Monday, July 14, 2014

Sermon: The Confusing Kingdom

July 13, 2014 – The 5th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.

Farming has changed a lot over the past fifteen years. Imagine, then, how much it has changed since Jesus told this parable about the sower. Nowadays, GPS-based farm equipment is programed with location-specific information so that each square foot of a field is planted and fertilized with a specific density of seed and chemicals targeted to produce the best possible yield. Everything is calculated. Nothing is wasted. Back then, of course, the equipment was very different. There were no tractors, and GPS was a matter of looking up at the stars and counting your steps from one landmark toward another. But, even though the sophistication of agronomy has increased exponentially, the principles behind farming are the same. Back then, farmers knew to scatter more seed on the fields that produced more and to apply more manure to the fields that produced less. And that means that Jesus’ parable made as little sense back then as it does today.

Jesus would have made a lousy farmer. Nobody scatters seed on the path or on the rocky ground or amidst the thorns. Sure, farming was a lot simpler two thousand years ago, but the people back then weren’t stupid. And that’s the point. When Jesus told the parable of the sower, he was telling a story about a crazy farmer who defied every bit of farming knowledge and common sense that his audience had. You didn’t have to be a genius to tell the difference between good soil and bad soil, and you don’t need a fancy computerized tractor to know not to scatter seeds in the middle of Highway 20. So what, then, is this nonsense parable supposed to teach us about the kingdom of God? Mainly, that the kingdom of God doesn’t make a lot of sense.

This is the first of three Sundays in a row when the gospel lesson is a parable. Parables are those stories that leave preachers scratching their heads, wondering whether they’ve really understood what Jesus was trying to say. And that’s why I love them so much. They’re rarely as simple as they seem. There’s always another meaning hiding in the text, waiting for the patient student to discover it. And that’s the reason Jesus spoke in parables. Not because he wanted to leave the crowd with a catchy take-away message that they would remember for the rest of their lives. He spoke in parables because the kingdom of God is supposed to be confusing, and the only way we’re ever going to grasp it is if we expect to be confused.

The reason I chose to lengthen today’s gospel lesson isn’t because I think that church services should be even longer than they already are. (Trust me, I get plenty of feedback about that already.) I wanted to include these intervening verses because I think Jesus’ exchange with the disciples is critical for us to understand what the kingdom of God is really like. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” the disciples asked. “The reason I speak to them in parables,” Jesus replied, “is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” In other words, Jesus did this on purpose. He wanted to be sure that most of the people who heard him failed to grasp what his message was really about. And that is the heart of the parable of the sower. When it comes to the seeds of the kingdom, in order for them to bear fruit when they fall on good soil, many more have to be spilled in places where they will never grow.

That’s because, according to worldly wisdom, the kingdom of God doesn’t make sense. We believe in a savior who was crucified. We believe that his kingship is one of humility and simplicity. In God’s kingdom, power is expressed through weakness. Fabulous riches are found in destitute poverty. Life is only gained through death. There is no way to say that plainly and still get the message across because the world is not able to hear the upside-down message of the gospel and make sense of it. If Jesus had spoken of the kingdom without disguising his message in parables, no one could have grasped it. Instead, he scattered the seeds of the kingdom wherever they would fall in order that those who saw how foolish the message was might glimpse its true meaning.

Early last week, in response to something I wrote online about parables, Harry Moore shared a poem of Emily Dickinson with me. She was writing about poetry, but the connection was clear.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –[2]

Those who want God’s kingdom dispensed in ready-made packets cannot have it. Those who look for the kingdom in obvious places will never find it. Too often in the twenty-first century, we expect the secrets of life to be handed to us in an envelope with our name on it, and we bring that same attitude with us when we approach our relationship with God. We come to church as if it were the cafeteria line where everyone can find an institutionally prepared dish he or she will enjoy. But this is not Ryan’s or Golden Corral or Morrison’s or Piccadilly. This is God’s house, where we come to encounter the almighty, incomprehensible, unfathomable, eternal mystery that is our creator. His kingdom is a bewilderment to behold, and those who expect to understand it never will.

When you come to church, what do you expect to hear? Do you want the preacher to tell you something that warms your heart and confirms your worldview? Do you want the preacher to stroke your ego by telling you that you’re the good soil where the seeds bear fruit a hundredfold? Should he jostle you ever so gently, spurring you to a momentary rededication of heart and mind? Or should he pull the rug out from underneath your feet, leaving you spinning and reeling and disoriented beyond measure? We cannot approach the kingdom of God as if it will conform to our expectations. If we are here looking for something that makes sense, we will never leave fulfilled. Instead, we must beg God to strip us of everything that we think we know about his kingdom and build us back up from scratch. We must search for the sower who scatters his seed in places where it will never grow in order that some of that strange seed might take root in our hearts. Amen.

[1] The gospel lesson appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23) was lengthened at the discretion of the preacher and in accordance with the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer (p. 888).
[2] Poem by Emily Dickinson. Shared in an e-mail from Harry Moore.

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