Monday, July 17, 2017

Listen With Your Whole Life

July 16, 2017 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
I suspect that parables are as much fun for the congregation as they are for the preacher. Jesus’ short little stories or analogies give us a glimpse into who God is and who we are and how God is inviting us into his kingdom. They are powerful in their simplicity, yet, two thousand years later, they still captivate us with their subtlety. And, as long as he doesn’t butcher the beauty of Jesus’ words by attempting to dissect them, the preacher has the privilege of inviting a congregation to listen afresh to what Jesus has to say.

Today’s gospel lesson is the first of three in a row in which Jesus will speak to us in parables about God’s kingdom. In fact, this passage is, in effect, a parable about parables, and Jesus offers it to us as an interpretive key for what follows. Typically, when we encounter a parable, it helps to ask ourselves what detail stands out as particularly ridiculous since the part that would have made Jesus’ audience scratch their heads or laugh in disbelief is usually the part that he intends to teach us something. Remember, Jesus wasn’t offering good advice for farmers but strange advice for disciples. This time, though, I’m not sure that the part that was shocking to his audience is still shocking to us today, and I think there’s more for us in the twenty-first century to learn from what those in the first century would have taken for granted.

To a first-century Palestinian, the weirdness of this parable was contained in the foolishness of the sower. Just as no sensible farmer would waste precious seed by scattering it on the path or on rocky ground or amidst thorns, no one in Jesus’ day expected God to offer the seeds of the kingdom to anyone but the most deserving. In the minds of the ancient faithful, God would have reserved the fullness of his reign for the religious elites—the scribes and the Pharisees—but Jesus came to share the kingdom with tax collectors and sinners—to those who would receive it gratefully and whole-heartedly. But I think we’ve come to expect that. Shocking though it may be that God loves the sinner as much as the saint, I don’t think that’s the surprising detail that we need to focus on today. Instead, I think the harder truth for us is that we cannot hear the good news of the kingdom if we are only listening with our ears and our minds. If we are to hear what Jesus will tell us about God’s reign, we must also listen with the way we live our lives.

To someone in Jesus’ original audience that would have been obvious. Naturally, they would have thought, no one can receive the wisdom of God if he or she does not live a life worthy of it. In that culture, it was universally accepted that what we know about God is as much influenced by how we act and even what we eat as by what we read and hear and study. Holy thoughts come to holy people—not just intelligent ones. That just made sense. But remember that that’s not the point that Jesus is making. In this parable, the sower scatters the truth of the kingdom to everyone regardless of their receptivity. And that turns everything on its head. In Jesus’ reckoning, God isn’t withholding the kingdom from those who don’t deserve it. God is pouring it out liberally and trusting that those who are able to receive it will and that those who aren’t will watch it pass by. As present-day hearers of this parable, therefore, the challenge for us is holding onto the universality of the sower’s scattering without forgetting that how we receive it makes all the difference.

Perhaps we should focus on the thing that Jesus tells us to do in this passage: “Listen!” But what does it mean to listen like that? Actually, a better translation of that word would be, “Behold!” Jesus is asking us to do more than hear the words that come from his mouth. He’s inviting us to see the thing that he is showing us, to perceive the reality that he is communicating, and that’s not as easy as hearing the words.

Jesus said, “Hear then the parable of the sower.” When anyone hears the word of the kingdom but doesn’t understand it, the evil one comes and snatches it away, and, just like the seed scattered on the path, it never takes root. But lack of understanding is only the first stumbling block we face. Some initially receive the word with joy, but, like seed scattered on rocky ground, they lack the patience and endurance that are needed to let the news of the kingdom take deep root, and, when trouble comes and the fulfillment of the kingdom is delayed, they lose heart and fall away. Others hear the news of the kingdom and want to receive it deeply, but their ties to the wealth and concerns of this world, like thorns, choke out the kingdom. I don’t know about you, but I suspect that listening with your ears is a lot easier than listening with your whole lives—with your hearts and souls and minds and strengths and wallets and families and careers and hopes and dreams.

Over the next two Sundays, Jesus is going to speak to us about the kingdom of God in ways we will not understand unless we offer him lives that are receptive not only to his words but also to his ways. He will speak of wheat and weeds growing together in a field, of a mustard seed and a measure of yeast, of a merchant in search of fine pearls and a treasure hidden in a field, and of a net that drags in all kinds of fish. And none of that will make its way into our hearts unless we listen with more than our ears. That’s because the kingdom of God doesn’t make sense to those who aren’t already living inside of it.

Just as we cannot truly hear each other with our faces buried in our smart phones or our eyes glued to the television, we cannot hear what Jesus will tell us about the reign of God if we are not living lives that reflect the kingdom he proclaims. The fullness of God’s reign does not make itself manifest all at once. It takes time—always more time than we want to give. The peace and justice and restoration that we seek are promised, but they do not come when we want them. And those who will not wait, those who interpret hardship and struggle as signs that God has forgotten them, never have the depth of character needed to see the fruit of God’s kingdom. Instead, the kingdom comes to those who endure the sufferings of this world with patience and perseverance and faith. But how good are we at that? A full belly is as close as a walk to the pantry. A new winter coat is only a click away. The opportunity to air our every grievance to a sympathetic audience is as near as our next Facebook post. How will we endure waiting for the coming of God’s kingdom when we live in a culture that is accustomed to waiting no more than two days before our next purchase is brought right to our front door?

We don’t like hearing it, but, if Jesus makes anything clear, it’s that people who enjoy the riches of this earthly life cannot enjoy the riches of heaven, too. If we are going to receive the fullness of God’s kingdom, we must pull up the thorns of avarice that choke out the kingdom’s growth before it has a chance to bear fruit. We must sell what we have and give it all away. We must let go of mother and father and sister and brother and son and daughter and live only for the kingdom. We must stop worrying about what we will eat and drink and wear and concern ourselves only with what God is doing in our lives. And you know what? I can’t do that. I can’t afford to sell it all. I can’t let go of the life I enjoy. I can’t let go of the family I love. And I’m willing to bet that you can’t do it either. So what does that mean for us?

It means we need help. It means we need more than a good teacher, more than spiritual guide, more than a wise counselor, more than an earnest preacher. We need a savior. We need Jesus. We need someone who takes us will all of our deficiencies and reshapes into a receptacle worthy of God’s kingdom. We can’t think our way into heaven. We can’t comprehend our way into the fullness of God’s reign. We need the patience and the perseverance and the selflessness that lead to the kind of thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and even hundred-fold supernatural bounty that only God can bring about. We can’t get those things on our own, and the good news of the kingdom is that we don’t have to. 

God is scattering his kingdom upon us and all around us more fully than we can even imagine, and we need a savior to open up our minds and our hearts and our lives to receive it. Ask God to show you the kingdom. Ask God to open up not only your ears but also your heart and your soul so that you can behold the kingdom all around you. Ask God to take the meager offering of your life and make you worthy of something truly spectacular. That’s what it takes to behold the kingdom of God, and that’s the transformation that Jesus makes possible. The wisdom of the kingdom is ordinary sinners like you and me finding ourselves included in God’s great and glorious reign, and, because God himself makes that possible, we get to see it take place with God’s help.

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