Sermons That Work

Back in 1990…, Proper 6 (B) – 2006

June 18, 2006

“He did not speak to them except in parables.” Mark 4:34

Back in 1990 when the now famous Hubble telescope was first launched, there was not much hope for its success. Apparently its reflecting mirror had been manufactured improperly, causing the telescope’s pictures to be out of focus. In fact, Hubble needed a giant — and expensive — pair of eyeglasses or refractions to correct its vision, because the curvature of its mirror was off by a mere one-fiftieth the width of a human hair. It seems that if the curve or parabola is not just right, a telescope is useless. It cannot focus light and reflect reality as it is — or in the case of Hubble, as it was billions of years ago. Small things can and do make a big difference.

Parables are the Hubble telescopes of faith and wisdom. In fact, the word “parable” itself is etymologically related to the word “parabola,” both meaning in some sense “comparison,” “reflection,” or even “relationship.” Both reflect light and truth. Both make it possible for us to see what would otherwise escape our attention. As spiritual telescopes, parables bring the Gospel message into focus and challenge us to peer ever more deeply into the mysteries of life and faith, mysteries that we might never come to without the aid of the parable itself. This is why our Lord loved them so. And unlike the unfortunate manufacturers of the Hubble, Jesus always got his parables exactly right.

Some things of course parables cannot do. They do not tell us much about the weather or engineering, for instance. They do not deal with the nature of the material world the way science and the Hubble telescope do. They do not even attempt to explain some of the deepest mysteries of faith, such as the Trinity or the Incarnation. Nor are parables simple allegories in which we can mechanically correlate each character in the narrative to God or us or Christ himself, if we only know the right combination or key. Parables often raise more questions than they answer. But in helping us raise the right questions, they bring us closer to our true nature and to our relationship to God’s kingdom. They focus us on life’s essentials.

The language of parable is the language of faith — open to the kingdom of God at work in our everyday lives. In that sense, parables may seem on the surface to be ordinary and everyday. They are about everything from seeds and shrubs to lost coins and wasted money. Nothing very exotic. Nothing people today — two thousand years later — cannot identify with. Yet the words of the parable offer more than quaint images of the commonplace in life. They are about the things of this life considered as means of grace and growth. They are about the kingdom within.

The kingdom is the key. Jesus does not say for instance that we ourselves are like the mustard seed, which though small “grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs.” On the contrary, left to our own devices most of us would probably remain solitary and small-minded creatures of our own comfort and pleasure. We would not have the grace to live and grow into the life of the kingdom. It is rather the kingdom working within us that is the source of all we can become. And to that there is no spiritual limit. Yet the kingdom in all its abundance cannot be contained or manipulated by mortals like ourselves, no matter how much we may wish it were otherwise. The kingdom is at hand, Jesus tells us in the Gospels, but we cannot grab hold of it and own it as our own. It is not for sale at any price.

In our post-modern, matter-of-fact world of number-crunching and digitalization, stories and parables may seem anachronistic and frustratingly obscure. “Don’t tell us what something is like,” we might be tempted to say. “Tell us what it is. And be precise about it.”

But the kingdom of which our Lord speaks does not work that way. It never just “is.” It does not fit comfortably into our preconceived notions of life and order. It cannot be measured in megabytes. It cannot be spied through the lens of a telescope. It is always “like.” It is always found in relationship to the things and people of this life to which our Lord compares it. As the seeds in today’s Gospel account sprout and grow, though we may never know precisely how, so does the kingdom grow up within our hearts. The words of the parable, planted within us, have the power to alter irrevocably our spiritual existence.

So how can something so seemingly ephemeral have such power? After all, the parables themselves are often of little substance, sometimes hardly more than extended similes. How can they make any difference to us today? A renowned scientist once remarked that one flap of a seagull’s wings could change the course of the earth’s climate forever. Our Lord would have loved this image. He turns to parable and metaphor because no other language or speech can begin to describe the kingdom. Its growth and potential could give new meaning to the word “exponential.” Ten to the ten-millionth would not begin to encompass the kingdom of which he is speaking. And yet the meaning of the kingdom is found in the smallest of seed and grain.

And the meaning of the kingdom is found within each of us as well. Few of us are great and mighty by the world’s standards. Not many of us will run for office or be appointed to positions of prestige and power. Few of us will make it big on Wall Street or in Hollywood. Yet none of this matters in the life of the kingdom. The kingdom of God is of a different order entirely. The effect of the kingdom at work in our lives will never be measured in dollars or popularity. We will never know the good we have done with simple acts of kindness and love. With the simple flap of our spiritual wings, we may well change the divine dimension of our world forever. That is the parable of our lives. The kingdom is at work in the smallest cell of our body and every tiny breath of our spirit.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” Jesus asks. Or what parable will we use for it? The famous eighteenth-century French philosopher and cynic, Voltaire, was no friend to religion as it was known in his day. Yet in one of the aphorisms for which he has become justly famous, he captured the meaning of parable in the lives of Christians of any age. “How infinitesimal is the importance of anything I can do,” he wrote with great wisdom. “But how infinitely important it is that I should do it.”

That is the parable of the kingdom and the lesson of the mustard seed. Our lives are more than the sum of days lived and dollars earned. Life has meaning beyond the walls of home or workplace. It has meaning beyond the walls of self-interest and ego. We live in relation to one another and to the world around us. And in that relationship we find the meaning of the kingdom and the worth and value of our lives. And that is infinitely important.


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Christopher Sikkema