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The Unexpected Harvest

Sermon - 7/10/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 13:1-9

Here is a story told by Jesus, one of the parables that is found, this one in chapter 13 of Matthew's gospel, verses 1 through 9:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’’

There are a total of just 29 parables in the Gospels, when you eliminate the duplicates found in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. There aren't any in John. It's the primary tool that Jesus used to teach about the kingdom of God. Matthew even says later in this chapter "Jesus told the crowds all these things and parables. Without parables, he told them nothing". That may be a little bit overstated, we know for instance in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus taught without parables, but still if you had nothing but those 29 parables, you would have quite a bit.

Some of the parables are much shorter, like the story of the mustard seed--little tiny seed that becomes huge, spreads throughout everywhere. Some stories are much longer, the story of the prodigal son. But if you strung them all together, told them out loud one after the other, it would take less than 30 minutes. Yet that have produced an enormous volume of material -- this is just one book I cite as an example, written just on the parables, by Brandon Scott, who is a Disciple, one of our professors, teaches that Phillips Seminary, was my sister's professor. And just his first chapter on the definition of a parable, is about 10 times as long as all the parables combined!

And that's just because theologians, seminary professors, are very wordy :) Be that as it may, it's a way of acknowledging the depth and the power of the few words chosen by Jesus to tell these brief short stories. And one reason they are so powerful and carry such an impact is precisely because they are good stories. Like any good story, they say much more than the sum of the words. Scott, the author of that book, defines a parable as narrative fictions that reference a symbol. In other words, they are stories that Jesus made up that point to something else. They can be about real things, like a sower and seeds, but they do not describe actual historical events even as they do describe actual spiritual reality.

There was no particular prodigal son who squandered his father's wealth. There was no one single good Samaritan that helped that man beaten along the road. But there are many prodigal sons and daughters, many good Samaritans. Good stories like those told by Jesus are themselves powerful events. They evoke within us reactions -- we may laugh, we may be moved to tears, we may be filled with anger.

We know Harry Potter isn't real -- right? Sorry to reveal that :) One last movie to go, and he tells me it's not real?! But we are caught up in all the emotions of that story. I have a sister, you just mention Old Yeller and she breaks out crying. The movie is what, 50 years old. We clap to bring Tinkerbelle back to life. We cringe with Frodo beholding the eye of Mordor.

John Dominic Crossan says the goal of Jesus in telling a parable was not to make a good point, or to make us feel good or bad, rather Jesus is seeking "to help others into their own experience of the kingdom. And to draw from that experience their own way of life". That's what a parable does.

And when you experience that kingdom, when you get a glimpse of the glory of God, it impacts you. These are powerful stories about powerful realities. The second reason why parables are powerful is precisely because they are symbolic of greater spiritual truths. In this case, the parables told by Jesus are about a particular spiritual truth concerning the kingdom of God. The character of that kingdom of God that is available to us, now, in this life, in this world.

Scott, the author of that book, says "Parables are handles on the symbol of the kingdom of God; by means of parable one penetrates into the mystery of the kingdom".

And because the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven as it's called in Matthew's Gospel, often is falsely associated with a spiritual reality that is apart from this world, be it the afterlife, be it something outside of earthly existence, be it a future world supposedly after God destroys this one, whatever the case would be, I would be remiss if I did not point out to you that in the parables of Jesus there is almost a complete lack of reference to such concepts. And an overwhelming reference to how we live in this world -- that's what they're about.

And as I noted Friday at the City Club of Eugene, when I was given an opportunity to explain why I have stuck out my neck a time or two for various things in our community, I said that it can all be summed up in my understanding of what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. Which has nothing to do with the next life and everything to do with this one.

The whole concept of a holy Kingdom, I told the Club, is in that original context of ancient empires that was simply a shorthand for a vision of a utopian world that was a direct challenge to the empire of the first century, just as much as the empire of the 21st century. Everything I do is guided by that vision, a vision of a world in which every person is valued as a child of God, a a world where all people are treated with dignity and respect, a world in which we who are privileged use our status and ability to create a society where no child is without a complete education, no person is without adequate housing, and no family is without full health care.

If you want to hear the rest of that message, it will be broadcast Monday night on KLCC, and will be on cable TV channel 201 Thursday night at six.

One more note about the nature of parables. They're often interpreted as allegories, as this parable is later on in Chapter 13. And allegory is a story in which each element represents something else. And so we are told how each seed represents how people hear and respond to the message of the kingdom. But that's only one way that one can interpret the story. Is it the only way? No. Is it even the primary way Jesus intended it to be interpreted?

Scott, and many other scholars like him, believe that allegorical interpretation given later in the chapter, in fact reflects the later situation of the church, and it explains why that message was rejected in many places. Paul went to Athens, preached in Athens, his seeded fell on rocky ground. But in a place like Corinth, they ate it up, it was very productive. And therefore that allegorical interpretation, even though it's on the lips of Jesus, is actually the experience of the Church later on, that then gets written back into the story.

In his preface to the Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien says it very well. He says: "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and weary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned [and you see, a parable is feigned history], with it's varied applicability to the thought and experience of the readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader [that's applicability] and the other in the purposed domination of the author [allegory]".

And in the last hundred years or so, Biblical scholars have come to the realization that the parables of Jesus cannot be restricted to this kind of narrow interpretation that Tolkien describes for allegory. And in fact that the power of the parables resides in the experience of the listener, with the reader, as they apply the lesson of that parable to their own experience.

So it turns out that parable, like good poetry, art, or music, cannot be contained within a single interpretation. Rather, it evokes within the observer a response that cannot be predicted, controlled, or manipulated by the author. It is in that freedom of the response that the magic happens, if you will. Call it a miracle, call it mystery, call it wonder, call it grace. It is when, and where, the transcendent occurs, and we are caught up into that realm of the spirit, we are given a glimpse of the divine, that that wonderful thing happens through the story.

In this story, told by Jesus, we might identify with the sower -- casting our seeds, and when we do that we get one message about how some of our efforts yield no results, and some of our efforts are very fruitful. We've all had those kinds of experiences. We might identify with the seed, sometimes when the ground is hard, sometimes we find ourselves in the midst of thorns. Anyone identify with that? Anyone identify with the thorns? :)

And sometimes we find ourselves in that fertile ground. And so we get another message about the importance of paying attention to the soil around us. Or, maybe we can relate to the surprise of the unexpected harvest, yielding much more than our greatest expectation. And we learn something about the abundant nature of God's kingdom, and how so much seed can appear to be wasted and still there is plenty to go around for all to share.

Now, if all of this is the nature of God's kingdom, what does that say to us about how we are to live? How we share in that abundance? How we sow it, how we grow it? Do we hoard our see, or do we cast it widely with abandon? Do we live with an attitude of scarcity, or an attitude of abundance?

I was pondering all these things, as I often do during the week, when I went to that meeting of the City Club on Friday. And I heard a story of unexpected harvest -- of the scarcity of resources and abundance of generosity, from my friend Carmen Urbina, who is the Parent Community and Diversity Coordinator for the 4J school district. And she told us about how she came to this country as one of those illegal aliens (she was all of four years old when she was breaking the law). They put her in school, and they decided that she obviously had some kind of mental defect because she wasn't following the instructions of her teachers. So they put her in special education classes until a teacher came along who recognize she didn't have a mental defect, she had a language barrier. And so got her into the appropriate class to begin her education as she needed.

Her parents were incredibly hard-working people, made enormous sacrifices for their children, her father so much so he was rewarded for his work ethic by being given a promotion, but that brought unwanted attention, and then deportation. So the family went back to their native Honduras. In spite of that setback, the parents continued to work hard to make sure that Carmen and her siblings got the education that the parents never had, never making it past third grade in the mother's case, fifth grade in the fathers case.

And she was able to return to the U.S. on a student visa to finish her college education at Oregon State. Fresh out of college, she returned to her native Honduras to give back from that place of privilege that she had now earned. So I'll let her tell the rest of the story from there:


Carmen, who by the way is now a United States citizen and very proud of that fact and her ability to vote, is one who knows that she has received from the abundance of God's kingdom, even in an impoverished mountain village of Honduras.

God's seed has been sown. Look and see the abundant harvest that God has given to us.

Let those with ears listen.


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