My grandfather spoke with a rich Irish accent and he smoked a pipe. He was aware, I think, that he made a striking figure in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the seventies, and he used that awareness to good effect. He was self-consciously a figure for the “old country” in our more modern world. And he had ways of making sure that we kept some part of the old country in our own identities. Once in a while, for instance, in the middle of an after-school game of Liverpool Rummy with us grandchildren, he would put down his pipe and lean an elbow on the table and regale us with some Irish narrations. One of his favorites went like this:
“It was a stormy night at sea, and the lads asked me to tell them a story. So I told them the following tale:
‘It was a stormy night at sea, and the lads asked me to tell them a story, so I told them the following tale:
‘It was a stormy night at sea….’’”
You get it, right? It’s Irish mise-en-abyme, a story about telling a story about telling a story about telling a story. It never ends. The story never starts. The story is always about the moment of storytelling, the anticipation of a good tale, the breathlessness of the fictional “lads” who waited to hear. And waited, and waited. As we waited, at first, until we understood the joke.
My grandfather never seemed more Irish to me than when he was telling us this infinitely-deferred story, and it never stopped being fun to hear, even though we knew how it went. My grandfather would deepen his voice and exaggerate his Irish brogue, and though I knew he had never been a sea-captain—he was manager of a drug store--I could have sworn in that moment that he was a figure from some great sea-faring novel. Everything romantic about being Irish was contained in that joke, including a knowing wink about making fun of everything romantic about being Irish. Just at the moment that my grandfather seemed like an exotic foreigner, that is, I felt that I was part of the land from which he came, because I knew the story that could never be told. That story that had no end and no beginning was my story, as familiar to me as a game of cards and a glass of lemonade on a hot afternoon.
This rather peculiar memory of mine keeps coming back as I ponder the parable that Jesus tells us this morning. It’s not a stormy night at sea, exactly, but Jesus does have a crowd gathering around him on the beach, waiting to hear him speak. He moves away from them a bit, gets into a boat, and begins to speak to them in parables. The first parable he tells, it turns out, is about telling a parable. Telling a parable, preaching the word of God, he says, is like being a farmer who goes out to sow seeds. Some of the seeds fall on good soil, and some of them don’t. In fact, it sounds like most of the seeds fall in places that will prevent them from bearing fruit. They will fall on pathways and in shallow places and where weeds will crowd them out. It sounds like about one seed in four might land in a good place. Not very encouraging odds. You wonder why Jesus would even speak, if almost nobody is going to hear what he has to say and really understand it, really put it to good use.
It seems that the best stories are the ones that never fully arrive, never fully yield up their meanings to us. The stories that save us are the stories that always elude our grasp, always remain mysterious. Hamlet, famously, remains compelling because no one is really sure why the tragic prince does what he does. But Hamlet doesn’t save anyone, not even an English major. Jesus, the Word of God, saves us. In Jesus, God speaks a word to us that is salvific in part because the riches of that word will never fully arrive in our understanding. A seed will be planted, and our life-long struggle will be to do our best to hear that word, let that seed germinate and grow. We will struggle to avoid hearing in a shallow way. We will struggle to avoid having the word of God garbled and choked by the cares of the world. We will struggle to avoid being too hard and too burned out and too trampled upon to let the word of God dwell in us richly. But we will see that when we do hear and learn and understand, and when the word of God bears fruit in us, that fruitfulness itself will be all the more mysterious. If we hear and understand, the word of God will yield thirty or sixty or a hundred-fold, and that too will be beyond our comprehension. Understanding God’s word means being witness to a power and grace we ultimately don’t understand, all over again. We are carried forward through our lives of faith by a desire to hear a word whose meaning is always about to be revealed to us, but never in completion.
And the elusiveness of that beautiful word is ultimately our great joy. The meaning of the word of God will never be exhausted. There will never be a last word. We will never tire of hearing that there is more to understand, a tale yet to be told. It will always be a stormy night at sea, and we will always be breathless with anticipation as the height and breadth and depth of what God has in store for us promise to reveal themselves.
Many decades after my grandfather’s Irish accent was stilled by death, I can turn to a sibling or to a cousin or to someone who knows me well, someone with whom I’ve shared his jokes—all of you, now—and I can speak just the first line of his little performance piece: “It was a stormy night at sea.” And the pleasure of that joke comes rushing back, the joy of sharing the irony of the story that never happens, the sound, the voice, the feeling of belonging, even in exile, to the old country.
That’s some of what a parable does when Jesus tells it. His stories are perfectly familiar--what could be more normal than sowing seeds?--and yet they are imbued with the mysterious and enchanting accent of a homeland we haven’t seen. They tell us something about where we come from and where we are headed, where we belong. But that place of belonging will never be property we own.
Your heritage is in the heart of God’s unfathomable love. In this life, it will be the punch line that never gets fully delivered, the tale that never unfolds fully. And in the next, when the tale is fully told, it will turn out to be a story that never ends, and our joy will be to hear word after word spoken to us of love and beauty and forgiveness and healing. As familiar as a seed that is planted and grows, but as mysterious as the process of growth itself.
In a moment, we will stand together and chant the words of the Nicene Creed. It has often been remarked that the creed is a story. It’s the bare outline of a story of creation and salvation. Most of us know it very well, almost to the point of boredom. But if we heard it correctly and came to appreciate our own power to recite it, we would begin to understand that we are speaking the words of a tale that has no ending—the life of the world to come. We would hear that we are telling a tale about where we come from, the Father who made heaven and earth, all that is, seen and unseen. We would hear the accent of our homeland, and know that the sense of being unfulfilled and in exile is crucial to our identity as followers of Jesus.
It is our glory on this earth to trace out the logic of the story of our redemption. What we hear from Jesus as a parable, we repeat as the story of our faith, halting and incomplete though it may be.
“So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth,” says the Lord. “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” And so we have come to believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. We have learned to acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And we have begun to look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
Preached by Mtr. Nora Johnson
July 16, 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia