Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23
One of the things that my family enjoys doing together is attending college football in the fall. My daughter Sydney is probably already counting down the days. A scene that comes to mind when I think of today’s scripture happened to us in College Station before an Aggie game. In the pre-game busyness with thousands of people gathering outside the stadium, a brave student had positioned himself atop a post and was loudly proclaiming his religious beliefs. Few if any in the crowd paid attention – my immediate assumption is that he was condemning our pre-game activity or even football – so along with the crowd, I moved on to my tailgating, not hearing a word this man said.
To some – the young man on the post was the sower from the parable, spreading seeds as broadly as possible without concern that the soil was appropriate to receive his message. I would have been the rocky ground that did not receive the seed. Ouch! How often do we feel like this man on the stump with nobody listening or like the crowd trying to hear the right story in Jesus’ parable from a boat? Yet even in the muck and distraction, this is how and who Jesus shares his story with.
Throwing seed out across the entire crowd is not how we prepare crops today or how we send a message. Crops are carefully tilled in rows of fertilized, watered soil. When we prepare a message and want to reach people today, we tend to do extensive preparation. For example if we are trying to recruit people for VBS, a class or a new outreach of the church – we wouldn’t just yell into the congregation. We would pick the best medium for our message, consider the target audience – do we need to send it via hard copy newsletter or email, posters on the foyer bulletin board/ easel or fancy video on a monitor, webpage updates or Facebook, a phone call or a Text or even a Tweet or Snap.
Then if we hit the right medium, what does it take for people to listen to us? First we have to catch their attention. In the parable, we have Jesus in a crowd. It was so large that he moved to a boat so that they could hear. I have some trouble still imagining how the crowd would have heard over waves, restless bodies around them and with no amplification at all. Telling a parable in that setting would be hard enough even with modern conveniences to amplify voices. Jesus is said to have told parables sitting with the crowd around him. The distractions would have been many around the boat.
Likewise, there are many things competing for our attention in the world today. The average working American receives 121 emails per day. In 2013 (Kenneth Burke Text Request), the average number of texts sent and received per day by American adults 18 to 45 was 85 – this means that on average two years ago there were 561 billion text messages in America per month! And these are just two of the ways we receive information. Ed Crow Marketing estimates that Americans are exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 advertisements per day. The amount of information to process and what to choose to pay attention to is astounding. Then what do we embrace and take action on?
How do we grab attention – a tickler or teaser? Without a cool story – have I already lost you here? The online story that says – “you won’t believe what happens when…” The catchy headlines on the magazine cover to pull you into the issue. In a world that is accustomed to this dazzle, do we lose the thread more easily? So we succeed in catching attention. But is it enough – are we listening? Are we truly invested if the message is not what we expect, takes too long or simply isn’t catchy?
We hear so much today about Fake News. How is it possible for a person to create a company whose whole purpose is selling advertising by attaching it to news that people want to hear? Are we so driven by fear that we will lose control or that what we think of as bad will happen that we would rather only hear good – even if it is a lie? This adds a whole other complexity in listening. I tend to be skeptical enough – now that is multiplied. If it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t - has someone measured or gauged my habits to feed me what they assume I want to hear?
This isn’t as unique to our day and age as we might think. In translating the New Testament from its original Greek, there are many version to select from. My seminary professor went into elaborate detail on the authenticity and research put into which bible manuscripts have been discovered across time, and how do we determine which of those are real! Over time, scholars have agreed on which are more likely those closest to what the original author intended. My professor did say that sometimes it just comes down to a judgement call when two seemingly reliable sources have differing translations. Her advice was to take the one that is more challenging. – the translation that makes it harder on us. She justified this by saying that the early copyists would have seen what they thought surely must be an error and corrected a word or even just one letter giving us sometimes drastically different meanings in scripture. She said that Jesus parables specifically were challenging and usually not what the listener expected Jesus would say, not involving the accepted crowd or ending the way that was culturally correct. In his own home town Jesus was not heard because the lens through which people heard him was that of familiarity – they expected to hear one thing so didn’t really listen or even begin to understand.
Are we listening to each other? When we have conversations with a close friend we haven’t seen in a while, are we both so excited to share our news that we simply don’t hear what our friend has to say. Recently I got a call from a close friend while on Bluetooth with a passenger in the car. After the conversation ended, the passenger in my car remarked that on the phone we were both talking over each other so much that he didn’t understand how we heard anything that the other was saying. Whether the distraction is a crowd and boats or technology and information overload, how well do we listen?
As I was preparing this sermon, I was reading through my commentary to see what others had to say about the parable. I was almost to the end of one that had suggestions on how to preach the message. I had switched over to skimming toward the end – you know once you think you know what something says and are done with it. And, I knew that I was not taking the same approach. That simply wasn’t what this parable said to me. Then, my eye caught the credit at the end. It was by a friend and mentor who is now president of Austin Theological Seminary, The Reverend Ted Wardlaw. I paused, went back and read the whole article more closely – still chose to take a different approach, but based on who had written it, I took it more seriously. Who do we listen to more? Is it only the people we agree with – are we in the bubbles that you hear so much about in media? The algorithms in social media that feed back to us what we already agree with reinforce that we already know what we need to and that we are correct in our beliefs. Do we read the bible this way – picking and choosing our favorite verses that reinforce the beliefs we hold dear, or do we read the verses that challenge or even condemn us?
How do we share our stories and hear God’s story, Jesus’ story in the distracting muddle of our world? Listening is hard, important work. We have to take care to not be taken in by the hucksters. It is a careful balance of staying informed and using our brains in our faith while expecting the unexpected from our extraordinary God. We must remember that God is with us in the midst – we need to look one another in the eye, pause to listen, question in love not cynicism. Hear one another. Hear without an agenda, loosen pre-conceived notions, really listen even when you disagree.
Despite all to overcome this is a story of hope – a call to action. Even the few can make a huge difference. This story is positioned between two other instances of Jesus not being received, discipleship being rejected. Yet this doesn’t deter Jesus from continuing to tell his story. There were false prophets and people out to make money at the expense of others from the earliest of times. Jesus doesn’t end with the idea that 2/3 of the seed will die quickly or not be received. Jesus instead tells a story that ends with abundance. The soil that does produce the harvest would normally have produced sevenfold is said in this parable to have produce 30, 70 even 100 fold. This was amazing abundance – extravagant bounty. So, keep sharing the story, hold onto hope. God can and will work miracles beyond our careful analysis, dreary projections and expectation. God is far more powerful than a cell network that measures grids and carefully tries to connect the world. This table is much more amazing than a cell network and has been connecting people to God’s story for centuries. At the table of God, in the amazing mystery of God’s love, we are all connected and share the feast.