Pentecost 7A: Parables That Do Things

Dear Partner in Preaching,

In a remarkable little book called How to Do Things with Words, philosopher J. L. Austin makes the claim that, contrary to conventional wisdom, words don’t simply describe things but actually make things happen. Words, that is, aren’t merely descriptive but are evocative, even creative. When two persons say, “I do” in the context of a marriage ceremony, for instance, they are not merely describing the relationship they are entering into but actually creating it. And when some says “I love you” or “I hate you” we don’t only hear those words but actually feel the force they exert upon us. Words, in short, are powerful. For this reason, Austin contends that you ultimately know what a word means not from what it says, but from what it does. Is the sentence, “Close the door,” for example, an earnest invitation to greater privacy or an annoyed command to shut out a draft? You don’t know until you feel the force of those words act upon you.

I start with this brief introduction to Austin’s “speech-act theory” because I find his perspective incredibly helpful when reading Jesus’ parables. I have to admit that I love preaching on parables and I think their evocative power is a big reason why. Parables don’t describe the kingdom of God as much as they actually evoke some element of the God’s in-breaking reign and reality in our lives. And so the key to preaching them is not so much to try to explain, much less decode, the parable at hand than it is to invite people to be moved by the parable, to feel in their bones what it means when God gets involved in your life and in the world.

Jesus’ parables remind us that the faith we preach and the kingdom we announce finally isn’t an intellectual idea but an experience, an experience of the creative and redemptive power of God that continues to change lives. And sometimes the only way to get beyond our head and into our hearts is to, as Emily Dickenson advised, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” And so parables come at us sideways, catching us by surprise to take our breath away at the beauty and depth of God’s promises.

This week’s passage presents us with a series of parables that evoke distinct elements of God’s kingdom. The first two parables are about the surprising presence, even invasiveness, of God’s reality and reign, while the second set leans more in the direction of the extreme surprise and delight we experience when we discover, even stumble upon, the peace and joy of the kingdom. I would suggest choosing one set of parables to focus upon, but whatever direction you take the heart of the sermon will be around re-creating the experience of the parable, not just describing what it means. To illustrate, I’ll work with the first two parables about the mustard seed and leaven.

I have to admit that for much of my life, I’ve fallen prey to the temptation to read these parables as something like a proverb: “big things sometimes have small beginnings” or “don’t judge something based on its size.” Makes sense on a superficial level, as each parable talks about something small – a mustard seed or a bit of yeast – blossoming into something much grander. Until you realize, however, that neither mustard seed nor yeast was viewed positively in Jesus’ world. Mustard was a weed, dreaded by farmers the way today’s gardeners dread kudzu, crabgrass, or bindweed. It starts out small, but before long has taken over your field. Similarly, yeast was a contaminant and almost always represents the pernicious nature of sin when mentioned in the Bible.

Why, then, compare the kingdom of God to a pernicious weed and pollutant? Because both mustard seed and yeast have this way of spreading beyond anything you’d imagined, infiltrating a system and taking over a host. Might God’s kingdom be like that – far more potent than we’d imagined and ready to spread to every corner of our lives? How might we regard routine invitations to read the Bible, pray, and come to Sunday worship if we thought these things might lead to our lives being infiltrated, changed, and taken over by God’s reality and rule?

To answer those questions, we might return for a moment to Austin. Remembering that we don’t know what a word means until we feel what it does, we might imagine that these parables will do – and therefore mean – several things. Perhaps to some they may function as something as an evangelical warning: Be careful. People who have been infected by the gospel have done crazy, counter-cultural things like sharing all they have with others, standing up for their values in school or the workplace, looking out for the underprivileged, and sharing their faith with the people around them. Perhaps to others, however, these parables will serve as a much-needed word of encouragement: Hang in there! God’s new reality is closer than you think, already seeping into your life even though you can’t always feel it. To others still, these parables will come as a profound promise: No matter what it may look like, God’s kingdom will prevail. And so in the face of war, we claim God’s peace. When confronted with illness, we look to God’s eternal healing. When faced with hate, we proclaim love. Why? Because the kingdom is coming and before you know it will transform everything.

You will have a better sense than I of the circumstances and needs of your people and how they may experience the parables before us, and that insight that will greatly shape your sermon. As you prepare to preach, however, I’d also remind you that words – and I think this is especially true of parabolic words – have this way of escaping us and moving beyond our intent or imagination. People will hear things you never intended and often just what they need. And so it may be that on this Sunday, Dear Partner, it will be enough to open up these parables and talk a bit about how they affect you, about what responses they evoke in you and about your hope for how they might touch and change your hearers. For ultimately it is the Holy Spirit working through our words to offer just the right measure of warning, encouragement, or promise. As you prepare, know I am so grateful for the courage and faith it takes to offer your words and trust in the Spirit. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you.

Yours in Christ,