A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
This sermon was part of a sermon series based on biblical texts chosen by members of the congregation.
During the service a child, Zorah, was baptised. The Womens’ World Cup Final was also taking place as it was preached!
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. (Galatians 6:7)
“You reap what you sow” sounds like something of a proverb, doesn’t it? For me, I immediately thought of two news stories this week that capture some of its proverbial nature. As I preach/later this morning – and it’s the score was announced in case you wondered – the Lionesses are giving their all against their doughty Spanish rivals to win the World Cup. This is a dream come true for all of them, and for many football fans as well. But it has not just fallen into their lap has it? No, they have trained, experienced hours of preparation – physical, mental, psychological; they have learned through victory and defeat what becoming an elite sportsperson demands; they have made sacrifices in their personal lives to achieve their goal. And now, they are on the threshold of reaping the greatest reward in football that there is. They are reaping what they have sown.
Closer to home, in a prison cell in Manchester, Lucy Letby awaits her sentence tomorrow after being convicted of the worst imaginable crimes. All of us will feel tremendous compassion for the families of those most affected, and I hope that, despite our horror, we will not forget to remember that Lucy Letby herself is a human being. But, if we are to accept the guilty verdict which we must if justice is to be done, we are forced to have to come to terms with the possibility that some human beings, for reasons best know to themselves, sow the seeds of crime, violence and even murder. And, as a consequence, they reap a harvest very different.
The trouble with proverbs, though, is that they contain a grain of truth, and they offer us a way of making sense of human experience. But they are not always true. It is not always true that those who train hard and who – to use the modern cliché ‘follow their dreams’ – will always achieve greatness or even a modest amount of success. Some of those who got great grades in their A-levels will not go on to great careers, while some who did not will make it big in their chosen life direction. It is not always true that criminals pay for their crimes. Some of them become global leaders – in industry and society, or they have a political friend and an alleged criminal himself who, if re-elected, will pardon them for what they did anyway. The world is not made that way. As one biblical commentator put it, misquoting Martin Luther King, “There is a moral arc to the universe and it does not bend according to whatever is convenient to you.”
For some religions – and indeed in some popular understandings of Christianity – ‘you reap what you sow’ is a way of saying that, in the end, you will get your just deserts beyond this world. For Eastern religions, the whole idea of karma is based on this; for the Abrahamic faiths, the idea of God’s judgment enters the frame, that you will be rewarded or punished based on what you have done in this life. In their different ways, these traditions attempt to deal with that sense of lingering injustice we feel, when those who do good, or do the right thing, suffer dreadfully or never achieve what they deserve, and when those who do evil, or who live in the world with selfish indifference, never face the consequences of their actions.
Proverbs, as I have said, tend to generalise. They stand alone. But the words of Paul in the reading in which he uses this phrase – whether it is proverbial or not – sit in the context of his letter. So, despite the popular idea of being paid back for your sins and rewarded for your efforts that ‘reaping what you sow’ might imply, that is not what they mean in this letter.
Of all the letters in the New Testament, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is the one that most clearly – and forthrightly – talks about the God’s mercy and grace. Paul’s great message is not that we get what we deserve, but that in Jesus Christ, the whole of creation is under the mercy and grace of God. Paul takes the Galatians to task for the idea that anything they can do will win God’s favour; instead, all of us it under the condemnation of our own actions, that can only be undone by the atoning death of Jesus. There is only time for one quote from the earlier parts of the book. So earlier Paul says this, which goes clearly against the idea that our actions determine our salvation, “And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” Or this, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” Christians faith says this: we are saved not by our own efforts but by the death and resurrection of Jesus. No amount of sowing of good works will win us what cannot be won except by Jesus and him crucified. It is, of course, part of what we are implying when we baptise children. Salvation is pure gift, pure grace. Nothing in Zorah’s life will earn her any more love or mercy from God than she has at this moment. All of us stand under the same curse: that we are sinners. All of us stand under the same blessing: that through Jesus, we have everlasting life with God.
So what about this reaping and sowing? What about how we live then? Can we just please ourselves, knowing that God will forgive? No, says Paul, Do not be deceived, God is not to be mocked like this. See it this way around: a life that expresses gratitude to God for this free gift of salvation is a life that will manifest good works, because a life of sowing goodness and grace are the mark of a living and active faith. While God saves us by God’s grace, sowing good works is an act of worship, a mark of the cycle of grace and mercy that comes from know themselves to have received such abundant love and grace themselves. Similarly, those who sow evil in the world are demonstrating that their lives are not yet oriented towards God’s love in Christ. For some, perhaps most of us, who are those who are a mixture of both good works (or at least good intentions) and less than noble sentiments or actions, this shows that the journey towards knowing ourselves truly set free by God’s grace is a journey we are still on. The more we know of God’s goodness and grace, the more that goodness will become part of our lives and the less what Paul calls ‘the sinful nature’ will dominate our lives and sow pain and discord in the world. This is why I think we need to show a degree of compassion towards people like Lucy Letby, although her crimes are both despicable and appalling, and although just a few will ever be tempted to actions like hers, and although our focus rightly should be on her victims and their families, our hearts are still marred and we share with her an ongoing tendency to choose the wrong way of living. Christian living is, by way of absolute contrast about sowing good seeds. If we sow weeds we cannot expect fruit and vegetables to grow up. Alongside the mass murderer who will be sentenced tomorrow, there will be many more asking themselves if their own actions led to her ability to get away with what she did. Negligence and carelessness can be the seeds of destruction as well.
But let’s turn back to the positive, for we also might like to ask ourselves about what sort of reward we might expect from this sowing of good seeds, if they do not win us any more of God’s favour. Well perhaps the metaphor of sowing has something to offer here. Some of you will know that, since the pandemic, Paul and I have been working rather hard on the vicarage garden. It has just got itself properly established and, this summer (if that is the right word for what we have experienced in 2023), this summer it has begun to feel like a place we can enjoy without worrying about what next we need to do. But we will not see another spring or summer in it now. Has that work been wasted? Well, if it was just about us, then yes; but if it offers my successor and her family (or his, let the hearer understand!) a beautiful space to enjoy, then the work has not been wasted. Sometimes sowing seeds is about patience, about not seeing the reward yourself, not experiencing any of the good fruit of our labours. Sometimes, we have to live with the knowledge that all we will experience of the sowing of goodness is darkness, silence and inactivity; all we can do is to continue to weed, fertilize and cultivate.
We cannot always expect a harvest of righteousness overnight. Sometimes the seeds of goodness, kindness and gentleness may take a long time to be ready to be reaped. It may be for others to harvest what we have sown. And so, Paul writes these words in our reading, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” Let us keep sowing the good seeds, whether as members of this church or as parents and godparents to Zorah. And let us focus, not on the people out there, but on those in front of us – especially for those of the family of faith, as Paul puts it. Because giving and sowing at a distance requires less of us – less compassion, less involvement – than having to do good to those who time and chance put in front of us. As the writer Eugene Peterson puts it, “It is easier to write out a check for a starving child halfway around the world than to share the burden of our next door neighbour who talks too much.”
Reaping what you sow: it’s not a proverb about karma or the nature of God. But it is an invitation for those who trust Jesus Christ because of his love and grace, to allow that grace to overflow in our actions right where we are.
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