More than Parables Alone

More than Parables Alone

Again Jesus began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:

“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lamp stand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Mark 4 (selected verses)

The love and justice of God is reflected in myriad lives, in myriad ways… Today’s sermon will be a little different, taking a less familiar route of understanding these familiar words of Jesus, on this Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

Today we look at the life of another person one who inspires millions in the name of Jesus even today. I’m referring to the one whose name is on banners along N. Charles Street, whose name is included in the title of at least 28 universities in the USA (and many more prep schools!)

Ignatius of Loyola lived a much more unexpected life than you would think, having been born into a family of the Basque nobility in northern Spain, in 1491. He discovered unexpected gifts in the difficulties of life. The Basque people remain fierce defenders of the land they’ve held for thousands of years in the western Pyrenees. Basque, they claim, was the language spoken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They say that the devil himself studied it for seven years, but never learned more than three words.

When Ignatius was a teenager he was sent to the royal court in Madrid, where he flourished as a promising young knight. His friends called him Iñigo, and he was admired for his wit and exuberance. He is said to have had an eye for the ladies and a readiness to fight at the drop of a hat. In 1521, when the French invaded the nearby town of Pamplona, he sprang to the defense, rallying his men atop the walls. But his time as a warrior ended when a cannon ball shattered his left leg. He barely survived the injury, and it changed his life in a totally unexpected way. As he recovered from multiple surgeries, Ignatius read tales of the lives of the saints and experienced a dramatic conversion. (This is known by Jesuits as a ‘cannonball moment.’)

He first envisioned himself becoming a soldier for Christ, beginning a valiant quest by making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but he only got as far as the outskirts of Barcelona. There his illusions were shattered. Everything fell apart, spiritually and emotionally, and he passed through a dark night of the soul. He stayed there for almost a year, living in a cave. There he started to write his Spiritual Exercises. From the mouth of his limestone cave he could look back on the mountain ridge of Montserrat ten miles away. That’s where he’d stopped on his way, leaving his sword and dagger behind, praying all night before the altar of Mary at the Benedictine abbey on the mountain’s slopes.

He’d envisioned himself doing great things for God but didn’t know how. The dramatic views of mountain, river and cave helped him pull it together.

He’d always aspired to mountain heights —striving to be the most impressive knight at court, the bravest soldier, and now the best of all the saints. But suddenly the grandiosity of his life— and his capacity for self-delusion—became painfully apparent. It forced him down the mountain and into a cave, facing the work of carving out the canyon of his inner life. It proved the hardest time of his life, undercutting everything he’d known. For the first time he found himself alone without an admiring audience, with no one to impress. The once-proud soldier fell into a dark depression over what his life had been and uncertainty as to what was coming next. He let his hair and fingernails grow. He begged for food in the streets and went days without eating.

Swallowed up by a sense of desolation, he feared God could never forgive him for his sins. He was tempted to commit suicide, to throw himself from a mountain cliff.

But then came a breakthrough. The thirty-year-old cavalier had always given himself over to his senses: beautiful women, fine clothes, good wine, the thrill of hand-to-hand fighting. He now sensed God speaking to him through the surrounding landscape. He received a vision he later described as the single most powerful experience of his life. It came as he sat by the river outside the cave. He was suddenly aware of being enveloped by the beauty of nature. His eyes of understanding began to open.

Iñigo saw the whole of creation in a new light, “seeing God in all things”—a theme he developed through the rest of his life. He noticed multiple layers of wonder in the natural world revealing God’s love at every point: in bedrock elements of water and rock; in flowering, steady lives of plants; in the companionship of life which animals share; and finally in the sparkling intelligence of human beings.

Each of these steps led him to an awareness of himself (and everything else) as a dwelling place of Divine Majesty of the image and likeness of God. He also received a vision of Jesus, seeing the man of Nazareth face to face. This Jesus was anchored in this world, God become flesh, an earthy image of God alive in this world.

He was then drawn to Jerusalem so he could touch and see the actual places where Jesus had lived, this new captain who demanded his loyalty. (Just like our Tour group). The notion of seeing Jesus present with him became a thread running throughout the rest of his life; spirituality made real.

A fearless new confidence emerged out of this experience, a courage not based on Basque machismo or chivalry, but a sureness that the world is filled with God’s glory overflowing into everything. After returning from Jerusalem, he spent the better part of a ten years getting an education, first learning Latin with school children in Barcelona and ending by earning a master’s degree at the University of Paris. There he gathered a cadre of companions who became the first members of the Society of Jesus, founded in 1540. As General of the Order for the next fifteen years, Ignatius dispatched missionaries around the world — establishing schools and colleges, meeting the needs of the poor and adapting their vision of Christian faith to the cultures to which they came.

The centerpiece of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, are the Spiritual Exercises, begun by Ignatius while he was still living in his cave. It was in darkness that he explored the human psyche — the motive, fears and desires that can lead either toward wholeness or destruction.

This is the most basic stuff of soul work. In getting the soul right we get our lives right, and visa-versa… it’s always a balancing act of internal discernment and public work. Ignatian spirituality starts from the inside out. It dares to make an inventory of what is and isn’t working for us, cutting to the chase about what we finally need to do. The Ignatian way insists that we encounter the divine mystery not only in scripture and the church, but also in the full range of human experience and the dark recesses of our world. Loyola first viewed the cave as an ideal place for examining the conscience, for probing the depths (and convolutions) of the human soul. As Barbara Brown Taylor says about the reasons to seek spiritual direction: “We go to counselors when we want help getting out of caves. We go to directors when we are ready to be led farther in.”

Loyola’s “Spiritual Exercises’- are explicit directions for companionship in the spiritual life, ideally over a thirty-day period given to reflection and prayer. The exercises are organized into four “weeks,” or movements. Iñigo leads the retreatant into an intensive, close reading of the Gospel stories of Jesus’s life, death and glorious resurrection. In making the “Jesus story” your own, he explained, you have to use your imagination, inserting yourself into the context and geography of the tale, incorporating what he called the “composition of place” and use of all the senses.

In a close reading of the Exercises, Iñigo’s latent machismo from the world of the Conquistadors filters through his guide. His use of the New Testament was dramatic and literal. Perhaps most perplexing of the Exercises is that, while they concentrate on the life of Jesus, not one of the sayings of Jesus appears. It’s all about action; traveling, making miracles, confronting sin head on in body and spirit, leading to the cross and resurrection.

Loyola stressed a concrete and incarnational character of the Gospel, which I think can be equally applied to the parables. His method still makes sense. Jesus told parables not to explain but to explore, not to provide answers but to engage the imagination and stir the soul. Parables are tiny bits of coal squeezed into diamonds, condensed metaphors that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives. Parables are not illustrations; they do not support, elaborate or simplify a more basic idea. To really hear a parable is to submit to entering its world, to be vulnerable, to know that we do not know what it really means. Parables have hooks all over them; they can grab each of us in a different way, according to our need.

So as we near the end of these words, let’s have a try at this. Jesus says many things about seeds; some that grew, some that died, mustard seed and more; all was explained to his disciples, but is planted in us- even now.

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

God’s kingdom may be like, say, planting potatoes. You can’t really see what’s happening until harvest time. But all the while, the seed you planted is developing into something valuable. Invisible, yes, but growing nonetheless. The caring way you raised your children will probably someday, some way, help to make them into caring people. The justice that you work for now may not be harvested for years, even decades. The way you treat someone else will come back to you in similar form. The time you spend in volunteering or study or prayer and meditation or family life or your job will make you a better person, and those around you will also benefit.

One day the seed that is sown will see the light of day, and the harvest will be real.

Is this too much on the seed metaphor? Maybe….. But, patience is the key. Do the right thing. Give it time. And then do the right thing some more. The kingdom will grow.

In the words of Dr King, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Be faithful. Be honest. Be true.

In the end, it’s also what Ignatius Loyola would do, as I close with one his prayers:

Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will. Amen.