Never Empty

"Seedling." Image by Geoff Maddock via Flickr, Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Dear Working Preachers, last week, taking a cue from Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,”I wrote about rest.

I am actually going to practice what I preach! My family and I will be taking a one-month vacation this summer. Perhaps the last of its kind since my oldest son will start his senior year of high school this fall. I can’t remember the last time I actually took a vacation — yes, a lot of travel, a lot of time away. But without work? Without my computer? So, Dear Working Preachers, I am also taking a break from this column, with a return on August 20. You are in wonderful hands with my colleague and Sermon Brainwave co-host, Matt Skinner, who has agreed to write the column in my absence.

Parables are prickly things. It is always tempting to appoint persons to the particulars of the story, especially when Jesus himself has already done such a good job of that very thing. But even a cursory read through Matthew confirms that hasty assignments of elements in Jesus’ parables will usually require reassessment. When it comes to this parable, as much as we might want to be the good soil and command others to be the same; try as we might, there is no chance we can will our way toward such an agricultural state of being. All of a sudden, our discipleship prospects don’t look as good as when we just had the parable itself before us.

Rather than bemoan the inevitability of our inability to hear and obey God’s word, or spend our interpretive energies trying to decide who’s who — which usually results in judgment of or shaming those who don’t seem to have ears to listen — perhaps we simply live into the truth of the parable. The truth is, some will hear the word and understand it, who will indeed bear fruit with abundant yields. The truth is, having that kind of response to God’s word a quarter of the time is not half bad. The truth is, we have all been in all of the situations described in the parable and its explanation at one time or another in our lives.

Combined with Isaiah’s confession of the power of God’s word, preaching this week is a whole lot of promise. The promise lies in both the generosity with which God disseminates God’s word and the efficacy of God’s word. There is also promise in the fact that neither one of those activities of God is within our control.

For us preachers, this is the kind of promise that we need to hear or of which we need to be reminded on a regular basis. You know what I mean, right? You preach week in and week out and wonder is anyone really listening? Am I really making a difference? Does anything I say matter in the lives of my people, in my own life? Our weekly sowing all too frequently results in a deferred crop. Preaching is an act of persistence. The results of the Gospel are rarely immediate, and more often than not, we are left with only the hope of this parable and Isaiah’s prophecy.

I remember when my oldest son Sig was a little over a year old. At the time, one of the recommended parental activities was to teach your child sign language so that you could communicate before the child was able to speak. Being a first-time mother, I was eager to try all of the new and endorsed developmental techniques to ensure that Sig would be accepted into Yale when he was in 8th grade, or before.

So, for two weeks, I signed “more” during his mealtimes at the same time I asked him if he wanted “more” of whatever deliciousness happened to be on his highchair tray. And for two weeks? Nothing. No reaction. Just some rather perplexed stares and me giving him “more” anyway. So, I gave up. There would need to be other avenues to secure his place in an Ivy League freshman class.

Two months later, Sig was in his highchair having lunch. I asked if he wanted more and he signed “more.” Of course, I just about fell over. Yet, this belated response did not make me dig out the sign language book and teach him additional signs. Instead, it ended up being a very important lesson when it comes to parenting — and, for that matter, when it comes to pastoring and preaching — that our efforts will, more often than not, have delayed results. This is a hard truth to accept, especially when you realize more and more each day the limitations of time; especially when you recognize more and more each day that you might never see the fruits of your labor.

I take comfort in this parable this time around — pastorally, homiletically, vocationally, and parentally. The older I get, the more I understand its truth and its promise; the more I allow myself to settle into the love and grace and mercy of God around which and toward which the world moves, even if I never get to witness the fullness of this vision. Jesus’ parable tells an important story about the Kingdom of Heaven — a story that needs to be told over and over again regardless of who is able to hear it. Our prophetic preaching, our persistence, our witness to the truth of the Gospel, and our acts of resistance shall not return empty, but shall accomplish that which God purposes and succeed in the thing for which God sent it.

As I said in the opening paragraph, Sig will be a senior in high school this next academic year. So far, Yale has yet to appear on the list of potential colleges to which he will apply. But that’s okay. I get a month with him this summer and I trust that, with ears to listen and eyes to understand, one day on this trip there will be one minute, one second even, because of the seventeen and a half years we’ve had so far, when I will hear something I’ve said or see something I’ve done, that has contributed to the young man he is today. And in that promise is most certainly joy and peace (Isaiah 55:12).