A sermon based on Psalm 119:105-112 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 preached September 11th, 2016
Whoever has ears, let them hear!
The first sentence of any story is the most important one of all. Every good storyteller knows this. A good first sentence either captivates and keeps us, or it bores and repulses us. A storyteller can lose her audience in a moment’s notice. We’re fickle that way. Bookstores are full of novels with half-bent covers because we open each one, and we turn to the first few pages and we decide what all the other pages hold based on that very first page. Forget judging books by their covers. We judge books by their first few paragraphs. The most enthralling novels there are have iconic first lines…
“Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austin’s’ Pride and Prejudice
“I am an invisible man.” – Ralph Ellison
“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.” – George Orwell’s 1984
“It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury’s, Fahrenheit 451
“Once upon a time…”
“In the beginning…”
Last week we looked at God the Artist. The Divine Potter, taking hand to clay and shaping all that has been and will be made—including us—over and over again. So is it any wonder that when God made footprints upon the earth, across the sandy surfaces of Galilee and Capernaum and Jerusalem, He came not with the sort of wisdom one can glean from textbooks or instruction manuals? He came not with lectures fit for college classrooms. No, Jesus came telling stories. Jesus was a story painter, a yarn spinner. He couldn’t tell a straight story. Ask any of his disciples! Everything Jesus had to say came in sideways. In parables.
The parable of the Sower and the Seeds is Jesus’ very first parable. A crowd was gathered around him. So big actually, that Jesus had to climb into a boat a few feet off shore to address everyone. He sat down, just like any good storyteller would do, and he tells his first story. Everything that Jesus has to say, everything he did (and still does), every act of healing, every act of defiance, and every parable he told, shares one message. It was his main message: The Kingdom of God. Jesus’ parables were meant to captivate. To draw us in. To make us wonder about greater things, ask bigger questions, ponder larger truths. The first line of the story Jesus told:
The Kingdom of God is like…
Whenever we hear those 6 words we know a parable’s coming. And at once, we should gather around—sit on the floor Indian-style—and stare up at the One who says those words because if we listen close, we might just get a glimpse of God!
I have to imagine that if what the Kingdom of God is like or what God himself is like could be explained to us mathematically, scientifically, methodically, Jesus would have done so. He would have gathered his disciples around a chalkboard—a chart, a graph. He would have given them a formula or a few bullet points to memorize. But he did no such thing, because that’s not the way God works, that’s not the nature of God. An infinite God cannot be understood by finite minds like ours through the memorizing of facts and formulas, textbooks or explanations, maps or models. All of that is way too small! If we want to come anywhere close to understanding who our God is, we need to summon the poets and the artists among us.
I’m reminded of the scene from Dead Poet’s Society, where Robin Williams’ character Professor Keating, begins his career teaching English by asking all of his students to rip out the entire introduction from their poetry textbooks. It was good only for the trashcan because it encouraged the measuring of poetry. Every poem, it said, could be plotted on a graph based upon its degree of perfection on the X axis and its degree of importance on the Y axis. And by that, one could evaluate the measure of its greatness.
“Excrement!” Professor Keating, declares, to the surprise of his students. Poetry can never be reduced to plots on a graph. Art can never be reduced to arithmetic. It’s too large for that. What is made for the heart cannot be understood by the intellect. It can only be destroyed or belittled by it. Art, poetry, craft, gospel—these are the sorts of things we cannot understand. We merely behold them. And we must be okay with that.
So, here we stand with the disciples, beholding the very first of Jesus’ parables. It would be best if we simply let the story of the Sower softly rest in our hands. Parables don’t like being gripped in our tight fists. All the life will be squeezed out of it if try to grasp it like that. Remember, this isn’t science. There’s no code to be broken, no answer key to consult. This is an image to ponder, a first sentence to wow us, a picture that Jesus paints, and the only right response is wonder.
It’s when we look at it that way that we will begin to see that the Parable of the Sower is about reception. If Jesus is the Sower, he’s gracious enough—even wasteful in his graciousness—to scatter seed on both the receptive and the non-receptive. Both on pavement and on good soil. But it’s only the receptive, those who have their hearts and lives, ears and eyes open, who will make good use of what Jesus has for them.
Whoever has ears, let them hear!
This parable is about how we hear. What kind of ears do we have? Do we have pavement ears? Ears full of rocks? Shallow soil ears where no seed can sink its roots? Thorny ears? Or do we have good soil ears? Those are the kind of ears we need. How good is your soil—the soil of your ears?
Good soil ears have room inside of them for new things to grow. They’re open enough for something new. They accommodate new growth. The roots can then sink in deep. Jesus wants us to be good soil.
Once in a while, whenever the disciples had a hard time understanding what Jesus was talking about inside one or another of his parables, He went out to find the closest child, and he brought the child to them, and he said
Be like this little one. Listen like a child listens. Encounter everything like a child encounters everything. With astonishment! Wonder like a 4-year-old does! Re-grow your child-like imagination. Whoever told you to grow out of it in the first place?
These stories about what the kingdom of God is like—these parables—would be much easier for us to understand if we came to them with a childlike wonder!
The reason why Jesus’ stories have a hard time sinking in is because we’ve become wonder-blind. We’ve lost our ability to become enchanted. We’re trying to measure poetry, and poetry, by its very nature, refuses to be measured. Instead, we should come to Jesus’ parables ready to enter into their world and lose ourselves there. Just like the disciples, we try to understand our faith from the neck up when all the while God is trying to speak into our hearts.
Jesus begrudgingly explains the meaning of his parable to his disciples. Anytime we have to explain anything to others—a joke or an anecdote, the magic of it fades away. And until we truly know the difference between head-faith and heart-faith, until we irrigate our stony ears and begin perceiving the story of God with the rich imagination of a child—from the shoulders-down—we will never see the Kingdom of God in the way Jesus wants us to. These things are not for us to comprehend or understand. They’re for us to be amazed by—to simply behold with the bright eyes, and open ears, and rich imagination of a child. We who call ourselves followers of Jesus should always be prepared to be astonished!
So, what kind of soil are you?
This week, we began our Christian Education year. We started with our Squares and Circle Bible studies, and earlier this morning, our Sunday School classes met for the first time.
There are a few ways we can understand Christian Education. Some understandings are better than others. Sunday School has gotten a bad rap throughout the decades—maybe even throughout the centuries—for being a place where teachers download biblical information into people’s heads. Surely, that mistake has been made many times by many teachers and many churches. Children went to Sunday School for the sole purpose of memorizing bible verses and many other pieces of information.
These days, I hope, we’re growing our kids in the faith in much more imaginative ways. In fact, calling Sunday School, “school,” makes me kind of uneasy. I’d much rather call what we do together from 10 to 11 on Sunday mornings, “faith-building.” What we’re really there to do is expand faith’s imagination. We come ready to rework the soil of our faith, so that the seeds that God is always scattering among us have a better chance of falling on good soil. And when the soil is ready for the seeds, there will be growth. Abundant growth. We all grow stronger together and something wonderful and nourishing builds and builds, and in the words of our passage for today, that’s when we start yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown. I want to urge you to be a part of this growing. For, God does wonderful things inside of those who are ready and willing to behold, who are open and receptive to the scattered seeds of faith!
All praises to the One who spoke the first sentence of our story, and continues to speak our story—to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!