Sticks and Stones: A sermon on 8A Pentecost, 7/26/20

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Ps. 105:1 – 11, 45b; Genesis 29:15 – 28; Rom. 8:26 – 39; Matt. 13:31 – 33, 44 – 52

“’Have you understood all this?’ They said to him, ‘Yes.’”

—Matt 13:51

It wasn’t true then, and it is not true now!  In another era, I recall hearing my contemporaries say, when they got into childhood skirmishes, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt!”  Dare I repeat myself?  That was not true then, nor is it true now!  Words have consequences, for good and for ill.  They aid in building up and they aid in tearing down and the truth is [that] their effect, psychologically and emotionally, can be as long-lasting as any manual or mechanical tool [that] we employ.

Where once I served as Priest-Associate in a collegiate parish in Upstate New York—and, to be more specific, in the Finger Lakes area—the then rector had instituted a practice whereby once a month one of us would visit our church school, which was held in the undercroft of the cathedral-size church.  Our visitation was given the catchy title: Ask Your Priest.  On one occasion when I was on, a boy in a combined third and fourth grade class raised his hand with much enthusiasm.  He had a question for me.

Boy: Fr. B., why do we sing in church about a turtle if we are supposed to be learning about God?

Me: NN, turtles and birds and all animals are creatures of God.

Boy: I know, but why do we sing only about turtles.  You know, when we sing: “lead on, O kinky turtle?”

Me: Suppressing a smile because I knew then of his confusion and not wanting to embarrass him, I responded: Actually, NN, what we sing, is “Lead on O _king_ eternal.”  (Hymnal 555)  We sing of God as king, as ruler.

Boy: Oh, said he, visibly disappointed if his facial expression was true.

Often, what we hear ([through] no fault of our own but influenced by experience, age and education) is not what has been said.  The converse to that young boy’s misperception is [that] what we say often does not reflect our true intention, a realization [that] came from my own mouth.

On an occasion when I was about to enter the dwelling to make a pastoral visit to a parishioner, I encountered another parishioner who was exiting the house next door to the one that I was about to enter.  And wanting to acknowledge that parishioner, a woman, I said with a smile on my face, “I didn’t know that you lived in a nice house.”  Her response, without any attempt to point out my error, as it were, was “Oh, I don’t live here.  I was just visiting a friend.”  Within immediate hindsight, it would have been sufficient and appropriate just to have uttered a “Hello” or “Good afternoon, Mrs. X.”  Or, simply, “How wonderful to see you outside of church.”  My embarrassment, self-inflicted and written all over my face, haunted me until the following Sunday, when parishioner #2 came forward to receive communion and smiled as sweetly and as genuinely as always.  No mention was ever made of my faux pas.

If our intention is to communicate, it is likewise our responsibility to use a language [that] others understand.  Let the record show that Jesus did exactly that.  He tailored, as it were, his speech to his listeners.  He used parables and allegories and images [that] his hearers understood, images from their everyday lives.  And in good oral-tradition storytelling mode, he employed attention-catching and -holding devices such as today’s Gospel triple repeat: “the kingdom of heaven is like…”  That threefold repetition ensured that at least one of the examples would be recalled by his hearers, perhaps garbled, but still recalled.  We, on the other hand, need to pay closer attention because the images are no longer commonplace, at least not in a culture such as our own.  Even so, I suggest that the issues [that] the parables and allegories recited in today’s gospel, as well as last week, are not tucked away in some distant past but are, unfortunately, alive and well in 2020.

At first glance, though, the references in today’s gospel to the sower, the merchant, and the fortuitous man and the valuable pearl suffers from the opposite problem.  So familiar are those stories to most of us that not only do we not struggle to discern its meaning, we have to struggle really _to hear_ them at all.

These and other parables go to the heart of who and what Jesus was and is, and that message is, in fact, so obvious as to be overlooked.  Let us acknowledge a few of the obvious facts about this Scripture teaching.  First and foremost, we [must] admit that this story was not written for us; that is, there are so many ways in which we are different from the original hearers of Jesus’ tale.  Namely, all of us can read, and we can read this in a book.  Almost certainly few, if any, of Jesus’ audience could read at all.  This explains the repetitions in series of three, which helps everyone in an oral culture to remember.  Literacy was the privilege of the upper classes, which leads to another difference from our own time.  Most of us would count ourselves in the “middle class,” a category essentially not available in ancient Palestine.

Second, ninety to ninety-five percent of all people during Jesus’ time lived in very small, extended family villages, and farming was the major industry.  [This] makes the statement from Jesus: ‘let us work the work of him who sent me, while it is day; for when night cometh, no man can work!’ all the more understandable.  But this creates a dilemma for the traditionalists and Bible purists of our generation, for among us are those who have night shifts which, if they were to adhere to biblical literalness, by definition could not be.  They and no one else could work.  Where would we stand if those caring for our sick, whether from COVID-19 or a ruptured appendix or anxiety, were to say “It is night, it is dark outside, I cannot work,” even as we know that our hospitals are equipped with electrical service.  Do we maintain in 2020 that the medical staff, who support our ICUs at night, stand in violation of that Biblical principle while they sought to fulfill another Biblical principle from Christ to administer to the sick?

We North Americans lead a profoundly urban, non-agrarian life.  No more than 7 percent of the general population are farmers, and that number shrinks every census.  Moreover, ours is the era of international agribusiness.  Jesus’ audience, by our standards and by those of his era, was mostly poor, mostly uneducated, mostly rural, and most had little aspiration beyond survival and sustenance.  Most of the farmers and shepherds of Jesus’ day tilled and used land not their own.

Given his audience, the agrarian metaphor, the simple, easy, repeatable nature of the story would be very understandable to the original hearers.  But we must seek an understanding that is applicable to our circumstance.

Consider the theological implications of these obvious reflections.  Not unlike our own time, there were those in ancient Israel who depended on the ignorance of others for their livelihood.  Religious matters had become the sole domain of the privileged few.  If the Pharisees could engage in endless theological debate, it was only because they had both the leisure time and the literacy skills to pursue them.  But for the farmer, matters of faith remained confined to temple worship and to what they could glean of the Torah teachings.  And theirs was often a simplistic, uninformed approach to and knowledge of scripture.  They could be manipulated.Former_Slave_Reading

Again, we need not reach so far back into antiquity.  Rather, we need only turn to recent history when slave owners did not allow their slaves to learn to read even the Bible for fear that they would discover, on their own, a greater understanding of the word of God.  Sharecroppers and indentured servants, both in our south and in our north, were at a distinct disadvantage because they could neither read nor calculate.  Universal education is, by all historical measure, recent in our national discourse.

Into this context steps Jesus who (although he overwhelmed his listeners when his parents took him as a young lad up to the temple in Jerusalem and unintentionally left him behind) chose in his ministry to teach not the scholars at prestigious seminars, but to sit in the fishing villages, in boats, and on the farms proclaiming God’s love and work to the poorest, least likely listeners.  Could it be that Jesus’ message was meant for all women and men, boys and girls, and not just the ones smart enough to come to church?  Jesus’ movement was a stunning reversal precisely because of its obvious attempt to demonstrate the gospel of love to those who otherwise would not have thought themselves worthy of the teaching of the kingdom of God.

Seen in this light we can understand two things more clearly: one, that Jesus was demonstrating a powerful love for those whom most would have never invited to the table or the conference room.  Two, Jesus’ simple and obvious stories generated great discomfort on the part of all who were comfortable with the way things were.

Two thousand years later and no longer an agrarian society, we are no less immune from these same issues of who should be “in the know” and invited to our societal conversations.  What makes the parable of the seed universal and accessible to farmers and non-farmers alike is the simplicity of the parable or allegory.  People, even those who cannot read, can recognize the struggle and need to do what is right.

Science and the scientific method were seen to threaten the sovereignty of God (and of the church as the arbiter of God’s will).  Gospel music was at one time a radical form of music [that] many thought not fit for the worship of God but is now an integral element on the American religious scene, at least.  I will admit that, on the surface, Jesus was talking about sowing seeds but at the same time was demonstrating a powerful love and advocacy among those who were least likely to be included in the conversation.

Why cause such controversy and discomfort?  The obvious answer: God created all people, and loves all people, and yearns for all people to come to and to thrive in the divine light and truth.  No matter your socioeconomic status, educational level, spiritual, mental, or physical health.  Jesus demonstrates God’s incredible breadth in loving-kindness not only by what he talks about, but by whom he talks with.  From all these actions it is obvious that the kingdom of God is bigger than ourselves and the boxes we assign others to fill so [that] our universe can be neat and orderly.

Long before our specific era, Jesus dismissed our come-lately ditty “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt.”  And the Bible, our book of record, is explicit in its negation of that parole.  Our Book of Records is clear: _There are not good people on both sides._ If our words do not aid in the building of God’s kingdom, they are to be shunned and cast away from us, lest we cause others harm.

The allegory may, because of the language used, appear outdated but the intent is clear, and it bears repeating here:

The field is the world…  The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil…just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age.

—Matt. 13:38f.

In our own lives we know that much of what we do simply falls on ground that cannot support it.  Some of our best hopes and dreams are choked by circumstances beyond our control.  Still, we should give heed to wherever the seed of faith takes root, so that the word of God can bring blessings to the people: in music, in language, in communities like and unlike our own.  Thus, when the question is put to us, “Have you understood all this?” we can respond with total assure, along with the disciples, “YES!”