Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“If You Have Ears”
Rev. Art Ritter
July 12, 2020
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
The great preacher George Buttrick was once on a cross country flight. As he traveled, he took out a legal pad on which he furiously began scribbling some notes for his upcoming Sunday. The passenger sitting next to Buttrick inquired, “Say, what are you working on there, sir?” Buttick replied, “I am working on my sermon for Sunday. I am a preacher.” “Oh,” the other passenger said. “I don’t like to get caught up in the complexities of religion. I like to keep it simple. You know, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The Golden Rule. That’s my religion!” Buttrick answered, “I see. And what do you do for a living?” The passenger responded, “I am an astronomer. I teach astrophysics at a university.” Buttrick shot back, “Ah yes. Astronomy. Well, I don’t like to get caught up in the complexities of science. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.’ That’s my astronomy. Who could never need more than that, eh?”
Last Sunday night I was involved in a game of virtual live trivia using the Zoom platform. I had a really good team including Colleen and Sherilyn Foster, Tom – a retired colleague of mine and his son, and Nick, my best friend from childhood and college and his son. We answered every single question correctly. Following the game my team sat in a breakout room chatting about our lives and our past connections. Nick and I talked about being college roommates and best man at each other’s weddings. Tom and I talked about being at various annual meeting of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches together. Tom and Nick talked about an eighteen month period in which they both lived in Greenville, Michigan and started a youth soccer program. But poor Colleen sat up in the corner of the display, listening to all of this guy talk, without much to say. She had no idea about what any of us were talking about. I felt badly for her and found a way in which she could exit the conversation quickly and get on to something certainly much more important.
We’ve all been in those time and places in which it seems we just don’t understand what anyone is talking about. We are strangers to the details of the conversation. We feel as if what is being said is being spoken in a totally different language. We are hearing something at a much different level than others who are listening.
I can think of an example from my past. When Laura and I lived in central Illinois, in the midst of the corn and pigs and soybeans, I was always looking for a shortcut from Toulon, the town in which we lived, to Peoria, the big city with the malls and the hospitals. All of the farmers in my congregation told me to take the Valley Blacktop. This made little sense to me. There was no road or street sign saying “Valley Blacktop.” I looked really hard for one. Secondly, most of the roads in that area of central Illinois were paved so this designation did not narrow my choices. Finally, as hard as I tried, I could not find a hill much less a valley. I figured that perhaps as soon as these farmers got through talking to me they just went around the corner and started laughing. The bottom line was that you had to know where the Valley Blacktop was to find the Valley Blacktop.
I think that Jesus understood the deep meaning of truly understanding something. In the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, a chapter that contains seven parables, Jesus explains the meaning of his peculiar teaching style. “Why do you speak in parables?” his disciples asked. Jesus knew that his followers wanted to quickly decipher for themselves the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. He understood that they wanted to be able to clearly define where God was working in their lives and in the world. But he said that in order to learn these things, his followers needed to know something else about God. They would need eyes to see and ears to hear. Jesus knew that only those who first had some experience of God’s love and of God’s ways would be able to comprehend the message that he was teaching.
Look at the Scripture lesson more closely. First of all, Jesus tells the parable of the sower. What is that? It is a lesson in elementary agriculture. It is a simple and rather obvious tale about planting seeds in different kinds of soil. It is like a story about watering your flowers. We understand what we have to do and why we do it. It doesn’t seem of vital importance. Yet Jesus hints that there is something else, something more profound to the story. He says, “Listen then, if you have ears.”
The disciples are still perplexed. “We understand your stories. But why are you teaching in this manner? Why can’t you just tell us the basic truth? Why can’t you just get to the point of your lessons?” Jesus explanation is rather complex, but it boils down to this: “I tell parables to the crowd because they hear them and don’t get them. I tell parables to you and you understand. And because you understand, I can teach you things that are even more important.” Because the disciples knew something, they were able to learn something more. Because they knew something, a simple story of life, something as simple as planting seeds, could become an important lesson about life in the Kingdom of God.
I also recall my first Christmas serving a church in Utah. A radio station there was fond of playing a song about the Twelve Days of Christmas in Utah, complete with all sorts of cultural references to green jello, popcorn in an apricot tree, lakestink, crickets, and missionaries on bicycles. See- you don’t know what I am talking about, do you? When I first heard it, I didn’t understand it at all. Yet the church secretary would laugh hysterically every time she heard it. It took me eight years to pick up on the humor. So it was for a large percentage of Jesus’ listeners. They did not know enough about what he was saying to understand the message that he was speaking.
Where does that leave us? It would seem that the message of this lesson is that we must believe in the Kingdom of God, we must open our eyes to the truth of its presence in our lives, and we must have ears to listen expectantly for its arrival. We must believe and know what we are looking for and listening for if we are going to see and hear and understand and trust. If you believe in what Jesus teaches about God’s intention, and if you align our life to those precepts, then you will come to see and hear other things in greater clarity, other truths about God that you first did not understand.
I think about how many parents spell out parts of a conversation they have in front of their children- words that they don’t want their children to hear or understand. Laura and I do it with the dogs- spelling out B-O-N-E or C-A-R or W-A-L-K. But over time children, and even our dogs, begin to figure out the spelled out words or at least they begin to make sense of the context. They become wise enough or perhaps even mature enough that they can understand and listen. Parents stop spelling because they can’t hide the meaning of the conversation anymore. Perhaps that is what Jesus was teaching here. Some people just aren’t ready to hear so he talks in stories that don’t make sense to us immediately. But with growth and maturity, and the inspiration of the Spirit, the good news of the Kingdom of God will take root and something heard later will remind us of a seed planted earlier. And then we will know and understand. And then we will be ready to hear more.
Like Jesus’ disciples, we are blessed to hear and to understand. If we believe in what Jesus teaches us about God’s way, if we align our lives to those teachings, then we will understand and be able to hear even more.