Today we return to the parable gold mine of Matthew 13. Two weeks ago we looked at the Parable of the Sower and shifted our attention from the process, actions and results of the sown seeds and the varying levels of fruitfulness, to the important role of the Sower. We said that she was key in understanding the application of what Jesus is asking us to do; that being, to spread the Good News, the Gospel of Christ’s love and acceptance for all.
Incidentally, I so appreciated the kind words after that service that some of you offered about the unusual direction of looking at the sower rather than the traditional consideration of the crops. All of us, as sowers working to bring God’s just dominion into the world, are essential.
Now, we look at some other parable of Jesus that represent a completely different group of stories which are intended to teach us to think differently about the world and our place in it.
Many years ago, I was delighted to learn that a parable is, “An earthly story with a Heavenly meaning.” Jesus, so wisely, shares easily recognized stories of everyday events and activities that every one of his listeners could relate to. As with the Parable of the Sower, we now find meaning in such common objects as seeds, breadmaking, using a broom, fishing and even in how a merchant might assess a purchase. In essence, Jesus is saying that everyone who hears his words is a candidate to be a worker in the Kingdom, or Dominion of God. These parables focus on outcomes for the most part, and as a result, give the listener the hope that they too may be able to accomplish that which God intends for this world.
We remember the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer – They Kingdom come, Thy will be done. On earth as it is in Heaven” This is in the same vein of saying to the people that in our relationship with God, we are also identified in accomplishing the work of God in our lives now. We are partners in the Gospel with Jesus – even 2000 years after he taught these parables.
So, a bit of background on parables. But first, this, a different earthly story of a heavenly meaning:
A man is talking to God. "God, how long is a million years?" God answers, "To me, it's about a minute." "God, how much is a million dollars?" "To me, it's a penny." "God, may I have a penny?" "Wait a minute."
Although parable counts do differ among scholars, there are said to be about 30 unique parables of Jesus in the Bible,. The Gospel of Luke contains both the largest total number of parables at 24, with eighteen unique parables; the Gospel of Matthew contains 23 parables of which eleven are unique; and the Gospel of Mark contains eight parables of which two are unique.
Parables discussing God’s Dominion are intended to describe how to live in God’s economy. In other words, how things work with God. These heavenly lessons of these earthly stories give a glimpse at what can be expected and what is going to happen in the world or in our lives as God’s will is done. These parables offer us a bit of prophecy and insight into God’s nature.
As with discussing the Sower two weeks ago, I want us to look at the ones initiating the actions. The Sower sowed. In these parables we find the work of a woman, a Merchant, a person looking at a field, and net fishers. Each one is taking action so that the intention of the parable may be revealed.
A tiny mustard seed is planted. It grows into a tree, which is impossible because a mustard seed produces a bush, not a tree. Yet the sower benefits from the expansive harvest. Jesus is saying our efforts will bring abundance and the birds will make homes in the branches. The abundance is shared.
A woman adds a bit of yeast to numerous cups of flour and receives much more in bread than she invested in materials. Much is produced from little.
Treasure is found in a field and a special pearl is discovered for sale. The two characters invest all they have to gain possession of their discovery.
Fish are caught and again, there are many. But here Jesus tells of the need to sort out the good from the bad.
These are the themes that cause the movers to initiate. The actors are considering Value, Investment, Cost, Much from Little, Patience, Decision-making, Sorting, Selection according to value and each of these themes reveal God’s nature and lovingkindness. Jesus is saying much about the outcomes, but also about the initiators. And I think that when we consider the ones creating the action in these parables, we may think of folks in our lives who have lived in ways that make us think of this storytelling of Jesus.
Friday night as I was considering these parables, I found myself thinking about a man I knew in our church in Ravenna named Earl Barnett.
Earl was a farmer. He was a very simple man and already pretty old when I met him as a child. He came to our house by appointment one evening as part of an Every Member Canvas program that churches often did annually to make sure that every member of the church was visited.
Earl visited us not long after my mom and dad divorced. We had not gone to church for a long time. He came to say hi and I remember my mom wanted me to meet him. I sat with mom and Earl as he checked in with the Simone family. Earl told mom that he would love for us to come back to church and he would be watching for us to greet us and sit with us.
Years later, as I began my work in that same church as a youth pastor in May of 1979, Earl was still an active member and sponsored a youth event to go to a community I had never heard of – Chagrin Falls. He said Chagrin was known for the polo games in the Metroparks, ice cream from a nostalgic and colorful shop next to the falls, and some kind of lion and the lamb cemetery marker for some guy named Church. When we went into town that Sunday afternoon, we parked, with permission, at the Federated Church, which I told Earl I thought was a strange name for a church. We all came away liking this town named after some waterfalls that were, for some unknown reason a vexation or disappointment, which as you know is what Chagrin means. I’m glad they didn’t call it Vexation Falls. Too much like a Stephen King locale.
Earl’s offer to sit with us in church some Sunday was attractive to my mom. In those days, 1964 I believe, divorced women and their children did not go to church. At least not the church we attended. Mom wanted us to be in Sunday School, so she polished us up – three boys ages nine, eight and six, and loaded us in our beater car and took us to church. I don’t remember sitting with Earl, but I do remember being back at church and feeling good about it.
Earl was a living parable. He was an initiator of God’s Dominion actions and his effort brought forth much fruit. We continued going to church, weekly, and our lives were richer due to God’s man on a mission, Earl Barnett, and the church family that closely embraced us and loved us.
Fast forward seven years. I’m a high school kid. I am with my mom at a community Faith at Work conference that descended upon Ravenna through the ecumenical planning of the Ravenna Ministerial Association. It took over a year to coordinate and it was a massive success. I attended the opening dinner with my mom and other church friends, as well as with Mr. Barnett. After dinner, as part of the group experience, - and there were over 200 people in the large school cafeteria, people were asked to offer thanksgiving and honor any person who had invited them to church when they were not attending. My mom quickly rose and introduced Earl Barnett with apparent emotion. As she sat down, a woman across the room stood and said that Marilyn Simone, my mom, had invited her to church and it changed her life. Then another person stood to honor my mom. And another. And in that second, I had a flash of all the times I had witnessed my mom inviting people to church over the years. As a kid it was so embarrassing to have your mom invite waitresses, secretaries, cashiers, just about everyone, to church. She told them what Earl had told her, “I’ll be watching for you and happy to sit with you.” Mom became a living parable because some old farmer who was originally from Chagrin Falls and moved to Ravenna had also become a living parable and invited her to church.
These parables of Jesus show us how God creates powerful growth for the Kingdom or Dominion of God from small beginnings. And it is not lost on me how this visit from Earl Barnett, which influenced my family’s return to church after a nasty divorce in which my mom lost her spirit for a time, restored us to our church home and eventually led to me coming here 30 years ago as youth pastor.
I would like for you to imagine yourself taking a bold step for God’s Dominion. I would like to ask you to consider being a living parable. Be the earthly example of a Heavenly concept.
I have been a fan of William Slone Coffin since being presented a copy of a book of his quotes – thanks Mo and Tony. One that I refer to often is, “We all belong to one another. That’s the way God made us. Christ died to keep us that way. Our sin is only and always that we put asunder what God has joined together.”
We were created for each other. Coffin says that is God’s intention for all humanity and the reason Jesus died. When we destroy this relationship though neglect, racism, indifference or ignorance, we are committing a great sin.
He also said, “Am I my brother’s keeper? No, I am my brother’s brother or sister. Human unity is not something we are called upon to create, only to recognize.”
At a UCC missions gathering I heard a story of a UCC church in the northeast that was heavily invested in the movement in the 80s to bring El Salvadorian refugees into the United States. When this church, I believe in the Boston area, agreed to sponsor a family for the first time, one of the members of the church strongly opposed the decision and was very active and vocal in trying to shut down the effort. He had a fist full of reasons as to why this was a bad idea for the church. He made calls, attended meetings, and spoke frequently of his objection to bringing in the family. He lost his battle.
Surprisingly, he did not take his defeat and leave the church. Once the decision was made, he closed the matter in his mind and remained active in the church.
Then day came when the new family was arriving at the airport, and someone with a van was needed to pick them up, greet them and load their stuff up to return them to the place the church had arranged for them to live.
Incredibly, the man who opposed the sponsorship was first to volunteer to go get them. No one could believe it. And the pastor has some reservations, so he went to talk to the man.
“George,” the pastor began, “I am quite surprised that you have volunteered to go pick up the Ramirez family. Why the change in heart?”
“Pastor,” replied George, “I said my piece when we were considering taking in this family. I let everyone know why I was against it and did what I could to put an end to it. But the church voted to do this, and I love this church and these people, so I have to trust the decisions of others. They are coming now. It is my duty as a Christian to welcome them and work with them to help them be successful. That’s why I’d like to go pick them up.”
George became a living parable. Even when it was about something for which he had objections. He trusted the process of his church family, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and did what was initially objectionable. He lived the love of Jesus as he greeted the Ramirez family on that day when they come to their new home full of anxiety and fear.
Two weeks ago, I asked you to Be the Sower. Today I ask you to Be the Living Parable. Live a life of love and acceptance that makes people notice that there is something wonderfully different about you. Engage in lifestyle evangelism that is inviting and compassionate. You can show them Jesus without even saying his name.
Earl invited my mom to church. Something about him made her know he was genuine, and it completely changed her life. She became much like him and her invitations changed the lives of many others. Decades later I end up here and so now you know who to blame for that mess. Earl Barnett – former Chagrinite.
Jesus is affirming that we, each and every one of us, can make a difference in this world. We can do it daily – even moment to moment. One of the songs we sing at the RISE service, Go make a Difference, has become popular on our youth led work camps. Making a difference is one of the characteristics of being Christ-like. And in a world that is filled with so much need, it is important to remember that our efforts are led by the Spirit of God and will bring change. And when we get discouraged, we might remember this little story.
One day a man was walking along the beach, when he noticed a boy hurriedly picking up and gently throwing things into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “Young man, what are you doing?” The boy replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” The man laughed to himself and said, “Don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make any difference!” After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said, “I made a difference to that one.”