It was ten minutes of nine. The in the morning London traffic was snarled as it always is for the last ten minutes of rush hour. There was a more than a bit of joy in the summer air: Britain was had just been picked to host the 2012 Olympic games. By then surely the mess in Iraq would be over, and the War on Terror would be only a memory.
Up north, in Scotland, the leaders of the eight largest industrialized countries were about to meet to discuss a joint response to world poverty, especially in Africa, where millions of people are enslaved by corrupt governments, crushing debt, genocide, famine, environmental holocaust and the ravages of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other plagues.
Suddenly, it happened again. The explosions, the torn human flesh, the panic, the shock. At least fifty lay dead, dozens more lay dying, as all the security apparatus of the West was revealed to be nothing more than a fools errand. As if there was a doubt, radical Islamicists took credit for the slaughter. Their perversion of Abrahamic faith had shown once again that it would brook no quarter with those it deems “infidels.”
The world united in its revulsion against the madness of theocratic terror. For people of faith, it was a cognitively dissonant week. As the richest countries in the world agreed to double support for our African sisters and brothers by 2010, the news was overshadowed by the unholy havoc of hate a few kilometers away. How can we hope in the middle of hopelessness?
We can look to the prophet who took up his quill sometime during the Jewish exile in what is now Iraq, hope is rooted in the Word of Yahweh, no matter how hopeless it all may seem. For a generation, the Jewish people had lived under the thuggish repression of Nebuchadnezzar whose occupation of their land was supposed to be the first wave of a worldwide Babylonian empire. When Nebuchadnezzar finally died, in 562 BCE, despotism continued unabated under his successors. The land of Israel lay desolate, its sole inhabitants impoverished nomads. But the unnamed writer (whom Bible scholars call Third Isaiah, because his writings were appended to Isaiah’s two hundred year old scroll), was unfazed by the terrorism of Babylonian misrule.
His words fairly shout across the millenia: “Hey, there, people! Are you thirsty here in this desert? Are you hungry, sick and tired of being hungry, sick and tired? There’s a place inside you that flows with wine and milk and it won’t cost you a cent. You can spend what little you’ve got on what passes for food in these parts, but you’re still going to be famished. Listen, and I’ll tell you how to get filled up.”
And he proceeds to remind them that God has promised them redemption, and God’s Word does not go unfulfilled. It may look as though we haven’t got a shekel to our name, but we are rich, because we’ve got hope, and all the King’s goons can’t take that away from us. Because God made a covenant with us and people, there’s going to be a feast.
That’s what faith does. It looks right down the maw of death and doubt and defeat without really seeing it at all. Third Isaiah has nothing but faith–and it is enough. A tiny seed of faith is enough to harvest a great feast.
It’s what Jesus means when he gives the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. “Once upon a time there was farmer, who went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and as quickly as he walked, the birds swept down and had themselves a feast. The farmer, undeterred, kept sowing seeds even on the rocky ground. And it seemed for a while as if his work would be rewarded. Tiny green seedlings, burst through the thin soil in just a few days. But when the sun got hot, they were scorched and withered away. Still, the farmer kpet sowing. He even tossed some of that seed into the briar patch and I’m sure you know what happened: by the time of the harvest there was no wheat in that corner of the garden, only gnarly, thorny weeds. But the farmer kept on sowing. He didn’t quit because the birds got his seeds, or the sun or the briar patch. Because, by spreading around enough seed, some of it was bound to fall on soft, dark, rich loam and by the time of the harvest it had gown thirty, sixty, a hundred times as much!”
And then Jesus sat back and smiled, as if to say, “Okay?”
His disciples looked puzzled. “Jesus, what are you talking about? You might think we’re only bunch of fishermen, but even we know a little about gardening. Nobody throws seeds on the path, in the rocks or the briars.”
He can see that they aren’t getting it, so while he usually leaves them to figure out his parables, he knows he’ll have to explain this one. So he does, explaining that the birds are the devil who snatches away the faith of those who don’t bother to try to understand. And the sun of trouble withers away the faith of those who lose heart when things look bleak. And the briars, well they are the seductive lure of wealth that will wring the neck of anyone who tries to be rich and faithful to the gospel. But if you keep on sowing, you are going to find the good soil, you are going to find that your hope has root, and you are going to have a harvest of joy.”
Two weeks ago, the Anglican Consultative Council met amid predictions that the Anglican communion would be rent asunder by disagreements over homosexuality and Christian ethics. Instead, the ACC prayed together for hope in the midst of hopelessness. For in the long run, it was far more important that the Anglican Communion speak with common voice about the issues that are really closest to God’s heart: poverty, genocide, famine and war. ACC members voted to ask the Archbishop of Canterbury to remind world leaders when they met in Scotland “of their responsibility towards the eradication of poverty in the world.”
“The wealthy nations of the world will be considering what particular crumbs from their table might fall somewhere in the direction of the needy of the world,” The Archbishop said in his final sermon before the Council. “In a world where such a meeting is even necessary, we need witnesses to solidarity. We need to remember that those who starve and struggle in terrible violence and deprivation are us, not them – part of one human community, loved equally with the passion of God.”
The G-8 Summit met even while the devil’s birds hopped around the London Underground, snatching at the seeds of hope. Yet, across the world, people of faith had been sowing faithfully. They had been writing e-mails, text-messaging their friends, lighting candles, singing songs, praying with faith that somethng would be done to begin the end of poverty. They believed that if you sow enough seed, eventually you’re going to find some good soil, and you are going to harvest thirty, sixty, a hundredfold.
In spite of the devil, in spite of the doubters, in spite of the odds against it, the leaders of the richest nations of the world responded with a concrete plan. Tony Blair characterized it: “It isn’t the end of poverty in Africa, but it is the hope that it can be ended. It isn’t all everyone wanted but it is progress–real and achievable progress.”
The seeds of hope have not ended poverty in Africa, any more than Third Isaiah’s song ended the Babylonian captivity of Israel. But in a real sense, those who believed that they were going back to Israel one day, and who lived in that hope every day had a feast. For it was only a few short years later, in the dead of night, that the Persian armies slipped under the Euphrates bridge and liberated the captives.
In real sense, the G8 summit did not solve all the world’s problems. Yet it provides a real, measurable test of the resolve of the richest nations in the world to share their wealth with the poorest–not as charity, but to help them reach self sufficiency. And Christians are called the lead the challenge.
Rowan Williams put it like this: “There is no place for apathy in a world which sees 30,000 children die each day because of poverty related conditions. The Bible teaches that whatever we do to the poorest we do also for Jesus. We believe God judges nations by what they do to the poorest.”
As believers, we can let the devil’s birds get our seed, let the heat wither it, or the briars choke the life out of it. Or we can keep on sowing, just looking for that patch of fine, black soil.