Monday, July 10, 2017

God's Word in Human Voice

God’s Word in Human Voice
July 10, 2011
Matthew 13:1-23
Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis

Tony Campolo once told a story that I will never forget. One day Tony was going to a convention where he was going to speak to a Pentecostal gathering of some sort. And, just before the event started, Tony gathered with the leaders in a room backstage because they wanted to have prayer for him. If you’ve ever been in a Pentecostal prayer group, you’ll know that, while one person is technically ‘leading’ the prayer, everyone prays aloud all at the same time (a nightmarish form of prayer for polite Presbyterians.) One guy in particular was praying quite loudly and he wasn’t even praying for Tony. Tony heard him saying, “Oh, God, please reach out today and touch Bernie Stolzfus.” Then the guy went on to help God figure out who Bernie Stolzfus was and what the problem was. He said, “Oh, God, you know Bernie Stolzfus, who lives in the blue trailer in that first road in the park next exit 40 off the highway. Bernie is struggling and he’s about to leave his wife Elise and he’s just very confused and Elise loves him so much and he just doesn’t realize how much she loves him and wants to work things out with him. Oh, Lord, just reach out to Bernie today and lead him home to that blue trailer in the first road next to exit 40 off the highway.” Tony, of course, has simply left off praying entirely, and is now wondering, “Okay, why are you telling God where Bernie lives? Shouldn’t we assume that God already knows that? And other such questions.” So, eventually, the prayer ends and Tony does his thing and ‘a good time was had by all’ and later he gets in his car to drive back to his home in St. David, Pennsylvania.

As he’s getting near the highway, Tony sees a hitch-hiker. And, while this is often an ill-advised thing to do, Tony decided that the guy looked harmless enough and he offers him a ride. The guy is clearly troubled about something and as they’re making small talk he says that his name is Bernie Stolzfus and he’s heading to the next town. Tony pulled off at the next exit and turned around to head back where they came from. Bernie looked at him puzzled and asked, “What are you doing?” Tony answered, “I am taking you home! Your wife Elise is sitting at home right now crying, wanting to you to come home more than anything else in the world, and you just don’t realize how much she loves you.” And Tony drove to exit 40 and got off the highway and turned onto the first road and drove to a blue trailer. As they pulled up, a weeping Elise came to the door and said, “Bernie, what’s going on?” Bernie looked at her and said, “Honey, we need to talk.” Then, he turned and looked at Tony and said, “How did you know all of this?” To which Tony says, “God told me!” And whenever Tony tells this story and the audience is laughing at his response “God told me!” Tony will look at the audience and add, “And he did.”

So, what, exactly, is “the Word of God” here? Is it a curiously inappropriate prayer, which happens to contain just the right amount of detail which will later serve to help reconcile a couple in crisis? What is this thing we call “The Word of God”?

In many Christian churches, the phrase “the Word of God” is used to signify the Bible itself, this collection of 66 books written across centuries and put together as a collection across other centuries. But, within the Bible itself, the phrase “the Word of God” has a much more dynamic meaning than simply a collection of books. In the Hebrew Scriptures, when the prophets speak of “The Word of the Lord,” they are very clearly speaking of something that is given to them prior to the spoken message, and therefore much more original than any written account of their spoken message. Likewise, in the New Testament, “the Word of God” is not used simply to refer to what we now know as the Bible. In fact, in the Gospel of John, the writer begins by describing “the Word” as something that existed from the beginning with God, and which was the means by which God called all things into being in the first place. And, it was the Apostle Paul who made the excellent distinction between letters written in ink or chiseled on stone and the Spirit that gives life in the message of the gospel. We will, on occasion, use the shorthand of referring to the Bible itself as “the Word of God,” but I have often found it helpful to follow the theologian Karl Barth’s lead and refer to the Bible as that which ‘contains’ the Word of God, but not to equate the Bible with the Word of God. The Word of God is a dynamic, life-giving entity, which might even come in the form of a curiously inappropriate prayer that just so happens to say the right thing.

For the early church, particularly the community to whom the parable that we have read this morning is written, the question of what “the Word of God” is was a pressing question. It is not that they were trying to root out heretics by deciding who was the real “Bible-believing” church and who was not. It is not that they were trying to justify their own point of view on a hot-button topic of the day by equating their perspective with “the Word of God” and everyone else’s perspective with some depraved form of “human wisdom.” Matthew’s community saw itself as a ‘missional community.’ We saw that a few weeks ago when we read the end of Matthew’s gospel and heard them being commissioned to disciple others in the way of Christ, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. They saw their reason for existence, not to build a more impressive church than all of the other churches in town, but to continue the work that Jesus began, preaching, healing, and making God’s reign a reality for others in the world.

But, this was also a community that struggled. Many of them were part of the Diaspora, that dispersion of people out of Jerusalem after Rome attacked the city and destroyed its center, including the great temple. Many of them had not gone out deliberately, but had fled the violence and destruction, leaving as refugees, looking for some kind of sustenance and shelter. This original mission was not a program being smartly led by directors from abroad, but a way of life that was both a scraping to get by and a mission of hope. Their lives were the message, the “Word of God” that they sowed was not a written Bible or even dumbed-down cartoon pamphlets, but a message that was embodied in real living. The “Word of God,” for them, was the dynamic power of living with purpose, even as the world around them was inflamed with violence and despair. When we read of “the Word” in this parable, it is “the Word of God” that was originally embodied in the life of Christ, and then alive in those who saw themselves as “the body of Christ” in the world. And this parable of the Sower is a way of framing what this missional community would experience.
Matthew’s community saw that when “the Word of God” was sown, sometimes it would lay, unattended and never rooted, because some places were beaten down and compacted. When “the Word of God” was sown, sometimes it would take root very quickly, but some ground has never been tilled and the stones along the surface will not allow roots to grow, so the plants would wither in the sun. When “the Word of God” was sown, sometimes it would grow among other more vicious forms of life that overwhelmed it. The same seed, thrown with the same abandon, the same message lived through the same faithful lives, would often come to very different results. And this missional community would experience times of rejection and times of dashed hopes and times of conflict with other concerns. That is just how it is for the missional community. It is not a signal that their message was bad or that they embodied it insufficiently or anything of that sort. That is just how it goes for “the Word of God” in human life.

But, in a twist of hope, there was the seed that fell on good soil. In this parable, the seed that fell on the good soil produced a ridiculous amount of harvest – some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold, and some a-crazy-hundred-fold! This is where some people criticize Jesus, saying that it is obvious that he was a son of a carpenter, and not the son of a farmer. The point, of course, it not whether or not Jesus knows reasonable yields for seeds. The point is that the missional community – with all of their struggles and failures – can take heart, because under the right conditions “the Word of God” produces abundant life, so abundant that it provides enough, despite those dry and barren patches.

That is the hope that sustains us when we find ways to spread the dynamic “Word of God” with abandon. The results may lie far outside of our influence, but the hope is that, by God’s grace, the harvest is plentiful. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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