Sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity
20th Jun 2021
Sermon for Trinity 3 Year B “He did not speak to them except in parables”
There are so many aspects of human life that cannot be put into words. But that has not stopped us from trying! Words can convey so much. But what underlies language is also important. The deeper resonances. When John speaks of Jesus speaking in parables, he is saying something to us that we already know. We love a story, and a story is a very good way of communicating an important truth. Much of the early Christian witness was based on this kind of truth telling or witness. The truth telling was of lives which had found their reason for being in Christ; Gospel.
So many of the bestsellers lists are of books of biography. The word ‘bio’ and ‘graphy’ aiming to combine two contrasting elements - that of life as it is lived; and the setting down of that life graphically, descriptively, in words. When we look at the Gospels we are not looking at the biography of Jesus, even though the Gospels have biographical elements in them, and the four Gospel writers agree on many of the same happenings in the life of Christ. The Gospels are just that, they are ‘gospel’ and the aim of they treat biography as a necessary but secondary consideration. The first consideration is that the Gospel is theology. It tells us about God, and of how we see and experience God in the life of Christ. With this lies also the Gospel as Christian teaching, and Jesus this morning likens the faith of the Christian to the planting of a mustard seed, the tiniest of the seeds, which may grow into a vast tree. This of course is a simple figure of speech, and paints a picture in the mind’s eye. It sets forth the Christian teaching in a way which gives the individual space and scope to imagine and to assimilate. This is not dictation. It is far removed from ‘literal truth’ or ‘fundamental truth’. It does not treat the individual reader or listener as a foil or a dummy. It expects a human response which is unpredictable, like the parable of the rich young man whom Jesus advises to sell all he has. The Gospels do not tell us whether he goes on to do this!
The telling of stories has always been with us and its beginnings are lost in the mists of time. We know the Bible to be not one book but many books, and also letters, diaries and eye witness accounts. But mostly the Bible is bound by the story of human salvation as we begin with Genesis and human origins right through to the dream in Revelation of the vision of a heavenly city, a new Jerusalem. ‘It begins in a garden and ends in a city’. But what drew me as a child to the Bible was the way in which good stories are for the growing child as well as the adult a vital part of come to terms with what makes us human and what makes God God - Daniel in the lion’s den, Noah and the ark, David and Goliath, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the witness of Job, the raising of Lazarus all emerge out of a body of story-telling which provides the scale and the scope for us to imagine these as not just quaint stories. Rather, they communicate in the endless telling and re-telling, the eternal and priceless truths concerning our existence. For the writers and readers of the Bible, they trace the patterning of the history of human salvation. The statue of David in the Accademia gallery in Florence and the Mona Lisa in the Louvre , Paris are works of art which have an everlasting quality. They stand for the truth of our everyday existence as they marry their amazing reality with their understanding of the salvation history of which the Bible speaks. And these works can only be understood when both are realised. They stand for us as ‘real presences’ which communicate a deep truth which has an everlasting quality. No amount of seeing and re-seeing, reading or re-reading can ever exhaust the meaning of what is being conveyed or intended. We see through what has already been provided for us to see.
It became necessary in a recent exhibition of reliquaries and paintings in one London Gallery to state that such and such works of art were loaned from places of worship, Cathedrals and churches, and were therefore not to be solely regarded as art objects, but as objects of veneration. It is in this sense the when Jesus speaks in parables he is communicating in a language which speaks of this world but which also establishes the existence of faith and as that which reaches out beyond itself to find itself. It is part of our knowing and recognising but also it lies beyond this. But this also allows us to understand that we see not only with our eyes or our brains but with deeper instincts.
The Bible can be regarded as just a type of religious text or it can be regarded as The Book of Life. If we choose the former then we relegate the Bible and its teaching to one of those posh volumes, with fake leather binding that you can order in instalments and sit on your shelves trying to look grand, never read, but largely ornamental. If we see the Bible on the other hand as a Book of Life, then there is no limitation. It may speak to us in our own lives and human states as found. Many Christians I know supplement their church going and their prayers for a small booklet which can be easily ordered and which provides for daily readings from the Bible with brief commentaries. Many have discovered by these means that Bible is not relegated to the ‘dry as dust’ section but waters and nourishes and provides a seed-bed into which the mustard seed of our growing and perhaps hesitant faith may find watering and refreshment.
In speaking in parables Jesus is admitting the need for a deeper understanding of the truths of our existence. It was Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell who observed that
We live I believe in a world of surfaces.
The speaking in parables provides a way of apprehending what St Paul described as the ‘length, the breadth, the height and the depth’ (Ephesians 3.18) of our existence and to know it through a lifetime’s study and pondering. Jesus is the One who allows someone like TS Eliot to see this as a never ceasing from exploring over a lifetime. This holds for us the promise of finding that place where we started from, the place of our own origin and truth, and of arriving at that place perhaps for the first time. But nonetheless to see the truthful things of God, whether or not embedded in mystery, whether seen through a glass dimly or whether enjoyed in the re-reading of old and worn parables, is for us the implantation of the mustard seed. In faith and intrust we pray that the Creator, the Giver and the Sustainer who is God will provide for the increase.
R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness