Preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek, MI on July 12th, 2020.
One of my favorite movies of all time is the 2016 science fiction film Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. If you’ve not seen it, do yourself a favor and go watch it: it will be time well spent. The plot of the movie follows the story of humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life; twelve alien spacecraft appear hovering ominously over various spots all over the surface of the earth.
The main character, Louise, is a professor of linguistics at a California university. She also happens to be grieving tremendous personal losses at the time of the arrival. She ends up drafted by the United States military to serve as one of the team of scientists and researchers who must learn the aliens’ language from ground zero and serve as interpreters between humanity and our visitors. The aliens don’t speak in sounds that the human voice can replicate, so they resort to using a written language that looks like giant, floating coffee rings.
One of the reasons I love this movie is that, far from being a standard alien action popcorn flick, Arrival is much more a meditation on the nature of thought, of language, and of history. As Louise deciphers the aliens’ language, she learns it, such that she can begin to generate their writing, with the aid of a computer at first, but eventually on her own. And something very curious happens, which is the main plot beat of the movie: learning the visitors’ language changes the way that Louise thinks. Not just in a simple, oh, I thought this about the aliens before, now I think differently; no, it literally changes the way that Louise’s psyche conceives of thought, of time, and of the unfolding of history.
Anyone who has ever taken the time to learn a second (or a third, or a fourth) language can attest that the process of learning a language can, and will, change how you think. It forces your brain to make connections that weren’t there before, to re-wire old pathways that had gone long unused, to stimulate new growth; it’s why learning languages is, anecdotally, a solid strategy to fend off dementia and Alzheimers.
But even more importantly, acquiring a new language enables us to make connections to communities of people with whom we’ve never before interacted. It enables us to bridge the divides in our society in uncanny ways. And when the world is in a season of unprecedented change and conflict, those connections are, perhaps, our most valuable resource.
To say it another way, when we encounter change, one of the most important things we can do is learn to think differently.
Remember, then, the rag-tag community of people in the throes of change to whom Matthew’s author wrote this account of Jesus’ life and teaching. For these people, it was clear: their old ways of thinking no longer served their present reality. Such was the case for Jesus’ own audience as well.
See, many in the early Church assumed that Jesus was going to return, like, presently, like in the next year or so, to finally punt Rome out of Judaea and to bring history to its grand culmination under a reign of peace, with the glorious temple of Jerusalem at its center and Jesus sitting on the throne of David. But following the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, this vision of hope was rapidly dying off. We can hear Matthew’s audience whispering to themselves furtively in the night as they steal away to the catacombs to worship their crucified and risen outsider god: “it wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it? How long is it going to take for him to come back? What if he doesn’t?”
The challenge which Matthew’s audience faced was the challenge of learning to think differently. They faced the challenge of reinterpreting the teachings they had received from Jesus via his disciples for the reality of their situation. So what did Jesus teach, anyway? And how did he teach? What did they have to work with? What could the Holy Spirit use in that moment to open up new avenues of realization and understanding for this community?
Any of us who grew up going to Sunday School probably have the word “parable” rolling around in the back of our memory, collecting dust. And what we have in today’s reading is precisely that: a parable. That word, “parable,” means a story that takes a couple of different, disparate elements and “throws them together.” A parable is a thrown-together story, literally, meant to awaken the hearer to new connections and new possibilities. The situations they present are sometimes impossible, sometimes improbable, but always wondrous, and the problems they present aren’t meant to teach us a fact or a figure, or a static chunk of knowledge. Rather, the struggle to understand a parable, to get our minds around it, is the point of a parable.
To say that differently, a parable doesn’t teach us what to think so much as it teaches us how to think. In this, they’re much like a Zen koan, a “riddle” that doesn’t have a solution per se, but seeks to lead you into thinking differently. Yet we don’t even need to look to Japan or India for this kind of wisdom: Judaism had its own tradition of this kind of story, known as a mashal, of which there are plenty of examples in the Hebrew bible. And undoubtedly, Jesus would have been a master of the mashal.
Because of the nature of a parable, or a mashal, or a koan, there’s usually not one correct interpretation, either: each encounter with the story presents an opportunity to make a connection that wasn’t there, to find something new, or to have our well-worn ways of thinking diverted into uncharted territory.
I personally can’t think of a better medicine for our current situation where we stand in 2020.
But thinking is hard, isn’t it? So Matthew’s author has included for our benefit one interpretation of the parable of the sower to get us started, but the rule of parables is that you don’t start with the interpretation, you start with the challenge of the story itself and let it speak to you in the moment. And you let the story do its work on you.
Which brings us to the parable of the sower. How might this story work on us?
As I was marinating in it, as well as in the interpretation Matthew’s author provided for us, I had this thought: just as parables change the way we think, so does the process of learning languages. And the interpretation Matthew gives here suggests that what is sown in the world is something that needs to be understood by its hearers in order for it to take root, right? For a message to be understood, it has to be communicated in a language that the receiver understands.
Our congregation’s native culture is the culture of liberal, educated, upper middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. With that culture comes a language of sorts: the way we think about and communicate what Church is and what Church is for. It comes with expectations—White Anglo-Saxon Protestant expectations, specifically—about what effective ministry looks like. And White Anglo-Saxon Protestant language and culture is what so many of us know and expect. We have certain cultural expectations for how we carry ourselves in worship. We have certain expectations for music. We have certain expectations of our visitors, and we have certain expectations for how people should participate in the life of the Church.
The issue though now is that, by and large, the neighborhood around this church is not, in general, upper middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism.
Which makes me wonder: what if we are broadcasting our message as a congregation in the wrong language? What if the way that we’re attempting to go about embodying God’s love is in a language that the folks in our backyard don’t speak or understand, or worse, have no desire to engage with because it’s entrenched in colonizer ideals? What if the most important thing we can do right now as a congregation who is not gathering on Sundays for worship is to spend time learning the vernacular? The vernacular of working class, non-white, unchurched people.
I wonder how many of us immediately thought that I was drawing a parallel to us as the sower, and the neighborhood as the soil. That very assumption, that we, the insiders, somehow have something to offer them, the outsiders, is one of the most dangerous assumptions of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture.
One of the gifts of parables is that you can turn them around on yourself.
In fact, it might not be that the neighborhood needs our message at all. It might just be that we are the hard, packed down soil, unable to receive what God wants to teach us through our neighbors, who don’t look or act or think like us. It might just be that we are the rocky ground, where new ideas spring up but because of our entrenched patterns can’t take root as wither as soon as they sprout. It might just be that we are the thorns choking the life out of people who are searching for God in the community because they don’t meet our expectations.
I wonder how God continues to throw seed at us in the form of people who are different from us, who have different priorities or ways of viewing the world, yet that seed gets eaten up by birds and withered by the sun and choked out by the tangling brambles of “we’ve never done it that way.” I wonder how God might be able to turn and till and fertilize us to make us good soil once again.
If we can learn a new melody, we can learn a few words in a new language. If we can learn a few words in a new language, we can learn a lot of words in a new language. And if we can do that, we can learn new ways of thinking, no matter how old or world-weary we are. And if we can do that, we can change our thinking. Even now, I’m consistently stunned by the people whom I never in a million years would have expected to be taking up the cause of racial justice and reparations loudly proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. People in their 60s, 70s, 80s! People who learned, who grew.
Remember: learning a language changes the way we think. It’s not just about being able to translate our message for advertising purposes. If we take time to learn the vernacular of our neighborhood—the music, the culture, the concerns, the hopes, the challenges, all of it—we won’t just be able to communicate our message clearly. We’ll be able to build real relationships across the artificial, arbitrary lines of redlining, of white supremacy culture, of socio-economic disparity, and of race and ethnicity that so often prevent us from understanding one another. We will be the ones who end up changed. And I daresay, if we have any desire at all for our church to continue to exist, we must allow God to turn, to till, and to enrich us so that we can become good soil once again. Pleasant? Absolutely not. Crucial? Without question.
If do so, if we sit at the feet of Christ in our neighbor and learn the language that Christ wants to speak to us in, we will end up turning into the good soil, where those who hear and understand the message of God’s love can take root, and flourish, and end up yielding a harvest bigger than we could ever have imagined. Amen.