Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Mark 4:1-9
- Prelude: “For the Beauty of the Earth,” by Conrad Kocher, arr. by Darwin Wolford; Pauline Olsen, organ; Donna Grubbs, piano
- Hymn 694, “Come Ye Thankful People, Come,” by Henry Alford
- Hymn 156, “I Love to Tell the Story,” by Katherine Hankey
- Special Music: “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” by S. Miller and J. Jackson; Carlos Xavier, flute
- Scripture: Mark 4:1-9; Margaret Cox
- Sermon: “Why Parables,” Rev. Dr. Jerome Wright
- Hymn 206, “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” by Kathleen Thomerson
- “Lead On, O King Eternal!” by Robert W. Thygerson; Pauline Olsen, organ
Rev. Dr. Jerry Wright
Have you ever visited a country that was occupied by an invading foreign power? I have been to a number of these places, including some European countries behind the “iron curtain.” There is always a sort of fatalistic attitude with people who are subjugated against their wills.
I recall visiting Hungary with the Seattle Girls’ Choir in 1985 when it was still under the heel of the Soviet Union. The girls were excited, having just won the First Prize in Youth Choirs at the Vienna Festival. Our tour coach was loaded on a flatcar of a train that traversed wheat and sunflower fields of Burgenland south of Vienna to the frontier with Hungary. There we saw metal towers bristling with guards armed with machine guns…quite intimidating to Americans used to being free! We were guided to lunch out of view of the train, while presumably the Communist border guards searched our belongings on the tour coach. Following lunch and careful passport checks, our bus was unloaded from the train, and we were allowed into the city of Sopron.
Immediately noticeable was the shabbiness of the buildings and the nearly deserted streets. As we arrived at a cul-de-sac with a nice monument, a group of Young Pioneers – sort of girl scouts – came along. I was struck with their brusqueness and the flat affect of their faces. Our girls were acting as cultural ambassadors of the United States, and they wanted none of that sour-puss behavior. They immediately began interacting with the Hungarian girls – and soon they were all laughing and enjoying each other’s company. It is amazing how a little loving kindness can transform people by removing those psychological walls that we tend to put up around ourselves! What are we protecting?
I visited Israel in 1987, as guest conductor of the National Youth Choir of Israel. The Israelis had a wonderful summer arts camp patterned after our American Interlachen National Music Camp. Guest conductors and instructors came from all over the world, and I was privileged to work with their choir – made up of high school boys and girls from all across the country.
Each weekend I was taken to different parts of the country – and my driver had a Ph.D. in Archeology. He had driven royalty, foreign dignitaries, and politicians around- and he really knew his business.
At one point a colleague and I were driven to the far north of the country where we stayed at a kibbutz called “Morning Star.” From the swimming pool one could look north directly into Lebanon – and to the east directly into the hills of the Golan Heights, where I later met blue helmeted guards from the United Nations, and spoke with them as they guarded the border between Israel and Syria. We had to undergo air raid drills the first afternoon there, because one never knew when a scud missile attack or an air attack might come! That sort of puts you on edge…and I wondered what the modem Israelites thought about the way they must live.
In the course of these weekend outings, I learned a great deal about the history of Israel – both modem and ancient. Israel was independent at the time of my extended visit there, and by God’s grace, it is independent today. The last night of the National Youth Choir, I went to the rehearsal room, and found the young singers seated in a circle on the floor, with candles glowing and tears flowing down their cheeks. Not wanting to intrude, I excused myself, but was invited to stay. These beautiful talented young adults were having a sort of “rite of passage.” They were moving into adulthood at blinding speed. In modem Israel, all able bodied high school graduates, male and female, are required to join the armed forces of that country and serve for two years before continuing with their life plans. This was to happen immediately upon their leaving the camp. I was moved deeply by being able to hear these important thoughts from young musicians who today were choristers, and tomorrow would be soldiers. This conscription is a matter of survival to the Israelis, who will fight to keep their country. So they sat in the candlelight, and gently opened their hearts to one another.
And what was The Holy Land like some 2,000 years ago during Jesus’ ministry?
The land was occupied by an invading force – the mighty Roman Empire, this time. The Jews had endured numerous invasions and the Romans were the latest to intrude upon their lives, the Law of Moses and the Prophets. The people were brutally subjugated; some roads were lined with crucifixions, and both the Jewish King (Herod) and the Jewish priestly class were intimidated, and had to be very careful around the conquerors. The Jews were not happy with this arrangement; but they had no choice. They were looking – praying for the Messiah – the Anointed One, of the line of King David, who would lead them in physically overthrowing their Roman masters and rule as king. The Zealots were ready to fight any time the Messiah would reveal Himself and inspire them to fight.
The idea of a Messiah, then, differed depending upon with whom you spoke during those troubled times. Imagine yourself standing among the listeners when Jesus was speaking to the crowds. Who else is here? Well, let me see: There are the ordinary working people: farmers, craftsmen, shepherds, artisans, housewives, fishermen, publicans, and the like. There are also those who serve the government (Herod’s court and the Romans) – tax collectors, soldiers and officers – diplomats, foreigners, sojourners, and lastly, we have the members of the priestly class: Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees. There are many potential enemies of Jesus -including spies – standing around just waiting for some evidence to use against him. Will he trip up and break civil or holy Law?? He is drawing larger and larger groups, and the rumor is that he is healing and performing miracles. Could he be the Anointed One, or is he perhaps a Zealot, a spy, or a troublemaker? There is quite a large group of diverse listeners on the shores of the Sea of Galilee this day. So, Jesus gets into a boat and is rowed a short distance – a safe distance – from the shore to separate himself from the listeners. And before he begins, he commands, “Listen!” Then Jesus launches into the Parable of the Sower.
Why does Jesus speak to the crowds in parables? Here are five compelling reasons, for which I am indebted to the Rev. Ron Graham:
Why Parables? To Give His Enemies No Ground
Jesus was the Rabbi of rabbis. He was Emmanuel – God With Us. He knew that many enemies were salted through the crowds to whom he spoke. Had he spoken directly, His ministry might have ended abruptly -before its completion. Jesus made it hard for his enemies. Because he couched his teachings in folksy stories, he could hardly be arrested for that!
“The parables were evocative, not provocative. By couching his teaching in parables, Jesus made certain points much clearer to the true-hearted people than even plain language could have made them. At the same time, Jesus was speaking indirectly and figuratively so that lawyers had nothing to accuse him of. When it would have been counterproductive to speak plainly in public, Jesus spoke in parables – a prudent strategy.”
Why Parables? To Enlighten the True Hearted
Parables were a means to enlighten those whose hearts were sincere and receptive, and who were hungering and thirsting for righteousness (Matt. 5:6). Ron Graham says, “The word heart (by coincidence) starts with the word “hear.” The good heart hears God’s word, understands it, and seeks to know more about the kingdom of heaven and God’s will.
The Parable of the Sower shows that the seed – God’s word – grows and bears fruit in good hearts. When Jesus finished telling this parable, he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 13:1-9). Thus, some people tune their ears to the word of God, and understand God’s truth.
Why Parables? To Make People Think
Jesus knew that some people would understand and ponder his parables, while others tuned them out. Jesus told parables to challenge such folk.
Why Parables? To Divide Into Two
Parables tend to make people think…but they also make people choose, bringing listeners out of the gray area into the more clearly black or white. Such parables served as a sort of “winnowing fork” that helped Jesus separate the wheat from the chaff- or the sheep from the goats. We have to be accountable for our decisions.
Why Parables? To Fulfill Prophecy
Jesus was guided in his ministry by the scriptures of the prophets where he found wisdom and the authority to speak in parables. “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 13:34-35, Psalm 78:1-4)
After telling the Parable of the Sower to the crowd, Jesus let them disperse, and then addressed his disciples and some other “groupies” hanging around to hear. He held a sort of “Master Class” for them. Right away the Twelve and some of the others questioned him about the parable. This is out of the Good News Bible: He told them, “To you the secret of the kingdom of God has been given; but to those who are outside, everything comes by way of parables, so that (as Scripture says) they may look and look but see nothing; they may hear and hear, but understand nothing; otherwise they would turn to God and be forgiven.”
13 Then Jesus says to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How, then, will you understand any parable?14 The sower sows God’s message. 15 Some people are like the seeds that fall along the path; as soon as they hear the message, Satan comes and takes it away.
16 Other people are like the seeds that fall on rocky ground. As soon as they hear the message, they receive it gladly. 17 But it does not sink deep into them, and they don’t last long. So when trouble or persecution comes because of the message, they give up at once. 18 Other people are like the seeds sown among the thorn bushes. These are the ones who hear the message, 19 but the worries about this life, the love for riches, and all other kinds of desires crowd in and choke the message, and they don’t bear fruit. 20 But other people are like seeds sown in good soil. They hear the message, accept it, and bear fruit: some thirty, some sixty, and some one hundred (fold).”
Those were Jesus’ own words to his disciples. Imagine! Having the Rabbi of all rabbis teaching you 24/7 for about three years! They lived together the entire time and were being made ready by God Incarnate in the person of Jesus. That is preparation to lead the church if I ever heard it!
Who then did Jesus choose for his disciples? Were they from the elite classes of his society? Were they courtiers, military, Pharisees, Sadducees, or Scribes? Were they wealthy merchants? No, Jesus took ordinary people to become his disciples — people like you and me.
[ask the congregation] Who are Jesus disciples?
That’s right- WE are Jesus’ disciples today, learning the timeless truths that God in his love for us has given us freely, through his grace. Jesus’ original disciples were transformed by his teaching and the Holy Spirit into Apostles, and we are their spiritual descendants!
In today’s modern world, we can build our discipleship by taking certain actions: Worship with our friends, take ownership of our spiritual gifts (of talent, time, and treasure) and share them, use our gifts to serve the church, and share our faith.
How is it with you today? How is your spiritual soil? Are you able to receive the seeds of God’s eternal wisdom and plant them in the soil of your heart, and trust that they will grow and flourish? Here is a tip: once you have planted seeds, please don’t dig them up to see if they are growing!
Dear Ones: Live your faith, walking as children of the Light; sharing your gifts, serving others, loving them, and loving your God. Listen! Let those who have ears hear!