Sunday, July 10, 2011

Preach One: Proper 10A

Genesis 24:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

In my nearly seven years and counting of ordained ministry, I have discovered that one of the most difficult tasks of a preacher (well, of this preacher, at least) is finding that hook, that fresh angle or engaging story or perfect turn of phrase that will make a sermon interesting, and maybe even memorable.  How many hundreds of sermons have a written by now, how many hundreds of hooks, so that some Saturdays I sit staring at a blank screen for ages trying to think up something that hasn't already been said.

It's not a new problem for me, really.  Back in high school and college I wrote pretty good essays and term papers, complete with concise yet comprehensive thesis statements on the first page.  We weren't supposed to, but after writing the thesis statement, I always saved the rest of the opening paragraph for last, because I always seemed to get bogged down in trying to craft a masterpiece of an introduction that would entice the teacher in and make her want to read more.

It was at the same time a relief and a bewilderment, then, when in seminary by church history professor instructed us to begin our papers something like, "The purpose of this paper will be to show that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire," and then get on with it.  No flourishes, no hooks, just the facts, ma'am.

If we had more time, and if our space were arranged a little differently, I'd have the perfect hook for you today, a masterpiece of an introduction that would entice us all into the gospel text.  So what if my church history professor wouldn't approve!  Christian dramatist Tom Long wrote a version of the parable of the sower in his book entitled, The Art of Holy Backrub.  See?  You want to learn more, don't you!

It's a wonderful adaptation in which a narrator reads the parable (with a few flourishes) while the listeners, seated in a circle, "acts" out the parable with hand motions on the back of the person in front of them.  The sower sows the seeds, the birds peck at them, the thorns entangle them, the sun scorches the ground, and some of the seeds grow...

Not a bad way to introduce the story, I think, especially if your week has left you weary and worn.  Whether it's the economy or the weather, the emails that need to be answered or the errands that need to be run, the parents or the children or the grandchildren that need to be tended to, the work that piled up while we were away on vacation, the illness or the grief or the anger that just won't go away...we could probably all use a nice backrub right now.

So how does Jesus introduce his story this morning?  Listen!

Listen!  That's it.  No flourishes, no hooks, no holy backrubs.  Just Listen!  And then he starts right in with, A sower went out to sow...

This morning, and for the next few Sundays, Jesus will be speaking to us in parables about the kingdom of God.  We think we've got them all figured out, of course, but in his day Jesus was using parables to teach something new, something no one had ever heard before.  Let anyone with ears listen, Jesus enticed those around him.  Listen, he entices us.  Next week he'll add another line to his introduction (and I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out my church history professor was actually there in Jesus' day to suggest this one): The kingdom of heaven is like... As if he said, the purpose of this parable will be... Let anyone with ears listen...

We think we've got these parables all figured out, but the thing is, the moment we think that, we've probably completely missed the point both of what parables are and of what the kingdom of God is.  So here we go.  The purpose of the remainder of this sermon will be to show that the kingdom of God is like a parable...

Volumes have been written about the nature and purpose of parables as used by Jesus in his teaching.  Preachers remind us, every time Jesus begins speaking this way, that most things we think parables are - metaphors, illustrations, allegories, explanations, riddles - they're not.  Remember that the Greek word for parable means something like "to lay beside."  In his parables, Jesus laid ordinary images and actions that his listeners would understand beside images and actions of God so extraordinary they couldn't even begin to imagine them.  One of my favorite hooks for preaching on parables was written by theologian Walter Wink, who wrote, "Parables are tiny lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds...that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives."

Very early in the life of the church, parables were interpreted as allegories.  Each character or object or action in the parable stood for something else.  For example, in the parable of the sower, the birds are the evil one, the rocky ground is a person with no depth of faith, the thorns are the cares of the world that choke new growth in the word... Many scholars, though, suspect that this interpretation, while placed by Matthew in the mouth of Jesus, actually belonged to the early church in Matthew's community.  And it is by no means a bad interpretation - indeed, it is a careful and considered way to read the parable, consistent with other things Jesus said. good soil, be receptive to the word of God planted in you, be a place where the kingdom of God can take root and grow and be fruitful...

The problem is, this sort of allegorical interpretation is really inconsistent with Jesus' use of parables in general.  Jesus used parables to talk about God at work, not us at work, although there are implications or how we are to live in response to God.  In the parable of the sower, as Jesus tells it, the main actor is the sower who scatters seed liberally and indiscriminately, apparently unconcerned about wasting good seed on supposedly bad soil...let anyone with ears listen... The allegorical interpretation, however, gives the lead role to the various soils, and suddenly it's all about us.

Listen!  A sower went out to sow.  Jesus chose the ordinary image of a farmer (probably many of the people listening that day were farmers) whose farming method was extraordinary.  Most farmers took great care in sowing their precious supply of seed, sowing only in soil that they knew would support and nurture and yield a growing crop.  A yield of four or five times the amount of seed sown was about average.  A ten-fold yield was remarkable.  But listen.  This farmer, this foolish, careless, extravagant farmer, scatters seed anywhere and everywhere, and though it seems at first that birds and thorns and scorching heat will consume and destroy the crop,t he harvest turns out to be a hundred-fold at best, thirty-fold at worst.  Extraordinary.

In much the same way, the kingdom of God is about God's work, not ours, although there are implications about how we are to live in response to God.  In his life and work, Jesus scattered compassion liberally and indiscriminately, apparently unconcerned about wasting good salvation on supposedly bad people, making it abundantly clear that the gift of life and growth in the kingdom of God is free to anyone who desires it.  Though it seemed at first that we would consume and destroy that gift on the hard wood of a cross, the harvest turned out to be...well, how much more than a hundred-fold was the yield of Easter morning?

A strictly allegorical interpretation of this parable, then, limits our access to the truth the parable reveals, the glint of something ultimate it reflects, the truth that nothing can, in the end, deter God's extravagant purpose for creation.  Again, Walter Wink writes, "Parables participate in the reality which they communicate... They can never be exhausted; they always contain more than we can tell."  Parables are more than a metaphor, more than an allegory.  They reveal truth by inviting us to respond to and participate in God's work in more ways than our "this equals that" imaginations have considered.

We have been invited into this morning's parable as soil, as ground that may or may not be ready to receive and nurture the good news of God's extravagant and boundless love.  But a parable has far more facets than just one.  We are also invited in as seeds.  On our faith journeys, have we ever felt like we landed on rocky or thorny ground, or felt withered up and dry?  Have we every experienced a time of rich and vibrant growth, aware that our faith was being watered and fed abundantly?

We are invited, as we turn the parable yet again, to see ourselves as sowers.  Do we scatter our witness of God's compassion with abandon, or, for fear of rejection or failure or loss or fear itself, do we reserve our witness for those in whom we know it will produce fruit?  Do we nurture the wild, abundant growth of life in God's kingdom, or do we inhibit that growth in ourselves or others?  How often are we not sowers or seeds or soil at all but rather birds or rocks or thorns or scorching heat?

Just as a parable reveals its truth when we allow ourselves to sink deeply into its soil, when we participate in its life and allow ourselves to grow in ways we had not expected, so is the kingdom of God revealed when we participate in its life.  This morning's parable reveals to us that even a single seed sown in faith, a single moment of indiscriminate compassion, has the potential to grow abundantly.

What of the seeds that, for whatever reason, do not grow?  What of the dangers, the setbacks, the obstacles, the stubborn, stony ground?  Jesus tells us, and in his death and glorious resurrection he shows us, that God's purpose is not buried forever by these things.  God's purpose is shown, and it will grow, as the prophet Isaiah describes, For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.

The kingdom of God is like a parable; they are both like seeds that grow, and grow abundantly, even in the most extraordinary and unlikely of places.  There are, after all, flowers in the desert, trees that cling to rocky cliffs, dandelions that grow in the cracks of a sidewalk.  When we dare to scatter with abandon, so that the world calls us careless with out kindness; when we dare to sow with indiscriminate compassion, new life can begin to bloom anywhere and everywhere.

Let anyone with ears listen.  A sower went out to sow...  Amen.

Artwork: Unknown; "The Sower," by Vincent Van Gogh; "The Parable of the Sower," by Miki de Goodaboom; "Sower with Setting Sun," by Vincent Van Gogh; Unknown.

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