January 19, 2020

“Ears to Hear”

Mark 4:1-34

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

January 19, 2020 (Epiphany 3)


Who was your best teacher?  Why was this person the best?  Mrs. Suzuki was my high school calculus teacher, and among the many good math teachers I had in high school, she was the best.  Mrs. Suzuki was so good that she taught other AP Calculus teachers how to teach the course.  She was a force—she had high expectations, gave lots of homework, demanded that we pay attention in class—no fooling around.  You needed to have your homework done when you arrived for class.  You didn’t want her to yell at you and have your name reverberate throughout the second floor of the math building.  But we learned Calculus.  What made Mrs. Suzuki a good teacher was that she made us engage with the material and wrestle with it until we internalized it.  We knew the ins and outs of derivatives and integrals, and many of us got AP credit for Calculus.  [Don’t ask me about Calculus now, because it was the last math class I ever took and I don’t remember anything because I never used it after that.  Sorry, Mrs. Suzuki!]  She was so loved and respected, that even now when my high school classmates get together, we invite Mrs. Suzuki to join us.  


Jesus was a great teacher too.  And he was great because like Mrs. Suzuki, he made his students wrestle with his teachings about the kingdom of God.  He didn’t just give the answers, he made people think, and sometimes they got it, most times they didn’t.  Jesus made people think and wrestle by using parables.  


Parables are deceivingly simple stories which carry significant meaning.  The word in Greek literally means, “to throw alongside.”  In a parable, two things are put together, thrown alongside each other, and we are challenged to consider the relationship between those two things.  So in the gospels when Jesus begins speaking with the phrase, “The kingdom of God is like…” that’s a parable.  And the challenge is to understand and learn about the qualities and significance of the kingdom of God by its comparison with an everyday phenomenon, like planting seeds.  


Parables invite the curiosity of the listener.  There is no one right answer about their meanings.  Because parables are are subject to many interpretations, they require us to engage with them until we find Jesus’ message to us.  Sometimes, the message changes from one season of life to another.


I listen to a podcast on the Narrative Lectionary, and what I like about it is that it is a conversation between two biblical scholars—Dr. Amy Robertson, a Jewish scholar and leader in a Jewish congregation, and Dr. Robert Williamson, a professor of religious studies and pastor of a church.  It’s always interesting to me to hear Amy’s take on the Bible.  She brings a deep knowledge of the Jewish culture and religion to the conversation.   She helps me see Scripture with fresh eyes.  And it is clear from the banter on the podcast, these two biblical scholars who have different faiths respect each other and invite us to engage with the Scriptures from different perspectives.


I share this because if we think of the Bible as a living book, when we engage with it, wrestle with it, life will spring from it.  And in our wrestling, we become Israel, “one who wrestles with God.”  Jesus’ parables invite us to wrestle with God, wrestle with ideas about what it means to live in the kingdom of God, wrestle with our faith, yes even wrestle with Jesus.


What struck me in the first part of today’s reading was the middle section between the parable and the explanation of its meaning—verses 10-12: 

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables.  He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.  But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,

and ever hearing but never understanding;

otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”


It bothers me because it seems like Jesus is saying there is an in and an out group.  He told the disciples that the secret of the kingdom of God had been given to them—they were inside.  But those on the outside—well, it’s too bad, isn’t it, that they don’t perceive or understand.  And as a consequence, they won’t repent and be forgiven.  They won’t enter the kingdom of God.  Didn’t Jesus love and welcome everyone?


Jesus was quoting from Isaiah’s story of his call to the prophetic ministry.  God gave Isaiah a message to give to the Jewish people, but seemed skeptical about their openness to receiving it.  By saying that they would not understand or perceive, God was telling Isaiah that his prophetic ministry would not be welcomed or embraced.  God knew that even with all the warnings, the people would not heed the call to return to the Lord, and they would be sent into exile.


This week as I read the Parable of the Sower, this inside-outside group was in my mind, and this is what I heard God saying:  As much as Jesus loves the whole world, some people just won’t get it.  God freely, liberally, foolishly sows the seeds of God’s love to all the world, all the different kinds of soils.  And sometimes Satan snatches the seed away.  Sometimes the love isn’t embraced deeply, it doesn’t take root.  Sometimes the distractions of life keep God’s love from having its full effect.  So some don’t perceive, don’t understand, and don’t repent.


But sometimes people do get it.  And when they do, wow—the fruit of the Spirit grows, and the yield is 30 or 60 or 100 times what was sown.


In the chapter prior to our reading, Jesus had “appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mark 3:14-15).   Then he had a run-in with his biological family.  He’s beginning to feel resistance to his ministry, starting with his own family.  Aware that his disciples will also experience resistance, he used the parable to help his disciples understand that it was not going to be easy.  They will minister, but they will not always see the results they want.


We too will minister in Jesus’ name, but we will not always see the results we want.  Our job as Jesus’ followers is to sow the seeds of God’s love with others freely and liberally, without expectation that our efforts yield much, if anything. 


Out of the blue, a colleague recently asked for my address so he could send me two books that he just published.  He told me that he has done workshops and presentations on his previous books and indicated that he was willing to return to Hawaii.  He clearly stated that he wasn’t sending me his books so that I would invite him to do a workshop.  I believe him, and I don’t think I will be inviting him to do a workshop here in Honolulu.  But I do appreciate his generosity in sending me the books.


That’s the kind of attitude with which we are called to share God’s love.  We can’t expect everyone to respond and instantly become faithful followers of Jesus.  Some people’s ears just aren’t ready.  Some people are rocky soil or thorny ground.  But that’s okay.  We need to keep on sowing the seeds of love.  But some of our seeds will be sown in good soil, receptive hearts.  It sounds foolish and inefficient, but that’s the kingdom of God.


This reading of the Parable of the Sower helped me to see links with the three other images or parables that follow in Mark chapter 4.


The parable of the lamp on a stand tells us that the gospel and God’s love is meant to be shared.  Like a lamp that is placed in a room to give light, so the gospel is meant to give light to the world.  So don’t hide the lamp.  Don’t hide the gospel.  We might want to keep the gospel under the bed because it’s just too much effort to let it shine, but that’s what it’s for—to shine.  So don’t hide the light.


The parable of the growing seed reminds us that we can sow the seeds of God’s love, but we have no control over how it grows or what it will yield.  Whether the farmer sleeps or gets up, the seed is doing its thing underground, out of sight until it emerges into the sunlight and grows into a full stalk with grain.  Have you ever planted a seed and then watched it grow into a plant?  Isn’t it amazing?  All we do is water and put it in the sun, and eventually something emerges, growth happens and sometimes we get to eat lettuce or beans, or have a flower to give away.


It’s an amazing, worship-inspiring thing to observe.  The seeds of God’s love which we sow often go underground, and we don’t know when or how they will sprout or emerge from the soil.  So we trust that after we sow the seeds, God will do God’s thing and make it grow.  And then we will praise God.


And the parable of the mustard seed reveals the unexpected yield of our sowing small seeds of love.  The seed may be tiny, but the possible impact can be great.  It’s a mystery how something so small can help the kingdom of God to grow.  You’ve heard stories of how people have befriended others in need.  A small gesture turns into a relationship that greatly helps, and the life of the person in need turns around and they become somebody—a positive force in our community.  All because someone reached out in love.


All these parables we’ve read today invite us to join in Jesus’ mission to proclaim the kingdom of God and to share God’s love with all.  They also warn us that this is hard, and results may vary—wildly.  But Jesus is also telling us that the results are not our concern.  How the seeds of love we sow grow to the point of yielding fruit is a mystery.  How the impact of a small act of love turns into a huge movement or ministry is God’s concern, not ours.  Jesus calls us to hang in there, to keep sowing seeds of love.  Eventually, some of the people we have loved will develop ears to hear, the gospel will take root in their lives, and the kingdom of God will expand.  The results are up to God, not us.


In another season of life, maybe even today, the parable of the sower may mean something different to you, and that’s okay.   I’d like to hear it so we can wrestle together and figure out what Jesus may be trying to say to us.  If you have ears to hear, Jesus will speak to you.  Jesus is that teacher who requires you do pay attention and do homework and to wrestle with the material.  Following Jesus will require thoughtful and creative engagement.  He may ask you to wrestle with your faith, and that’s okay.  Trust Jesus, the teacher to help you to hear the lesson he wants you to hear.  Trust that he wants your life in him to yield fruit, and that it will mysteriously yield fruit.  May we all have ears to hear.  Amen.