Pentecost 3 B: Preach The Truth Slant

Dear Partner in Preaching,

What’s the difference between a fable and a parable?

I think answering this question is crucial if we are to preach this passage. You see, a fable is primarily didactic, a clever story meant to offer some insight into and instruction about life – think Aesop’s Fables for a moment. A parable, on the other hand, is intended to be disruptive, to interrupt what you thought you knew and not just teach you something but actually to confront you with a surprising and often unwanted truth.

Fables are handy when you want to give kids some good advice or teach them some moral or practical lesson. Who doesn’t remember the lesson of “The Tortoise and the Hare” (slow and steady effort pays off) or “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” (honesty is the best policy)?

Parables, on the other hand, are useful when the truth you want to share is difficult – whether difficult to hear, comprehend, or believe. I don’t know if Emily Dickinson had parables in mind when she wrote her poem on telling the truth “slant” but she just might have:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Jesus describes the coming Kingdom of God in parables because he knows the reality it introduces is unexpected and that his hearers can’t really take it in all at once. Parables, as Eugene Peterson has said, are in this sense like narrative time bombs. You hear them – tick – wonder about them – tick – think maybe you’ve got it – tick – and then as you walk away – tick – or over the course of the next day or so – tick – and all of a sudden the truth Jesus meant to convey strikes home – boom! – almost overwhelming you with its implications or, per Dickinson, blinding you with its vision.

Jesus conveys two such truths in today’s passage, and while a few minutes of explanation about parables may be helpful to set the stage, the sermon, finally, cannot be about parables about these slanted truths Jesus tells. But here be careful: precisely because Jesus’ parables are so explosive, we tend to domesticate them in our preaching.

And so the first parable might be about the wonder of faith or the need to be ready to bring in the harvest. Or it might be about our complete inability to control the coming kingdom, to dictate whether we (and others) believe (or not). This second possibility is uncomfortable because it leaves us vulnerable. God’s kingdom comes apart from our efforts, cannot be controlled or influenced, and can only be received as a gift. In this sense, faith is apparently a lot more like falling in love than making a decision. Because kingdom-faith, like love, is something that comes from the outside and grabs hold of you, whether you want it to or not.

If this is true, then how are we to regard those who do not seem interested in our sermons, congregation, or the Kingdom of God? The members who have “fallen away,” the family members who opt to golf on Sundays, the friends or co-workers who think our attendance on Sunday is nice but seem to have no interest in why we go? Are these folks objects to be targeted, persuaded, and cajoled into faith? Or are they mysteries to be understood and loved, part of the fertile soil that God may be working apart from our efforts. And perhaps the faith we hold, the bits of the kingdom we have perceived, can only be offered with delight, no strings attached, with the same enthusiasm and generosity of a child sharing a dandelion ripe for blowing.

The second parable tells an even more difficult truth. Perhaps it is about how God can grow small things into grand ones, although that feels a bit like a fable. Or maybe, just maybe it’s really about the kingdom’s penchant for penetrating and taking over our lives, sometimes against our better judgment. Mustard, after all, was a lot less like a flowering shrub that we might plant around the edges of our property as an accent than it was an invasive weed, something you want to keep out of your garden and lawn at all costs because it runs amok easily, gets out of hand, and nearly takes over whatever ground it infests.

So also with God’s kingdom. If it were sold in a box, it would likely have a warning – “use only in moderation” or perhaps even “maybe hazardous to your health.” But that’s just it, the kingdom isn’t a commodity to be bought and sold, used diligently but carefully. It’s a new reality that invades, overturns, and eventually overcomes the old one. It’s a word of promise that creates hope and expectation, leads people to change their jobs to share it, and to leave behind their old ways to live into it. The kingdom is dangerous because you just don’t know where it will take you or what you will do when it seizes hold of you.

And those birds that are attracted to its shade? I used to assume this was simply a cute picture, a bush large enough to shelter woodland creatures. But given that in the parable Jesus told just before these two (the parable of the sower) the birds are the ones who snatch away the seed the farmer sows, I’m not so sure. These birds might be the undesirables, the folks decent people avoid, the ones we prefer to keep on the other side of our street and, preferably, outside our homes. Yet across Mark’s Gospel it just these people who flock to the kingdom Jesus proclaims.

We who have achieved a relative amount of education and position and income and status don’t like much to think about this, but the original followers of Jesus were, in the eyes of the culture, all pretty much losers – lowly fishermen, despised tax collectors, prostitutes and criminals, lowlifes loathed by the religious establishment. Maybe that’s the way the followers of Jesus have always looked to the rest of the world – those people desperate enough, lowly enough, to find hope in Jesus’ message that the kingdom.

So here’s the thing: I don’t know how these parables and this sermon will sound to the most established of our congregation. But I do know how it will sound to everyone – established or not, longtime member or first time visitor – who is struggling, who does not feel accepted, who wonders about the future, or who has experienced significant loss or rejection. Because in these parables Jesus reminds us that the Kingdom of God comes of its own…and comes for us. The Kingdom Jesus proclaims has room for everyone. It overturns the things the world has taught us are insurmountable and creates a new and open – and for this reason perhaps a tad frightening – future. This is, in short, a threatening word for any and all who believe they are “self-made” men or women, but simultaneously good news – perhaps the best news – for anyone who can admit his or her need.

Early on in Leif Enger’s wonderful book Peace Like a River, the narrator, in talking about our penchant for domesticating miracles, contends that people fear miracles because they fear being changed. I think that’s true with parables, too. We want them to affirm our assumptions and confirm our faith. But perhaps this week, Dear Partner, our task is to shake things up a bit, unleash a parable or two, and preach the truth slant…that all may know of God’s surprising grace and disruptive love. Blessings on you and yours as this intrusive and redemptive Word takes hold.

Yours in Christ,