Sermon for Rogation Sunday – May 6, 2018
“These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs: but the time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall show you plainly of the Father. At that day ye shall ask in my name.”
IN THE 1950s, motion picture houses showed movies and special features in which were embedded single frame photos of frosty Coca-Colas or steaming hot slices of pepperoni pizza. They were shown so fast during the viewing of entirely other information that the minds of those viewing didn’t register consciously what they’d been so briefly shown, but underneath their consciousness, a sudden urge to go out into the lobby and purchase pizza and Coke led many in the theaters to do just that. It was called subliminal advertising, and it’s sneaky, psychologically manipulative, and is still happening. How do you know what’s being shown to you too fast to register? I used to think that it had been made illegal, but in fact, no federal or state laws prohibit the use of this sneak attack on the psyche. Only self-regulatory rules of advertising govern subliminal messages.
I would say we are bombarded by such subliminal advertising. The side-bar ads we see in the corner of our eyes while reading websites is a way that ads come today. Instead of fast frame suggestions, dark words for positive news in headlines frequently manipulate our feelings. We are shown the worst possible photographs of people the news media disfavor, and only see quotes that would discredit these unfortunate public figures. But you see through me. I just spoke of a specific someone and you didn’t even have to be told who.
Communication happens on many levels. We remember hearing about body language. In spite of whatever words you may utter, your body is showing a message that can be the exact opposite. A stretch and a yawn at times you’re supposed to be interested, even the lifting of an eyebrow or crossing your arms or legs say much more than your carefully chosen words. These messages come unbidden.
Music carries meanings that need no words, and if words are added, what a powerful language it is. Patriotic symbols, religious icons, cars that look like tanks, styles in clothing, haircuts, facial hair, tattoos: all shout out to us and we respond viscerally.
Jesus Christ was a master of communication and we are poorer for the fact that we only have the written words of His speeches, inscribed by His four Evangelists. Yet in these texts are clues to many levels of meaning and deeper messages that are His subliminal communications. One of the ways He used multi-level messages was parables.
A parable is a teaching story that, on the surface, is about an everyday subject. Like some fables and fairytales, the parable has a moral to tell after the conclusion. We find ourselves in the characters being portrayed, and learn the deeper truths about the world of spirit that defies physical description and needs some kind of shadow language to cast upon the walls of our minds images that suggest truths and realities we’re not able to hear otherwise.
Our Wednesday evening Prayer Lab is viewing a series called Soul Keeping by John Ortberg. As the name suggests, it’s about our souls and how we tend to their well-being. So I asked the group to define what a soul is. Our answers were all over the place. Can you think of what your soul is, right now? Where do you feel it’s located? What happens in your soul when you hear the word “righteousness?” or “heaven?” or “damnation?” or “shame?” What does your soul feel when you enter this church? Is your soul important? Jesus taught that to gain the entire world and lose your soul is to lose everything, and you have nothing to buy it back with. How valuable is your soul?
So, how can Jesus teach about a soul when reasonable people of faith can’t even experience the same thing while talking on the subject? He needed to speak beneath the normal mental process and reach deeper and more spiritual reasoning places.
Another reason for using parables in teaching was judgment. You are responsible for what you have learned and know to be true, yet you may still act in opposition to it, the definition of willful sin. Many people in the general public do not want to know such things, and while they are still in spiritual ignorance, God is merciful to them and tells them things they will not understand, and thus not injure themselves as deeply as if they heard and took in the truth and then went against their consciences. Jesus therefore spoke over the heads of those who couldn’t incorporate His inner teachings, and for that He used parables. These folks would walk away and think they had heard simplistic words about seeds and soil. Anybody knows that. What’s the point? And thus, they would not be too harshly judged.
Our Gospel reading today is at the conclusion of the Last Supper and Jesus is plainly telling His Apostles things to come. He came forth from the Father and now will leave the world. They exclaimed, “Now you’re telling us plainly, no longer in parables. We believe you now.” But Jesus knew how shallow their faith still was. “The hour comes, and is here, that each of you will leave me alone. Only the Father will be with me. I’ve told you these things to give you peace. The world will bring you trouble, but cheer up: I have overcome the world.”
It had to be great sorrow for Jesus that even with His closest friends so much was too heavy for them to bear, to understand about Him, and His mission too high for them to conceive. So He taught them parables. They resented the parables, and saw them as children’s stories for the simple, wanting Jesus to teach them straight out. Yet, when He did, they were often the worse for it. He told them of the cross that waited for Him, and Peter rebuked Him. Were it not for the fact they believe in Him as the Messiah, truly God’s Son on earth, they would have left Him because His teaching was too hard to hear.
So He taught in parables. The Sower with the four types of soil. The tares, where an enemy sowed weeds in a wheat field. Mustard seed and leaven, growing from small to large. A treasure hidden in a field, and a pearl of great price worth all you have. A net that brings good and bad fish up from the lake. The unforgiving servant. Laborers in the grape harvest. The two sons, one dutiful, one wasteful. The marriage supper where the king’s closest friends fail to come. Wise and foolish virgins waiting for a wedding. Money left with servants who invested it, or hid it away. Sheep and goats at the judgment. A merciful Samaritan helping a victim on the Jericho road. Bread asked at midnight. One lost sheep, or a lost coin. Lazarus, the beggar and the rich man. Wicked servants failing to keep the rich man’s house in order. A widow pleading before a lazy judge. A Pharisee and a publican in the Temple.
All these stories are rich with symbols and levels of meaning. They tell of a country that is invisible to our eyes, things spoken that we cannot hear with our ears. They speak also of our country, yet as seen by other eyes than our own. They speak of us, and tell us what we didn’t know about ourselves. We are weighed on invisible scales, measured by angels’ yardsticks, our own subliminal messages heard aloud by heaven, and our body language read by the Creator of our bodies. Parables do all this. They are all true stories, which distinguish them from Aesop’s fables or Anderson’s fairytales. And if we can see and hear what’s being told us, we will learn the deeper things of God.
Isaiah came into the Throne room of God, some time 8 centuries before Christ entered our world. He saw things that frightened him, but God sealed him with fire and then asked, “Who will I send?” Isaiah cried, “Here I am. Send me.” God then told Isaiah, “Go and tell these people, ‘No matter how closely you listen, you’ll never understand. No matter how closely you look, you’ll never see.’ Make these people close-minded. Plug their ears. Shut their eyes. Otherwise, they may see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their minds, and return and be healed.” Isaiah 6:8-10
How can a prophet hope to do God’s will when the message sent is that the people will not hear me and not understand me? And that it’s God’s will to keep them from seeing or hearing? What kind of message is that? Stop listening with 21st century minds. You remember Jonah? His message was simply that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days. No conditions. Yet he knew, and God knew that Nineveh would repent and not be destroyed. It made the prophet angry. God was speaking on two levels. Underneath the words was what any good and almighty God would say: If you don’t change, then this is coming. Therefore, change.
Just so, Isaiah’s message was received. Otherwise we would have no book of Isaiah. Somebody heard it and took it up and valued it. Billions have read those words and kept them. A virgin shall conceive. By His stripes we are healed. Isaiah plumbed the depths of God’s word for our world, and between the lines we hear the sweet song of the Savior.
Jesus referred to Isaiah, and that hard call to prophecy, as He said to the Apostles, “Knowledge about the mysteries of the kingdom of God has been given [directly] to you. But it is given to others in parable. When they look, they don’t see, and when they hear, they don’t understand.” Luke 8:10
You don’t tell a small child how they came into the world. The details are unthinkable to them. Mankind has been too young to understand just what we are, and by science we have been betrayed into thinking we are no more than protoplasm and electrical impulses, instincts and blood, and no more. Simple machines that grew from primitive animals. No problem. Evolution, baby. Anybody knows that.
But now our science has betrayed that fabled primordial ooze. It’s been found out. Our biological make-up is shot through with subliminal messages that are brilliantly conceived, eloquently expressed, and imprinted within every living cell in our bodies. We are throughout all our beings the handiwork of a Higher Mind. Information like the 3 billion pieces of code that create each of us can’t possibly be accidental. We, like small children, have been told a fable at bedtime of how we rose from apes and salamanders. Now we find that we are the offspring of God.
Parables are rich for sermons. I have been preaching off the same hit list now for 37 years, and I never feel I’ve plumbed the depths. And as if the parables weren’t enough, the miracles of Jesus, all having those same deep meanings, the His other teachings, the acts of Apostles, the writings of Paul: we are blessed with endless truth. It’s been here a long time. It’s still speaking to us today.
Our lives are parables. We live out simple actions and speak words that, on the surface, say one thing that, as we live and move and look on other people and other things, takes different shape and mean new things. The truth about us is always being told, despite ourselves. God knows.
God is the great story-teller. We are the characters in stories He is writing and even allowing us, His favorite characters, to write some of the lines and passages ourselves. In the midst of our stories, we characters become aware of the Author. And when we do, we may stop and ask Him to write a certain outcome, write another ending to this or that scene. He stops, lifts His pen from the page being written, and considers the request of this, the hero in His story. And if He can do so without ruining the plot, without robbing it of its magic and terror and triumph and drama, He may just write in that requested love scene, or that time of rest, that healing, that peacetime that looked so impossible a moment ago. He’s the great writer. He’s writing the parable of your life right at this moment. And you are allowed to request an edit.
That’s the meaning of Rogation. Rogare, to ask, in Latin, echoes what Jesus commanded us: to ask, to seek, and to knock.
So, walk out your life, knowing that the GREAT AUTHOR of your personal parable loves you and will wait for you to emerge from the fiction of life on this earth to the fact of Eternity.