January 12, 2020

Outrageously Abundant Harvest

Passage: Mark: 4-1-9

Synopsis: The movie, “The Two Popes,” about a fictional conversation between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio (who became Pope Francis), makes a good segue to Jesus’ parable of the sower and the outrageously abundant harvest. The conversation between two very different men with different visions for the future of the church is filled with an abundance of grace and the capacity to reach beyond set positions to recognize our common humanity and faith.

This begins my sermon series on the sayings and stories of Jesus. I fell in love with studying the gospels when I was a seminary student—so much so that I seriously considered doing doctoral studies in New Testament. But I was already in my 30s, and we had three school age children. It would have been a huge financial stretch. Besides, I also wanted to be involved in hand-on ministry.


I’ve always sought to balance academics with pastoral ministry. They inform each other. I deeply value the cycle of study, reflection, and action, which leads to my growth as a disciple of Jesus. So I’m excited about digging back into those gospel stories. I’ve dusted off some books on them from my seminary days and ordered several new ones.


Last Sunday evening Ruth and I watched the Netflix move “The Two Popes,” which is about a fictional conversation between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who then became Pope Francis. Pope Benedict had spent his life as a brilliant theologian defending conservative Catholic orthodoxy. Cardinal Bergoglio, on the other hand, had worked as a Jesuit priest among the poor and the oppressed in Argentina.


I wasn’t so sure about watching a movie about two popes but it had gotten good reviews. Ruth and I decided we’d at least try it and we’re glad we did. The British actor Anthony Hopkins plays an outstanding role as Pope Benedict. Jonathan Pryce, plays the role of Cardinal Bergoglio who then becomes Pope Frances. While the conversations between them are imaginary, they insightfully depict the struggles within the Catholic Church and in our world.


The two men begin as adversaries and then gradually learn to know and respect each other. Pope Benedict had called Cardinal Bergoglio to Rome and Bergoglio had brought his letter of resignation with him for the pope to sign. He’s surprised when Benedict repeatedly refuses to sign it. They argue vehemently about the future of the Catholic Church amidst a backdrop of scandal and crisis. What Bergoglio sees as necessary change, Benedict sees as ruinous compromise.


What drew me into the movie is the way it depicts the humanity and vulnerability of both men. Cardinal Bergoglio is an affable man who easily relates to all kinds of people.  He struggles with his conscience because of his response to the military dictatorship in Argentina when he had been the head of the Jesuits in the country. He had made the preservation of life a priority over resistance to the junta, and for this he suffered recriminations from others as well as his own regrets.


In contrast, Benedict is a lifelong scholar with a fierce intellect. He’s detached from popular culture and finds it hard to relate to ordinary people. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He also carries the baggage of having joined the Hitler Youth as a teenager in Nazi Germany. At one point, he asks Bergoglio, “This popularity of yours, is there a trick to it?” His self-awareness is not entirely absent, as when he tell Bergoglio of his plans to abdicate.


Bergoglio is shocked and dismayed. “There can’t be two popes,” he moans.

“There were three popes in 1378,” Benedict replies.

“That’s not the same thing,” says Bergoglio.

“It was a joke.”

“It wasn’t funny.”

“It’s a German joke,” the pope concludes. “It doesn’t have to be funny.”[1]


In addition to an engaging depiction of the humanity of the two men, there’s a strong undercurrent of love and abundant grace throughout the movie. That’s what makes it such a good segue into Jesus’ parable of the sower. The parable isn’t really about the sower who only appears briefly at the beginning. He’s an enigmatic character who throws seed willy-nilly all over the place.


The story’s really about the seed that lands in all kinds of places. Things don’t get off to a good start. Some falls on the path and is immediately gobbled up by birds. Some falls on stony ground and sprouts but then withers under the heat of the sun because it can’t find soil in which to grow. Some falls among thorns and manages to grow but is then choked out and unable to produce grain.


These three dismal failures set us up for the surprising and outrageously abundant harvest. The seed that fell on good ground produces not only a normal harvest with about a tenfold increase, but an unheard of sixty and even a hundredfold increase. Jesus is assuring his disciples that what God began in his ministry, despite initial failure, will ultimately be extravagantly successful.


Moving beyond the parable, Jesus then tells his disciples that this secret of the kingdom of God has been given to them—they have been giving insight into how it works. “But to those who can’t see it yet, everything comes in stories, creating readiness, nudging them toward receptive insight” These are people—

Whose eyes are open but don’t see a thing,

Whose ears are open but don’t understand a word,

Who avoid making an about-face and being forgiven” (4: 11-12 The Message).


The secret of God’s kingdom is that the abundant harvest is not about attaining worldly wealth, power, and fame. No, it’s about the amazing growth in our hearts and our spirits. It’s what the apostle Paul calls the fruit of the spirit, which “is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5: 22-23).


Oh, how hard it is to see! This week the news has been full of President Trump’s ordered assassination of Iranian General Sulaimani. All politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, prefaced their remarks to reporters by saying that Sulaimani was a horrible man—he had the blood of American soldiers on his hands. He deserved what he got even if doing it was a mistake. The only one who didn’t do that was Bernie Sanders, and he’s a Jew not a Christian.


Yet, the millions of Iranians who attended Solaimani’s funeral view him as a hero and a martyr. Can we imagine what this feels like from their point of view and even empathize with them? And are we able to acknowledge how much blood our own American politicians and generals have on their hands after 20 years of war in the Middle East? Or are our eyes open but we don’t see a thing?


What about myself? One of my goals in life is that I can grow in love and grace—to be that seed which yields sixty and even a hundredfold. I don’t want to become an old man whose remaining years are choked by the thorns of regrets and resentments. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I can’t do this by myself—I need God’s grace to heal my wounds and lay down my petty prejudices.


This is what spoke to me so powerfully in the imagined conversation between Pope Benedict and the future Pope Francis in that movie. I easily identify with Pope Francis because, like him, I see myself as a progressive church leader fighting for necessary change. And, to be honest, the real Pope Benedict is someone who had been easy for me to despise.


He was so wrapped up in culture-war battles over marriage, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, and restricting the role of women in the church. Such matters, too often, predominated while he swept the sex scandal among the clergy under the rug and mostly ignored the pressing needs of humanity and our environment. What mattered most was protecting the institutional church rather than caring for the needs of wounded and hurting people.


Even though I may vehemently disagree with him on many things, can I still appreciate and love him as a fellow believer whose faith has centered his life? I recognize that conservatives don’t have a monopoly on being small minded and hateful. Such things are also alive and well in progressive circles. Might it be that we actually need each other if we want to grow in love and grace?


This brings us back to Jesus’ parable where the future promises an abundant yield, despite apparent failures. It speaks to us on a personal level and also more broadly in our churches and in our society. New Testament scholar Lamar Williamson, Jr. explains:

It addresses the lives of [people] who have heard the gospel but in whom it has not taken root; committed Christians who are for the moment spiritually dry; congregations, church [councils], and whole Christian [denominations] which are disheartened by periods of sterility. It speaks of a power whose life-giving potential is irrepressible.[2]


I want to leave us with this promise of an outrageously abundant future harvest—an irrepressible gospel power of life-giving potential. Sure, we have all messed up or come up against our personal limitations. As our pastor, I know this about us pretty well. And, yes, our church has gone through some tough patches.


Still, I believe in us. By God’s grace, we’re able to live love, grow justice, and welcome everyone. We’re therefore on the cusp of an exciting and fruitful future. as a smaller church here in Fairfax. You see, my friends, we embody God’s Good News in our community.


[1] John Anderson, “Review: The Two Popes,” America: The Jesuit Review (November 26, 2019).

[2] Lamar Williamson, Jr. Mark: Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), 91.

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