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Evensong on Sunday

St Margaret’s Church, Binsey
[Trinity 7]

Revd. Professor  Martin Henig

Psalm 119:119-136; 1 Kings 3:5-12; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches’[Matthew 13:31-32]

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


When I moved into my house in West Oxford almost thirty years ago, the scene that greeted me in my back garden was fairly bleak. There was a decayed outhouse, a decayed shed and a number of blocks of concrete with no apparent utility. As for plants there was a stunted and unlovely Christmas tree and an array of weeds, though as the previous owner had grown potatoes, the soil was not in bad shape and if one dug it, one solitary, opportunist  robin was almost the tally of  the birds of the air.

After a few months of thought, the concrete, the outbuilding and the shed were removed or demolished and in place of the Christmas tree, I put in  a very small viburnum, a holly seedling ,and a number of roses and other shrubs. Seeds were planted and scattered and life returned to what had been a wasteland. Now I look out on a very different scene. The viburnum is now virtually a tree, the height of my upper story, but it is overtopped by the holly. My next door neighbour planted a walnut and this is now a mighty forest tree. Roses smother the back wall of my house. Nature, God’s nature, has taken over, there are bees, butterflies and other insects, there are frogs and toads, there are squirrels and fieldmice, hedgehogs and the occasional fox. By day birds flit through the branches (and there are always one or two nests)  and by night it is the turn of the owls to call from their perches. A bit of waste ground has become a glade in an enchanted wood.

How does this relate to Jesus’ metaphor? Over these years there have been many changes in my life–changes in relationships, changes through deaths and births and many new friends; there have also been changes in my own physical situation and in my outlook on it; and of course the impact of both of these has impacted on my spiritual life, for these years saw my adult exploration of Christ’s faith, my baptism and ultimately my ordination as deacon and then priest. Just as the world of nature was always there, but I took in some of it for myself, so I hope and believe that I and all of you will have absorbed a little more of the kingdom of heaven during our own lives. Just as my neighbour, inadvertently perhaps, aided my vision by planting the walnut so let us  all be aware of the other people who provide illumination and encouragement, as so very many of my friends have done for me.

Jesus goes on to provide other metaphors for spiritual growth. I like the one about yeast in bread. We all need that leaven; we may well have been told about the kingdom of God, but I know many of us have been told aggressively, by people exercising power, concentrating on curbing rather than expanding the spirit. Without the leaven of real love, it is nothing.

 As an archaeologist, I admit to a certain ambivalence to the next metaphor. My mind goes out to those treasures of around the time of our Lord, discovered by accident or by metal detectors and too often regarded by the finder as a source of pecuniary profit. But if we turn the emphasis towards the hard, intellectual labour needed to elucidate what the hoard can tell us, it can even result in spiritual growth and enlightenment. I have recently been reading the account of  one of the British Museum’s greatest treasure, the great hoard of Late Roman silver plate  found at Mildenhall in Suffolk. during the2nd World War which has just been fully published 70 years later. We can see all the decades of study that has gone into the book as representing spiritual growth over a human lifetime.


I reject the fish metaphor I’m afraid, first because the place of fish is swimming free in the sea pursuing their own lives their own growth (for we know far more about the cognition and the emotional lives of fish than was apparent in Jesus’ time), and even if taken metaphorically, the binary opposition of good and evil, of heaven and hell, does absolutely nothing for me. I am afraid it sounds like Matthew getting angry, and he is the angriest of evangelists at times, and it is the sort of anger that has too often disfigured our faith. Matthews anger against other Jews who were his opponents led to a millennium and a half of pogroms. Never, never consign one’s opponents to a fiery furnace!

The merchant and the pearl, however,  has a far richer resonance for me, not only because much of my recent work has been studying a collection of ancient cameos, a few set in pearl earrings, but particularly because of the lovely poem, the Hymn of the Pearl incorporated in the 3rd century Acts of Thomas. A youth is sent to Egypt by his father on a mission to recover the pearl of great price, but in Egypt he forgets the charge until recalled to his duty by a message from home and brings back the pearl to his father’s house.

That pearl is everything; it is our faith and our inspiration; the poem reminds us that we may be diverted from our path, we may forget our calling (and we all have times of doubt and despondency), Nevertheless, the kingdom of heaven is always there, it envelops all that there is has been and will ever be. It is where we live and move and have our being. In our reading from the Hebrew Bible, the young Solomon seems to have understood this, in asking not for long life, wealth or power, but for an ‘understanding mind’ which is all that we need to perceive the kingdom of God and luxuriate in his Grace. We have no other true home in which to grow spiritually, and as I finish composing my sermon the little birds are singing in the branches of the tree outside my window, providing  a powerful reminder of the Creator’s presence.


+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.