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Take Care How You Hear

March 13, 2022 Speaker: Josh Moon Series: The Gospel according to Luke

Passage: Luke 8:1–8:39

In the shape Luke has given the story of Jesus, he is touring around teaching in the small villages that dot the landscape of Israel—mostly in the north of the region. There is a lake with great fishing right there, called the Sea of Galilee. And all around it are tiny villages. Jesus is going around to them, healing and speaking and confronting and gathering. More and more people are beginning to follow him around; word about him is starting to go out. He's becoming a celebrity preacher. And here we have a simple parable set into that growing celbrity.

A sower went out to sow some seeds. The terms of the parable are not difficult; the story without any explanation would be rather simple, explaining an experience everyone knows. It's an agrarian society, farming-based; they know what happens to seeds, know how to toss them into the ground and know that some gets scattered into places that won't grow.

Jesus gives a simple story without much plot development, and then closes with an ominous sounding phrase: "The one who has ears to hear, let him hear."

"Ok..."

His disciples know something more is happening than a story about a sower and seeds, but it's not obvious so they ask him. As the great crowd is assembling Jesus says that he, more or less, is the sower scattering the word of God around as he goes. And there are, and will be, these various responses to it.

This has always been the history of God's speaking in the world: it goes out and it lands all kinds of places. Preachers have always found this to be true, from culture-shaping preachers like Billy Graham to the small-town pastor. Different scale, same patterns. Some hear Christian teaching about God, who he is, what he desires from and has himself done for his creation, and find it entirely uninteresting; a shrug. Maybe they imagine some appreciation for Jesus as a teacher, as a symbol of something; then off they go hardly thinking on it again. Or sometimes we find outright hostility, and for every reason under the sun. Obviously that was a part of Jesus' own experience, and the response he got from many.

Seeds that go on the path are trampled; they seem wasted, certainly produce nothing that will be of any lasting impact.

The middle two landing places for the seeds are mirrors of one another: on one side you have those who leave being a disciple out of a fear of discomfort, and on the other those who leave out of a desire for greater comfort. On one side the word of God was great, right up until I lost my child; right up until I got cancer; right up until the divorce; right up until... put in any crisis. I thought it was supposed to help me be happy; was something like Aladdin's genie now in my corner—not so crass as that, but at least someone who won't let me suffer.

And on the other side the word of God was great, right up until I found I could be more powerful, wealthier—we would say "feel more fulfilled" elsewhere. We have made "feeling fulfilled" the goal of all things, and so it is tempting to think that the message of God's kingdom has to be in those terms: where you really, really will feel fulfilled. We find that message sometimes in the church because sometimes it's kind of, sort of true: that happiness is found in the kingdom of God. The problem, of course, is that Jesus never says anything like life in the kingdom of God in its "still coming" stage means you will feel fulfilled and comfortable. So if that is how we think of the Christian life, as a means by which I find comfort and self-fulfilment (God as the great self-help tool), we will soon find ourselves disappointed.

And this isn't only (or chiefly) about small things—a lumpy couch, a better job. I read an essay not long ago by a man named Wes Hill, a scholar of the New Testament and a faithful Christian who is also gay, living with a reality of same-sex attraction. His essay uses J.R.R. Tolkien's phrase of the Christian life as a "long defeat." He was once told that Jesus was going to change his body, his emotions, the way his brain was firing because he found it so discouraging, so wearying to walk through life with a disordered attraction. Some have found change that way, but for his part he says:

"I haven't experienced one iota of the promised 'change'... that some Christians have held out to me, and as someone who also hasn't been able to embrace a more progressive understanding of same-sex marriage, I've often felt like I'm fighting a kind of long defeat."

He knows the line that God really just wants you to be happy, to be fulfilled.  He's told that by a lot of people. But he's honest enough of a reader of the Bible to know that this was never what was said. He lives with frustrations and grief about sexuality that is not the sole property of a gay man, but is uniquely difficult. So he asks the question bluntly:

is God in Christ the sort of God who would ask His children to embrace a lifelong loneliness, a long defeat?

He pushes the question into what every Christian, every hearer of the word of God has to sit with: is God in Christ the sort of God who would ask His children to embrace a lifelong loneliness (a phrase he borrowed from another saint, Dorothy Day)? Those with infertility, those longing to marry, those who cannot break out of poverty, those who live (and lived) their whole lives as slaves, as poor, hungry. Is God in Christ the sort of God who would ask his children to live a life more like a long defeat than an "abundant life"? Turns out, yes. Not always—many find fulfillment, happiness, joy. Everyone finds some of it; and everyone finds borders to it, an end. The sometimes-sudden collapse of the comfort that was so long enjoyed. Or the lifelong embrace of it being hard. Who are the blessed? Dr. Hill writes:

God might just be the kind of God who asks what feels well-nigh impossible: who asks us to give up the one thing that our “natural” selves most want, which seems for all the world like what we’re most suited for...

Now he's talking language all of us know. We are all a part of creation that is groaning for redemption. Some of us feel it in the hardships of being a sexual creature in a disordered world; some of us feel it in our bodies and emotions and stories and... fill in the blank. But we all know that groaning, and know sometimes that we are asked to walk away from what seems for all the world what we most want, in order to walk towards a long defeat.

Cheery stuff, yes? But I cannot be a peddlar, one who tries to sell a false message because it helps us feel like we're nicer or more compassionate than Jesus. I want you to know and follow the real Jesus. I want to be honest with this part of what we are doing as a church. So the application that Jesus himself draws:

Take care how you hear.

Jesus says that plainly, and it's the most pressing point in the section as a whole: take care how you hear. If you hear it and take it in, and do nothing about it then you are like one who lights a lamp and sticks a bucket over it. Even the startling—maybe even offensive—dismissal of his own mother and brothers comes under that heading. Some have tried very hard to make Mary look better, but as it stands Jesus' statement is startling. Mark, in his story of Jesus, tells us that Mary thought Jesus was losing his mind; John says bluntly that Mary and her other sons don't believe. In a world where family ties trumped everything else, Jesus redefines his family into those who hear the word of God and keep it: the good soil. If that leaves Mary elsewhere, then it leaves her elsewhere. (And thankfully it did not leave her elsewhere.)

But we also have to see the utter absurdity of this parable; why it is that Mary and his own brothers had doubts right at this point. On the one hand, as I said, the different soils was always how things went for the word of God. Read through the prophets of ancient Israel and you will see them grappling with the soils in the same way that you find in Jesus, same way you find everywhere. But here's the issue: the Messiah was supposed to be different.

The coming of the kingdom of God was not supposed to be like a sower going to sow seeds. I mean, come on. It was supposed to be like a lion at the head of army. I mean, "lion of Judah" has a different ring to it than "small-time farmer of Judah." Mary and Jesus' brothers didn't doubt Jesus' healings, his power, his integrity—it was that he was going around saying things like the kingdom of God that he was bringing to earth was like a sower, scattering seeds. 

We can sharpen the point a little I think: we've had so much of the seed-scattering already. It doesn't seem to be doing much good.

And so we return once more to the slow work of God: that the kingdom of God roaring like a lion also looks like a sower with his seed. In the last writing in the New Testament, the book called "Revelation" (a weird, wonderful book), John writes about a vision he has. At one point he is weeping over all the injustice still sweeping over the world and no one is there to stop it, to open the scroll and bring peace and make the world right. And one of the figures in God's throneroom tells him:

Weep no more! Look! The Lion of the tribe of Judah!

John turns and looks and sees... a lamb who had been slain. John, which is it?

Seeds take time, a not-subtle part of the parable. They are tiny, small. We've just heard, not by accident, of a handful of disciples. The twelve who were especially a part of the caravan: tax collectors, toll-booth operators, fishermen. And then a handful of others like Mary from the town of Magdala (Magdalene), which is not far from the Sea of Galilee. She had seven demons driven out of her, which is precisely the kind of information you don't put on your c.v. We have Joanna, about whom we know nothing more than what's said here. Susanna, of whom we know just the name. Part of the point is Luke naming his sources, I think. But he names them here for a reason: there are seeds that are already forming.

A woman who was a publicly known sinner. A Gentile centurion whose servant was ill. An unnamed woman we will meet in a moment who was bleeding and could not stop the bleeding. Not the cream of the crop, in other words. Not the ones you would put together to change the world and undo all the power of injustice and violence and grief and loss, and all the intellectual weight. 

Disciple: "Jesus, some hugely powerful intellects are going to challenge all of this stuff."

Jesus: "I choose... fishermen."

Disciple: "Jesus, there will be a lot of doubt, a lot of skepticism, a lot of suffering that will be so hard to take."

Jesus: "I choose... a woman no one knows and another who is known only because she used to have lots of demons."

When we first inched towards doing this rather weird work of starting a new church to serve the city, a friend of ours gave us a picture of a banyan tree. There are lots of ways that it ties to a church plant, especially one like ours. Banyan trees grow by sending their roots down from their branches which extend wide. The roots go down from the branch into the ground and then grow into the new trunk, its own thing that is never fully separated from the parent.

You can see why she gave me this picture. We wanted a church not because there were no good churches in the world, or in this part of the world; but because we love the church. We don't want to be separated; we want to find our own life along with all these other trees that have grown and are still receiving their life in part from the great long tradition of the church through the ages. We sing old songs because we are a part of the tree that has always sung old songs; we sing new ones because we are also a part of the newer parts of that old tree. We have old prayers because we love our connection, yet are happy to be in a school cafeteria. We belong to the old, gnarled, immense church, and are a new church still trying to get our roots down from the branch into the ground (and hoping we get there: hoping we sink? Plummet? Go downhill fast? Please don't push the metaphor too far...)

What I also love is that these trees take a long time in their work. From a single seed you can end up with (in one case) five acres given to the one tree in all of its parts. But that tree is hundreds of years old. No one who saw the start of that tree lived to see much more than a few promising roots emerge and become new trees.

Slow work. Patient work. Imperfect work that stumbles and fails sometimes. I spend much of my week running like a headless chicken trying to do enough things to keep us as a new church moving forward, and sometimes I step back and it is all such small, slow work. I agonize sometimes (when I have the luxury) over which words to use in an email or a sermon, or which words I wish I had not used. And the truth is, my fear is that the seed will have the same reactions that Jesus found and talks about. I want it all to land in rich soil that is heavily fertilized (so people with a lot of something in their stories?), and will grow fast and full and we will be efficient, and on it goes. I wish the church, at least our church, was less the lamb and more the lion; less the slow growth of small seeds and more the explosive start-up.

The kingdom of God is like a sower going out with seeds; some land on the path, some choked by weeds, some in rocky soil. Even the ones that land where they grow take a long time. Our call is patience, trust, and taking care how we hear.

More in The Gospel according to Luke

May 29, 2022

Jesus on Fearing God (and Fearing Nothing Else)

May 22, 2022

Jesus on Hypocrisy in the Church

May 15, 2022

Jesus on Prayer