A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Breamore on 23rd July, 2017, the sixth Sunday after Trinity.
‘Broken’ is the imaginative title of a recent BBC1 TV drama starring Sean Bean as a Catholic Parish Priest in a downtown suburban parish of Liverpool. It was a very brave piece of TV because it unashamedly depicted some of the ugliest features of the church and humanity to such powerful effect.
The main character, Fr Michael Kerrigan, is haunted by memories of being bullied and abused at the hands of a grubby priest who taught him at school. The flashbacks keep assailing him just as he is at the most solemn part of Mass, the consecration of the bread and wine, making him stumble and freeze.
He is assailed by doubts: “I’m not a priest, I’m an imposter,” he groaned in the final episode. The irony is that we know, from everything we witness him do over the series, that Fr Michael is in fact as terrific a priest as any community could hope to have. Fr Michael has a hugely conflicted conscience as he battles with the demons of his past and engages with the demons of his often disturbed congregation.
A TV journalist writing about the programme, identifies the dilemmas, “What’s the right response if you discover one of your poorest parishioners (Anna Friel) has concealed her mother’s death in order to keep claiming her pension – a victimless crime if ever there was one? Fr Michael works it out. If a woman comes to you and calmly confesses she plans to take her own life, how do you react? Should you break the bond of the confessional to save her? Again, he steers a compassionate course through choppy ethical waters.”
There are scenes of Fr Michael raging against the iniquity of the local betting shop because of its dire effect on some of his poorest parishioners. The consequence shows scenes of his parishioners armed with baseball bats smahing the betting machines. He pulls no punches of the how the church has failed people over abuse and other gross acts of disorder.
Jimmy McGovern, the writer of the series, depicts the church at its worst and its best. At its worst a church beset by sexual abuse; at its best a church which can act as place of refuge, compassion and solace for the broken. The final scene is so poignant of the whole series. After considerable pressure from his family Fr Michael is officiating at the funeral of his dear mother. One by one the broken members of his community file before their broken priest as he offers them the sacrament of holy communion, broken bread, ‘The body of Christ’ he says to each, to which they individually reply, ‘Amen. Wonderful priest!’ Somehow in that moment of receiving the broken body of Christ they mutually recognise each other’s brokeness and vulnerability.
They recognise that they are each ‘wheat and weeds’. The parable of the wheat and the weeds is a powerful story of how each of us, the world at large and the church in that world grows both wheat and weeds. It would be easy to look at that parish of Fr Michael and point the finger: look at how the weeds are tarnishing the lovely wheat of the those who consider themselves as good wheat.
Thinking about such things is natural; acting upon such things is dangerous. We are beset with unrealistic expectations which only lead to discouragement, despair, even cynicism. That would be bad enough. But the expectation that the Church is only for the good and the holy has led people to embark on some very misguided projects throughout history. We have only to mention the word ‘crusades’, ‘inquisition’. And for other religions currently, ‘the holy jihad’, to know how dangerous it is to pursue a fundamentalist, and black and white view of religion or politics.
Jesus’ own example should have prevented these errors. First of all, Jesus himself was criticized by the Pharisees for dining with the unclean. He accepted tax collectors and sinners as disciples. He knew the flaws in Peter, Judas, and the others, but he chose them anyway. And just in case his own actions weren’t enough to get his point across, he told the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24ff) which forms our gospel reading this morning.
Beware, we are in danger of identifying the wrong people! The people the Jews condemned were the outcast and sinners of his day. Clearly they were considered beyond the scope of God’s redeeming love. Weeds! Not so. The gospel is unequivocal in its inclusion of all worthy of that love. Jesus says, suspend your judgement, God is the final arbiter of the kingdom of God, not humanity.
At the moment I am greatly exercised at the direction of the Church of England with its addiction to running the church like a buisness. At times I want to shout ‘this is wrong’. However, I must leave God to be the final arbiter. ‘Let them both (i.e. tares and wheat) grow until the harvest..’
And what for you? About whom are prejudiced? Who do you unequivocally declaim as wrong? It has been popular in the history of the church to separate the sacred from the secular. If you start from the premise that God’s love knows no bounds then the mystery of God pervades the whole of creation, all peoples at all times without discrimination of race, creed, colour, sexual orientation, ability, gender. The church was never set up to be the arbiter of who is in and who is out.
The explanation of the parable needs to be read with caution. There are images from current belief at the time of Jesus which speaks of fire, sin, evildoers, weeping and nashing of teeth. All a trifle alarming! However this is not be taken literally! The images would have currency then as signs of the end of time when God would suddenly return to earth in judgement. They are not part of our world view in the 21st century.
The parable of the wheat and weeds bids our forbearance of difference, and places all humanity on a level playing field. Our trouble is we can be spiritually short-sighted and in so doing the church has made and does made some pretty large blunders in the name of Jesus and God. We are called to trust the mystery, keep our hearts and minds open to all possibilities, and let love be the litmus test in all our thoughts, feelings and actions. Fr Michael knew himself to be ‘broken’, a weed. Because we also ourselves are flawed and broken, we shall get it wrong, horribly wrong, as we have in the past. We need to continue trusting that our loving God is working among our wheat and weeds and that it is at harvest time God who will be the final arbiter of our redemption.
John Towler, Assistant Priest.