"V.D.M." These were the odd initials that followed the name of our beloved New Testament teacher on the order of service at his memorial. It read "Lloyd Gaston, V.D.M". No indication was made of Lloyd's distinguished career as an academic. None of his advanced degrees were listed, not even the PhD earned under the tutelage of Karl Barth. All that indicated anything of his vocation was the acronym "V.D.M."
During the service Lloyd's friend and colleague Jim Linderberger noted that this designation had been Lloyd's desire. It reflected a long tradition among Protestant pastors and Catholic priests in Europe where it is commonly seen on the gravestones of clergy. In the absence of any other indication one knows immediately the life calling and work of those whose lives are subsumed in the three letters V.D.M. It signifies the Latin phrase "Verbi Dei Minister" - "Servant of the Word of God". As Jim told us this about Lloyd I remember a shock of recognition: "Yes, that names Lloyd's life ... and it also names mine".
I know that there is an ongoing struggle among others in our denomination with the phrase "The Word of God" or "The Word of the Lord" being spoken after the reading of scripture in worship. I regularly hear substitute responses offered when I am worshiping beyond University Hill. People say of scripture: "Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church" or "This is the witness of the church". More on that in another posting. For now let's simply make the assumption that when the church gathers to worship that it reads and interprets the Bible because it believes that this text is a vehicle through which God speaks. Hence it is our script for life, our scripture. If it were not we might read Shakespeare or Pinocchio or The Brother's Grimm.
Yesterday - Sunday - I experienced a moment when I was glad to be held in the company of those whose identity is named by the initials V.D.M. We were reading a text that is very familiar to the church - the Parable of the Sower in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew. I have preached numerous sermons on this text. That it arrives on the lectionary schedule every third year in July makes for a great opportunity to link the cultivation of Christian life together with so many gardeners who spend the summer hoping to cultivate a productive garden. My interest over the years in discussions begun by Lesslie Newbigin about the interaction between the gospel and our culture makes for an obvious connection with the pastoral work of patiently cultivating missional communities. The sermon title - "Counter-cultivation" - hinted at just such a focus. It would reflect on sixteen years of life together at University Hill patiently (and not-so-patiently) cultivating a congregation that understands that by becoming followers of Jesus Christ we are being formed into a counter-cultural movement and people. Given that the United Church that we grew up in understood itself to be the moral conscience and centre of Canadian cultural, this shift to living a life that moves subversively against the grain of Canadian culture does not happen overnight. It is a slow, often imperceptible, shift in assumptions and habits and priorities that occurs over time.
Well, that was going to be the gist of my sermon and, maybe, it still was. I began by lining out the sermon that I would have preached if I had done what I had always done when reading the Parable of the Sower. I had always left out verses ten to seventeen. After all, the lectionary jumps right over those verses. They seem an odd, out of place aside. More than that, they seem so contrary to everything that we assume about the parables. Scholars note that this can't really be Jesus speaking. The Jesus Seminar votes these as black letter verses (as in, Jesus didn't really say this - it's the church speaking later). Over the years I have been in on the collusion among scholars and preachers. We have hidden this passage from our congregations. They do not know it exists. They do not know that this text quotes a famous passage from Isaiah 6:9-10. And they do not know that it is one of the most quoted Old Testament texts in the New Testament, it being found in Matthew 13:14-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:37-43 and Acts 28:26-27, not to mention Paul in Romans 11:7. There is not another Old Testament text that is quoted in all of these New Testament books. Yet, my congregation and many others know nothing of it.
After sixteen years in the pulpit at University Hill Congregation it seemed time to break the silence. As a Servant of the Word of God I was compelled to serve the Word and not my - or the congregation's - comfort or safety. While I did not have the text "figured out" I needed to get out of the text's way so that it might have a chance to figure us out. And if it did not figure us out today perhaps by bringing it back to our common memory it might begin to make sense of us slowly, over time by cultivating a new common mind in us.
So I told the congregation that we preachers and scholars had been keeping something from them for a long time. Perhaps they hadn't noticed that whenever we told the parable of the sower that we left something out. I said we are like a family with a hard story in our past that we have decided not to tell the children and the grand-children (all this on a Sunday when we read Psalm 78, the Psalm Jesus quotes later in Matthew 13, the Psalm that says we tell parables - "dark saying from of old" - and that we will not hide them from our children). I said that there is a very perplexing teaching from Jesus. In fact, it is so perplexing and confounding that preachers and scholars have decided for you that it cannot be from Jesus. That is why we haven't taught it to you or preached it as the Word of God. We have simply silenced it and hoped that no one would notice. I told them that I was not sure that I could say how this is the Word of God for us today. I said that I thought I owed it to them to tell you the memory that we had hidden all of these years from them. I said that when we come around to this same text in three years time perhaps we will make more sense of it or, perhaps, it will then make more sense of us. I said that, at the very least, they were ready to be given back this hard memory. I wondered if it is like that moment in therapy when a memory comes back to you that you had seemingly forgotten. It is as if your soul knows that you are ready to remember. I said that I thought that we are ready to remember.
As you might imagine this certainly grabbed the congregation's attention. Everyone leaned forward, waiting the revelation of the memory that had been hidden. Perhaps those who had been paying attention during the reading of scripture were already on alert. But most had missed the import of Jesus' response to the disciples' question: "Why do you speak to them in parables?" (Matt. 13:10). Jesus answers by first quoting Jeremiah 5:21 and then Isaiah 6:9-10. He says that he uses parables as cryptic riddles so that the crowds will not be able to understand him. He says that the parables are meant to keep the secrets of the kingdom, well, secret. He says that the parables are not meant as easy object lessons to aid in understanding. He says that the parables are a means of cloaking the message so that, as with Jeremiah and Isaiah, his ministry can result in a hard judgment on a generation that is meant to be dulled to God - unhearing, unseeing, misunderstanding, distant from the kingdom.
I could see by the surprised, even shocked, faces that I had not lied to them about this text. Most looked as if no one had ever told them about it before. And yet there it is in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts. I said that the church we inhabit assumes that Jesus tells parables to make it easier to understand the kingdom, not harder. Whatever we are to make of this hard saying one thing is clear - the New Testament's understanding of the purpose of the parables and our understanding of the purpose of the parables could not be more different. Apparently our ministers and scholars have decided that we are correct and the New Testament is wrong. I said that, while it is possible that this might be true, we owed it to our congregations to let them know that there is a difference of opinion on the matter between the New Testament and us. It would probably be a good thing for us to not only know about the problem but also to have some level of concern about it.
Jesus says that those who have come under the reign of God, who have been captivated by the kingdom will receive more understanding. Once your whole paradigm changes, once you have been converted to the kingdom come, once the "real world" is no longer your real world because the kingdom of God is now reality then everything changes: "For those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance." But those who simply don't see it, who insist on calling the world as it is delivered in advertising and by our parents and bosses and politicians as "real" will simply not get it. This hardness of heart is not the work of the devil nor is it to be blamed on "secular culture". Rather, in the biblical world, hardness of heart in any generation is caused by the spirit of God. God's judgment and mercy works in mysterious ways. In order to get to mercy some generations must face the utterly devastating consequences of their choices. There is no cheap grace. No easy resolution. The whole enterprise must march on to its inevitably disastrous conclusion. Then, and only then, can reconciliation and repentance and forgiveness and newness take root and lead to the future homecoming that God intends. Hence, Isaiah 6:1-13 (note that when it appears in the lectionary it is listed as Isaiah 6:1-8 with verses 9-13 in brackets - giving the preacher the option of not proclaiming God's hard and odd response to Isaiah's promise: "Here I am, Lord, send me") leads to thirty-nine chapters of absolute judgment. It is only in chapter forty, when the judgment is complete that the Word of God comes to Isaiah saying "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people".
Then the sermon turned to Jesus' interpretation of the parable. I mentioned that I had been well-trained to know that surely Jesus didn't actually provide an interpretation of the parable because parables are not meant to be interpreted - and certainly not allegorically as this one is. There was only problem with this education. It overlooked the truth that in hosting this interpretation this week I had found a living Word from God waiting to be shared. As a servant of the Word of God it was my duty not only to tell them of the hard, forgotten memory that hides in the midst of this parable but also to share with them the interpretation that the early church has passed on to us as from Jesus. It is an interpretation that says that the seed is "the word of the kingdom" and the soil is made up of ears. The issue is the capacity to receive, to listen, to understand, to comprehend, to be a servant of the Word of God. And the problem is that the conditions are not good for such receptivity. The parable builds on the Old Testament metaphor of the people of Israel as God's good planting, God's own vineyard. It portrays God as the sower who scatters the seed - the Word - everywhere, regardless of the conditions for reception and growth and harvest. The parable notices that three out of four times the Word does not bear fruit. That God's Word will cultivate a people who live as witnesses to the kingdom come is not obvious. In fact, it regularly appears to have failed. In some churches no one pays heed to the Word. The minister and congregation are so busy creating their own version of the Word in order to suit the needs and demands of the neighbourhood that the gospel of Jesus bounces of the path and disappears, gobbled up by the evil one. In some churches there is initial receptivity to the gospel, even joy and praise singing. But then there is trouble. The building becomes a burden. The congregation shrinks and ages. The future looks hard. Are there deep enough roots so that the congregation is prepared to face the challenges ahead with courage even if it means meeting in homes or schools or hotel meeting rooms when it can no longer afford its own property? Or do the congregation's thoughts immediately turn to finding some means of carrying on as they have been carrying on and, if that won't work, to close? In too many cases shallow roots in the gospel lead to closure in the face of hardship. Jesus is not surprised. He says it happens all the time. And then there are the churches who live in the midst of wealth. This names the church in North America and in the Western world. Jesus says that these churches will be strangled by thorns. He says that the reason that the churches in North America are in such trouble is that they are overrun by the thorny problem of wealth which is devastating to a kingdom garden where it is not about gaining security or happiness or comfort through what we have. At this point one wonders how God's Word can ever take root among us. One also notices that this is not a parable that says we need to get our soil in order. It is not really about the soil. It is about the seed. The parable says that God's seed will find a place to grow and to bear fruit (Isaiah 55:10-11). Jesus says that some of the seed finds receptive soil, open hearts, a people who are not hard ground but are well furrowed and ready to give the seed a home.
Then I wondered aloud if we aren't often too fast in trying to decide which of the four soils we are. I wondered if in each soul here one might find a garden with all four kinds of soil. I noticed that Jesus doesn't pronounce judgment on the soils. He simply names that they exist. Perhaps we are too hard on those parts of our lives that have not produced the gospel fruit that we long for. And perhaps we have not paid close attention to the fertile soul within because, of course, the fertile ground is never where we expect it to be. The hard path, the shallow roots and the thorn patch - those are places where our own ambition and pride and apparent success have over-shadowed the work of God in Jesus to heal and redeem and forgive and make new. But the manure patch out back - the place in our life where there is trouble that we would rather not reveal and where there are memories that we have tried to forget - that is the fertile soil where God is already at work planting a future, seeding the kingdom, promising newness and life where we can only imagine ending and death. "Let those who have ears to hear listen" (Matt 13:9).
Driving home after the service I gave thanks for having come this far. I remember the days when I felt that I needed to be in control of the Word, to have it all worked out, to satisfy the congregation by resolving the text to everyone's satisfaction. Now I am blessed to be in a congregation which doesn't expect that of me. They understand that Jesus is regularly confounding, even perplexing. They know that the gospel often sounds odd to our un-gospeled ears. It is as if we are learning a foreign language and for many of us learning a foreign language is not easy. It doesn't surprise the congregation any more to find that learning Jesus' way is the most challenging experience of our lives. This allows me to be a Verbi Dei Minister. I am not a servant of the congregation's expectations for a version of the gospel that justifies the assumptions and the politics that we carry into church with us. I am to give my life to the call of serving the Word of God who is incarnate in Jesus Christ, the living Word. Why did it take so long to figure this out? I suppose that is the nature of learning any trade or craft. You work at it day after day, year after year until finally it gets into your bones and as you near the end of your labours it comes clear in a way that you have never known it before. At least, that is how it is happening with me.