Seeing from the Inside
Scriptures: Mark 4:1-20
In 2010 I was in France working on a project about church history, and
I got the chance to visit the cathedral of Chartres. [Slide 1: Chartres cathedral] Among other things, Chartres Cathedral is famous for its asymmetrical towers and its incredible stained glass windows. But from the outside the stained glass windows do not look like much. [Slide 2: Chartres windows exterior] As you can see from the outside they look dark, gray and kind of dingy. But when you go inside, wow! [Slide 3: Chartres windows interior] From the inside those windows radiate splendor and tell fascinating stories. This particular window was my favorite. [Slide 4: Close up of window] When you look at it closely, you see Mary in the middle holding Jesus, flanked by the four gospel writers. But here is the part I really like: each of the four gospel writers is sitting on the shoulders of one of the Old Testament prophets. From left to right Luke is on the shoulders of Jeremiah, Matthew is on the shoulders of Isaiah, John is on the shoulders of Ezekiel, and Mark is sitting on the shoulders of the prophet Daniel. Each of the gospel writers sat on the shoulders of the Old Testament prophets in order to see and understand Jesus. It is a powerful image, but an image you would never see looking at these windows from the outside.
That is the key to Jesus' parables. Normally we think of
parables as a tool that Jesus used to explain his teaching, kind of like a Jr. Sermon. But that isn't how Jesus' parables actually worked. Sometimes people listening to Jesus' parables could not understand them. Mark 4:10 says, [Slide 5: Mark 4:10] "When Jesus was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables."
Now listen to Jesus' reply in verses 11-12: [Slide 6: Mark
4:11-12] "And he said to them, 'To you have been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand.'" What does Jesus mean? Are the parables meant to conceal his teaching from outsiders?
No. But he is making an important point. Jesus' parables,
like all of his teaching, must be understood from the inside. They are like the stained glass windows in a cathedral. [Slide 7: repeat of slide 2] From the outside they look gray and lifeless. But from the inside [Slide 8: repeat of slide 4] they shine with color and meaning.
Think about this in terms of Jesus' own life. From the outside Jesus
does not look very impressive. That the hope of the world should be found in a penniless carpenter from Nazareth, that victory over sin and death could be accomplished by a person who dies on a cross, that your life could be changed, that the whole world could be changed, by a guy who lived 2000 years ago and never wrote a book-that idea seems preposterous.
But that is what Jesus calls the "secret of the kingdom of God." From
the outside it makes no sense. It only makes sense when you see it from the inside, from within a relationship to Jesus as part of a family of faith. [Slide 9: Blank]
With that in mind, let's go back to the parable of the
sower. The problem for the sower is not the seed. There is nothing wrong with the seed. The problem is what happens when the seed hits the soil. Sometimes it does not penetrate. Sometimes it gets crowded out by other things. Sometimes it succumbs to the various stresses around it.
Yesterday, Aaron Willett and I went to a workshop led by
Chap Clark, one of the co-authors of a book called Sticky Faith. The premise of the book is that the faith we are trying to sow in our children and youth is not sticking very well. A Gallup survey done in 2006 found that 40% of 16-17 year olds who attend church drop out when they are in their 20s.
Many social and cultural forces contribute to this. The fact that
young adults tend to move frequently works against their motivation to get involved in a church. So does their preoccupation with going to college or getting a job, and becoming self-supporting. These are time-consuming challenges, on top of which many young adults are pursuing some intense personal relationships that leave little time for religion.
In other words, it is a rough world out there for the seed. Birds of
indifference scoop them up. Thorns of worry choke them out. The heat of intense personal relationships can scorch them. None of this is new. It happened in Jesus' time, and it still happens today, even among adults.
But here is the good news: the sower does not give up. The
sower keeps sowing the seed, and it ends up producing more results than anyone would have imagined.
The tendency when you first hear the parable of the sower is
to think that Jesus is the sower and we are the soils. But that is only part of the story. If you noticed in the explanation of the parable Jesus never identifies himself as the sower. He says that the sower is the person who sows the word. Certainly this includes Jesus, but it also includes us. We too are sowers of God's word; not just Jesus, not just ordained ministers, all of us. We too are called to share the secret of the kingdom of God, the surprising good news that we and the world can be transformed by this Galilean carpenter whom the world tried to destroy and couldn't.
But sometimes our efforts to share that good news get
discouraging, just as they did for the sower, just as they did for Jesus. When you see yourselves not as the soils but as the sower, this parable takes on new meaning. It gives expression to the challenges and frustrations we are up against. We raise our children to have a relationship with God, and sometimes as young adults they lose interest. The shallowness of the culture, the cares of life, the allure of other gods stifle the faith we are trying to share.
But somehow the seed still produces a harvest: 30 times, 60 times,
even 100 times the amount of seed that was planted. That is a yield beyond anything a Middle Eastern farmer would have ever imagined. Somehow the word finds its way into receptive soil; otherwise you would not be here this morning. You are here this morning because someone, probably more than one person, planted a seed in you, and that seed took root. There were many stresses and pressures working against that seed in your life, but still it grew. That is the amazing good news of this parable.
In the adult class tonight as part of SPC Together I will
share some research into what helps the seed to grow. We know the forces working against it: the birds of indifference, the thorns of worry, the heat of other priorities. We know what works against the seed. But what kind of fertilizing and watering will help it grow. I will talk about that tonight.
But in advance let me share one piece of the research as a kind of
teaser. In the book Sticky Faith, there is a chapter called "A Sticky Web of Relationships." One of the most potent fertilizers for growing faith in children and young adults is having a web of relationships with Christian adults beyond their parents and youth leader. Some churches strive to have a ratio of one adult for every five youth in the youth group, which I always thought was fairly good. But Chap Clark suggests we should reverse that ratio. We should strive to have five adults involved in the life of every youth, not counting their parents.
We actually get to work on that tonight at SPC Together. We have
about 50 adults registered to come tonight and about 10 children and youth. Five to one. Perfect! We have a chance tonight and over the next six weeks to build a sticky web of relationships with children and youth that will provide the fertilizer-some of the most powerful fertilizer there is-for growing seeds of faith.
Why does that work? Go back to the beginning of the sermon. Because
faith is something you have to see from the inside. People don't learn the secret of the kingdom of God only from hearing sermons or Bible stories. They experience it from the inside, from within their relationship to Jesus and to other people in a community of faith.
These people need not be perfect. They need not even be what you call
role models. They need only be ordinary people who keep following Jesus, people who stick with their Lord in happy times and sad, through good choices and bad, through successes and failures, through times of hope and times of despair. Such people are the fertilizer through which the seed of faith will grow in our children and grandchildren for generations to come. And you can be part of it by making yourself available, first to the Sower, and then to his seedlings.