Sermon for July 13, 2014: Inside Out
When I was a child, I used to watch a show called, “The Magic Garden.” It had all of the standard props found on educational television of the time period – moving trees, talking puppets, happy hosts, and very catchy folk music. “The Magic Garden” was more about developing creativity and honoring imagination than learning letters and numbers and, in keeping with its purpose of not “overstimulating young children’s developing brains” had a very loose – and a little psychedelic – structure. But one of things that Magic Garden was very clear about was that everyone was welcome to tune in to it. “Me and you, you and me, one big family,” they sang, “Come and see our garden grow…We’d like to share it all with you.” It may have been educational TV light, but it was happy and welcoming – which, if you think about it, is one way to describe some versions of church.
That’s not entirely a bad thing. The truth is that it is part of human nature to “space out” on occasion – to take a break from the cares and concerns of the world and let our minds go blank – and it can be just as easy to do that during church as anywhere else – sometimes easier. And, truthfully, we’d rather have you and your wandering mind here than at home with the Kardashians. Because God makes himself known in many ways and is happy to work with whatever canvas you provide. For me, sometimes simply sitting in a sacred place and letting my mind wander can put me in the presence of God. Being among people I love, who love me and who love God – even when we’re talking about Cal football or Red Sox baseball – is still church. And the richness and beauty of traditional liturgical ritual is to me a constant reminder of Christ’s love– even when I’m not fully paying attention to it. So, maybe it’s okay to do a little spacing out in church.
I’m not actually worried about that kind of spacing out – but I’m very worried about the kind of spacing out that happens when people believe that because they go to church, or follow the party line of a specific religion, or read and memorize certain bible passages, they have the market on being a “good Christian.” I’m talking about the kind of spacing out that allows you to forget why you came to church in the first place – the kind of spacing out that allows you to stop thinking about what being a Christian means – the kind of spacing out that allows you to forget that it is God who decides what is right and what is wrong. I’m talking about the kind of spacing out that leads to keeping out.
Early Christian commentators on the book of Isaiah have called this kind of spacing out “hardening” after the way in which Isaiah described how the people responded to him when he spread God’s word – how they hardened their hearts against it. These writers developed a theory about this “hardening” and used it to explain why scripture said that Isaiah was commissioned by God to increase the stubbornness of people refusing to believe in God’s will. They proposed that Isaiah’s prophecy was a litmus test designed to identify the “remnant” of true believers – and some scholars believe that when writers of the gospels of Mark and Matthew adopted this view. They suggested that when the gospel writers infer that Jesus told parables that people couldn’t readily understand on purpose in order to sort out his true disciples from the uncomprehending masses, they were implying that the same “hardening theory” could be applied to Jesus.
Today’s gospel gives us an example of just such an occasion. The parable of the sower is one of the most familiar –and seemingly straightforward – of Jesus’ parables. Jesus addresses an enormous crowd, telling them a story about a planter who sows seeds that experience different fates depending on where they land – some are eaten, some grow quickly but then die just as quickly, some are choked by thorns, and some became a bountiful crop.
Jesus’ tale is presented as an allegory, and is followed by an explanation of its meaning. Except, as you may have noticed, the interpretation doesn’t immediately follow the story. There are an additional eight verses of text between the parable and its analysis. And those verses are important if you want to understand what the gospel writer was up to. In that section, the disciples ask Jesus why he’s always talking in riddles. Why, they wonder, doesn’t he just say what he means? And this is the answer Jesus gives: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given…This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive…lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’” The author of Matthew is trying to draw a parallel to the prophet Isaiah. He is implying that in Jesus’ time, just as in Isaiah’s, it is God’s will that some people will harden their hearts against him so that they cannot be saved. In other words, the disciples who get it are “in,” and everyone else is out.
Except this explanation doesn’t sound anything like the Jesus we know. The Jesus we know would never tell us that it is our life circumstances and how we deal with them– or whether we understand the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and of God’s will, that determines whether we will be saved. The Jesus we know repeatedly tells us that salvation is for everyone. The Jesus we know taught that God’s will is for all of us to be saved – and that God’s will is already done.
But Jesus’ entire explanation of the parable – the verses that have given us our traditional understanding that the four kinds of seeds are four kinds of people and that three of those kinds of people will, like the seeds that represent them, fall by the wayside – seems to say the opposite. Jesus’ interpretation of the parable sounds exactly like he is endorsing the deliberate hardening of people against God’s will – the weeding out of the masses. Does this represent a change in his teaching? Is Jesus telling us that if we fail his litmus test – if we are “bad seeds” – we will not be saved?
Biblical scholars say “no.” They tell us that inconsistencies in the writing style in this section of the gospel indicate that the parts of the parable that quote Isaiah, as well as the meaning of the parable provided by the gospel writer, were not part of Jesus’ original allegory. They believe that the interpretation of the story attributed to Jesus were added to the passage by Matthew to help him deal with a source of division in his own community. He was trying to unify a Jewish Christian community and many of his followers wanted to know why their fellow Jews were not drawn to Jesus’ teachings. Matthew uses this story to answer their concerns – and he puts words in Jesus’ mouth in order to do so. Matthew tells them that the fact that so many members of their community aren’t joining them is not a sign that their faith is misplaced. He has Jesus explain that it’s because most people aren’t smart and righteous enough to get it. Most people are “bad seeds.” But they – Matthew’s followers – do get it. They are “in.”
And that is what many preachers – many churches – many Christians still insist. If you want to be a Christian, you have to be the “good seed.” You have to get it. You have to be “in.” But the true meaning of the gospel is much simpler – and much more consistent with the Jesus we know. The story that Jesus tells is about a sower who generously (and somewhat haphazardly) spreads a great number of seeds and, despite losing three-quarters of them, still reaps a harvest beyond what his audience could imagine. His emphasis is not on the seeds that are lost, but on the seeds that yield that amazing harvest. By recognizing that many of these seeds – most of these seeds – experience troubles and sorrows and losses he is acknowledging that his people will experience opposition. They will be afraid and lose faith. They may be sidetracked by the cares of the world. And then he affirms what he has told his disciples again and again and again – that there is no doubt that the harvest will ultimately be plentiful, because God’s work is always accomplished. Isaiah knows this. He tells us that God says that when his word “goes forth from [his] mouth, it will not return… empty, but it shall accomplish” what he desires. And what he desires is that the harvest will be plentiful –even if we are sometimes overcome by evil, or fear, or greed – because there are many seeds and when some are overcome, others will flourish – and the harvest – the sure harvest that is the community of Christ – will be greater than we can ever imagine.
We are not expected to be “the good seed.” That is why St. Paul tells us that we are no longer bound to laws which are impossible for us to uphold. Just like so many of the seeds on the path, we are subject to conditions we cannot hope to survive on our own. The good news, Paul says, is that we don’t have to. Jesus has transcended human weakness and Jesus’ spirit is in us. And, perhaps more importantly, that spirit is in whoever accepts it. The spirit of Jesus is in those who believe – not just in those who claim to understand scripture – not just in those who offer prescriptions for “Christian values” – not just in those who go to church.
The spirit of Jesus doesn’t have “in” or “out” groups. The spirit of Jesus is “in” us and it is the only thing that we need to be tuned in to, because the harvest of God is the true Magic Garden – and it is a harvest of welcome and joy and peace. And it is plentiful indeed. AMEN.
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