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Sunday, July 16, 2017

When the student is ready

A Sermon preached for Pentecost VI Proper 10 Year A
The Cathedral of Trinity and St. Philip, Newark, NJ
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

For the past six years, I have been living in the First State of Delaware where many people are very proud to claim former VP Joe Biden as our own. We like to repeat his no-nonsense, cut to the chase, get right to the point line. As Joe Biden says, “So, here’s the deal.”

Here’s the deal about Matthew’s gospel in general and this gospel in particular: It makes me grumpy. Matthew likes everything organized, everything neat and tidy. 

There are five distinct divisions to his gospel, with an introductory section at the beginning and a concluding section following the last. The 10 miracle stories are neatly contained in chapters 8-9. The 7 parable stories, like this morning’s gospel, are in chapter 13. 

And, Matthew likes doubles: There are two demoniacs, two blind men and two donkeys. Oh, and, he likes double stories: two requests for a sign, two Beelzebub accusations and two healings of two blind men.

That said, it is, undoubtedly, one of the most important gospels because it contains an extensive account of Jesus' teachings, sayings and discourses. It is no coincidence that the symbol for Matthew is the ‘winged man’ or angel. Matthew wants us to know, in no uncertain terms, that Jesus is the ‘son of God’ – fully human AND fully divine.

If Matthew was, as some have surmised, one of the 12 who was a tax collector, well, his tedious attention to detail would make some sense, then, wouldn’t it? 

Nothing against accountants – I am deeply grateful for my accountant keeping the IRS away from my door – but if Matthew was, in fact, a tax collector, it might explain why a person who is used to containing things in neat and tidy rows and columns might tell the story of Jesus in much the same way.

Honestly? I find systematic theology, like organized religion, tedious and boring. 

I rather like what theologian Karl Barth once said about writing theology. He said it was like trying to paint a horse at full gallop. 

Or, as Buckminster Fuller put it, “God is a verb.”

What makes me grumpy about this particular passage is that Matthew doesn’t simply allow Jesus to tell the parable of the sower and the seeds. It’s a good parable, and like a good parable, it teaches indirectly. 

A good parable points to the truth, it doesn’t spell it out in large letters. It doesn’t say, “Here, this is what I mean by the mustard seed.” It doesn’t demand a definition of the Prodigal Son or the Woman and The Lost Coin. It allows you to come to your own understanding of what is being taught.

And yet, Matthew seems compelled to explain the parable, right down to the last tiny detail. Do I believe that Jesus told the Parable of the Sower? Yes. Probably, he did. Do I believe he then explained the parable in great detail? No, no I don’t. I think that was Matthew’s need to keep everything neat and tidy. Which annoys me and makes me grumpy.

Take this line: “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart;” 

I want to scream, “No, Matthew! If that were true, I wouldn’t be sitting here trying to write a sermon on the Parable of the Sower."

Some people want to take this parable and its meaning as Jesus speaking to the church. 

They look at the various seeds and soil and blame their church growth – or lack there of – on either the seed or the soil – or, in some situations, the sower.

Well, that’s one way to interpret it.  And, in case you haven't noticed, that makes me Very grumpy.

Here’s another interpretation, involving another, more modern parable:

I was brought up a good, Roman Catholic, second-generation Portuguese American child, living in a home and neighborhood where only Portuguese was spoken. Walking to daily 6 AM mass with my Grandmother was required. 

I can’t tell you how many times I heard the gospel read and preached in church. I was listening. I was paying attention. But, it took a long time for me to understand. A very long time. With a long and winding and bumpy road to get there.

Indeed, sometimes I think I’ve reached a particular understanding, only to have life teach me another hard lesson and discover that I had it all wrong. 

That didn't mean that the seeds of scripture was "wasted" on me, somehow. I just wasn't ready. Yet. To hear it and understand more deeply. 

There is an old, wise saying in Buddhism, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”   

Listen to that again: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. 

I think Jesus would have like that interpretation of his Parable of the Sower.

After all these many years of reading the teachings of Jesus and striving to walk with him I think Jesus might agree with Buddha.

There is a parable my father told me that has become very important. 

Now, my father was not a learned man. He only had a sixth grade education and then he was pulled out of school to help his father with the farm. And then, the day after he turned 18 years old, he was drafted to fight in the Pacific Front during WWII.  

I learned from my father that war is an evil bird. He never said that. He didn’t have to. 

I’ll never forget the nightmares he would have – less and less often over the years - but they remain vivid in my mind. His screams would wake up the entire house and rattle the windows and walls. He was always yelling for someone to RUN or GET DOWN and then we’d hear the scream and then my mother’s voice comforting, soothing, saying, “John, it’s alright. It’s okay. I’m here.”

He never talked about the war. Not ever. Except this one time. 

I had been rejected – again – by the girls in my class. We Portuguese were the latest wave of immigrants to work the textile mills in Fall River, MA. Everything about us was different: our skin color was darker than the settled English and Irish, our hair was darker and curlier, our food looked and smelled different and, adding insult to injury, and we didn’t speak the language.

I don’t remember the specifics, but I hadn’t been picked to be a member of something – again! A softball team. A reading or math club. Maybe just to go to the soda fountain after school and hang out. I was blocked again from feeling fully part of the group. 

An outsider. Again.

My grandmother and mother and aunts tried to help. They told me I was beautiful and smart and better than those girls, anyway. I didn’t believe them. What I believed is that they had to say that. 

That’s what family does, right? They protect you. They love you. No matter what.

It was then my father came out to the picnic table where I was sitting – the one under the grape arbor where my grandfather grew grapes. I had my head down and I was sobbing softly. I heard him sit down. Then, I heard the “click” of his lighter as he lit his cigarette and took a deep puff.

And then I heard him tell the story that I didn’t understand in the moment but has become to me a gift of wisdom which has grown more precious each time it has revisited me.

“I was in Manila, in the Philippines,” he began. “It was night. The sky was black except when it lit up with the explosion of gunfire and bombs."

"I and five other men in my battalion got separated from the rest of the troop. We were lost. We stumbled through the thick, dark jungle for what seemed like hours, trying not to be afraid. But, we were really afraid.”

“Finally, we came upon a wall. It was higher than any of us and we couldn’t see the top of it in the darkness. So, we just continued along, feeling our way against the wall. It went on for miles. We couldn’t find the end of it. We couldn’t get around it. We couldn’t get over it. We couldn’t get under it. So, we just kept walking along it, feeling our way in the darkness, cursing it for being there and keeping us from getting back where we belonged.”

“And then, we just got exhausted. Man after man just sat down against the wall and decided to rest. And then, suddenly, sleep came,” he said as he drew a long drag on his Lucky unfiltered cigarette and put it out in the ground. I lifted my head up to watch him tell the rest of the story.

“And then, we awakened to hear voices. It was the Japanese. We poked each other awake and looked at each other for reassurance. We looked up and saw that the wall was very high – at least 10 feet. We looked and saw that just 20 feet ahead, the wall ended. If we hadn’t stopped when we did, we’d have had no protection whatsoever. In fact, we’d probably have been found and shot dead as we slept.”

“Turns out,” may father said, “the very wall that we had been cursing had been the source of our protection. The wall that we cursed turned out to be a blessing. In fact, we used it to walk in the opposite direction. It provided us cover until we got far enough away to find our way back.”

“So,” my father said, looking at me with more tenderness than I ever remembered, before or since, “I want you to think about that the next time you hit a wall. Okay? Sometimes the thing you think is a curse turns out to be a blessing. And, it’s also true that sometimes, blessings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, either. It’s how you use it that matters.”

Good or bad, it's not what happens to you that matters as much as how you use it that matters.

I didn’t understand – not then – but I never forgot that story. And, it has been the source of comfort and inspiration to me over the years as a person in my individual life as well as a sower of seeds in the various vineyards of the Lord where I’ve been called to serve.

So, here’s the deal, especially for those who want to interpret Matthew's gospel as a parable about the church and the people of God.

It's the message I want to make certain you hear as you find yourselves - once again - in a long period of discernment and interim leadership.

You – YOU – are good soil. You, as a people of God. You, as a church. You as a Cathedral. 

You  - as people of God in a Cathedral church in a city that has never seemed to quite fully pick itself back up after all of the times it has been knocked down - have been planted with good seed.   

And, you had some good sowers. Faithful sowers.  

Some of them have even left and then returned.  

Good soil. Good seed. Good sowers.

Don’t let anyone tell you any different.

I know because I have been a Canon of this Cathedral. I have worked in this city. I have known many of your clergy and and laity. 

Know that curses are sometimes blessings and blessings are sometimes curses. That’s just life. Here’s the deal: Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.

Scripture reminds us that the sun rises on the evil and the good, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust.

Use what you’ve been given. Even if it doesn’t make sense at the time. Even if it's a wall.

Because, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.   


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