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Stories that Jesus Imparts

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

August 23, 2020
Matthew 13:10-17

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew

Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.


On Friday, NPR personality Guy Raz sent out a Tweet that struck me as being perfectly relatable here in the second half of whatever 2020 has become. He was looking for recommendations for a new TV show to watch, and he wrote, “I’m gonna watch something tonight,” But “I need a show that won’t make me sad, scared, anxious, depressed, or pessimistic about the future.” Which turns out to be a tall order. A few good recommendations came in. The Good Place. The Great British Bake-Off, which has become a regular dosage of soothing in the Gaventa household over the past few years. Someone brought up that a bunch of old episodes of Murder, She Wrote are available streaming now which seems like about as calming and non-anxious a thing as I can imagine. There were actually quite a few suggestions, and quite a few enthusiasts for the conversation — for that simple reason, of course, that I think Guy Raz was expressing something a lot bigger than himself, this sense that, in a year of pandemic and social unrest and wildfires and murder hornets and two hurricanes in the gulf at the same time and of course there’s an election. Just tell me a story. One that isn’t about anything.

I’ll admit that my own Netflix diet has run through that exact filter for at least a year now, and while I do it, it feels like I’m stockpiling these shows that I should watch, that I know I’m supposed to watch, but that I don’t quite have the resilience for at the moment. I should watch the Watchmen reboot from last fall, but it feels serious in a way that I’m not sure I’m up for — same for the new Lovecraft Country. I really wanted to watch Chernobyl, the HBO series from last year about the Soviet mishandling of the nuclear meltdown, but I’m not sure I have room to watch another government be inept about a public health crisis. I have been recommended to watch the Netflix documentary Immigration Nation, which is apparently an unrestrained and brutal tour of our own country’s current enforcement mechanisms, and I know that I should watch it, but I’m also not entirely sure that I want to know more, right now, than I currently do. It’s a terrible thing to admit. Especially when there are so many talented creators making such beautiful and timely and urgent work. And it’s the stuff I know I should be watching. Because the critics of Twitter tell me so all the time.

I have a feeling that the disciples in this moment of Matthew’s Gospel also kinda want Jesus to give them the hard stuff. After all, of course, Jesus’ day is no less urgent, at least not to the eyes of the Gospel writer. For Matthew, Jesus’s ministry is meant as the next chapter of the long story of people sent by God to lead Israel, people sent by God to save and deliver Israel, and of course, there’s a specific political crisis of Matthew’s moment, which Israel under occupation, Israel bristling under Roman overreach, Israel’s own Jewish leadership not always behaving up to the highest standards. And I kinda think the disciples would like Jesus to talk about that. After all, he’s the Messiah. It seems like he ought to talk about the world as it is. Seems like he ought to stand there and name the ills of the world as they are. It seems like a good dose of documentary truth would do them all a world of good.

But instead, he keeps just telling stories. Someone asks him about fasting, and about the strict rules governing fasting set up for observant Jews, which has all kinds of traction for Jews living inside an occupied economy, and he says, “Well, let me tell about this wedding that I heard about.” And then later, someone else asks him about Sabbath observance, which, yet again, is a really testy subject when your culture does not have enough power in the market to decide which days their shops should be open and when the business is gonna come through, and so Jesus takes on this crucially important issue of the day by saying, “Well, let’s imagine that there was a sheep that fell into a hole.” And then, just in the moment preceding this text, the crowds have come out thick around him, he’s actually gotten into a boat to talk to them because they’ve run out of space on the lakeshore, now he’s got all of Galilee in his pocket now and he could raise up an army in a hot second and just think of the good he could do with that kind of backing in this political furnace and so he takes the microphone and he just lays into Rome as thick as he can. No, I’m kidding. Actually, he says “Listen, a guy went out to plant some crops, let me tell you what happened next.”

We’ll talk about that story next week. For now, I just want to feel the disciples losing their patience. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” they ask, with such pleading. This is not the time for your quaint afternoon stories, Jesus. This is not the time for comfort programming. This is not the time to beat around the bush. There is too much work to do, and too much urgency, and you have too much power and authority. They’ll listen to you. Tell them what they need to hear. Give them the hard news. We’re not here to entertain. We’re here to teach, and motivate, and organize. Tell the truth. Tell it direct. No more fairy tales. No more sit-coms. Time for hardball. But Jesus doesn’t quite buy the argument. I mean, first he flatters the disciples just a bit — oh, I know you all get it, you understand, y’all are great. That’s why you’re disciples! But not everybody gets it, not everybody quite gets it enough for us to just all speak the same language. They’re not ready, and he quotes Isaiah — “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes.” As soon as I launch into kingdom of God this or Roman occupation that, I’m gonna lose them, Jesus says. They can’t even hear it anymore. All I can do is tell stories. All I can do is tell parables. All I can do, Jesus says, in that great tradition of Emily Dickinson, all I can do is tell the truth, but tell it slant.

Because for Jesus, of course, there’s nothing truer than a parable. Of course, he’s not the first or last to speak in parables; he sits in a long rabbinic tradition of storytelling that started long before his ministry and continued long after it. But there’s a reason that tradition sticks around. Because the stories are the most elemental stuff. And they’re made of the most elemental stuff, the stuff of weddings and shepherds and sowers going into the field. It’s born of a conviction that has also run through this congregation all during this strange pandemic season, the conviction that stories of God are made of the stuff all around us, and everywhere around us, that if we open our eyes and our ears we can find #signsoflife and #signsoflove everywhere. And in that conviction, of course, is a timelessness, the assuredness that Jesus is still trying to speak to his people in a way they will understand and hear, and that the questions we ask now can still live in these stories. Jesus, how can we ever get through this pandemic season together as a church? Jesus, what does it mean for our congregation to do the hard work of anti-racism? Jesus, how do I get through an election cycle without my brain falling completely out of my head? And Jesus says. Well, there was a sower who went out to sow. And the story can still do its work.

So, this fall at UPC we are going to read parables together. Matthew’s Jesus speaks in a wide array of parables, starting with the story of the sower going out to sow that brackets today’s reading, and we are going to hear Jesus speak to us in these every day, ordinary stories. You know a bunch of them already. You’ve seen these episodes before. The one where the sheep gets lost. The one where the man throws a banquet. The one where the workers show up all throughout the day but they all get paid the same. You will know the rhythms and the beats and the turns and the heroes and the villains as surely as you might know the beats of an old episode of Murder, She Wrote. We are not going for deep cuts. We are not playing new material. In this very extraordinary time. This very anxiety-provoking time. This very exhausting and unsettling and depressing time. I want us to take these stories that we know so well. I want us to dive into these stories that we know so well. I want us to wrap ourselves in these stories that we know so well, these stories that have been told time and time and time again. I want Jesus to tell us a story.

But not because they’re comfortable. The point of telling these stories, the point of gathering together on a Sunday morning, even and especially in these extraordinary times, and hearing these stories, that point is not to find an hour a week that won’t make us sad, or scared, or anxious, or depressed, or pessimistic about the future. We are too called into the world, and the world as it is, to seal ourselves off on Sunday morning and pretend like church is an episode of The Great British Bake-Off. To the contrary. We tell these stories not because they’re comfortable. We tell them because they’re true. Because they are, in the long tradition of the church, and in the deep wisdom of the Spirit, and in the words of Jesus Christ himself, because they are the Gospel in its truest form, as critically timeless for our day as it was for his. So, if you want to talk about the world together, this world, this broken extraordinary world in this broken extraordinary time, this world with its pandemic and its unrest and its wildfire and its murder hornets and two hurricanes in the gulf at the same time. If you want to talk about that world, in its fullness, and us in our fullness, right now, in the urgency of this moment, in the extraordinariness of this time, then I hope you’ll join us, week in and week out, Sundays at 11.

Jesus wants to tell us a story. But be warned. It just might be about something.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.


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