Pastor: Jeff Davidson
Scripture: Mark 4:26-34
Most of you have heard of Aesop, right? Sometimes it’s pronounced EE-sop, and sometimes it’s pronounced A-sop, with a long A sound. That uncertainty of what might be the correct pronunciation is kind of a symbol for everything we know, or don’t know, about Aesop.
We don’t know for sure that Aesop ever existed. There are a few scattered references to him in a few ancient histories, and there is another ancient biography called The Aesop Romance that most scholars believe is fictional. That book says that Aesop was an exceptionally ugly servant, who because he was so clever was later freed and became an advisor to kings. Some legends say that Aesop was Greek, some say that he was Ethiopian. Some say that he died after he went on a diplomatic mission to Delphi and insulted the citizens there, who forced him to jump to his death. Other sources have other stories and one of the leading Aesop scholars back in the mid 1960s said that he’d decided Aesop never really existed. The bottom line is that as much as we know the name Aesop, we know little if anything about the man at all.
I talk about Aesop because he is the best known writer of fables in western history. His fables are taught in elementary schools across the nation and just the descriptions of the characters or the titles are used as shorthand to convey a message. If I say something about the Hare and the Tortoise, you know that I’m saying “slow and steady wins the race.” If I mention the boy who cried wolf, you realize without my spelling it out that I’m saying people who lie too often won’t be believed when what they’re saying is true.
What we have today in our gospel reading from Mark is not a fable, but a parable. Sometimes people use the words interchangeably, and there is a similarity, but fables and parables are a little different. Fables usually make the moral the emphasis of the story itself. If I tell you the fable of the Hare and the Tortoise, I won’t need to spell out the moral and in fact the fable does not spell it out itself. The Library of Congress has a really cool interactive version of Aesop’s Fables (http://read.gov/aesop/025.html) and here is how that particular fable ends:
The Tortoise meanwhile kept going slowly but steadily, and, after a time, passed the place where the Hare was sleeping. But the Hare slept on very peacefully; and when at last he did wake up, the Tortoise was near the goal. The Hare now ran his swiftest, but he could not overtake the Tortoise in time.
That’s how the fable ends. The moral of the fable is apparent even from that little piece of it, but if I’d read the whole thing the moral would have been even more obvious. Now this particular version is from 1919, and at the bottom in smaller print it says, “The race is not always to the swift” but it’s clear on the page that those words are not in the fable itself.
Parables are a little different. Parables aren’t always so clear. Sometimes they are, but often they need a little explanation. That’s why Jesus explains his parables to the disciples. He doesn’t necessarily explain them to everyone every time, and why that is so makes for an interesting question, but Jesus almost always explains them to the disciples as it says he does here in the last verse of today’s reading.
As adult believers looking back over 2000 years to Jesus’ words, we tend to take the meaning of the parables for granted. They are not as obvious, though, to people who are hearing them for the first time or to people who don’t have any familiarity with Christianity or who aren’t used to thinking in terms of parables and allegories and other things with symbolic meaning. Even the very, very short and simple illustrated parable of the mustard seed that I shared for our children’s story added an explanation of one meaning at the end because most young children aren’t used to thinking symbolically like that. That’s why we teach fables to younger children and then move on to parables or allegories or something else when they’re older.
The Rev. David Lose is a pastor in Minneapolis, MN. He writes essays on preaching that I often find helpful, and he had a somewhat different take on fables and parables. He quotes this Emily Dickinson poem:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Lose suggests that what parables sometimes do is tell the truth “slant” – tell it in such a way that it dawns upon us, that it’s realization comes on us gradually or else we couldn’t comprehend it. When I was looking up parables Lose and several other writers quoted Eugene Peterson who said that parables were like ticking time bombs.
As people heard Jesus tell these stories, they saw at once that they weren’t about God, so there was nothing in them threatening their own sovereignty. They relaxed their defenses. They walked away perplexed, wondering what they meant, the stories lodged in their imagination. And then, like a time bomb, they would explode in their unprotected hearts. An abyss opened up at their very feet. He was talking about God; they had been invaded!” (from Peterson’s “The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction)
I love both those images. Whether it’s Dickinson and Lose’s image of a parable being a way of telling the truth but telling it slant, or Peterson’s of the parable as a time bomb that exposes us to something we aren’t ready to accept, they are both powerful ways to think about parables.
So what are the hard or subversive truths that Jesus might be telling us slant in the two parables we read today? I’m just going to quote Lose directly, because he says it as clearly as I could.
And so the first parable might be about the wonder of faith or the need to be ready to bring in the harvest. Or it might be about our complete inability to control the coming kingdom, to dictate whether we (and others) believe (or not). This second possibility is uncomfortable because it leaves us vulnerable. God’s kingdom comes apart from our efforts, cannot be controlled or influenced, and can only be received as a gift. In this sense, faith is apparently a lot more like falling in love than making a decision. Because kingdom-faith, like love, is something that comes from the outside and grabs hold of you, whether you want it to or not…
The second parable tells an even more difficult truth. Perhaps it is about how God can grow small things into grand ones, although that feels a bit like a fable. Or maybe, just maybe it’s really about the kingdom’s penchant for penetrating and taking over our lives, sometimes against our better judgment. Mustard, after all, was a lot less like a flowering shrub that we might plant around the edges of our property as an accent than it was an invasive weed, something you want to keep out of your garden and lawn at all costs because it runs amok easily, gets out of hand, and nearly takes over whatever ground it infests. (all Lose quotes from http://www.davidlose.net/2015/06/pentecost-3-b-preach-the-truth-slant/)
That’s what the kingdom of God really is like, isn’t it. Sometimes the kingdom of God is a Sunday morning thing, and maybe a Wednesday evening thing if there’s a choir practice or a Bible study or something. Sometimes the kingdom of God is something that is for church, and the kingdom of this world is for work and politics and school and entertainment and whatever the rest of our lives away from church may be.
Brethren, and faithful Christians in general, have always worked at bringing those two things together. Sometimes we’re successful in that, sometimes we’re not. Those of us who’ve worked in government, either at the federal level like some of you or the county level like I did, know that there can be conflicting loyalties between our duties to the secular kingdom as opposed to our duties to the kingdom of God. We want to say that we allow God to be the ruler of all of our lives, but it’s hard for us to live that out. The temptation is to find ways to draw lines, to back away from Peterson’s abyss, to shield our eyes from Dickinson’s dazzling light of the truth.
An easy example is war. The earliest Christians believed that it was wrong to serve in the military. Maybe you agree and maybe you don’t, but that’s how they felt. The earliest Brethren felt that way too. Now? Most Christians, at least in the United States, don’t see any tension between their faith and military service. I suspect that while the percentage of Brethren who see no tension is lower, it’s still a clear majority. We find ways to shade our eyes by talking about just wars, or limited wars, or wars of self-defense, or wars that are undertaken to intervene in some sort of genocide or other terrible thing. Most Christians over the thousands of years of the faith have found reasons to accommodate themselves to participation in something that was off-limits to the earliest Christians, the ones who were closest to Jesus’ teachings. Most Christians have found ways to keep that particular mustard plant of faith neatly confined to a raised bed or container garden or something.
I picked war because for us as Brethren it’s an easy example due to our heritage, and because we can sometimes feel a little self-righteous about it, but it’s by no means the only example or even the most common. In 1781 our Annual Conference spoke against the use of alcoholic beverages. This position has been reaffirmed many times over the years, as far as I can tell most recently in 1988. I’ve never been placed in the position of choosing to go to war or choosing to go to jail. I’ve often been placed in the position of whether or not I will follow consistent Brethren teaching against the use of alcohol, and there are times I’ve fallen short.
Christianity isn’t a legalistic list of do’s and don’ts that we live by, although I recognize that the two examples I’ve given could make it sound like that. Christianity is a matter of faith. Yes, having faith like a mustard seed and living as if we believe that faith will grow a large shrub where birds can make their homes, but also living as if we believe that faith can and will take over every aspect of our lives, even those parts of our lives that we are reluctant to give up on.
The more that we let faith take over our lives, the more that we let the mustard plants run wild through the well-manicured lawns of our lifestyles, the more that others will see the reality of Christ’s love and presence. For other people, just like for us, just like for Moses in the Old Testament, the full glory of God’s presence blinds us if we see it all at once and full on.
When we turn ourselves over to the mustard plant kingdom, though, the glory of God grows within us. Others will see that glory, slowly, gradually, slant as Dickinson put it – others will see it, and recognize it, and with our help and friendship and guidance join us as subjects of the mustard seed kingdom. In some ways it is good that we are fallen and sinful, because it is as God claims and redeems each piece of our lives for the kingdom that others will see the truth of the kingdom and the glory of God, and they will see it slant so that they too may accept it. Amen.