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"Folk Songs and Parables" 7th Sunday After Pentecost - July 16, 2023

There’s a story I heard a while back. It’s about three different people who died at the same time.

A secular humanist, a mystic, and a Christian fundamentalist. All three of them were whisked away and found themselves standing in front of a door that led into a little room where Jesus sat. The first one to enter the room with Jesus was the secular humanist. He walks in, door shuts behind him, and five hours later the secular humanist leaves the room, his face beaming with excitement and he says, “I had no idea I had it so wrong.” Next to enter the room with Jesus was the mystic, again door shuts, and ten hours later, she emerges tears of joy pouring down her face, and she says, “I had no idea I had it so wrong.” Last to enter the room with Jesus was the Christian fundamentalist. He walks in, door shuts behind him, and five minutes later – just five minutes later – Jesus walks out of the room, shaking his head, saying, “I had no idea I had it so wrong.”

I like this story. If you like it too…I’m glad. I like it because…at first – at first…I get to laugh at other people – right? Those fundamentalists – those “other people”…but then, then it brings me up short…and it’s like, Oh wait…wait a minute…I think that may be me too. Am I? Do I…think like that? Do I assume I know like that? What do I presume to know? Good stories do that. There’s a phrase in Irish, Is matten sachen suil harad, “A friend’s eye is a good mirror.” Stories can be like that…good friends, good mirrors.

Jesus taught in stories – parables. Mostly. Which is really quite something, don’t you think? Especially considering today – the Church’s primary way of teaching is through dispensing doctrine…giving you “correct belief.” And we can say, “Ah well…that’s because of the apostle Paul…it’s really his fault, he wrote all those letters to the churches and made it all about something different. He was just raising money you know…just a perpetual fundraising mission to Spain…so he made the message a little different.” Or…or, we can say, “It’s that dang old St. Augustine, his hang-ups with his own moral failings, that weird fixation he had on the faith of his mother, of course he made it all about believing the right things…” Of course, we could say those things…and we do sometimes. But…not only is that an oversimplification of two significant and influential voices, isn’t that just, again, making the story about other people…not seeing how that kind of messaging still goes on, has still lasted all these many, many years…because we – that’s right WE – like it. We get to stroke our egos and say, “I know what this whole thing is about. I got it. I got it. Right beliefs? Check, check, and check….” Also…it’s just easier that way, isn’t it? It’s a lot easier to amass information than allow transformation. It’s a lot easier to checklist beliefs than be on a life-long journey to change the way we think.

Which is why, I think, Jesus taught in parables most of the time. Not to give us a checklist of beliefs, not to dispense information or doctrine, but to help us transform the way we think about God, ourselves, and others. To jolt his listeners into a deeper reality, beyond the categories of right and wrong, good and bad, me and you. No fables, or proverbs, or moral pontifications…but parables.

A few weeks ago, I went on a little road trip. I was making my way through Oklahoma…and I saw a sign. Okehma, Oklahoma…”Well wait a minute”, I said to myself… “Martha Russell, our wonderfully talented administrative assistant and EFM mentor is from Okehma. I should pull over and take some pictures to text her.” And in pulling over, something else struck me…”Woody Guthrie is from Okehma, Oklahoma!” I’m going to find his childhood home – which I did…just a big empty lot on the other side of the tracks there…nothing but the remains of a foundation, and a big tree trunk beautifully carved with the words This Land is Your Land, this Land is My Land. I stood there in that empty lot, full of overgrown grass and weeds – and I couldn’t help but think of the difficult and painful childhood Woody endured in that old lot – I couldn’t help but wonder what song he might sing to us now – and I tipped my hat and paid homage to a man who altered the landscape of American song and verse.

I love what Woody Guthrie said about folk songs.

He once said, “Folk songs are meant to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.”

You know…I wonder if the parables of Jesus are meant to do the same?? Disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed…Like this one…The Parable of the Sower. A familiar parable, right? And unlike many of his parables, Jesus elucidates on this one – unpacking the different kinds of ground on which the seeds fall. And because of that…we have a tendency these two thousand years later of assuming that’s it – lesson learned, morality extracted, moving-on. But, we miss something if we do that. We miss the disturbance. We miss the comfort. We miss the transformation.

Where’s the disturbance? Well…it might just be in the title Jesus gives the parable. It is, after all called, The Parable of the (What?) the Sower. Let’s look at this Sower. What is happening in the story? Is he meticulously planting individual seeds into well tilled, well-tended, well composted beds of soil? As Jesus said, the seeds are the words of the kingdom, the message and ministry he’s brought – and are they being planted in nice, organized, well-kept rows, is this Sower even going back and making sure these seeds have an appropriate soil covering? NO!!! NOT AT ALL! The image here is of a Sower just casting seed left and right…there’s no attention given to the particularities of where it will land. This Sower is just risking it all – casting the seed far and wide trusting that it will find good soil. Now, this would be disturbing to those versed in the Hebrew Scriptures (Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah) where YHWH is sowing. But…it’s in the particular soil of Israel…and even more by the time Jesus is teaching…those whose lives are considered “good soil” because of their meticulous attention to the law, to the holy observances, to the do’s and don’ts of a nuanced religious culture. There’s no mention of this in the Parable of the Sower…the good soil could be anyone, anywhere…the Sower so reckless, so wasteful, so indiscriminate. What kind of a Sower would do such a thing?

Probably a Sower cut from the same cloth as a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine healthy sheep behind for the one lost in the wilderness. Probably a Sower cut from the same cloth as a man who finds a treasure, buries it in a field, and sells all he has for the one field. Probably a Sower cut from the same cloth as a vineyard owner who pays the workers the same wage whether they worked a full day or one hour. Probably a Sower cut from the same cloth as the father who hikes up his robe, embarrasses himself, running down the road to embrace the son who wasted his inheritance.

It's disturbing. If you think you’ve earned it. It’s disturbing. If you think your righteousness saves you. It’s disturbing. If you’re entitled.

Oh…but wait. It’s also a comfort.

It’s a comfort for those who are poor in spirit. It’s a comfort for those who hunger and thirst for a righteousness they can’t muster on their own. It’s a comfort for those who are hurting.

A little later down the road from Woody Guthrie’s hometown. I was standing in the Lower Illinois River fishing one evening – trying to shake a thought. The thought that I wasn’t enough. Not doing enough. Not creative enough. Not leading enough. Just…trying to let go, give up on the whole project of “enough.”

I was sharing this experience with a dear, trusted friend last week and she looked at me from across the table and said – “Jared, don’t forget. Don’t forget the kingdom of God works hidden, below the surface, underground.”

You see…it can be a comfort to those of us who wrestle with never being enough, who are learning to trust that the broken-ness of our hearts is the very thing that makes us open to receive the gift…a gift that works in ways we can’t see most of the time. But it’s there.

“Let anyone with ears listen…” That’s what Jesus said.

“Let anyone with ears listen…”

What do you hear this morning?

If it disturbs us, then maybe we’ve heard the story.

If it comforts us, then maybe we’ve heard the story.


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