As we come to today’s text, we find Jesus teaching in parables. I will be preaching from Matthew for the rest of the year, until Advent. And many of the texts will be Jesus’ parables. So, I want to remind you a bit about parables. If we have been Christian all our lives, we have heard the parables over and over again. We’ve heard many different preachers preach about them; we’ve studied them in Sunday school class; we’ve read them as we have studied the Bible on our own. They are familiar to us. And in their familiarity, they lose their power.
Jesus used parables to describe the holy. He used the ordinary things of life: a man planting a field, a woman looking for a lost coin, a traveler on the road to tell us something about God’s kingdom, something so extraordinary it is hard to imagine. But, Jesus’ parables are not simply illustrations. They are not one-to-one correspondences with the kingdom. They hint at more, so much more. The parables can be seen in different lights, turning from one angle to another so that we can glimpse something we haven’t seen before. In some ways, it’s like looking at an old master painting. You can travel to Europe, enter one of the old museums, say the Hermitage in St Petersburg. You can go and look at Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. You could say, “OK, I’ve seen that one and check it off your list.” Or, you could like Henri Nouwen did and described in his book “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, go after years of longing to see the picture and sit before the painting for hours, lost in the beauty of the painting, lost in the meaning that Rembrandt conveyed in painting it, lost in the insight the painting gives to the parable. You could return, as Nouwen did, to sit before it and meditate both on the painting and the parable. You could explore the layers of meaning in the painting and the parable and in the artist’s life as Nouwen did.
Parables are multivalent: they have multiple meanings. Jesus also used his parables to knock his listeners out of their easy assumptions about the world. Most of the parables make no sense in the “real world”. What woman would spent an entire day searching for a coin when she has children to feed, gardens to tend, water to fetch? What sower would nilly willy scatter seed in places where he knew it was unlikely to take root, sprout, grow and come to harvest? Parables are like that old favorite chair you have had recovered. The upholsterer put new foam cushions in, maybe the that fancy foam that senses heat and wraps around your body. You sit in that familiar old chair with the soft, enveloping cushions feeling safe and comfortable then suddenly a spring pops out and the end pokes you and your comfortable seat becomes mighty uncomfortable. Our familiar parables should be like that spring: something in the parable should poke us and make us mighty uncomfortable.
Jesus explained this particular parable in terms of the individual hearers, if their hearts were receptive, if the soil were good, then the word of God’s kingdom would grow strong in their hearts and bear fruit. Good soil is important to how the message of the gospel will be received. Good soil doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t just appear. Oh, there is some soil that is better than other soil. The rich, black loam of the Mississippi Delta is so much more fertile than the hard red clay of the part of North Carolina that I grew up in. But, left alone, that rich black Mississippi loam can become full of choking weeds. And with proper care that hard red North Carolina clay can become good soil.
When I was in Michigan, about half the congregation were farmers. They would spend the winter, when they weren’t working in their second and third jobs, pouring over their records from the previous year: what had the yield been? What fertilizer had they used? They would glean information and then make decisions about this year’s planting: would they put more land into seed corn or soybeans? Would they change the brand of seed? Perhaps a different variety? Maybe Monsanto has come out with a seed that is resistant to a particular disease.
As the weather warmed, they would go out into the fields. Bending down, they would pick up a clump of soil and hold it in their fist and let it go. They were testing both the warmth of the soil and the amount of moisture to see if the time had come to plant. If it was, then they’d plow under the remains of last year’s crop, dress the soil, adding nutrients that the corn or soy would need. Then, they would plant the seed.
Christians need good soil to grow in. Congregations provide that soil. Jesus did not work by himself. He had a group of twelve whom he taught and who he sent out to spread the news of the kingdom. When the Holy Spirit initiated the church at Pentecost, it was not a band of solitary mystics, but a community of believers that carried on Christ’s work. A community of believers is essential to Christians. We do not follow Christ by ourselves. We follow Christ in a community of believers as the body of Christ. At the same time we are growing in the soil others have prepared for us, we are preparing good, fertile soil for others.
A community of believers preparing good soil devotes itself to three things: being in prayer, being in the Word, and being in the World. Intrinsic to each of those beings is listening. We are not in prayer if we merely recite our list of wishes. Prayer is listening to what the Spirit may be saying to us in the quiet times. Being in the Word is not simply acquiring the Word; it is not memorizing verses so we can repeat specific verses at particular times. Being in the word is struggling to understand what the word meant in its historical context, in its literary context, what the word meant to those who heard it originally and through the ages. Being in the word is more, it is struggling to hear what God is saying to us today. Being in the word is listening for God speaking to us. Being in the world is not simply doing good deeds or being nice. Being in the world is taking what we have heard God say to us in prayer and in the world and responding to God’s words to us. Being in the world requires us to listen to the world: where are the hurts that need healing? Where are those who need a drink of water? Where are those who need food, physical food and spiritual food? Where are those in prison? Where are those who need liberation? Not just chains of poverty and ignorance, but chains of materialism, greed, perfectionism, addiction?
While individual Christians need to pray, study scripture and carry the word into the world, we do not do this by ourselves. We do this in community, as a community of believers. We need a community of believers to listen to, to learn from. We need a community of believers to support us as God transforms us into the people God is calling us to be. That transformation is not easy. We cannot become the people God is calling us to be on our own. We need people who will hold us accountable. We need people who will cry with us when we cry and celebrate with us when we celebrate. We need people who will help us think about how God is working in our lives and in the life of this congregation. Throughout the Bible, God calls people together to be in community with each other. When God called Abraham and Sarah, God’s intention was to create a nation, a community of people called together to live together as God’s people. Even Paul, whom we often think of as a solitary traveler spreading the gospel was not. He traveled with companions. He lived with believers in the towns he visited. His letters bear greetings to those who loved and supported him. Even Paul was not alone.
Some churches think of themselves as a community of believers, but they are not. Some churches are fellowships. They get together because they like one another. They come together for the social ties, for the fellowship they have with one another. Now, fellowship with other members of the body of Christ is important, but if it is the most important reason for coming together, then though a group of people may call itself a church it is not.
Some churches call themselves family. They care for each other, they love each other. Elizabeth Magill in the summer 2007 issue of Congregations, says
For Bethany, our metaphor was one found in many small congregations: “We are a family.” We take care of each other. Our relationships extend beyond Sunday morning. As “brothers and sisters” in Christ, we try, and sometimes succeed, in holding each other, especially in times of crisis. Churches that focus on their life as “family of God” can be healthy, but the metaphor creates some traps for congregations trying to change.
In the face of change, congregations easily pick up family-like dysfunctions: triangulating complaints, maintaining a false peace, and deferring decisions until the matriarch or patriarch has spoken. “Family” churches require a waiting period before new ideas are “adopted”; new members must wait for the matriarch and all the aunts to give the okay. The language and work of turnaround is about change, and change has a hard time finding a place in communities that use the family metaphor.
Another problem with the metaphor of “family” is that family feels comfortable. Family can be self focused: we are concerned about ourselves, our survival, our food, our comfort. Christ calls us outside of ourselves: we are called to love God and love others: all others.
The church is the body of Christ. What is important is the fruit we bring forth. And so I ask you to carefully consider what sort of soil is this church, this congregation? Are we fruitful, bringing forth a harvest of one hundredfold, of sixty? Of even thirty? Or are we like the people Jesus describes: “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’ “
Are we in denial about where we are as a congregation? A reminds me of the month I spent in denial about my cancer. She says I wasn’t listening. I remind her that I was listening, but I was only hearing what I wanted to hear: “borderline tumor”, “highly differentiated”. “Don’t call the surgeon’s office to find out about the pathology report.” And for two weeks after hearing the pathology report, I was still in denial. In some part, I believe that period of denial was healthy for me. It allowed me time to recover strength from two surgeries, one that split my gut from top to bottom. When I began to come out of denial, to face reality, I was in a community that loved and supported me.
Continuing in denial is not healthy. We all know folks who have symptoms of cancer. Perhaps it’s lung cancer. They’ve been smokers all their lives and now their cough is getting worse. They are coughing up blood. They are tired all the time and losing weight. And they refuse to see a doctor. They would rather die than admit they are going to die. They refuse help that might save them because they refuse to admit they could be ill, seriously ill. I want to ask, are we as a congregation in denial about who we are? Have our hearts grown dull, our ears hard of hearing, our eyes shut? Where are our fruits?
One way to measure fruits are membership. Look around, what do you see? I don’t believe that a church that is growing in numbers of members is necessarily a fruitful church. After, the biggest predictor of church growth is location. If the church is located in an area that is experiencing growth, it will grow. And I do believe a small church can be fruitful. Size is not the issue, but it is a sign of fruitfulness. We certainly can point to other fruits. You’ve just seen the youth report on their mission trip. We will install a new preschool director with lots of ideas for reaching out in the community. I believe though that our fruitfulness is declining. I believe it is declining because we are not taking care of the soil. We are letting weeds encroach on the soil. Rocks are appearing in the soil and we aren’t removing them. The soil is hardening from not being cultivated. What once was fertile, fruitful soil is wasting away.
I believe we need to come out of our denial. I believe we need to focus on the things that make us a community of believers, not a family, not a fellowship. I believe we need to pray together as a community, to listen to what God is saying to us as a community. I believe we need to be in the Word together as a community, to listen to what God is saying to us as a community. I believe that we need to be in the world and to listen as a community to what God is saying to us in the world.
Beginning on the first Wednesday in September at 9 am and on each succeeding Wednesday, I will be praying in the parlor, listening for what God is saying to us. I invite you to join me. If the time doesn’t work for you and you want to be part of a praying community, let me know and we can find another time. Sometime beginning in September, I will lead a Bible study. I know many of you are in the Sunday morning Loyalty class. The Loyalty class is important in helping to understand the meaning of the scripture, particularly in its historical context. That understanding is basic to listening to God. The Bible study I intend to lead is one where we use the scripture to listen to God through the word and through what God may be saying to each one of us. We will take Mark’s gospel and read through it slowing and carefully. All you will need is your Bible. On Tuesday mornings you will find me at Manna House, a hospitality center for homeless people. I invite you to join me there. I hope you will consider tutoring at Hanley. I am doing this not simply because these are the things I believe we as a congregation need to do to be faithful Christians, but because they are things I need to be a faithful Christian. I need to be in a community of believers that is in prayer, listening to the spirit, that is in the word, listening to the spirit and that is in the world, listening to the spirit.