August 7, 2016Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Letting Each Other Down
(fourth in the series “I’ve Always Wanted to Know”)
Today we’re continuing our summer sermon series called “I’ve Always Wanted to Know” which is made of questions from members of the congregation. The first question: If Jesus wanted us to get it, why did he speak in parables? Exactly. This is a great question.
A parable is a story that exposes a greater truth. In the New Testament, Jesus tells parables to illuminate the truth of the kingdom of God. So he’ll start out, “The kingdom of heaven is like:” and the parable is the rest of what he says. Sometimes it’s a riddle. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Or a woman who lost a coin. Often it’s a story that seems like it should make ordinary sense, only there’s a hidden twist. You know, like a wedding banquet, only none of the invited guests show up, so the man opens the party to anyone off the street! Or the kingdom is like a man who has two sons, only the older one takes his inheritance and leaves, and you’ll never guess what the father does when this son tries to come home.
A parable is not a description of the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of heaven were in a museum and you were looking at the exhibit, the parable would not be the informational plaque posted in front. It’s not trying to explain the phenomenon of grace. It’s creating an experience where the mystery gets exposed, where the person who hears it says, “Hold on, what just happened?!” If the kingdom of God found itself in a museum, the parable would say “Welcome to the hands-on area: Enter here.”
The beauty of a parable is it throws us right into the kingdom of God, and see we cannot manage the kin-dom; we can’t even manage our grasp on its truth.
Of course the problem with a parable is it throws us right into the kingdom of God and we cannot manage the kin-dom; we can’t manage our understanding. In this moment, either we get it or we don’t. And how is that even fair…
It’s like there’s a group of insiders who understand, then there’s the rest of us, who are that much further away from Christ. The disciples ask Jesus about this. Why do you speak to the crowds in parables? He tells them, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matt 13:11). Which seems terribly unfair! Does Jesus even want us to get it? Then he keeps right on teaching in parables, explaining one story by telling another, as though maybe their truth will come and hunt us down.
Do the disciples really understand, or is Jesus all alone in knowing the truth? Do the disciples feel like Jesus is letting them down? Or maybe Jesus feels like the disciples are letting him down. Maybe letting each other down is what we human people do…
Friends, the scripture we hear today is the story of Jesus casting out a demon to save the life of a boy. But it’s the scene that happens before this story that gets all the attention. What happens is Jesus takes some of his disciples up to the top of a mountain, and there, Jesus is transfigured before their eyes into a heavenly being; they see him talking with Moses and Elijah. Jesus doesn’t say the kingdom of heaven is like… Instead the voice of God says, “This is my son the Beloved, listen to him!”
The disciples fell down in fear and trembling, and maybe for just a flash of light, they understood. They got it. And maybe for that flash of light, Jesus was not so lonely. Just a flash of light, where there are no outsiders or insiders, just the kingdom of God already here! And then they came down the mountain talking about what happened.
Years ago, on the second day of my semester in Ireland, our teacher invited anybody who wanted to go with her on something called “Hillwalking.” I was intrigued by this, because our retreat center was not near any hills; it was nestled in the Wicklow Mountains. So they call it a hill, I call it a mountain, tomato-tomahto. Soon we were climbing it. There was no path, just these long, unbreakable tufts of grass, which we used to pull ourselves up. I kept hearing the voice in my head say, “Just keep going; just get to the top” and every now and then we’d look back to see how far we’d come.
When I finally got to the top of the mountain (hill) two things happened. First, I was genuinely surprised by the view. Sure everybody’s seen pictures taken from the tops of things, but actually looking out at the landscape, seeing clumps of sheep and wild goats scattered underneath the sky changing colors… I believe God is in everything, but in this moment, I understood why people would climb a mountain to feel closer to God.
The second thing that happened was it occurred to me for the first time, that somehow we were going to have to get down. I had used all my mental energy to get to the top! Now no helicopter was coming for us.
Instead, we started down and discovered this was actually harder than going up. The ground was steep and slippery, and there was one section where the only way we could manage without falling, was to actually sit down in the mud and scoot-slide, grabbing the tufts of grass as we went. It was ugly. And because of the goats, not everything we slid through was mud, so you can imagine…From all the beauty of the mountaintop to the most unglamorous, undignified, hilarious scrabble to the bottom.
I was one of the last to get to the bottom, and the group had waited for me. Some had been waiting a long time, and nobody was mad. Because see we made it! All of us covered in mud and stinking of goat presence and greeted by the grace of God.
Now in the scripture we hear today, the disciples are coming down the mountain all full of the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, and first thing! A man whose son has a demon asks for help, and they can’t do it. I thought we were making progress, but no, we still don’t get it. The man turns to Jesus for help, but Jesus does not respond pastorally. He says, “You faithless and perverse generation! How much longer must I put up with you?! Bring him here.”
Then the Bible says that “Jesus rebuked him” but it’s not clear whether that means the demon or the boy. I’m pretty sure, in that moment, everybody was feeling rebuked by our Lord. Sure the demon went and got out of that boy. In that moment, everybody knew how the demon felt.
The disciples ask Jesus, “What did we do wrong? Why couldn’t we do the healing?” According to the writer of Matthew, Jesus says something terrible. He says, “Because of your little faith. If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could move that mountain.” You don’t even have that much faith. Ouch.
In the other Gospels, Jesus does not say this quip about the mustard seed; he does use that metaphor in Luke but in an entirely different context. So I don’t believe Jesus actually said this to the disciples after casting out the demon. But whether or not Jesus said it, I’m pretty sure, it is exactly what the disciples heard; it confirms their worst fear. See we were just on the mountain together! Now we can’t even help this boy. How come we still don’t have enough faith!
Today the second question we’re considering asks “How, exactly, do we grow in faith?” Because you know there are good things we can do: cultivate a regular practice of prayer, take time to listen for God’s whisper, serve those who are in need, study the scripture, worship God with thanksgiving and praise. All these practices nourish the growing of our faith. It’s no wonder we might think, if I do enough of these and get good enough at them, maybe I will win that mustard seed.
Except maybe that’s not it at all. What I’m wondering is whether faith is not so much something we can grow with our diligent work and persistent prayer, but what if faith is grown in us? After all, that’s the thing about mustard seeds. They’re not always planted on purpose. (Mustard is an invasive species that’ll spring up and take over a garden…) What if growing in faith is really the work of growing in relationship with God, and like the kingdom of heaven, our relationship with God refuses to be managed.
Maybe growing in faith is less about understanding and more about being open to receive; less about pleasing each other or impressing each other and more about the room to disappoint each other and let each other down. I know it is terrifying to let down the people we love. Jesus might feel alone in knowing that he’s going to die; the disciples might feel as rebuked as that demon for their lack of faith; see the widening space between them echoing “I don’t understand how you could do this to me!”
When you see this place where we don’t understand, keep watching that place, because that’s where the grace gets in —where the mustard seed falls into the soil then somehow turns into a tree welcoming home all the birds, where the mountain moves because we finally get out of its way.
See this whole time, it was never about understanding every concept. It was never about meeting each other’s standards. It was always about meeting each other here at this table where is Jesus is waiting. Even if you’re the last one to show up, nobody’s mad. We made it! All covered in mud, smelling of demons and goat presence. Here we might let each other down, all the the way down into the humility and grace of God. Amen.