Sunday service, Peace Lutheran Church, Springfield, Ill., July 12, 2020 (Pentecost VI)

Yesterday’s lectionary reading, for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost (ordinary time to non-Lutherans), was the the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. Which means, if you think about it, watching the service on social media was almost like a parable about a parable.

If the parable of the sower is about proclaiming the Word, as most agree that it is, I couldn’t help but think about the way we’re proclaiming it as we go into our fourth month of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sunday morning Debi and I watched our local congregation’s service on YouTube, and in the afternoon we took in Jesuit author James Martin’s interactive bible study session on Facebook.

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, he uplinked to the internet … Word of God, word of life. Thanks be to God.

In addition to yesterday’s service on YouTube, Debi and I took part in a midweek bible study session on Zoom in which we discussed Sunday’s lectionary readings ahead of time. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.  Other seeds fell on rocky ground … We decided God is the sower, the Word of God is the seed and we’re the soil. Dirt, said one of our classmates. Zoommates? Needs manure, added another. 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. 

Turns out you can rightly teach the word on social media platforms.

Martin Luther, who may have been the last Lutheran to be comfortable with emerging technologies when he mastered the printing press in 1517, no doubt would be relieved. The word, according to Luther, is the law and the gospel. And the church — well, at least according to the Augsburg Confession, in which Luther had a hand — is “the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.”

There’s something else Luther said that I’ve been thinking about lately. In an offhand remark in a personal letter, as translated by Jaroslav Pelikan, “we are Christs — with and without the apostrophe (Christi sumus in nominativo et genitivo in Luther’s original Latin). In other words, we belong to Christ and we do Christ’s work in the world.

Part of that work, part of our vocation as Luther would say, is proclaiming the word. And that we can do online. Hear it and proclaim it. With and without the apostrophe.

All kinds of religious activities have moved online since the community spread of COVID-19 began in earnest. In fact Sunday afternoon Fr. James Martin, the Jesuit author and editor-at-large of America magazine, hosted a half-hour discussion of the same parable as one of his series of interactive Daily Faith Sharing sessions on Facebook. He’s been doing them since the pandemic hit in March.

Martin goes over the common lectionary reading for the day, keeps an eye on the comments scrolling on his computer and exchanges comments and greetings with FB friends who logged on. Sunday’s began sort of like this:

“Hi, Kathleen, you’ll remember the Bay of Parables, Jerry, Christine, Jan, Monica …” and a long list of names. “Yes, I will tell the parable story.” That story, as his friends and readers know, is from his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage (New York: HarperCollins, 2014). More names. He defines a parable. “It’s almost like a riddle or a story, or a poem.” It gets you thinking. He shows us a little whiteboard where he’s written the Greek word roots — para– = beside, and bole = to throw/cast. It’s a comparison, it’s throwing a concrete story down alongside an abstract, spiritual idea. The story brings the abstraction down to earth, and when Jesus does it, he often puts a twist on it that leaves you thinking.

So the parable of the sower is a metaphor.

And Martin comes to pretty much the same interpretation we did in our bible study on Zoom. “So [Jesus] says the Kingdom of God is like a sower.” He corrects himself. “Here it’s the Kingdom of Heaven because we’re in Matthew, right?” And he goes on to talk about the kingdom. It’s clear the sower is God, and the seed is the word of of kingdom of God (or heaven, either one). Jesus, for once, comes right out and explains himself: “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. …” And so on right down to the end — ‘… 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.

And at least to me, that’s a fresh new way of thinking about the word of God, or, as Luther would say, the gospel — the word of the kingdom. As a Lutheran I look for law and gospel when I’m reading scripture. And what is the gospel? The word of the kingdom. And what is the kingdom? Well, that depends. Something more to think about.

By far the most interesting part of Sunday’s Faith Sharing session, at least to me, was what Martin said about the Bay of Parables on the Sea of Galilee.

I’ve been there. Well, at least within a mile or two. And there’s something about standing on the black basalt pebble beach along the shore of Galilee, looking across the lake to the Golan Heights in the distance, that gives you a sense that something happened here. Taking out his phone on Facebook, Martin does the next best thing — he holds it up to the camera lens on his computer and shows us pictures. There’s the rocks. Black, like I remember. And there’s the sea.

There was a sense of the holy, I thought, in the Galilee. A sense, even, of the kingdom of heaven drawing near in spite of the tour buses crowding the narrow roads. Or, maybe, because of the tour buses and the pilgrims. Tours of the Holy Land tend to follow a set itinerary, and we’d see other tour groups. West Africans wearing matching dashikis, another tour group outfitted with yellow ballcaps and the flag of Brazil. We’d see them in devotions at the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves, the pebbled beach where Jesus called Peter and Andrew to be fishers of men, in the Franciscan shrine at Capernaum, taking communion in boats on the sea of Galilee. You want a sense of the “congregation of saints in which the Gospel is proclaimed?”

There was a palpable sense of the historical Jesus, too, something that’s long captured my imagination, a sense that John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar captures so well in his book  Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography:

He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee. He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution. He looks like a beggar, yet his eyes lack the proper cringe, his voice the proper whine, his voice the proper shuffle. He speaks about the rule of God and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else.

Crossan, who taught at DePaul in Chicago for many years, accepts the stories of Jesus’ healings. About that part of the historical Jesus story I’m uncertain, agnostic, unable to fully cut myself loose from a 21st-century view of science and medicine. But Crossan’s Jesus is very much like the Jesus I want to know. He continues:

To those first followers from the peasant villages of Lower Galilee who asked him to repay his exorcisms and cures, he gave a simple answer — simple, that is, to understand, but hard as death itself to undertake. You are healed healers, he said, so take the Kingdom to others … It is, was, and always will be available to any who want it. 

The Bay of Parables is off the beaten track. But Martin says it has a better claim than other shrines to being the exact location — “Or, as is so often said in the Holy Land, ‘If it didn’t happen here, then it happened a few hundred yards from here’.” It’s a natural amphitheater, he says in Jesus: A Pilgrimage, where you can imagine Jesus sitting in a boat and telling stories, his voice carrying over the water, to a crowd assembled on the shore. And as Martin looked around the time he visited, he saw “something that amazed me even more. All around us was this: rocky ground, fertile ground, storny ground, and even a thorn bush.”

Since long before COVID-19 came to town, Martin has been making good use of social media. He’s pretty savvy about many forms of communication. And he incorporated more pictures of the Bay of Parables into a promotional video on YouTube. It conveys a sense of place.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go back to the Holy Land. But I don’t have to. (There are times I don’t know if I’ll even be able to go back to the Casey’s gas station on Jefferson Avenue, let alone the Galilee, at least not before there’s a reliable COVID-19 vaccine.) Nor does anybody else have to go to the Holy Land. There are other ways to be grounded. One is simply by reading scripture.

What I do know — I’m glad the lectionary readings have moved on to Matthew and Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee. We’d been doing so much of the Gospel of St. John before Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, I was getting John-ed out.

Not that John isn’t important. Not that I didn’t need to come to terms with John. But with Matthew, we’re back to the Jesus that’s most accessible to me. To the first-century Jewish healer and story-teller in the Roman province of Galilee, preaching a kingdom that didn’t bow down to Caesar. To the historical Jesus. I know I can only catch glimpses, but I’m still inspired by Dominic Crossan’s vision of a healer who asks us to take his kingdom, and the healing, to others. And I’m inspired by Albert Schweitzer’s vision more than a hundred years ago:

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.

So … back to the parable of the sower. The seed is the the word of the kingdom. That much is clear. But it’s a a parable, a metaphor — we can try out different interpretations of the rest. Sometimes we’re the ground, sometimes we’re the sower. Sometimes we’re Christ’s, like Luther said, sometimes we’re Christs. With and without the apostrophe. Sometimes we hear the word, sometimes we are the word.

And sometimes we proclaim the word on social media. Thanks be to God.

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