Today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany before Transfiguration Sunday. And while it's true that God may sometimes work in epiphanies and sudden revealings, mostly God works in parables. God sows the seed of the gospel story, the greatest parable that is Christ’s life, to work in us over time, to miraculously till the grounds our hearts that we and the world may know true love.
How is it that we can call the story of Christ’s life a parable? What makes a parable? Parables, as Christ tells them, are stories that flipped the world on its head. Generally, they were often unexpected, confusing to the majority of those who heard them, as is a joke that needs time to reveal its punchline, like a seed taking time to grow - and thus took time to understand. His parables talked about the kingdom of heaven in contrast to the empire on earth. They spoke of what we were made for, rather than how we are used. He planted his parables much like he planted his life, which was also unexpected. There were some places, including his hometown, that could not immediately accept him as a prophet, never mind the anointed messiah, being who he was, as unexpected as he was. “Really,” they said. “The carpenter’s son, Mary’s boy? He says these things? How can we take him seriously?” His death does the same - the resurrection flips the world’s understanding of itself on its head. The idea that life may come out of death, that such a savior who shows us resurrection is not a great king like David or Caesar, not a recognized wealthy priest who recited the rules, but a poor carpenter who told stories, that we may know resurrection through the one who didn’t rule but served - this is the greatest parable ever told.
How does this parable of the gospel work in us? How does God the Sower plant this story in us, this story of the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, such that it takes hold and grows? Christ’s parable of the sower is a parable about telling parables, so we can use this as an interpretational reference. We are told the sower scatters the seed all over. The seeds of a parable story, for us the parable of God’s good news, are spread around for everyone. But the story will not grow everywhere. Not everyone will want to accept the invitation, not everyone will grow in relationship to this story.
In the parable of the weeds - he goes on to say that the good grows alongside the bad, that the bad will not be taken up for fear of also taking out the good. The gospel message, even if it gets entangled in weeds, is meant to continue to grow inside us along with those parts we may not see as helpful. We are to co-exist so gospel growth can continue. And growth shall continue, like a mustard seed exceeding all expectation, like bread rising with the help of yeast kneaded in with a strong woman’s arms. Those who recognize the good news is such a treasure or a pearl greater than all others, act as good earth, and are to reveal what was once hidden.
Even so, even when scattering seed, what happens with those places that don’t take? Those parts that fail? That don’t seem to grow. An initial reading may bring us to an understanding that they shall perish on judgment day. Just let them be. It feels quite damning, and not up to the words of assurance we say each week, that we are not to be condemned but saved. Where does that assurance kick in? Part of the reassurance comes, I believe, in remembering that God works slow miracles, parable miracles. The good news will find those parts of us that are ready, and work on those parts of us that are not.
Sometimes the ground is not ready, we are not ready to hear, or others around us are not at the place to hear, to have their expectations flipped, to acknowledge the gospel invitation of seeing the world in fundamentally different terms. Are these parts of ourselves weeds to be deemed bad and tossed? Do we toss others who do not hear away? No, if we go back to the reassurance, the gospel message calls us, beckons us to unfold our love with one another as Christ loved. The gospel message - of life out of death, of courageously dying to ourselves and being reborn into the love of Christ, which is love for the lowest of the low, the most outcast and rejected - this gospel message that prioritizes being in relationship with renewed vulnerability, is like seed, which with love unfolds over time and blossoms. Where the ground is not yet ready, we are to scatter the seed none-the-less, and trust God to both work the miracle of growing the gospel message. Come back again, and you may find that the ground has changed, that it is more fertile, and time has made the ground more sustaining and life-giving. At the same time in sowing the gospel with the same care it has been sowed in us, we may find new ways to scatter the seed or encounter the rocks and thorns and weeds. You may even come back with new tools to break up the rocks, to prune the thorns, to help the young plants of the good news grow stronger and coexist with the weeds without being choked. Maybe you come back to find the thorns too have grown enough to find the flower or fruit they have to offer. You come back to find ways of keeping it all healthy, finding the miracle of good news that is beauty growing out of the thorns - blackberries and roses! A big part of tending what is sown is much like any relationship - we must come back again and again and dare to dream the seed can exceed even the size of a bush to become a tree.
How shall we tend these seeds God sows in our hearts? With the assurance that God will find within us the ground to till, that there is ground there in each of us - we are reminded of tending through our greatest call, to freedom and to love one another. Thomas Merton said of his book, “No Man is an Island” that it was the fertile ground for an earlier book of his, “Seeds of Contemplation.” The fertile ground “No Man Is An Island,” centers around insists on what he calls “the supernatural answer that tells us we must love ourselves in order to be able to love others, that we must find ourselves by giving ourselves to them, as them. The words of Christ are clear ground is so much based upon : ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’” Merton speaks of loving another not as you wish to be loved, but by learning to love another as you learn to love yourself through God’s love of you.
By virtue of being here in togetherness, God’s story is at work in us. The good news of God that extends to, in, beyond, and between us has been planted. We are assured of this, as well as that it will grow, even as we may have those weeds growing too in our lives. Let us also in this togetherness, follow the call to work the impossible in this world, to seek that God’s will for resurrected love be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Let us encourage one another to tend to what’s been sown, to scatter the seeds of the good news of resurrection, to dream past our current reality.
When I went to visit my parents this weekend, even as we bemoaned the state of the world - and they looked up what it would take to retire to Vermont! - they shared, too, a NOVA special they saw. In it, a NASA programmer came up with an algorithm inspired by origami to fold a huge solar panel into a single rocket into space, that would unfold and grow and sustain us. We sat quietly for a while just imagining and marveling at the beauty of this dreaming, this gorgeous gospel, yes gospel!, insistence that the current reality is not the whole of God’s intention.
My invitation for us is to plant one seed of good news love this week. Flying in the face of the expected. What does the world tell you is pointless? Not realistic. How can you love in the face of that? Tell a story of unexpected love to someone else this week. Share it, a story of yours, a story of hope, a story that’s more like a prayer it’s so out of this world. Share how your heart unfolded in love, how bramble became berry, how thorn turned to rose and bloomed alongside the lily with your or another’s tending, with God’s gentle hand. Before we turn to Transfiguration Sunday and Lent, let’s marvel at the beauty of the resurrections we have witnessed and share the strength of that with one another.