Wednesday, July 16, 2014

All in This Together

Scripture for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

“Jesus went out and sat beside the sea.”

As I nibbled away at preparing to preach, the past few days, I too was beside the sea, on Martha’s Vineyard, where Diana and I enjoyed a few days off and a chance to catch up with our son Alex, who moved there this summer.

Great crowds filled the beach by the Sea of Galilee, and you won’t be surprised to hear that the island was teeming with visitors and summer residents. This will get only more so, as August arrives and the summer White House sets up digs. Beaches and crowds go hand in hand.

To achieve a degree of critical distance, to invite the attention of all those people, and to be visible to them, Jesus got into a boat and put out a short way. From that humble vantage point, he spoke to them.

The pulpit of St. Andrew’s Church in Edgartown is built in the shape of the bow of a dory. In a way, perhaps all pulpits nose their way into the nave to gain those same simple advantages Jesus sought, that day.

I don’t mean the Leonardo di Caprio effect in the bow of the Titanic. But that name “nave” (from the Latin “navus”, boat, source of “navy”) conveys the core message running beneath us as steady as a keel, and that message is, “We’re all in this boat together!”

Don’t you agree that this message needs to be heard just about everywhere, as a corrective to isolating behavior, a call to find a better response than escalating violence? We’re all in the same boat… we’re all in this together, whether the context is a friendship or a family in crisis, a government paralyzed in dysfunction, people of religious faith making sense of a pluralistic world, or a world confronted by profound challenges of climate change and desperately-needed new ways to steward the earth’s resources.

As I looked around me on the streets of Edgartown and Vineyard Haven, what I saw was disconnected clusters of people all looking for a good time, a good meal, a certain kind of shop, a change in pace, a fresh experience.

I’ll guess that this described the crowds Jesus addressed on that beach in Galilee. Each person, each household, was there in search of what mattered most to them at that moment, and they were there to get that certain something.

If there was one element they had in common, it was their hope, their hunch, their expectation that Jesus could provide that something—whether it was a healing, an exorcism, a miraculous meal, a rebuke to the powerful, a lifting up of the lowly, the raising of a dead person, or at least a good sermon that would get them reconsidering the status quo.

Jesus was unafraid to be the one element of unity that brought this crowd together. He aimed his bow towards shore, towards them, not out to the open sea, not avoiding them.

In what he then said to them, he invited openness: “Listen!” he calls to them. He then launches into a short pithy story that we churchfolk call a parable, a zinger with a singularly simple plot line, but a story that leaves the hearers scratching their heads wondering about its meaning.

And when the story ends, Jesus again invites openness: “Let anyone with ears listen!”

That’s essential to the core message of Jesus: We’re all in the same boat, we’re all in this together, and what’s required of us all—what can help unite us--- is that we learn to listen. Listen to one another, to the truth of our own experience; listen for God, for wisdom, for clarity.

In the story he tells, he reaches not into the world of fishermen but into the home ground of the Galilean farmers who may have made up a large part of the crowd.

A farmer sows seed. Or maybe, given the unlikely terrain described, this isn’t a fulltime farmer but an ever-optimistic backyard gardener limited to a small patch of land, rocks and thorns included. Four different conditions on the ground destine the seed to different outcomes—not so much four outcomes as two: success and lack of success. One out of four sown seeds yields a harvest; the other three get eaten, scorched, or choked. Those odds seem spot-on from my limited experience growing plants from seed.

And the one variable that accounts for success is good soil. Soil that has all the riches and all the rejects of the past turned over and worked in like a cover crop, wasting nothing organic, utilizing all the off-scourings, the manure from the stable, the ashes from the hearth.

It’s all a parable, isn’t it?

Isn’t good soil like the capacity we have to let the manure that falls upon our lives get folded into our experience as we learn how to turn over what lies on the surface so it breaks down and builds up, restoring the ground we stand on by wasting not a shred of the emotional-physical-spiritual complexity we either face and utilize, or try to escape and so become fugitives from the rich soil of our own lives?

In her book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “the best thing to do when you are flattened by despair is to spend time in a community where despair is daily bread.”

Or, turning that a bit, isn’t the rich harvest Jesus points to in his parable the faith and hope and love which are the ground we walk on, the blood that pulses in our veins, and the tide that floats our boats in Christian community?

That’s the rich soil of community in Jesus that we want for Charlotte and Sylvia: ground so firm and dependable while also porous and receptive to the tender requirements of growth. Ground that welcomes believers, seekers, and skeptics: rich ground not to be fought over but freely shared. Holy ground where all may find Jesus’s way to see ourselves whole, to make whole the world around us, addressing with compassion the hardships suffered on the path, on rocky ground, and among the thorns.

I notice that our Gospel portion today presents in the first half Jesus’s parable, then in the second half an explanation of it. Is that explaining voice the voice of Jesus or of Matthew? Does Jesus offer this commentary in response to a long awkward pause after the bare simple story? Was everyone on shore going, “Huh?”

At similar moments elsewhere in the Gospels, it’s the twelve disciples who admit to Jesus (later, in private) that they just don’t get it, and so he explains the parable to them. But he insists that in his public preaching he will not stop speaking in parables. This remains his preferred way to invite openness to his message: by getting people to puzzle out the meaning.

We are all in the same boat. We are in life together. Together we treasure and steward the precious gift of life. This requires of us that we learn to listen deeply, deeply enough to fold into our good soil all that we learn, all that we understand, and all that we do not.

(Barbara Brown Taylor's "Learning to Walk in the Dark" is published by Harper One, 2014.)