Once long ago, a carpenter was born into a tribe of farmers, merchants, and shepherds. As the carpenter grew into a boy then a man, people in his area began to get suspicious of him. See, these people had long ago settled into the land and they survived by studying, listening to, and living off the soil, trees, and grass.
But this young carpenter came with a new vision for life, a vision of casting out and sailing the deep blue sea.
Everywhere this carpenter went crowds gathered around him. He often spoke in healing ways and told strange stories about life on the water. Crowds would disperse after hearing the carpenter speak with newfound hope and sense of life because of his beautiful visions and stories about the sea.
The carpenter continued his life going from village to village proclaiming life on the salty sea. He even began to draw up blueprints and make notes about his vision for sailing, a vision for a completely new way of life.
Along with a few faithful followers this carpenter began to build a ship on the sands of the sea. But like Moses who didn’t get to cross into the promised land, the carpenter died before ever setting sail. So his followers continued the good work and finished the boat and eventually cast out to sea.
Time passes and soon people are born on the ship who never knew the carpenter. It seems that life on the sea is as beautiful and wondrous as the carpenter ever spoke of, yet everyone still desires the land. Running deep within their veins is the soil of their ancestry, while the salt of the sea continues to burn their lungs.
Time passes and new generations come along and fortify the ship for fear of the sea. All windows are boarded up and no one is allowed on deck. The dream and vision of life on the sea is soon replaced with life in the ship. Most everyone’s effort was put forth in maintaining the vessel. Of course, once every week everyone on board would gather to read and talk about the carpenter and his notes, some even sang songs in praise of the carpenter.
Others dedicated themselves to the study of the carpenter and tried to figure out exactly what he really said, and what earlier generations might have added to his notes. Others found this study frivolous and decided to make the ship hospitable by using all their energy to adorn the vessel.
Times passes and people continue to desire the land while still revisiting the need to be on the sea at least according to the readings from the carpenter’s work. The ship is maintained and people bicker and argue about what the carpenter really meant and said. Vision for life on the sea is all but lost.
Then one day some children were playing in the hull of the ship and a mother noticed the wood beginning to crack. By this time the ship had seen hundreds and hundreds of years of service. Everyone’s minds were filled with images of the children being violently swept out to sea. Fear filled the air of the hull with the anticipation that drowning water would soon follow.
And before anyone could get to the children one child broke through the wood. But something surprising happened. Instead of a great splash of water bursting into the ship, a great cloud of dust puffed through the hole.
To their bewilderment, the sea had long ago dried up and the ship laid not in the midst of water, but rather in the midst of land and the civilization they had originally deserted all those years ago. And it wasn’t until they began to go forth from the vessel that the teachings of the carpenter began to make sense.
This story of course, is my own parable, if you will. As we saw from the reading this morning, this was Jesus preferred way of teaching, in stories or parables. Not that I pretend to have special insider knowledge or even that a parable simply has one single, once for all time meaning, but with the gap between Jesus’s time and now, I wonder if we lose some of what Jesus meant with these simple, yet complex stories.
Many of the commentaries and a few sermons I read on this text always pointed to one theme: faith. They say, Jesus was teaching about the power of a little, mustard seed-like faith or the power of God's word to plant itself mysteriously in faith. But I wonder if these parables are less about the need for faith, and more about the need for doubt.
Is Jesus sowing seeds of doubt?
Under roman occupation and a history of oppression, the Jews of the 1st century long awaited the appearance of the Messiah. This day was the eschatological day of the Lord, the day when God would come with a sword and bring vengeance to Israel’s enemies and restore the Davidic kingdom.
But we know when Jesus came on the scene; he compelled people to believe that God’s Kingdom of peace & reconciliation was right in front of them.
And this is what Jesus was focusing in on when he says: “The Kingdom of God is like”. With those words, he began to rock the religious system of every 1st century listener. Jesus spoke these words not only so people would believe toward the Kingdom, BUT so they would believe away from a religious system, doubting the very thing they measured life by.
This was the exact problem of Jesus: he wasn’t quite the Messiah people were expecting. Even Peter, the unshakable rock, the guy who walked on water questioned Jesus’ way of bringing in the kingdom. Not only was it not violent, but it reversed violence and called those who would follow Jesus to die with him.
Jesus still seems to defy the categories we place on him.
What we find in these parables of Jesus is a call to put the primary things first and secondary things second. Or, by doubting what we place as primary, we can become people of peace, reconciliation, and love.
Did you know Google has the power to transform how we think and read?
At least this is what social science researcher Katie McGowan writes in her article, “Does Google (re)Make Us?
McGowan writes that “we are not only what we read…we are how we read it.”
She likens this shift in thinking to the effects of the clock on humans. Before the clock was invented people measured the day, went to sleep and woke up according to the sun. But with the invention of the clock we began to change our internal habits of eating and sleeping.
So, in our search for knowledge Google and the internet has given us something no civilization on earth has experienced before: instant knowledge at our finger tips. McGowan makes this poignant observation: as humans use technology, technology begins to use us.
Thus, Deep textual readings and analysis are replaced by sound bytes; the discipline for concentrating is replaced by short attention spans.
According to this researcher the primary search for knowledge and study, is actually replaced by the secondary methods: research using Google, reducing the human ability to reflect, think, and analyze what is being read.
Jesus spoke in parables because his listeners were entrenched, entrenched in their system of thought that made Jesus’ call to the Kingdom sound silly, for they all knew the Kingdom and it’s Messiah would come with force and power.
The very thing that made Jesus’ crowd “holy” kept them from Jesus & a life of peace & reconciliation.
So, what he is saying in these two parables is that despite appearances, despite our tendency to measure and control; it is not the KoG which is here and coming that should be doubted, but our religious systems that give us the appearance of goodness and righteousness.
Yet, because it’s easier to doubt the power of God’s mysterious rule than our religious life, we often approach Jesus like those on boat from my earlier story.
First, we make the voyage not about actually sailing and living according to what the carpenter taught, but about studying sailing and the carpenter’s teaching.
These Christians are like soldiers who sit in a foxhole and when the captain commands them to charge, they all remain seated. One soldier remarks on the tenor of the captains voice, another parses the words of the captain, while another argues if it was even the captain’s voice at all…all the while the front closes in on them.
It’s as if we think that thinking is doing something. As if the call of Jesus is to think about Jesus.
Before we know it, we think we can consume our way into following Christ.
“If I read one more book, go to one more conference, join a Bible study, then I’m more of a Christian. If I can recite to you Marcus Borg or NT Wright, Brian McLaren or whatever new curriculum, then I’m following Jesus.”
Of course, there are others that find this way of being a Christian as frivolous.
These Christians are those of us, who spend all our energy on the life in the ship.
Much like the power of Google to shape how we think and read, making church or life in the ship primary can shape you into thinking you are a person of peace and reconciliation. But sometimes the truth is, some of the most bitter, power hungry, and angry people I’ve ever met have been people in the church.
Missiologist and church planter Alan Hirsch is right when he says:
It is theologically correct to say that the church IS NOT the kingdom. The church serves as a sign, a symbol, a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. The kingdom can express itself in and through the church in powerful ways, but the Kingdom extends to God’s rule everywhere.
Or as one of my favorite theologians says: “It is not that the church has a mission, rather it is God’s mission that has a church.”
Now, I’m not saying these things aren’t important. Of course studying and reflecting upon faith, Scripture, and history are important. Of course, church work and programs are necessary. But neither are primary.
In allowing Jesus to sow seeds of doubt, we may find that we've allowed secondary things to become primary!
We make going to church, more important than being church. We make being entertained more important than being formed. We make committees more important than forgiveness. We make amassing knowledge more important than the doing of that knowledge. We board up our windows and make our life central; over against the life of God, who as Bono says “is playing house among the poor, the forgotten, and marginalized.”
These stories of insignificant seeds point back to one thing: In Jesus’ words and work, the Kingdom had made its entrance.
Tony Campolo says, "I wish [Jesus] would ask, 'Virgin Birth: strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree? Check one.' But those are not the questions. [The questions are] 'I was hungry, did you feed me? I was a stranger, did you make room for me?"
Faced with the decision to continue the beautiful and wondrous life on the sea, the people on the ship gave up in the face of the discomforts and growth pains of transformation. All the while life around them shifted and changed.
It was about my sophomore year of college when I all but lost my faith. As a religion major at a small Christian University: Mary Hardin-Baylor, I entered into a second and continual transformation.
My first big transformation came when I became a Christian, swinging far from being an atheist at the age of 17 to hard, fundamentalist faith as a senior in high school. For the first two years of my new life as a Christian, Christ radically transformed me with the power of forgiveness, but as this experience past away I soon replaced that vision of love and forgiveness with religious measurements for my faith as well as others.
Doing church, being a “holy” person, and closing myself off from the world became central. But in my struggle to reconnect with God, I found God planting seeds of doubt.
See, in the fall of my second year, I took two classes with Dr. Carol Holcomb, a brilliant woman theologian, a feminist and a deacon (of course in my early faith, all these things were contradictory to me, at least in the same sentence). Through her teaching and this new relationship, I internally began to question everything I had grown to know, everything that kept my faith safe.
So, my faith began to shrivel and die. I had become a judgmental, closed off person; fooled into thinking that I was righteous b/c I studied the Bible, worked at a church, and supposedly knew who was holy and who wasn’t.
It wasn’t until I learned through some mentors and friends that following Christ into the margins, actually doing forgiveness, and living love instead of just talking about them, that I again met God.
It was then I learned that meeting God and following Christ, finding love and peace were made real by giving love and peace, by following God found in the margins and often outside the walls of church.
As the world, our culture shifts around us, we, the church, are called to be a sign, a foretaste of God’s hope by going out into the world, to Austin, your neighborhood, or maybe even in this church and really doing the hard work of peace, love, and reconciliation….by making following Christ primary and real, thus realizing what has been true all along, in Christ you are a new Creation.
[God, you have loved us and been patient with your people. Holy Spirit, awaken us to your activity in us, around us, and through us. May we know you more by following you in the difficult and narrow path of reconciliation. We ask God, in your goodness that you’d give us the faith to doubt what we place over our lives and over you, relinquishing control and efficiency for the messiness of forgiveness and love. Truly in you we are already a New Creation, so we ask for faithfulness in making your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.]
Despite all appearances, trust that the Kingdom of reconciliation and peace is here among you. Leave this place as a servants to God’s causes, finding patience for love in the face of hate; justice in the face of oppression; and new life in the face of brokenness. May you, in the imitation of Christ, incarnate hope to the hopeless, light to the darkness, and water to the thirsty. Go now embodying a new way of life, go now sharing the gift of reconciliation, go now in peace.