled his prey, his unwitting brother, and pounced, over lentil soup, that fateful day.

    If we are motivated by primitive and powerful natural forces or passions then we are elemental people. Sibling rivalry: there's little more elemental than that. Paul says that all of us 'live according to the flesh', we are all inclined to 'set [our] minds on the things of the flesh': and by 'flesh' he is not just talking about the physical urges of hungry huntsman Esau, by 'flesh' he is more describing the desires which drive us into jealousy and rivalry, better illustrated by the behaviour of smooth tongued Jacob.

    Paul knew all about the elemental forces of physical nature, famously adrift on a ship in the Adriatic Sea, shipwrecked at Malta. In describing the elemental forces of our inner, human nature in terms of the flesh, Paul then introduces us to another elemental force: the Spirit of Christ, whose power liberates us from the forces and desires of the flesh and 'give(s) life to (our) mortal bodies'.

    And so, on Sea Sunday we reacquaint ourselves with the elemental Jesus. The Jesus who preached on the shores and sailed in the Sea of Galilee; the Jesus who recruited the fishermen Simon and Andrew, James and John from beside the sea, the Jesus who famously walked on water, calmed the storm, provided the disciples with a boatload of fish, the resurrected Lord who cooked breakfast on the beach for his awestruck followers: the Jesus who knew all about the elemental forces of physical nature, lived with these forces, nurtured and used them, at times surpassed them by his divine power, for his divine purposes.

    In today's Gospel reading we find Jesus doing what he did so often: standing in a boat at the edge of the lake, telling a story about a human being and the elemental force of physical nature - a story about a sower going out to sow; which was really another way of telling them about the other elemental force at work in the world: the Spirit of Christ, and the nature of his power. It's a story which contains surprises. [2]

    In the Parable of the Sower we can see at least two twists that would have struck Jesus' audience. The first is that this sower apparently does nothing to prepare his field. They didn't have sophisticated equipment at the time, but a farmer could still take some measures to get his field ready before sowing the seed. He could clear as many rocks out as possible; he could pull weeds; he could turn the soil over with a crude plough, softening the earth and burying the remaining weeds. But it doesn't seem like this sower has bothered with any of this. He simply goes out into a field with a lot of rocks and weeds and trampled down, hard ground, and flings the seed to the four winds; happy for it to land anywhere.

    Another aspect of this story that would have given Jesus' audience a jolt is the ending: the good soil produces thirty, sixty, and a hundred-fold. This is an unheard-of harvest! In our modern times of heavy, mechanised agriculture we would expect that sort of outcome. But in Jesus' day, thirty, sixty, and a hundred-fold would be an outrageous expectation for a harvest. It's like the crazy catch of fish which Jesus arranged for his disciples on the Sea of Galilee - an outrageous, unprecedented amount.

    There's something elemental going on here. It's the primal forces of the Spirit of Christ at work in the world, told through the parable of a Prodigal Sower, who doesn't seem to care where he throws his seed. He's wilder than Esau. It's Jesus' way of introducing us to the forces and desires of the Spirit of Christ, who can liberate us from the forces and desires of the flesh and 'give life to (our) mortal bodies'.

    The parable of the Prodigal Sower teaches us that, just as there is an unlimited supply of water in the sea and the sky, so there is an unlimited supply of love and mercy, in Christ. This sower's seeds - of love and mercy - will never run out. God will 'sow' them absolutely everywhere, because there are no limits to God's generosity. In the Spirit of Christ, God's love and mercy do not give out, and one day will yield a fantastic harvest.

    The elemental nature of the flesh is that it severely limits such love, mercy and grace, as we human beings get caught up in desires and lusts which cause conflicts between us. We put restrictions on the amount of grace available to others; we ring-fence salvation. But the elemental nature of the Spirit of Christ is that God's love, mercy and grace are endlessly available to all. The Mission to Seafarers get this: 'As a Christian agency, we operate in more than 230 ports caring for the practical and spiritual welfare of seafarers of all nationalities and faiths,' they say.

    So let us pray for the people of an elemental world - those who make a vulnerable living out on the seas and the oceans; those in the Horn of Africa now, where water is in desperately short supply; those we know who find themselves immersed in dangerous or difficult waters at this time; and all of us with our various fleshly drives and desires. Let us learn to cry to the LORD in our trouble, and see how he can bring us out of our distress, through the elemental power of the Spirit of Christ. Let us watch him still the storms to a whisper; hush the waves of the sea. Let us be glad of his calmness, let him guide us to our desired haven.

    [1] Sea Sunday and Mission to Seafarers information and quotations from the Sea Sunday website
    [2] The Prodigal Sower passages borrow from my sermon of 10/7/2005, The Prodigal Sower which owes a great deal to a prior sermon of Paul Neuchterlein.