The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8A)
13 July 2008
A Sermon Preached by the Rev'd Dr Andrew C. Blume
O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people who call upon thee, and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Isaiah 55:1-5, 10-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
For as long as I can remember, I have always had a fascination with the power of stories and storytelling. When I was little, my father told me a story every night before I went to bed, many of which are still a part of my imagination. I remember, even into my teens, heading for the story teller at the American Museum of Natural History annual family party and sitting, rapt, amongst the six and seven year-olds, listening to tales about animals and exotic cultures. As an undergraduate I developed an interest in understanding how visual images tell stories that connect in visceral ways with their beholder, and by the time I was in graduate school—and remember this was the height of the influence of literary theory on the history of art—I read with much interest the work of Eric Auerbach and Gérard Genette on such topics as “the representation of reality in Western literature,” and Narrative Discourse Revisited.(1) All this theoretical mumbo-jumbo aside, stories, narratives, whether they are heard, read, or seen, exert amazing power over humans.
Stories have the power to make us feel things very deeply. Told well, stories can make us see things about our daily lives that we might not have seen before. Carefully drawn, stories can connect a story about a far away place and time with the day-to-day reality of our lives. Just as easily, story tellers can use familiar places, objects, and people to explain something quite profound about the nature of reality. And this, my brothers and sisters, is what the parables are all about. Around this time each summer and then off and on until we reach the late autumn, we start hearing stories that begin, “the Kingdom of God is like...” and we know we are back in the world of the parables.
Parables are stories constructed using examples taken from the simple elements of daily life that are able to describe, or simply evoke, a truth about how the world really goes, about how we are to live good lives, about the ministry to which we are called, about the nature of God’s rule, about who God is. They are simple tales, often just a sentence describing a familiar situation and juxtaposed with one of those realities. They might even seem frivolous in their simplicity, but we must remember, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us this morning about the Word of God “that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” God is able to use narrative and the evocation of the familiar to get his point across and make us human beings see the things that are really important. Indeed, God makes use of the familiar, allows us to see the divine through the elements of the created order and elevates creation itself as the plane of God’s presence and visibility.
In the Gospels, Parables are meant to evoke a connection. They are not simply allegories in which each element in the story has a particular equivalency with some deeper meaning. Parables, rather, are meant to convey the meaning of a divine reality by comparing it with something familiar. Now this is the part where I wish I were a cleverer chap. The kingdom of God is like a person who hailed a taxi .... the kingdom of God is like the investment banker who .... a college professor went out to give his lecture and he shared his wisdom at great length and some fell on ready ears who wrote everything down but remembered nothing, some fell on ears that were thinking about the party they went to last night, and some fell on ready and willing ears who heard, marked, learned, and inwardly digested everything. This is what God’s generous giving of himself, his constant self-offering, and steady inviting is like. Not bad .... The familiar situation—familiar at least to me as someone who basically spent sixteen years in college—in which wisdom and knowledge are proffered, but is not always received as real. I can imagine the professor, I can imagine the room, I can imagine the students and what they look like, how they are sitting, and I get an idea of what God is up to every day out in the world.
Now today’s parable, our gateway parable, if you will, is the parable of the sower and indeed my feeble parable of the professor is not very different. In first-century Judea, many, many people in the countryside where Jesus was preaching would have had first hand experience of agriculture. They would have seen, met, been sowers. The image of the sower would be something fresh in their minds and not, as it is for urban me, a Millet painting in the Boston M.F.A. They would have recognised the situation and known how flinging those seeds willy-nilly produced uneven results, but it was in the generous seeding, the scattering far and wide, that the best results were achieved. The sower sent seeds flying into all parts of the field and some of it would grow and others would not. God’s work is like this, Jesus tells them, and they would have gotten it. This is the power of the parable as story-telling form. People hear it and they get it. “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” This statement is not about secret knowledge, it says that this is an accessible, real story that will help people understand who God is and how he works.
Now, you will be thinking, what is all this about the lengthy, allegorical explanation that Jesus gives the disciples privately, in which each element in the story has a specific equivalent meaning in another story? Most scholars agree that the parable itself is in all likelyhood an authentic saying of Jesus. This kind of parabolic speech was very familiar in Jewish thinking in Jesus’ day and it is in complete harmony with the world of the Hebrew Bible. Scholars also agree that the explanation, although early in composition, was an explanation of the parable that began to circulate in as a way of understanding the parable in ways more familiar to Greek thinking folks. It shows Jesus’ words being interpreted at a very early date and shows the significant level of inculturation that would allow Christianity to spread so easily throughout the Roman world Nevertheless, it does not seem to show us what Jesus meant. It does not show us the real power of the story to connect, as my preaching professor once put it, “our story with The Story.”
In the weeks ahead we will hear more parables. We will be asked to think about what the kingdom of God is like in terms of the world experience of merchants, fishermen, farmers, and others. We will see that the reality of God’s love for us, his desire to enfold us into his scheme for the reconcilliation of the world with himself, can be related to the varied activites of our daily lives. The word of God is not far off, Isaiah tells us in the lesson for this Sunday in lectionary Year C, “for this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” Amen.
Andrew Charles Blume+
Tuesday in the 8th Week after Pentecost, 8 July 2008
©2008 Andrew Charles Blume.