Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Last Sunday's Sermon

I'm obviously running a little late with posting this. It has been an odd, and not very happy week so far. Not unhappy, just everything out of step. Oh well, no choice but to press on.

Where Are You?

Before I read the scripture this morning, I want to talk for a minute about parables. In this one chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells seven parables, all of them using images familiar to his audience to try and picture for them the kingdom of God. These are not scientific explanations or precise journalistic descriptions, but images and poetry, designed not to inform the intellect but nourish the heart. It’s important to understand this about parables, because it goes a long way toward explaining why Jesus felt like he had to come at the kingdom of God in seven different ways to get his point across.
Another thing to understand about parables, is that they are not meant to be understood easily. Some people believe Jesus did this for political reasons. By saying things indirectly, it helped keep him out of jail. And I’m sure that’s partially true. But there’s more to it than that. Parables are designed to dig into your soul and give you something to think about. They have many, many layers, so that you can think about them for a long time and always come up with something new to nourish your spirit. This was a common way for rabbis to teach at the time, and when you think about it, pretty logical. After all, many of his listeners might only get one chance to listen to him in their entire life. They would need something substantial, something that would stick to their spiritual ribs, something they could think about and learn new things from no matter how many times they went over it in their mind. This is one of those parables, meant to be mulled over, discussed, looked at from different angles, and see new things in as the hearers matured and changed.
It’s also important to understand that parables are meant to be startling. Each parable contains a twist or paradox of some kind, specifically designed to surprise the hearers into seeing and hearing in a whole new way. It is meant to wrench your understanding in a whole new direction and open up new vistas that offer new understandings of God and God in the world.
And finally, and this is critical to remember any time we read and study the Bible. These words were written thousands and thousands of years ago in a language we don’t speak—some of them languages that no one speaks anymore—in a culture and worldview that is completely alien to our understanding of God, the world, the people in it and how it all fits together. Things that would be obvious to the original hearers we will miss completely, and many of our interpretations would be absolutely unintelligible to them. Which makes it all the more miraculous, then, that these old, old stories still have so much to teach us today.
That said, let’s read the story itself, without the explanation, and see what meaning we may find in it for us today.
13That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!”
OK, let’s look at this for a minute. In every story, there is a place for the hearer to stand--some character or object with which the hearer can identify and join into the story. Otherwise, it has no meaning for the listener and is pointless. In this story, there are several places we can stand. We can be:
· The sower—We usually think of God as the sower, here God is serving as our example for spreading the good news. And God’s example is to sow generously, recklessly even. Farmers today, well everyone today, is consumed with efficiency, getting the most bang for the buck. But this farmer doesn’t worry about it. No matter how many seeds he scatters, there will always be enough. Throw them everywhere, even in the places that don’t seem worth the effort. You never know what will take root. This is God’s extravagant grace, shown to us and which God expects to show to others in the same way. This is loving unconditionally, which sounds so wonderful, but is really so hard to do on a day to day basis. How do you continue to love extravagantly one who has disappointed or hurt you? When do you give up on someone? When do you put up the defenses and draw back? When do you give in to the desire to write them off? We want to, because we don’t want to risk being hurt again—to have our kind words thrown back in our face, to have our generosity rejected, to have friends become enemies—we just want to withdraw and look out for ourselves. But that is not God’s way. God throws that seed everywhere, and encourages us to do the same.
· Or we could see ourselves as the seed. Just tossed out there by God and left to make it or not on our own. And, if I’m honest, I have to admit that sometimes it feels that way. Sometimes we do feel like we’re on our own. But we’re not. Even the seed on the hardest ground or among the densest weeds still gets some water, some nourishment, some sunshine. And at those times in our lives, we just have to, as the saying goes, bloom where we are planted. Yea, we may only get enough to produce one or two other seeds, instead of being one of the thirty, fifty or hundred-fold bearers, but that’s still one or two more seeds for the kingdom. And who knows, if the right squirrel or bird grabs us we could find ourselves carried off to a whole new field where things are much, much different. Because even if it doesn’t feel like it, the sower still knows where all the seeds are.
· Or, maybe we can see ourselves, if we are honest, not as the sower or as the seed, but as the rocks, and the thorns and the hard places that get in the way of the other seeds. Come on, we all have to admit that there have been times when instead of helping to bring the kingdom of God to this place, we’ve done more to impede it. We’ve been the ones tossing out harsh words, or being unforgiving or inhospitable. We’ve been the ones who’ve been unwilling to give someone the benefit of the doubt but instead have chosen, and I do mean chosen, to be offended and angry about something that probably wasn’t meant to hurt us at all. And even if it was, should our response be any different? And with every time that we’ve chosen to be that obstacle, haven’t we made the ground a little harder, thrown out a few more rocks, or choked off from God’s life-giving grace seeds that God has thrown right at our feet? Fortunately, God is more gracious than we often are, and is always willing to give us another chance to play a different role in the story.
Finally, there is one more place in this story where we can stand, and this is the one that was written in the Gospel. It may not be the only explanation that Jesus ever gave, but it was the one that stuck for the author of Matthew:
18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.
So, instead of the parable of the sower, this might also be called the parable of the dirt. And the question, then, is what kind of dirt are you? Yes, dirt really can’t dictate its nature, but we can. If we are hard to the word of God or too afraid to listen for fear that we might have to change—
--or if we are overwhelmed by bitterness or busyness, drowning in the activities and disappointments of the day to day—
--or if we have only known God in those mountain-top experiences, at camp, or on the Walk to Emmaus, or we only feel assured in our faith when we feel happy but can’t seem to hang on during the boring or the tough times—
we can change. We can, with God’s help, and through the ancient practices of our faith, become like the good dirt. We can become yielding, well-fed, well-watered, overwhelmingly fertile soil. Not just dirt anymore, but transformed into the very living, nourishing soil that gives birth to the kingdom.
So where do you see yourself in this parable? Where would you like to be? What, over all the centuries and through all the interpretations is the Holy Spirit saying to you today?
We all have ears, will you listen?
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.