Sunday, June 17, 2018
Earth as Parable (Sermon)
“Earth as Parable”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
The parables of Mark 4 create a kind of theological watershed. And the images are both simple and extravagant. In this collection of stories, Jesus repeatedly – and artfully – compares the kingdom of God to hidden mysteries occurring within the earth. These faithful mysteries happen season after season, year after year. They involve soil, water, sunlight, death, and new life. The kingdom of God, says Jesus, is like the life-force of the earth itself, the force that makes things grow, become, and change. And while we can see, hear, feel, smell, and taste its effects, we can’t actually observe that dynamic power at work.
Paul alludes to the same thing. When distinguishing between his ministry and that of Apollos, Paul tells the Corinthians, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe…I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1Cor. 3:5-6)
As human beings, created in God’s image, we, and the faith that is within us, are signs and expressions of the presence of God and of God’s kingdom. And for all of our indelible holiness, all we can do is to bear witness to the mystery. We are its stewards and beneficiaries, not its architects, or builders, or gatekeepers.
The teachings of both Jesus and Paul take us way back. Remember what happens on day 3 of the ancient Hebrew parable of a seven-day creation: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so…And God saw that it was good.” (Gen. 1:9-11, 12b)
Scripture is not a legal document. It’s not meant to limit us or to answer every question. Scripture is a faith statement. It’s a work of art. It’s a Spirit-inspired gift meant to tease us with and invite us into the mystery and the holiness of God’s kingdom-revealing creation. So, when Jesus mentions seeds in his parables, he’s talking about more than seeds. He’s talking about the entire process of beginnings, growth, fruitfulness, falling, dying, and new beginnings. And it seems to me that he’s using this every-day mystery as a metaphor for the very personality of God in the universe. So, in spite of everything that’s obviously and painfully awry, the creation is like the kingdom of God. And it is good.
One of my favorite storytellers is Doug Elliott. He’s a diminutive, gentle-spirited, mustard seed of a man. And if the power went out for good, I’d want Doug Elliott next to me long before I’d want someone like Bear Grylls. Doug is not a “Man Against Nature” kind of guy. He’s not a survivalist who regards the earth as a something to subdue and exploit and the rest of humanity as a potentially hostile presence to fear. Doug Elliott is a Man With Nature. He’s a mystic who has learned how to be in relationship with his neighbors and the earth. Most of Doug’s stories have to do with the natural world, and he delights in sharing its wonders with whoever will listen.
On one of his CD’s, Doug tells about visiting the legendary storyteller Ray Hicks who lived at Beech Mountain, NC. Doug had gone to Beech Mt. to go ginseng hunting with Ray’s sons. When that trip didn’t pan out, Doug spent the morning talking with Ray and his wife, Rosa. For Ray Hicks, keeping silent was genetically impossible. Once he started talking, the rock was rolling downhill. Jack Tales, recollections of experiences, and mountain lore welled up like water from a spring. And that morning, ginseng was on tap.
Doug says that Ray talked about looking for a particular fern, rattlesnake fern. When you saw it, ginseng would be nearby, unless someone had already dug it up. “Yeah,” said Ray, “and some kind of fungus gets hooked up with the roots.”
Doug realized that the old mountain man was talking about a fungus that made what’s called a michorrizal connection. That specific fungus and the roots of plants like ginseng, rattlesnake fern, jack-in-the-pulpit, and mayapples form a symbiotic relationship – a relationship that’s more than mutually beneficial. It’s essential to the survival of both the fungus and the plants.
“What do plants eat?” Doug asks his audience. “They eat light. And they suck dirt. You want to talk about a miracle,” he says. “Whoa! Plants eat light and suck dirt and make wood and fruit” and flowers!
For ginseng, a crucial element in that creative process is the michorrizal connection that its roots form with the fungus. When the fungus makes its way into the cell structure of the roots, it expands the surface area of the roots so they’re able to draw enough moisture and nutrients from the soil to sustain the plant’s leaves above ground so that they can eat enough light to feed the root which is itself the valuable part of the plant. Even the richest soil will not grow healthy ginseng without this essential relationship between fungus and plant.1 Think about what that means for the first parable in Mark 4, the parable of the sower. Good soil is a place teeming with unseen relationships and wonders.
Doug Elliott says that the science of this process is a relatively recent discovery, but somewhere in the consciousness shared by those who have lived in close relationship with the earth for generations, that kind of mystery had already been perceived. And the kingdom of God is like that mystery, says Jesus. It’s like the hidden things that occur for the sake of visible things. Parables are born through our awareness of such mysteries.
Individually and together, we are parables, too. There’s an old proverb that says something like: Be mindful of your life. You’re the only Bible some people will ever read. While that adage is potentially self-serving, it also carries some real truth. When we open ourselves to mystery in the world, when we love each other, when we share laughter in joy and tears in sorrow, when we care for the earth, when we welcome the stranger –when we do these things because we recognize that our own lives are connected to all life, we become living parables.
The kingdom of God is the michorrizal connection among us. And while every day is burdened with stories that challenge our faith, hope, and love, every day is also resplendent with stories and wonders to hear, to behold, and to share. And we hear, behold, and share those stories not to deny and avoid those challenging realities. We hear, behold, and share the earth-wrought parables as a way of participating in God’s ongoing redemption of all that is broken, hurtful, and destructive in the world.
So, in all things, look for the parables. Tell the parables. Be a parable. And trust the Mystery.
1Doug Elliott on his CD “Of Ginseng, Golden Apples, and the Rainbow Fish: Ancient Tales, Traditional Lore, Lively Tunes and a Modern Mythic Adventure” © 2017. (Recorded live at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN.)