On Christmas Eve 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to Eberhard and Renate Bethge (Renate was Bonhoffer’s niece and Eberhard was Bonhoeffer’s student at the underground seminary in Finkenwalde) about their imminent separation on account of the Second World War. That the letter was written while Bonhoeffer was incarcerated for “crimes against the state” and it was smuggled out by sympathetic guards makes it all the more poignant.
I’ve come back to the letter on a number of occasions throughout my ministry, but it is hitting quite hard right now during a time when so many of us are separated from one another because of the pandemic. I yearn for the time that I can gather with the church on Sunday mornings for corporate worship, for backyard barbecues with neighbors, and chance interactions with strangers at the grocery store. But until such a time, Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on separation are a gift:
“First, nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try and find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.
Secondly, the dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves. We must take care not to wallow in our memories or hands ourselves over to them, just as we do not gaze all the time at a valuable present, but only at special times, and apart from these keep it simply as a hidden treasure that is ours for certain. In this way the past gives us lasting joy and strength.
Thirdly, times of separation are not a total loss or unprofitable for our companionship, or at any rate they need not be so. In spite of all the difficulties that they bring, they can be the means of strengthening fellowship quite remarkably.
Fourthly, I’ve learnt here (prison) especially that the facts can always be mastered, and that difficulties are magnified out of all proportion simply by fear and anxiety. From the moment we wake until we fall asleep we must commend other people wholly and unreservedly to God and leave them in his hands, and transform our anxiety for them into prayers on their behalf: With sorrow and with grief… God will not be distracted.” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters & Papers From Prison [New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1972], 176-177.)
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 24.34-38, 42-29, 58-67, Psalm 45.10-17, Romans 7.15-25a, Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the paradox of doing nothing, an arranged marriage, the scandal of particularity, allegory, Pauline honesty, the goodness of our badness, having fun with Jesus, and the strange burden of Christianity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Yokes Over Easy
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
What is the Bible really about?
That’s a worthy question. And, plenty of people have tried their best to summarize the Holy Scriptures nicely so that it can fit onto a bumper sticker or in a Tweet.
“God is Love.”
“God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt.”
That sort of stuff.
They’re all fine and they’re all true.
But compartmentalizing the Bible into a fragment is always and forever a fool’s errand. It is a fool’s errand because whenever we lift it up, we are beckoned and transported to the strange new world of the Bible.
We with Abraham in Haran. We hear a call that commands him to go.
We are with Moses in the wilderness. For forty years he has been living among the sheep, doing penance for his crime in Egypt. When suddenly there comes a call from a burning bush: “Moses! Moses!”
And we are there with the crowds, lifted on tiptoe struggling to hear what we can from this Messiah man, the one who has come to save the world. And what does he say?
“Listen: the kingdom is like a farmer who sowed only the best seeds in his field. And one night, the farmer’s enemy came and scattered weeds among all the good seeds. So much so that when the plants came up and bore grain, the weeds were all over the place. The servants of the farmer come and say to him, “Where the H-E-double hockey sticks did all these weeds come from?” And the farmer says, “They are from my enemy.” So the servants, dedicated as they are, they ask if they should go out into the fields to remove all the weeds. A no doubt practical response to the dilemma at hand. But the farmer says, “No; for in gathering up all the weeds you’ll destroy all my wheat. Let both of them grow until the harvest. And then we’ll figure it out.”
So, standing among the crowds, peaking over one another’s shoulders we think to ourselves, “Well dang o dang, that guy really is the Messiah! He speaks so clearly and elegantly about what his kingdom is all about. Let’s follow him.”
But before we have a chance to leave it all behind, someone nearby leans toward us and says, “Hey, I’d think twice before following that so-called Messiah. Did you really hear what he just said? ‘Let the weeds grow with the wheat’ thats the worst farming advice I’ve ever heard. What kind of king can this Jesus be if he doesn’t even know how to manage a garden?”
And, we realize, this stranger in the crowd has a point. The practice of not pulling out the weeds until the harvest is no way to run a farm. Such a lackadaisical approach to the agricultural conundrum only guarantees the choking out of all the good plants in addition to creating a bumper crop of unwanted weed seeds that will plague the field for generations.
Are we sure this is the Lord we want to worship?
Perhaps Jesus was just not as good of a farmer as he was a carpenter. After all, his advice about not building a house on sand is spot on. But his ideas about running a farm leave a lot to be desired.
In any case, this is one of the story he told to his disciples about what the kingdom of heaven is like.
The good seeds sown all across the property, the ones that will one day grow to bear grain, are those whose lives are the flowering of what has been sown but the Son of Man. Think of someone who embodies everything about what it means to be a good person, to be a good Christian. Someone who always goes out of their way to check on the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead. Someone who is logged in for online worship every week. Someone who gives 10% of their income back to God.
All that stuff.
They are the good seeds scattered everywhere.
And up until this point, all is well. But, like all good stories, well can turn to hell right quick.
The farmer’s enemy shows up in the middle of the night, while everyone is asleep, and sows weeds among the wheat.
Notice two things: First, everyone is in bed. They’ve already done their job as far as the crop is concerned. The work of the good seed is not threatened, but only inconvenienced, by the arrival of the enemy’s weeds.
Which leads to the second thing: If the enemy really wanted to mess things up for the farmer, why not do something a little more effective, a little more dramatic? The enemy could’ve lit the field on fire, or flooded it with water, or dug up all the good seeds to plant them in the enemy’s own field.
Instead, the enemy merely tosses in the seeds of weeds to make the job of the farmer a little harder.
Sadly, whenever we read this story or hear about it in church, we do so in such a way that it results in people like us making claims about how certain people need to be destroyed, removed, and obliterated, in order to shore up the kingdom.
Which is to say, we believe we have to use every tool at our disposal to stop the devil from showing up and dropping weeds into all the perfect things we have going on in our lives.
But, that’s not what Jesus does with this parable.
As I already noted, the weeds will not interfere with the growth of the wheat. The weeds are not a danger to the good seeds development but rather an inconvenience to the farmer and his servants.
And that’s what the parable is really all about.
The servants, those working for the farmer, the ones entrusted with the work in the field, the ones who wear things like this on Sunday mornings, are the ones who have the bright idea to take some immediate action against the undesirables in the field.
“Come on Jesus, I know you keep talking about the grand scope of your kingdom, but have you really thought about what might happen if you let all the riffraff in? Why don’t you let us go out in the world and get rid of all those weeds that keep ruining things for the rest of us?
The farmer, though, seems to have a radically different strategy: Let it be.
“That’s irresponsible!” We think to ourselves or have the gall to mention aloud. “Let it be? That’s a hippy Beatles driven response to the world! Surely Jesus would give us something better to do!”
And yet, throughout history, it’s precisely when we’ve taken those kind of actions into our hands, that the very worst of humanity has come to the surface.
Or, let me put it another way: The seeds sown here in the parable (ZIZANIA in Greek) is an annual grass weed that look an awful lot like wheat when it grows. Which is to say, it’s very difficult to tell them apart, let alone take one out without taking out the other.
The end of the parable, the farmer’s insistence that the servants cannot take out the weeds without damaging the wheat is a profound and challenging word for those of us convinced that we are responsible for fixing the world’s problems, that we can truly make the world a better place.
The desire for making the world a better place almost always makes the world worse.
For, all of our programs (and at time pogroms) designed to get rid of evil are doomed to do exactly what the farmer suggests will happen.
Because the servants, whoever they might be, are either too busy or confused or self righteous to recognize any real difference between good and evil and all they will ever accomplish is tearing out the wheat with the weeds.
What we good and well-meaning folk often forget, as good and as well-meaning as we think we are, is that there is no one who is categorically good just as there is no one who is categorically evil.
In a very real way we are all pretty messed up.
Or, to use Paul’s words, “For I know nothing good dwells within me, I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
I remember helping a church reinvent itself a number of years ago when I was in college. We wanted to create a list of beliefs and expectations for those who would join us. And, at first, it was simple stuff like, “We believe in the triune God” and “We confess Jesus as Lord.” But then it quickly turned to things like, “No hatred allowed” and “liars will be asked to leave” and “members must be present at least 3/4 of the Sundays in a year.”
Which, by the end, meant that no one was worthy of the church.
To connect it back to the parable, the only result of a truly dedicated campaign to rid the world of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody.
Does that mean we should just kick back, and let the world fall to pieces? The parable doesn’t imply that resistance to evil is wrong, only that its not effective in terms of salvation. We can introduce all sorts of programs to solve all the problems on earth. We can advocate for just wars, and capital punishment, and bigger and fuller jails of dirty rotten scoundrels.
But, as Christians, we can’t assume that any of those thing will “make the world a better place.”
We can take up the sword all we want, but we cannot forget that those who live by the sword die by the sword.
Just as with the parable of the Sower, the kingdom comes along automatically, despite the presence of weeds among the wheat. The weeds may not be real wheat, but if the servants go to the trouble of removing the less desirables, a truly horrific scene can unfold.
It was a new nation of so-called good people that brutally tortured, enslaved, and murdered entire generations of people all in the name of manifest destiny.
It was a democratically elected leader of the most advanced nation in the world, at the time, who ultimately brought about the execution of 6 million Jews.
I could go on and on.
And yet, behind the servants’ question is the question we all wrestle with, “What are we supposed to do?”
Looking out at the tragedies of the world we can’t help but wonder what we could possibly ever do to change anything in a meaningful way.
We can help ourselves from wondering, in spite of all the evidence of the past, that maybe the world would be better if we got rid of all the weeds.
“No,” Jesus says through the farmer, “Pull up evil and you’ll pull up goodness right along with it.”
And then comes the most remarkable and bewildering word in the whole parable: APHETE them to grow together. In our English translations it says, “Let both of them grow” but in Greek the word is APHETE and its the same word for forgiveness. It’s in the Lord’s Prayer we say every week. APHES us our trespasses as we APHEMEN those who trespass against us.
It is here, in the light of the farmer’s strange and divine forgiveness that the parable truly hits home: the malice, the evil, the badness that is manifest in the real world and in the real lives of real people is not to be dealt with by abolishing the things or persons in whom it dwells.
It can only be dealt with, with forgiveness – a recognition that even the best of us aren’t as great as we think we are.
But what if people keep screwing things up?
What is the enemy comes back the next year and sows even more weeds among the wheat?
Well, at least according to the farmer in Jesus’ parable, the enemy is free to come back and drop his weeds. And, on the basis of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God has announced the exact same thing.
No enemy, not the devil, not you, not me, and not anybody else, is outside the realm of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
If that sounds unbelievably radical, it is!
But remember, Jesus on the cross, in the moments immediately prior to his death, he doesn’t threaten his enemies, he forgives them.
APHES one more time.
That might not sit well with those of us suffering under the weight of the world, or those of us troubled by what we see on TV every night, but according to the mystery that is God’s kingdom, it is already here, sown, sprouting, and bearing fruit. And all the weeds of this world can’t do a thing about it.
We are hooked, downright addicted, to assuming that its all up to us. Give us just a small taste of the power that comes with making decisions about what is good and right and true and we’ll never be able to kick the habit. We delight in believing that we are the ones who get to settle scores here and now and yet, in the end, none of us could possibly make it in Jesus’ kingdom unless forgiveness reigns supreme.
Forgiveness, APHES, it’s no way to run a farm, but it’s the only way to run the kingdom. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matthew Husband about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 22.1-14, Psalm 13, Romans 6.12-23, Matthew 10.40-42). Matthew is an occupational therapist in Westerville, Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including canonical preaching, the Bible on a bumper sticker, sacrifices, foolish prayers, obedience to grace, singing the faith, baptismal protests, and memorable zingers. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Church Isn’t Full Of Hypocrites (There’s Always Room For More)
He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Look, the Bible is a strange thing.
And God is even stranger.
For, if you ever decide to lift it up and take a stroll through the strange new world of the Bible, its quickly clear that God does so many ungodly things – like not remembering our mistakes and transgressions, erasing the ledger against us, become sin for us.
The only safe way to come to scripture is by first realizing that we really have no idea what we’re doing.
Which is just another way of saying, God is God and we are not.
And this is perhaps no where better seen than in Jesus’ parables.
They are, without a doubt, some of the most well known bits of the Bible, though just because we know the stories it doesn’t mean we actually know them.
After all, they are told in such a way to destroy every preconceived notion about what we think we know about God such that, after hearing a particular parables, the only thing we can be sure of is that we know less than when it started.
Jesus is far more concerned with telling stories than explaining them.
GK Chesterton, country to how we so desperately want all things explained all the time, once opined that if you tell someone a story and they claim not to understand, tell them again. And, if they say they still don’t understand, give it to them a third time. But from there on, if they still insist they do not understand, the only thing left is to praise them for the one truth they seem to have a grip on: “Yes,” you say, “You are quite correct – you do not understand.”
And leave it at that.
If Jesus wanted things simple, and easy, and therefore accessibly presentable, he would’ve told his tales that way.
But he didn’t.
And not only did he come to preaching paradoxical parables, the gospel writer tell us that he endeavor to speak nothing except in parables!
This Kingdom of Jesus’, whatever think it might look like, is always far more mysterious than any of us can imagine.
Listen: When you buy a new lamp for your living room, do you hide it under the rug or leave it in the closet? Or, do you put it on that nice table next to the couch so it really lights up the room? Hidden things are brought to the surface and secrets are exposed.
Listen: The Kingdom of God is as if someone threw seeds onto the ground and then went to bed. Overnight, the seed produces of itself, and the person has no idea how it happens.
What in the world is Jesus cooking up here?
The lamp, the light that shines in the darkness, the Good News in a world drowning in bad news, is the Word that comes with the kingdom, namely Jesus. But unless that lamp is set up in such a way to spread light near and far, the light will never be seen.
Or, to push the parable in its profound direction, if we keep sweeping Jesus under the rug, if we hide him in the closet when no one is looking, if we stand Him on anything other that the story of a world turned upside down, then we really will be stuck in the darkness.
For, the kingdom Jesus embodies, inaugurates, and incarnates, is already here among us. We don’t have to sit around and wait for it, we don’t even have to work for it.
The best thing we can do, really the only thing we can do, is not make Jesus’ job any harder than it already is.
But, for some strange reason (lets call it sin), we believe its our job to do Jesus’ job.
I am bringing you today’s sermon from the midwest where my in-laws live. In fact, I am preaching from my mother-in-law’s art studio.
It took us a long time to drive our here, particularly with a four year old who wouldn’t stop asking the one question you’re not allowed to ask on road trips. And throughout our westward journey, I was confounded by how many theologically infused highway billboards coasted by our windshield.
Some were straight forward with promises of “A Friendly Church Atmosphere” 7 miles ahead at Exit 86.
Others displayed stock photo images of families with children of every ethnic and racial background under a church name just so the observers will know that no matter what they might be like, they can find other people like them at said church. Even though, statistically speaking, churches are some of the most segregated spaces in the country.
But the overwhelming majority of billboards were, to put it mildly, terrifying.
“STOP AND ACCEPT JESUS NOW OR SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES”
“DO YOU WANT TO BURN FOREVER? CALL THIS NUMBER…”
“AVOID ETERNAL PUNISHMENT WITH THREE SIMPLE WORDS: JESUS IS LORD.” That one was followed by three smiley face emojis.
Almost every churchy sign, with the exception of those with empty promises about welcoming, loving, and tolerating congregations, were predicated on making an action now to insure the future.
That future is what we in the church often call Heaven. And, to our wondering and wandering imaginations, Heaven is often filled with fluffy clouds and pipe cleaner halos, and a whole lot of boredom.
But in Scripture, the thing those signs portend to represent, Heaven is actually a whole lot more like earth. In fact, it is those two things wedded together – the predominant image Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of Heaven is a wedding feast that never stops, a party with food and drink that never ever ends.
And that kingdom, the kingdom of celebration, is what Jesus says is sown on the earth, lit like a lamp, and never to be hidden under a basket, or a rug, or in the closet.
Which is just another way of saying, Christianity is less about what happens when you die and more about what’s happening with and in the life you’ve been given.
The kingdom is already done, it is here, it cannot be taken away. It is a lamp set up on a lampstand shining bright for all to see. It dwells in us, among us, and for us. The person of Jesus Christ, kingdom incarnate, has already done for us that which we could not do for ourselves. That is the light in which we live.
And rather than just leaving it right there, Jesus continues with his penchant for parables and proceeds to give yet another illustration of the very points he’s been cooking together.
Consider the seed that grows without work on the part of the one who threw it to the ground. The kingdom is at hand, planted right here, at work in this world right now. Jesus is sown into all of this and brings about a new reality that shakes the foundations of everything we hold dear.
By his death and resurrection, Jesus, as God in the flesh, reconciles everything, everywhere, to himself. And at the end, when he makes all things new, he makes not just a new Heaven but a new earth, combined and mixed and stuck together forever.
That is God’s work in Christ, and it happens for us and in spite of us!
Notice: once the person in the parable sows the seed, nothing else is done. The sower goes to bed, wakes up and goes to the grocery store, maybe hits the gym for a quick workout, comes home to make dinner, and goes to bed again. That’s what happens day after day and night after night — all the while, the seed that is the kingdom sprouts and grows in a way that the person simply knows nothing about.
Jesus says the seed bears fruit of itself automatically. The kingdom has been sown into the world among sinners and saints, the best and the worst, the greatest and the least, the perfect and the pitiful, and it will come up a perfect kingdom all by itself.
It grows without any help, and when it’s ready in all of its ripeness, that’s when the sickle comes.
The harvest is made.
And, that sounds nice, but what about all the bad people? Do they get taken up in the harvest as well? What about the person who burned that bridge with us so long ago? What about the people on the news every night that make us clench our fists? What about those we clearly believe are outside the realm of Jesus’ kingdom?
But Jesus doesn’t make distinctions here. The kingdom is ready for harvest and that’s that.
And that might be the most confounding part of this paradoxical set of parables.
It is confounding to us because every one of us is an eschatology junkie – we are consumed by the idea that, in the end, in the eschaton, wrongs must be set right, that those who are evil must be kicked out of the intertwined new heaven and earth, and that the only way the Kingdom can ever come is if we separate the good from the bad, and the deserving form the undeserving, and the saints from the sinners.
Notice, in the kingdoms of earth, our favorite solutions to problems are knocking people down a peg or two, locking them up behind bars, and – if all else fails, getting them out of the game forever with the death penalty.
We set up systems (powers and principalities) all in the name of law and order, but in the end they keep the poor poor and the rich rich. They lift the mighty even higher, and bring the low even lower. They, to put it simply, make the world a better place by making it better for certain people and far worse for everyone else.
Remember: it was law and order that nailed Jesus to the cross – church and state working together for the common good to keep suppressed that which they disagreed with.
Which, isn’t too far of a stretch from how we’re still living.
To bring it full circle – we think its all up to us. We believe we have been so elected by God to be the great arbiters of morality and justice and goodness all while the world continues to go down the drain. We come up with all these “great ideas” on how to fix everything when, even if we do take a step forward, it doesn’t take long before we fall tumbling back.
The kingdom grows, Jesus tells us, because the kingdom has already been sown into the ground. It grows of itself in its own time and, above all, we don’t know how! Any and all the bright ideas we might have of making the world a better place, about how to fix everything we think is broken, how to make people more holy and faithful and good and honest and true, will always and everywhere fall short of what God in Christ has already done and is forever doing.
This has been proven again and again throughout history because if the kingdom could have been made to grow perfectly in this world by our own bright ideas, it would have sprouted up all over the place and there would never be anything bad on the news at night.
But it never did and it never will.
Except, except, in a mysterious way that will always be outside of our moralizing and addiction to knowing how everything should be happening.
We might be obsessed with the end as we see it, but Jesus, in this parable, reminds us that the end is in his hands, and so too is the present. The kingdom is already here, it is made manifest among and within people like us – it is happening and we know not how.
For a people hell bent on having explanations for everything, that’s bad news.
But for those who live in Jesus’ kingdom, there’s nothing better. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matthew Husband about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 21.8-21, Psalm 86.1-10, 16-17, Romans 6.1b-11, Matthew 10.24-39). Matthew is an occupational therapist in Westerville, Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including advice for pastors, Liturgy of the Ordinary, the practicality of the psalms, prayerful humiliation, dying to sin, abusing the Word, and The Size of the Problem. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hell No!
Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.
Listen: Jesus went for a walk by the sea, but there were so many people clamoring to see him, to catch a glimpse of the walking talking Messiah, that he had to get into a boat, and push off from the shore in order to address everyone.
And he said, “There was a guy with a bunch of seeds, and everywhere he went he tossed them all over the place. Some of the seeds feel on the open ground and the birds came and ate them. Some other seeds landed among the rocks where there wasn’t much soil and after they sprang up the sun scorched them away. Still yet some other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew and choked them out. Finally, some seeds fell on good soil and they brought forth grain, a whole lot of it. Let anyone you can hear me listen!”
The whole parable.
The disciples, rightly confused, confront the living Lord with a, “Um, JC, what’s going on?”
He then drops the hammer with, “Listen to me for a hot second you fools. I’m letting you in on the mystery, the hidden things, of the kingdom. But for the people on the outside, I’m giving it to them in parables.”
Which apparently wasn’t enough for the ragtag group of followers, so Jesus unpacks the parable of the Sower for his inner circle.
If anyone hears the Word, and doesn’t understand, the devil comes and snatches it up – this is what was sown on the path.
If anyone receives it with joy, but without roots, then it only lasts a little while and then they fall away.
If anyone hears it, but cares more about the world, then they will yield nothing.
If anyone hears it and trusts it, then they will produce a great yield of fruit.
Jesus’ explanation, as we often describe it, actually doesn’t reduce a complex story into something simple. Instead, it takes an already puzzling narrative and drives it in the direction of extremely difficult interpretations.
It’s one of those parables we preachers types might prefer if Jesus had just left it to dangle out there so we could put whatever spin we want on it.
But that’s not the way Jesus rolls.
More often that not, even though Jesus explains the parable we’re asked by people like me to imagine that Jesus is the divine sower, the seeds are his scriptures, and that we are those with the varying soils.
And maybe that’s true, Jesus’ own explanation trends in that direction, but it honestly doesn’t make much sense. After all, throughout the New Testament, the “Word of the Kingdom” doesn’t refer to a collection of texts that are often collecting dust on our respective bookshelves. The Word of the Kingdom is Jesus himself, the divine Word become incarnate in the world.
That might not seem like much, but it means that the Sower in Jesus’ story is God the Father. Jesus, then, since he is the Word, is the seed sown across creation. Which, in the end, means Jesus has already and literally been sown everywhere in the entirety of the cosmos without any cooperation or consent on the part of the soil.
Do we like that?
When we well-meaning Christians read from Jesus’ parables, we tend to read ourselves into the stories and believe their ultimately all about us.
But the parables aren’t about us, they’re about Jesus and the kingdom he came and comes to inaugurate.
And this kingdom is radically different from everything we think we know.
It’s a kingdom of grace – a kingdom of crucifixion, of scandal, of upside down understanding.
The central figure of the parables, if there is one at all, is the messianic madman who is the divine seed of forgiveness given away like its going out of style and who never stops going after the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead.
Jesus points to and is himself the mysterious kingdom, who comes to tell scandalous stories, die a scandalous death, and be raised again to fill all with his scandalous grace.
But, back to the Sower.
The Sower goes and scatters seeds everywhere, always, and for all.
No one, at any time or any place, no matter how good they are or bad they are, no matter how wrong or right they are, is left out of the scope of this agriculturally theological revolution. The differing soils are just that, different. They cover all people and there is no one to whom they do not apply.
And that’s scandalous.
Immediately we think something must surely be wrong here. Because, Jesus can’t really be for all, despite what all of our well-meaning church signs might say.
What about bad people?
What about people who don’t believe?
What about the people who just get on our nerves all the time?
Are we sure that we want to follow this Jesus guy who is so willing to give away the kingdom for nothing?
Right here, in his waxing lyrical, Jesus doesn’t sound quite like the smart and serious teacher setting the guidelines for his followers that we often imagine him to be.
Instead, Jesus sounds like someone who knows he just said something offensive and is determined to drive the point home again and again and again.
Even so, the Sower is also very mysterious. I mean, who does he think he is going around tossing seeds everywhere? Don’t we go to church to learn about how to be good, how to have the right kind of soil for Jesus?
Consider a seed – a seed is disproportionately tiny in comparison with it ultimately produces. Jesus is like a seed? Wouldn’t it be better if Jesus were like a thunderclap or a bolt of lightning?
A seed is only good and it can only do anything worth anything when its buried in the ground hidden from view.
Like Jesus buried in the tomb.
It’s only after its covered with dirt, only after its abandoned to its own fate, that the seed bears fruit.
Remember: Jesus as the seeded Word, is despised, rejected, abandoned, betrayed, and left in the ground. And yet, his entire overturning of the cosmos takes place like a seed – it happens in the dark, like a mystery, something that no one gets to witness.
And maybe you’re thinking, “That’s all good and fine, but what does it have to do with me? What about my soil? What am I supposed to do?”
Well, sorry to be the bearer of the best news of all, we don’t have to do much of anything.
Regardless of whatever kind of soil we might have, or we think we have, God is going to get what God wants.
Think about the seeds sown on the road, the seeds eaten by the birds. That sounds pretty terrible right? Jesus even says that the birds are like the devil coming in and snatching up the divine Word.
But do you know what happens when seeds get eaten by birds?
They’re deposited somewhere else, only this time with fertilizer, if you get what I’m saying.
The Word, like a seed, still works on its own terms and not at all by what we think we can do to it.
Think about the seeds sown in the other locations like the rocky ground, the thorns, or even the good soil – the seed does it’s job – it springs up!
The seed works whether or not it lands on the good soil.
We, however, almost always lean toward another, though not in the text, meaning. “Sure,” we say, “The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world.” But then we immediately jump into conversations about all the things people need to do to activate Jesus in their lives.
You’ve got to accept him as your Lord and Savior!
You’ve got to lays your sins up at the altar!
You’ve got to invite Jesus into your heart!
If that’s how it all works, if the onus is completely on us, then it’s simply unmitigated Bad News.
If our salvation is up to us, then the seed might as well not really have been sown in the first place.
Because, in the end, we can’t do much of anything to our soil – whatever form it might be.
Every week I stand in this place and I talk about how God gathers us together, how God proclaims God’s Word to us, and then we respond to it. The truth behind all that is our response, if it ever amounts to anything, pales in comparison to what God did, what God does, and what God will do.
And that’s the best news of all.
It’s Good News, really Good News, because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves can take us away from the Lord that refuses to let us go.
We can, of course, squirm and kick and complain and make things all the more messy. But if God really is the God of Scripture, the great divine Sower, then there is no way we will ever find ourselves anywhere other than being reconciled and forgiven over and over and over again.
Think about it – even the good soil, the best soil with all the right nutrients, does nothing to the seed for it to bear fruit. The soil simply receives the Word called Jesus, trusts it, and then fruit comes from it. It’s not that the good soil has the responsibility to make the right choices or the proper proclamations or maintain moral purity, rather the only thing the good soil has to do is make sure it gets out of the way of the seed doing its seed thing.
Or, to put it another way, we do respond to the good work done for us and to us and in us, but our only real response is to not screw it up, to not make Jesus’ job harder than it already is.
The seed is sown regardless of the soil it lands on. Which means the seed is not sown in order to force us into making better choices, or to punish us for all our bad choices. The seed is sown simply and yet powerfully to bear fruit among us, within us, for us, and often in spite of us.
In the end, the seed that is Christ is sown to bring us home, back to the Sower’s house, to be part of the grain that becomes the bread of life at the Supper of the Lamb.
Jesus gets what Jesus wants.
The only problem occurs when we get in his way.
And we sure love to get in His way.
Take, for instance, all the social media posts I’ve seen over the last few weeks, lambasting Christians for posting about “Black Lives Matter.” I had more than a few people assure me that the only proper and faithful and Christian response to the present (and longstanding) crisis is to affirm “All Lives Matter.”
But that’s, literally, getting in the way of Jesus.
You know, the Good Shepherd who, in another parable, leaves behind ALL the other sheep in order to go off after the one in danger, the one in need.
Or, consider all the countless pictures of white Jesus that are put up in homes and in sanctuaries. Those images that make white people like me feel comfortable knowing that my Savior is just like me.
That’s getting in the way of Jesus.
Jesus was a first century carpenter turned rabbi who spent his entire earthly life living in the Middle East! He didn’t look like me in the least.
Or, finally, think about all the people lamenting the riots and the protests for not witnessing to the practice of Christian non-violence. The whole, “Why can’t we all just get along?” And “This isn’t what Jesus would’ve wanted.”
Well, do you remember what happened to Jesus? He was nailed to a tree for the things he said, for rioting inside the temple and flipping tables over, and showing up for the people we otherwise would ignore.
We are blessed because Jesus continues to be sown all over creation, bearing fruit we couldn’t on our own.
We are blessed because Jesus won’t give up on us even when everything seems like he should.
We are blessed because, no matter what our soil looks like, Jesus delights in making something of our nothing. Amen.
But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us.
I, along with a few other pastors, have been leading a weekly online Bible study throughout the Pandemic. Each Wednesday afternoon we’ve gone through a particular set of verses and made the whole thing available to our respective congregations while we cannot gather together in-person.
I’ve loved every minute of it.
Talking about scripture with others has always been something I’ve enjoyed (hence being the whole pastor thing) but getting to talk about scripture with other pastors is a strangely rare occurrence. For, more often than not, clergy are tasked with talking about scripture to their church communities rather than with those who similarly feel called to do so.
Every week I’ve learned something from the Bible that I didn’t know before. This has been partly due to the fact that the pastors participating represent different denominations and therefore theological trainings and experiences. And I know that I am a better pastor for it.
Yesterday, we were talking about Matthew 9-10 and Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples to go out to proclaim the Good News. And, in the midst of our conversation, we got a little bogged down in our reflections on this particular verse: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
We, the pastors, took turns reflecting theologically about the time and space aspect of the proclamation, the event that is Jesus Christ, and how we might come to grips with the transformation wrought in the person we call the Lord.
And, here’s what I offered: “Being a Christian is often nothing more than hearing God say, ‘I will not abandon you,’ over and over again until you realize it’s true.”
The kingdom of heaven who is the person of Jesus Christ has come near to dwell among us, regardless and in spite of our earnings and deservings. While we were sinners Christ died for us – not before nor after. Right smack dab in the middle of our biggest mistake, Jesus said, “Okay, I’m willing to die for that.”
That’s a really bewildering word. Sometimes we only need to hear it once and it changes everything forever. But for others, it takes a lifetime of hearing it Sunday after Sunday before we realize its true.
I have friends who, after being married for a little while, decided to adopt a child. They went through all the proper channels and eventually traveled to Guatemala where they met G who was 15 months old. They returned home with him and their lives were properly upended with all the responsibilities that come with parenting.
A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, my friends received a phone call from the lawyer who helped them find their son. The lawyer shared that there was a family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named A, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer wanted to know if my friend were interested in adopting another son.
However, the lawyer explained, this 5 year old was allegedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to be rid of him after all, and he didn’t speak any English.
My friends said yes.
Those two boys are now about to enter high school and make plans for life after high school, respectively. They are some of the most incredible young men I’ve ever had the privilege to call friends, and my life is better for them being in it.
But I know it wasn’t easy for my friends, their parents.
In the beginning, right after A arrived, they had to sleep with him in his bed for months, all in the hopes that he would understand that they wouldn’t abandon him. Night after night they would whisper in his ear “We’re not leaving,” and “We love you,” and “This is your home.” They believed in what they were do so that we would one day realize that no matter what he did, no matter har far he fell, there was nothing he could ever do that would separate their love for him.
It took a very long time, but for a five year old Guatemalan boy who had been passed from family to family, it was the only way for him to understand what their love, what love at all, looked like.
And that’s exactly what God’s love looks like for us.
It’s a reckless and confounding divine desire to remain steadfast even when we won’t.
It’s the forgiveness offered before an action is committed.
It is what we in the church call the Gospel.
Just like my friends cradling their son in their arms night after night, God will never let us go. And that is Good News.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 18.1-15, Psalm 116.1-2, 12-19, Romans 5.1-8, Matthew 9.35-10.8). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA and is one of the co-hosts of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including protesting in sacred places, better Trinitarian texts, laughing in church, impossible possibility, limitlessness, craziness in the pews, transactional theology, and communities without communion. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hold My Beer
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’”
Stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end.
Stories are supposed to easily teach us something about ourselves we didn’t know until the story told us who we are.
Stories are supposed to be approachable, repeatable, and memorable.
Jesus’ stories, we call them parables, are certainly memorable – but not for the right reasons. Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus said nothing except in parables.
And, the more we enter the strange new world of the Bible, the more we realize that Jesus himself was a parable – the storyteller become the story.
We often forget, in the ivory towers of our own design, that Jesus was killed for telling the kind of stories he told. Most of them are wildly unfair, they raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty, they give the whole kingdom away for nothing, and mostly, they make us uncomfortable.
If he were a better story teller, the stories would’ve made a little more sense, people would’ve walked away knowing exactly what he was trying to say, and certainly no one would’ve killed him for them.
But they did.
Most sermons, not stories, do their best to explain something. They take a particular text, wave it around for awhile, and then in the end declare, “Hear now the meaning of the scripture… this is how you can apply it to you daily life…”
But Jesus, you know the Lord, rarely explains anything.
Instead, he tells stories.
That Jesus speaks in parables is a reminder that he desired not to explain things to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings.
In other words, Jesus’ parables are designed to pop every circuit breaker in the minds of the listeners.
Up until this point in the gospel story, that is, up until he tells the watershed parable of the sower, Jesus has been pretty content with walking and talking and healing and doing whatever went against the grain of what people were expecting. They had their own ideas about what the Messiah would do, and Jesus didn’t give a flip about what they were hoping for.
And it was pretty low key until this parable, because from this point forward, Jesus cranks it up to eleven.
It’s as if, having done the whole ministry thing for awhile, he says to himself, “They haven’t understood much of this kingdom stuff, so I might as well capitalize on it. Maybe I should starting thinking up particular examples of how profoundly the true messianic kingdom differs from what the people are looking for.”
Listen: Jesus went for a walk by the sea, but there were so many people clamoring to see him, to catch a glimpse of the walking talking Messiah, that he had to get into a boat, and push off from the shore in order to address everyone. And he said, “There was a guy with a bunch of seeds, and everywhere he went he tossed them all over the place. Some of the seeds feel on the open ground and the birds came and ate them. Some other seeds landed among the rocks where there wasn’t much soil and after they sprang up the sun scorched them away. Still yet some other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew and choked them out. Finally, some seeds fell on good soil and they brought forth grain, a whole lot of it. Let anyone you can hear me listen!”
The whole parable.
Just about every sermon I’ve ever read or heard on the parable of the sower retells the story, as I just did, and then asks people to consider what kind of soil they think they have. Which implies the preacher believes he or she knows exactly what Jesus is up to with this one. Moreover, they make it out as if, had they been there, they would’ve known what it all really means.
The truth of the matter, however, is that if any of us had been part of the original Jesus crew, we would’ve walked away scratching our heads.
It’s no wonder, then, that the disciples’ reactions was one of, “Um.. JC, are you alright? You’re talking in parables again, and we can’t understand what you’re trying to say, and frankly, some of us are getting a little uncomfortable?”
“Hey,” Jesus says, “Listen to me for a hot second. I’m letting you in on the mystery, the hidden things, of the kingdom. But for the people on the outside, I’m giving it to them in parables.”
And we, if we were those disciples, want to say, “Jesus. That don’t make no sense.”
His response about the hiddenness of the kingdom, about certain things being weird and uncomfortable, it’s like Jesus is saying, “Okay, if you can get it through your thick skulls that my kingdom works in a mystery, you will have more understanding. But if you don’t get that, if you can’t handle the weirdness and the discomfort and not knowing every little thing, then none of it will ever make a bean’s worth of sense.”
There’s a way to take all of this as if Jesus is telling us we better get shaped up with our understanding of God or he’s going to zap us into oblivion. Or, to use the language of the parables, we better get our soil in order lest we run the risk of the seeds get stolen, scorched, or suffocated.
We, then, could hold a story like this one over the heads of Christians and non-Christians alike until they shape up how we want them to.
We could even employ this parable as the means by which we determine who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside.
But, that’s not what Jesus does.
Jesus sees the obtuseness all around him.
He witness the unlikelihood that anyone will ever get a glimmer of the mystery, let a lone a grip on it.
Hence he ends here by saying, “Seeing, they do not perceive, and listening they do not understand.”
Now, I know some of you have looked ahead of the scripture reading and noted that Jesus then goes straight into explaining the parable, but we’ll get there next week.
For now, I want us to rest in the discomfort of not having all the answers, of seeing without perceiving and listening without understanding.
There’s a summer camp outside of Boston in which, every summer, students are bussed in to confront the complications of race.
On the first night, the students are asked to separate into their respective races to discuss how they have experienced their own race with others of similar situations.
The Latinx kids go into one room, the Black kids in other, there’s a room for the Asian kids, and finally one last room for the White kids.
For many of the students, the sharing on that first night is radically life-changing. For many of them, it’s the first opportunity they’ve had to share what its like to be viewed by others through a racial lens, what’s its like to have a prejudice dictate who they are, what it’s like to not be like everyone else.
The counselors then bring all the students back into one group, and each of the races are given a chance to stand in front of everyone else and share their truth. One by one they lift up how horribly they’ve been treated, or what they really want people to know about them, or how much it hurts to hear certain slurs.
Last summer, there was only one white student who attended the camp. With each passing year, the truths spoken to White about the white-ness has resulted in less and less white people attending. But there was one young white woman there, and when she stood in front of the entire camp she said, “I want to continuously challenge white supremacy in white spaces, and that will be uncomfortable for me. But I want to be uncomfortable; I am willing to give up my comfort.”
Later, the black students stood and proclaimed their truth.
“Stop touching my hair just because you don’t know what it feels like.”
“We deserve to be paid the same as white people.”
“Just because you say you have black friends doesn’t mean you’re not racist.”
But there was one black girl on stage who couldn’t stop thinking about what the young white girl had said. And so, when it was her turn to speak she said, “When white people talk about what they’re ‘willing to give up’ it implies that they are fine sharing a little bit of what they have but they’re going to be fine. It’s not about what you’re willing to give up, it’s what you have to give up. You have to really be uncomfortable. You have to give up what you think belongs to you simply because of the way you look.”
The young white girl immediately started crying and left the room.
A counselor went after her, consoled her, explained that it can’t easy being the only white person in the room, and the girl looked up and said, “Yeah, but this is how people of color feel every day. I guess you really do learn the most when you’re uncomfortable.”
So much of what Christianity, what the church, has become is focused on making people comfortable; how to tell people about Jesus without ever stepping on any toes.
The fire of Pentecost, the one that sent the disciples tumbling into the streets can be found more in our national protests than in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings.
Parables are supposed to make us uncomfortable. Whether our soil is rocky, thorny, or barren.
Hear the Good News: The Sower never stops sowing. The Sower doesn’t stop to take stock of the condition of our condition before offering the grace we so desperately need. The Sower just keeps throwing it all over the place until something comes of our nothing.
Remember: When Mary encountered Jesus at the empty tomb she mistook him for the gardener. And what do good gardeners do? They till the soil, they weed out the thorns, they remove the rocks, they do whatever it takes to make the best soil possible.
And that work is uncomfortable.
We, in spite of all our good works, have shut our eyes and closed our ears. We’ve settled for milk toast sermons and milk toast churches. We like hearing about the kingdom so long as it doesn’t require anything for us.
It’s like we’re wandering around deaf and blind.
Fortunately for us, Jesus likes nothing better than healing the blind and opening the ears of the deaf.
We disciples of Jesus may not be that brightest candles in the box, but at least we know a true story when we hear one.
In this story of a reckless Sower we are reminded, yet again, that God is not removed in some far off place content to leave us to our own devices. God’s kingdom is happening, it’s happening right now! Open your eyes! Open your ears!
And here’s the best news of all: Even if we refuse to see and hear, Jesus is gonna open our eyes and ears anyway.
And it’s probably going to be uncomfortable. Amen.