>Texts for this week: Mark 4:1-20 & Mark 8:27-38
We are a people who love to tell stories. Last summer we went up to Beaver Lake to stay with the Rutherfords for a couple of days and Moriah caught a 22-inch Rainbow Trout. When we were up there these last couple of days, and the kids were out on that same boat, we got to tell that story again. I imagine many of you have a fish story or two.
I know that when we gather with my side of the family for a Thanksgiving Dinner, there are certain stories that will creep into the conversation: there’s the long table graces of Mr. Sharon when we used to go over to their house for Thanksgiving (all the food out on the serving table, filling the house with the sweet smells of my favorite meal in the whole world and the prayer went on FOREVER). As we sit telling stories someone will mention how my sister and I were infamously horrible to each other growing up and fought over silly thing like who sat in the front seat and the big fight we had over who put pepper on my dad’s ice cream (it wasn’t me), or the time Julie came over to dinner and I dropped an entire Shepherds Pie Casserole and my dad cleaned it up with a shovel. Part of being family is being welcomed to share in the stories. Part of me being pastor here and you being congregation is sharing each others’ stories—and I hope, over the summer to ask everyone here to share a story that I’ll put on a video by the end of summer.
Stories shape us into being certain types of people. When I was in a fraternity, a big part of the bond of “brotherhood” was being LET INTO the stories and then being part of the making of new stories. And so you got to hear about the great fraternity presidents of years past and, much more important, the tales of great snowball fights and battles with other fraternities. And it was so you could “fit in.”
Stories shape our families. They shape our social groups. And they shape our nations. Here we are on Memorial Day Sunday. Part of being in this place and getting assimilated into the US culture is to celebrate those who have died over the years in making this place what it is. We remember the fallen so that we can shape those of us who are still standing.
Stories are about memory, and defining moments. I’ll forever be talking about my Bike Crash…which occurred five years ago this summer. And I’ll be forever talking about the trials and joys of our church construction. These are defining events. They have shaped me into being who I am. And to know me and to relate to me…really…is to be welcomed in to that story.
I was talking with someone recently with their first child and lamenting that, when you have kids your relationships change. You gather around all the other new parents and talk about diapers and first steps and who’s the best pediatrician. You’re stories change. Your community changes.
Back when I was in undergraduate school, at Wabash College, I read an article by a man named STANLEY HAUERWAS. It was an article based on the book WATERSHIP DOWN—and you can read a little bit more about it on my blog. What Hauerwas did with the book is talk about the different warrens of rabbits in Watership Down and how one of the key elements of rabbit culture was the telling of the stories of the rabbit hero El-ahrairah and his faithful helper Rabscuttle. The stories gave the warren identity and community and gave them something to live for that was beyond rugged individualism. And, when they didn’t have those stories that bound them together, when they forgot them, they failed to be who they were supposed to be, and they fail to inspire future rabbits to enter into that story.
In light of that work and that understanding, can you see what it means to our natives in Alaska that they are losing their stories…the ones that have shaped their culture for hundreds of years. The totem poles, the “storybooks,” really, were taken away. The shamans, who told the stories, were taken away. The dances, which acted out the stories, are being forgotten. The languages, at least many of them, are dying. What happens when they can’t tell the stories…the stories that tell who they are as a people and how they should relate to the natural world around them?
So, stories define us and they shape us. They also teach us that which we need to know. Having a couple of three year olds in the house means that a lot of our teaching stories are still in play. “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” teaches us not to lie. The Cat in the Hat teaches us to obey our parents. Many a Disney Princess story tells us to be wary of strangers and to not take candy (or apples) from them. Stories like “The Ugly Duckling” or Sneetches teach us not to judge a book by its cover…or people by the way they look.
If stories have this much sway over us, if they are that important in shaping and defining and teaching us, is it any wonder that Jesus used so many stories in his teaching? Almost a third of what Jesus spoke to us comes to us in story form. They are PARABLES. Some, like the Parable of the Sower or the Parable of the Prodigal Son, are very, very familiar to us. Others, like the Parable of the Ten Virgins, are less so. Some are nice, happy, little tales. Others are much more ominous.
And the beauty with each of them is that they can say different things at different times depending on how you look at them. They are like multi-faceted diamonds catching different light as your perspective changes.
There are many resources out there on the Parables, and I ordered a couple of them this past week as we get into these a little more closely here. One, from Baylor University, has the following introduction from
Jesus loved to tell stories—perplexing, yet revealing stories. “To the others I speak in parables,” he once confided to his disciples, “so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand’” (Luke 8:10b). Jesus’ parables teach us, spiritually blind and self-deceived as we are, to see reality beyond ourselves and to know God’s love and loving demands on our lives. With their two levels of meaning—a story and the divine reality that the story reveals—the “parables are imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” Kline Snodgrass has observed.
Yet they also lead us to acknowledge the darkness in ourselves. “Parables invite the hearer’s interest with familiar settings and situations but finally veer off into the unfamiliar, shattering their homey realism and insisting on further reflection and inquiry,” Ron Hanson reminds us. Thus, “we have the uneasy feeling that we are being interpreted even as we interpret them.” (Robert B. Kruschwitz, “Introduction” to “Parables,” Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics, The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University).
We read the parables. We interpret the parables. We see what it says to us about our God. We see what God, through the parable, is telling us about ourselves.
This Memorial Day weekend, as people have time off, and as the flowers are being planted and I saw the Charnons out in their community garden plot on Thursday, getting ready with their lettuce and kale and some other vegetable that I forgot…this weekend we talk about the “PARABLE OF THE SOWER,” which was read earlier. It seems like a good weekend to talk of planting and growing.
The story, I hope, is familiar to most of you. A farmer went out to plant and he scattered the seed. He scattered it all across the field and, as would happen if you scattered all across the field, some of it fell on the path, and some of it fell on shallow soil, and some fell in the thorns, and some of it fell on good soil.
Well, the seed that fell on the path was just eaten right up by birds in search of a quick meal. The shallow soil had rock underneath it so, it grew up but couldn’t last in the sun because the roots didn’t go down very far. The seed in the thorns grew, but those thorns, just like any weeds in our own gardens, choked the plants and they couldn’t grow to maturity. But, the seed that fell on the good soil, it grew into full plants. And the crop was 30, 60, and even 100 times as much as had been planted. That’s a good return.
Now, Jesus helps us out his disciples here. And he helps us. This is one place where he gives his own interpretation.
The New Living Translation puts it this way:
The farmer plants seeds by taking God’s word to others. The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message, only to have Satan come and take it away. The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. The seed that fell among the thorns represents others who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life, the lure of wealth and the desire for other things, so no fruit is produced. And the seed that fell on good soil represents those who hear and accept God’s word…[and they produce a great harvest]
Over the last year or so in this congregation, we’ve heard this parable told several times as a call for a particular style of evangelism – on that reaches out with acts of love to the world frequently and passionately and effusively. The understanding here is that we are sowers of God’s word. We are the ones who need to scatter the seed far and wide and we know that some of it is going to fall on the rocks and some on the path and some in the weeds but that, when we love the world around us, some of it will fall on the good soil and it will bring in a bumper crop for Jesus.
That’s why we distribute cookies around Girdwood a few times a year, hoping that our little act of love, at some point, may fall on some good soil. Steve Sjogren, who wrote the book Outflow, says that he wants to be “a prodigious, indiscriminate seed-flinger for Jesus.” This parable gives us a “take-away;” something to put into practice in our own lives – spreading the love of Jesus around and praying that some of it lands in a good spot.
But there is a great theological point to be made in this parable, which is the longest and most developed narrative in Mark’s Gospel. It tells us about ourselves and God’s plan for our salvation. See, in order for God to work in us the way he wants to work in us, we need to receive his Word. God is going to keep scattering his seed. He scatters his seed for us on our good days and our bad days. God is reaching out to us through friends and family and, even occasionally, a pastor or two. He scatters when our minds are thoroughly elsewhere and our hearts are bogged down by the cares of the world. Sometimes our spiritual lives are shallow or rocky or unreceptive at all. There are seasons in our lives where, as much as God is trying to get into our hearts, we’re having nothing of it at all. And nothing happens. Or nothing much happens. And we bear no fruit. There is no crop. The birds have eaten it all.
And God holds out hope for that good day, when the gift of God’s word is given and we have ears to hear and a heart to love and a mind to understand and we welcome God into our lives. We are…however we want to understand it…SAVED! The Word of God that has been scattered all along our journey is now taking root and the soil is good and deep.
But, that’s not the end of the parable. No. Says Mark, “And the seed that fell on good soil represents those who hear and accept God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted.” Having good soil and receiving God’s word and having in grow in you is not the end of the parable. The end of the parable is you bearing fruit in the world.
Theologically, all that scattering. Well, that’s PREVENIENT GRACE—the grace of God reaching into our lives before we’re even ready to receive it.
Then, when that scattering sticks on some good soil. Well, that’s JUSTIFYING GRACE – being “saved” or “justified” or “washed in the blood.”
And, this is followed by SANCTIFYING GRACE – our growth in grace and bearing fruit in the world.
And it hits at one of the main theological points of our Gospels, that our faith is not merely a belief but is a whole way of living in the world. Our RIGHT BELIEF/ORTHODOXY leads to a RIGHT ACTION/ORTHOPRAXY in the world. Our faith flows into acts of mercy and justice and community-building and peace and righteousness and celebration and fairness and compassion and love…thirty-fold, sixty-fold, one-hundred-fold…a great harvest.
In Mark 8, just four chapters later, we have Peter’s great confession, when asked by Jesus, “Who do you say I am?,” Peter says, “YOU ARE THE MESSIAH.” And then he recounts how the Son of Man would suffer and:
If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. (NLT)
And that’s how God produces that harvest — 30, 60, 100-fold.
Many of those disciples may have been fishermen, but they understood what it took to produce a harvest. Back in the day…their day…they were a lot more connected to the land for sustenance than we are today. There were markets. But there was no “Carrs Huffman Supermarket.” They could see the plants grow. They knew the care it took. And they understood what it would mean to have a bountiful harvest.
And so, as they gathered around to hear the Parable of the Sower, the hope was that they would understand that they have a God that pursues them, scattering wherever he can in their lives and that, at some point their soil is good enough to take what God’s giving and grow in faith and flourish in faithfulness in the world – so that they might live as faithful followers of Christ. And perhaps, taking their cues from God’s action in their own lives, they would, in turn scatter, “prodigiously and indiscriminately,” the love of God in the world so that it might bear a harvest in the lives of some others.
Perhaps sometime soon you can find yourself some seed and a little plot of dirt, feel the dirt in between your fingers and under your nails, and can pray with all of your might that the seed you put down will grow into a flower or lettuce or a tree that you hope it turns out to be exactly as in intended…and know that this is what God is doing, all along, with your life…hoping for you to turn out to be exactly what God has intended for you.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.