June 1st, 2017
There’s a famous prayer of Thomas Merton that goes like this (HT: The Work of the People):
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Merton knew that theology is always lived, never merely contemplated. To live theologically is therefore to live in trust that God is, and that He is good–come what may (Rom 8:28ff). But on what basis does Merton place that trust? On what He has come to believe of the Christ–both in what He has done and in what He has promised. The One who died for love to restore love between God and humanity would be what oriented Merton to carry on–not so much with clarity but mostly with trust.
For the last five weeks we’ve listened to Paul wax eloquently, if often bewilderingly, about the doctrine of resurrection, near the end of his first letter to the church in Corinth. If you had to summarize the essence of that chapter, it broke down into two primary themes: the establishment of God’s Kingdom through the resurrection of Jesus, and the full flowering of that Kingdom’s presence in the resurrection of the dead. Two moments in a storyline: inception and culmination–His resurrection, and the same of those who are His.
While not wholly absent from his important chapter on this central dimension of the gospel, what’s not as present within the chapter is what follows for those who live, so to speak, in between those two moments in the story. Paul calls the Corinthians believers to “hold fast” (v. 2) and, as we heard Sunday, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (v. 58) as the clarion call for believers who look with awe at Jesus’ raising and with hope at their own.
But it was beyond the scope of his intent for those parting words to flesh out all the clear implications for life now between the times.
Well, this summer we want to take some time to consider our life between the times. And we’d like to do that by listening to the kind of speaking our fascination with literature, film, and music all give clear evidence of: story. And who better than Jesus to tell us a story that forces us both to understand His meaning, but moreover to grasp its guidance for us?
So from now through August we’ll explore the kinds of stories Jesus liked to tell best: His parables. And while those parables will often allude to the very same themes Paul underscored in 1 Corinthians 15, we’re going to look at several that mean to provide both light and hope for our life between the times. So we’re calling the summer series “Stories in Between.” The whole of life is a story between those two pivotal moments to which we’ve of late given our attention. Jesus’ stories about that place in the Story would seem as good a place as any to camp ourselves on the long sojourn through Texas summer heat.
We’d best make one prefacing comment, though, on these stories Jesus called parables. Like other stories we know, His parables are rich in imagery and varied in theme. They trade in particular realities and universal truths. But His stories are not told to entertain. They take no interest in being whimsical. And while we could therefore deduce that His parables mean to illumine, we must recognize how they can also intend, ironically, to harden–to make one, by their very telling, even more resistant to their claims.
Now that’s an odd (even off-putting?) purpose in telling a theological story. Speak so as to provoke deeper stubbornness? On purpose? But when Jesus is asked why He prefers parables to make His points, He does not hesitate to invoke Isaiah’s reasons for speaking similarly in his day:
This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’ (Matt 13:13-15)
So why would Jesus say anything at all if all His words did was to engender further intractability–even if He were following in the footsteps of Isaiah “before” Him?
Cardinal Ratzinger in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, explains the function of parables, including their sometimes baffling intent to harden, when he writes:
. . .the parables are ultimately and expression of God’s hiddenness in the world and of the fact that knowledge of God always lays claim to the whole person—that such knowledge is one with life itself, and that it cannot exist without “repentance.” For in this life, marked by sin, the gravitational pull of our lives is weighted by the claims of “I” and the “self.” These chains must be broken to free us for a new love that places us in another gravitational field where we can enter new life. In this sense, knowledge of God is possible only through the gift of God’s love becoming visible, but this gift too has to be accepted.
In other words, parables intend not only to convey new knowledge but to provoke new living–and almost always through repentance from an old way. The difficult path of repentance is one many often chafe at walking. And so with the hope of softening one toward repentance, there comes the inherent risk of eliciting that resistance Isaiah calls hardening.
Some will be (and are) hardened by Jesus’s take on who our neighbor is, on how we respond to evil, on what it means to be faithful, and on what qualifies us for the pleasure of God. But for those who, by His parables, are drawn toward the Story He means to tell through them, there is first a disturbance in ua over a way He’s out to shake from us–one we’ve grown accustomed to. But then in discerning His authority and becoming convinced of His love, that old way gives way. And while unfamiliar to us we find in it freedom.
That’s what good stories do. Stick around this summer for the ones He best loved to tell. Perhaps we can learn, as Merton prayed that he might, to walk in trust even if we can’t see the road ahead.
This Sunday we begin not with Jesus’ first parable but His shortest: the parable of the seed growing in secret. It hearkens to the heart of all Jesus’ preaching, and to the hope of a fruitfulness in even fallow times. So we wrap up this brief Backstory with a marvel of agriculture, and a song meant to cultivate hope.
we’re next year people–wait and see
we’re next year people–you and me
You may remember the art we had on our bulletin a few weeks back from the Swiss painter, Eugene Bernand. Well it so happens that Bernand composed a series of wonderful charcoal drawings of the Parables. We’ll be showcasing the pertinent drawing for the length of the series, the first of which comes with next week’s bulletin. But if you’d like a sneak-peak at all his works, bon appetit!