The Rt Revd. Peter Skov-Jakobsen, the Lutheran Bishop of Copenhagen, which the Church of England is in communion with through the Porvoo Agreement, preached at York Minster on Sunday 10 July with the General Synod present.
Text: Matthew 13, 1-9 & 18-23
It is odd; but as the years pass, I think that these narratives become even more strange – provocative – as if from another world – and yet they liberate a longing to become a person right here and now!
Let me draw you into a story in which Jesus will make us look at the world with different eyes. We have to go back to the time before any dogmatic church teachings had been agreed on, but there were still plenty of barriers between people.
I don’t know what the problem is with us human beings. Apparently we cannot stop protecting ourselves from one another, from finding security in our own thoughts, behind our own borders, behind our economy and our politics, behind our own culture!
And here we meet him again, this man who had such a colossal ability to listen, a man who once talked to a Samaritan – the outsider, the enemy. How dare he! And worse than that, a Samaritan woman! Oh dear. This was the man who, when they dragged before him a woman caught in adultery, told those without sin to cast the first stone - and no one dared. And then he told her to sin no more! He made friends with strangers, tried to make his fellow-Jews to think again, and guided people away from sin. Truly he planted seeds – seeds of reflection, and seeds of action.
The Russian writer, Dostoyevsky, was sometimes very critical of western culture, of our attempt to secure ourselves behind our knowledge, behind our technology, and we could add another word, that Dostoyevsky didn’t know: behind our ‘growth’ – are we planting seeds for growth or merely weeds? He thought that we had lost our feeling for Christ. He claimed that we no longer, as he put it, ’asked the heart for advice’.
Here at the start of the 21st century we should listen to that criticism. There is no doubt that even only 30 years ago many people thought that religion would soon be a thing of the past – we would outgrow it. Like a scorched plant it would wither and die as we moved into a post-secular existence. There are many things on the move at present in the thoughts and lives of modern man. But we must also acknowledge and accept our history – as well as one another’s histories, for then the walls come tumbling down, as we learn to listen and live alongside our neighbours – including our new, strange, neighbours.
Not for one second do I believe that there is any point in going back and finding cover behind the thick walls of dogmatic church teachings. Nor can we further any understanding of faith or the church by hiding behind an anxious defence of the Bible, and outdated view of gender roles or an unrealistic view of freer sexual morals. We must not make faith into a ghetto. We must not withdraw and just sit and talk among ourselves! We must be the seed that falls on fertile ground. not the seed that has no root and lasts only a short time.
Let us start our pilgrimage into the future with the words of the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas:
… … Was the pilgrimage
I made to come to my own
Self, to learn that in times
Like these and for one like me
God will never be plain and
Out there, but dark rather and
Inexplicable, as though he were in here?
It is our task to be part of the times and to draw attention to the fact that history has a heart, that there is a fundamental warmth of the heart beneath our existence.
I am sure that the good and dependable Yorkshire farmers are surprised at today’s text. Who on earth would sow seed on stony ground or on land with a thin layer of soil? Surely you only sow where you can harvest! The text is a typical example of the church not always believing that Jesus meant what he said and said what he meant, so to help that later generations they quickly sent out an interpretation to a text which in reality is very clear. There is a distinction between the superficial man, the worried man and the attentive man, - this is the stony ground, the field full of weeds – and the good soil!
Three types of men! Just consider that what this has brought with it is the history of the church! Just see what condemnations there have been in the air ever since! Just look at the hypocrisy has been enacted. We would hear the story much better if we dared to accept that all three types of soil are found within us ourselves: the disinterested mindset, the superficial, worried mindset, and finally the attentive and empathetic mindset.
And yet something has happened in the world. The heavenly, the eternal, the omnipresent qualities are found in language, in music, in painting, in craft, in decisions. They become present, and people’s lives are first and foremost influenced by our belief that God in His generosity gives Himself to all the world. God does not have time to be concerned with the quality of the soil.
There is sowing to be done.
We are not dealing with a God who desperately wants to change the world before he gives all of Himself. God is not waiting for the world to be ready. He is generous. He is not waiting for the new world to come. He is not looking to see whether people have understood. And suddenly it is as if the truth is close at hand, and heaven is present. Christ has plenty of time. He sees the birds of the sky, he sees the children playing, he sees the lilies of the fields, and he even has time to wait for a lost son. He is the Son of Man who meets people where they are, and not where some would have wanted us to be!
He empowers people to break the circles of anger and indignation and revenge so easily understood. The cheerfulness, happiness, and courage which is found in Christ must be found in the quiet and courageous protest. One such protest has stayed with me. The man in question was George Bell who spoke up in the House of Lords during the Second World War against the allied bombardment of the German cities, arguing that no injustice can be equalized by another. This was an important hour in the history of the church, but also of the parliament that we call ”the mother of parliaments”.
And again, we can all hear the indignation of love in a cruel time when we hear the story of Erik Mørch, the Danish seaman’s pastor in Hull during the Second World War, whose church St. Nicholas, was obliterated on the night between the 8th and 9th of May 1941. The following morning he went up to the smoking ruin and put up a sign with the words of the Danish theologian, Grundtvig, saying: “We are God’s house and church now, built of living stones”. No swearwords, no curses could express such life.
As the church we have one task: to tell the world that God loves His world magnanimously, and that we are constantly looking for this signature of Christ everywhere. Our faith has not been built for us to withdraw from the world. No, we must break into the world and explain that in the faith there is multiplicity present. The whole universe can be embraced in it – even the gracious gift of doubt is part of this universe.
It is even more important now that enemies and opponents can look one another in the eye and overcome their enmity. The memory of the resurrection is more important than any human enmity.
This is my hope for the world – and for myself.
In this country you love to tell a story about a Danish king who was so unbearably arrogant and foolish that he even believed he could stop the tide by sitting at the water’s edge and commanding the waves to withdraw. We Danes had already suffered from a bad press for many years. We had frightened the life out of women and children, and it was not the act of a gentleman when Thorkild the Tall plundered the cathedral in Canterbury and took the archbishop prisoner. I’m sorry about that.
Since then our empire has grown oh so much smaller, but a sense of humility has still found it difficult to enter Danish hearts. But we are looking to the future! At long last we have joined the Porvoo Communion! But you may have to accept that now and again there is a little girl sitting on the bench in Denmark saying, “But he’s got clothes on!”
As you get to know the Danish Lutheran Church over the coming years, you will encounter a church struggling to take seriously both tradition and contemporary society. Really struggling!
Thank you for your warm and friendly welcome and for the honour it is to preach a sermon on this happy occasion. For 9 years this part of England was my home, and that is why one of the first things I had to do after being elected by the Copenhagen congregations as their bishop was to make a pilgrimage to the place where I learnt to be a pastor: To Hull! Kingston-upon-Hull.
It goes without saying that I lost my heart to this country, its people, its culture, its traditions, and now I carry the yoke of the pain it is to be a stranger in two places – in this country because I am Danish, and in Denmark because I came to know Great Britain and saw that everything can be painted with a much bigger brush.
Deep down, nevertheless, I am happy with this sense of alienation. It gives me a feeling that nothing is simple.
Alienation gives me courage, and I live happily with polyphony, and I love variety.
So even though we believe that Canute was trying to demonstrate the exact opposite – that you cannot turn back the tide – please carry on laughing at us. That is better than praying the ancient prayer: “Merciful God, deliver us from the fury of the Norsemen!”
And maybe you can learn from our humour. History may have taught a proud little people and the rest of the world a humble truth in the words of our poet Piet Hein:
’The noble art of losing face may one day save the human race.’