The first sermon involves a lament about the difference between Jesus and the Bible, or a discourse on “why I’m not a fundamentalist.” We know Jesus through the Bible. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” But sometimes the Bible can obscure our view of Jesus.
The lesson this morning tells of Jesus going out of his house to sit by the sea, where he speaks to large crowds of people. Vs. 3 reads: “And he told them many things in parables.” A lot hinges on this question: Why did Jesus teach in ‘parables?’Parables are little stories involving ordinary human beings, in ordinary settings doing ordinary things. They often have a surprising twist. Parables are not the same as an allegory, though people often try to interpret parables as if they were allegories. In an allegory, every piece precisely represents something else. Parables, in contrast, are intentionally ambiguous, resisting a once-for-all-time interpretation. A parable has a quality of being “alive,” inviting new insights — new ways of hearing the parable each time we hear it.
So, why did Jesus use parables so often in his teaching? Apparently he liked the way they provoke thought. They coax the listeners to participate — to climb inside and see life in new ways. Parables have a way of catching hold of our imaginations. It has been so for me.
So this is my assumption: Jesus used parables because he found them to be the best method of communication when speaking about God and God’s kingdom — subjects, which, by their very nature, are tough to speak about directly and don’t fit into tidy dogmatic formulas. They have the potential of helping us catch a glimpse of God’s presence in the midst of ordinary life — God in the muck, so to speak.
Go with me now, and I’ll show you something that strikes me as downright devious, right here in our very own Bibles, and you can decide for yourself whether you agree or not.
The first part of chapter 13 has Jesus talking to the crowds in parables, telling first the parable of the sower and the seeds, concluding with the invitation,
In the next verse (10) , however, we hear about a private meeting that allegedly took place between Jesus and his disciples. In this instance, the disciples represents the apostles — that is, those who had authority in the early church
after Jesus was no longer there — an authority derived from the fact of their closeness to Jesus when he walked and talked on this earth.
They ask Jesus, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” It is interesting that they use the word “them”; a distinction is already being made here between the crowds and the special disciples.
Jesus’ answer? “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” (vs. 11)
Wait a minute! According to this, Jesus isn’t using parables because he likes the way they communicate. No, precisely the opposite: he’s using them to obscure the truth — to keep it hidden from the ordinary people.
In verse 18, Jesus is depicted as privately explaining the parable of the sower.
He turns it into an allegory. The seed represents the word of God, and the various locations into which the seeds fall represent various levels of receptivity to the Word in the hearts of people.
Afterwards, in verse 24, Jesus tells another parable, apparently again to the crowds. This one is about wheat and weeds growing together in a field. He follows this with a couple of shorter parables.
Then, in verse 36, once again we are told that Jesus leaves the crowds behind
and meets privately with his disciples, who ask specifically for an interpretation of the parable about the wheat and the weeds. Once more, Jesus turns a parable into an allegory.
What I am suggesting here is that the parables themselves come straight to us from Jesus. The private interpretations, however, aren’t from Jesus; rather, they were made up by the first followers of Jesus. Confronted with the frustratingly ambiguous nature of parables, they probably thought they were being helpful explaining it all to us. Nonetheless, what we have here would appear to be the first step by the apostles towards consolidating their power, rendering ordinary people dependent upon them:
It also takes us off the hook from having to wrestle with the parables the way, I believe, that Jesus intended.
Now, the second sermon.
The most common way of hearing this parable is the one that the Gospel writers tell us we should hear it. They have Jesus secretly explain that it is all about the soil. What kind of soil do the seeds land in? There is good soil and there is bad soil; which will you be?
This is certainly a valid way to hear the parable, but it is not the only one, nor is it, perhaps, even the best one. The reason I say this is that if we ask the question, who is the main character in the story, in the sense of who is actually doing something? we realize that the primary character is actually the sower — the one tossing out all those seeds.
God is, ultimately, the great seed planter. This morning, however, I am inclined to ponder ourselves as sowers of seeds. If we are made in the image and likeness of God — the great sower — then it seems appropriate for us to climb inside this parable, putting ourselves in the place of the sower.
Here is a question that often captures my attention, and I suspect yours as well:
Perhaps the question presses itself upon us as we age: These years I have been dwelling upon this earth — have I used them well? Have I made a difference? Or have I just been taking up space?
To use the language of the parable, have any of the seeds that I have cast out into this world taken root and brought to harvest anything that lasted?
In light of this question, the lives of two quite different persons caught my attention this past week. I never met either of these people; they both lived to an old age, passing from this world within the past decade.
The first is a remarkable woman that Bob Keller sent me an article about, marking her recent passing at the age of 98. (“A True Angel Has Passed,” by Roy Exum.) I had never heard of her, though when I read her story, I felt as though I should have — that everybody should hear the story of her brave life.
Her name was Irena Sendler, and she was a social worker in Warsaw when the Germans occupied Poland in 1939. She is attributed with single handedly rescuing over 2,500 Jewish children from the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. She won the trust of the children’s parents, smuggled them out of the ghetto, and then, with help from the underground found foster homes for the children to stay with until the war was over.
At one point Irena was arrested and tortured, and although the torturing she endured was so brutal it would leave her unable to walk without crutches for the rest of her life, Irena never gave up the information that she alone knew regarding where the children had been taken.
When the war finally ended, Irena successfully reunited all of the children with their families. In most instances, this meant their extended families since more often than not their immediate family had all died in the holocaust.
Irena’s life caught my attention in relation to this question of, “Have I lived a worthwhile life?” If anybody can answer this question with a whole hearted yes, it would seem to be Irena Sendler. Thanks to her, 2500 Jewish children survived the holocaust.
The impact of her life, of course, is directly related to the moment in history in which she found herself. In a time of peace, her accomplishments probably wouldn’t have been so striking. But at a critical moment, Irena took action where so many failed to, and as such she is a remarkable inspiration for the rest of us.
I am struck, however, by words that Irena spoke regarding the meaning of her accomplishments:
“It is no cause for praise. We who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes. That term irritates me greatly. The opposite is true. I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little… this regret will follow me to my death.”
Although it would be hard to find someone else who so clearly “made a difference” with her life, Irena was keenly aware of the places she failed — the places where the seeds of her life fell on rocky ground.
This, it would seem, is part of what it means to be a human: to regret the seeds that were not planted.
My own reflections on the significance of my life are puzzling and humbling.
At times I have put a lot of time and energy into something that, in the end, seemed to come to nothing. Other times, I was simply at the right time and place, and did or said something so simple, requiring only the slightest expenditure of energy on my part, but my action lead another to give me feedback implying that what I did had been invaluable to them.
Sometimes I’ve done harm where I thought I was doing good. At other times I’ve done good when I thought I was doing harm.
In the end, of course, it will be God who answers these questions, not me.
The second person whose story caught my ear is that of a man who spent a good portion of his life as a preacher, and as such I can more readily identify with him, though unlike myself he was a Baptist, serving several churches in rural Georgia and Alabama.
His name was Howard Finster. (I am indebted to Barbara Brown Taylor for much of what follows regarding Finster.) “After preaching 4,625 sermons, after presiding at more than 400 funerals and 200 weddings, Howard conducted a survey at his church and found out that no one remembered anything he had said.”
(I will not put you to a similar test.)
As far as Howard could see, all those tens of thousands of words that had come out of his mouth on behalf of God and God’s word had simply shriveled up and died.
“So he retired from preaching and began fixing things instead — television and bicycles, mainly — until 1976, when an inner voice from God told Howard to paint sacred art.
“I cain’t,” Howard told the voice, “I’m no professional.”
“How do you know you cain’t?” the voice demanded, and Howard’s career as an artist began.”
Before he was done, Howard had become famous as an American folk artist. He is reported to have made 50,000 works of art. In the 80s he was commissioned to draw two album covers for famous rock bands (REM and Talking Heads), which he did, filling the drawings with Bible verses.
In his mind, God was inspiring all he did — God was speaking through his work, though often the meanings of what he meant to be saying through his art were as frustratingly difficult to nail down as Jesus’ parables could be.
He left behind a 3 acre museum of a sort that he called “Paradise Garden”:
Here is Barbara Brown Taylor describing the art work in this overgrown garden, which she describes as being “both beautiful and bizarre.”
“The hand painted sign on Finster’s front porch sums it up, at least for him, and this is what it says:
and put them together night and day;
Washed by rain, dried by sun, a million pieces all in one.’
Barbara Brown Taylor goes on to write,
“The man is excessive, to say the least… I look at his garden, and I want to weed, neaten, organize; I want to ask him what everything means and post helpful signs for those who come after me. But Finster has already posted signs of his own. ‘I built this park of broken pieces to try and mend a broken world,’ says one, while another reads, ‘It’s watermelon time; get your knife; eat, shout and shine.’
“He once said, ‘What I do talks. I figure when I’m deceased my work will be talking same as if I was here. Jesus used things that was familiar to people to get the subject over to them… God’s message is getting around.’”
What does it all mean? Heck if I know.
But Howard’s life speaks to me, in so far as he tapped into a God-given vein of creativity and went with it, trusting that God gave him that creativity on purpose, and we would all do well to do the same.
If you are using the creativity that God has knit into your soul to do good things — whether it be for playing music or for organizing closets or whatever — then your life is part of the harvest of God, and it is participating in ways we cannot never know for sure.
In the end, this beautiful and bizarre parable that Jesus told long ago is comforting. It suggests an image of God as the happy seed-tosser, who doesn’t worry much over seeds landing in out-of-the-way places. He just goes on slinging those seeds, trusting that enough will take root to bring about a wonderful harvest.
And we, made in the image and likeness of the happy seed-tosser, are called to do the same.