Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Picture a church lit by beautiful stained glass windows and decorated with statues and glittering images. The pastor preaches from the pulpit, but you cannot understand a word he says. You’re told he is telling the stories in the windows and alcoves. But what he’s actually saying you have no idea. They are magical, holy words. The words of Latin, which only educated people know, and in which Holy Scripture is writ.
But the words are so powerful that if the pastor misspeaks them, it is said God will send lightening down and strike him dead. And the words are so powerful all by themselves that people take them and use them for their own magic. Hocus Pocus – you know this is a holy word. The Father says it often.
The Father finishes the Latin and moves into your own language for the sermon… presumably, it is based on what you just heard. But you don’t know.
… Its this phenomenon John Wycliffe had issue with back in 1376. Wycliffe, like Jesus, and like the prophets, communicated that physically hearing the words of scripture and faith is not enough. You also have to understand them.
If you can’t hear them spiritually, understand them deeply, struggle and debate, love and use them… then the words are just noise. Seed that never bears fruit. Wycliffe wanted the Bible translated into people’s common tongues. He wanted them to know hocus pocus isn’t a magical word, but how people heard the poorly pronounced Latin words for ‘Hoc est potus [meum]’ “This is my body,” He preached all people needed to have access to the scripture.
Hundreds of years before, others had argued for this too. We need to not just know other’s understandings of scripture, but struggle with it ourselves, too. So long before Wycliffe, scripture was translated into common languages for people – but over the centuries, scripture became solidified as the Latin version only, and no one but the educated spoke Latin anymore. Many people had forgotten it’s all our jobs to listen deeply to scripture, and to come to the message. It is the meaning, rather than the particular words, that is important.
But anything not Latin, back in the 1300s, was considered not true scripture.
People who followed Wycliffe’s way of thinking got called Lollards. A word for mutterers. And were called heretics. And burned at the stake.
In our reading today, Jesus translates the message of the prophets and God’s words into people’s common lives. He was called a heretic. And hung on a cross.
Today – people still fight over what translation of prayers, and scripture, to use. One of the biggest fights is over the King James Version. Is it the only authoritative, only true, version?
What version of scripture you consider authoritative matters. If only the KJV will do, then you’ll have to accept that unicorns walked the earth with Jesus. If you’re okay using more than one translation, to try to get at the various meanings of ancient words… then you’ll have hard work, but you’ll also have smarter work. Then you’ll know the word some Bibles have as unicorns others have has aurochs and we know as… really big cows.
On the flip side, if only our NRSV is authoritative, who is his ‘Holy Ghost’ we sing to in our doxology? That word is Holy Spirit in the NRSV.
So which Bible is authoritative to you? Which one do you trust?
Red letter Bible?
New Revised Standard Version?
Common English Bible?
Does it have to be a printed version, or is online okay? On a phone okay?
They all have pros and cons to their translation and transliteration. All of them make choices in translating old, hard words that may only appear once and have no context for us to know what it means. Is it debts or trespasses? Holy ghost or holy spirit? All of them also make assumptions about what their words mean to you or me.
For instance… my grandpa might ask you for a poke. What does that mean to you? Click a button on Facebook? Stick your finger into his belly? Or hand him a grocery sack? If you had to translate Grandpa’s request to someone… which one of those would you pick?
Those who provide us even the Latin Bibles have to make those choices… Let’s say you’re translating the Bible and come to the word describing Mary… should you say virgin, silly, child-like, naive, young, unwed, girl…? All of them are legitimate translations.
Even those listening to Jesus today had to decide what he meant with his words.
And this is why Jesus so often doesn’t just say something, but then demonstrates it too. And today he tells others to do the same: listen to understand, and then act on what you hear.
Wycliffe listened to scripture with an ear for action. Scripture said to spread the Good News to all. It said God’s Word is a lamp to our feet. And he took action to be sure all had access to this news and a lamp. His followers made secret and illegal copies of the Bible written in English. And this, along with the same happening in Germany for the Germans, led us to the Protestant Revolution. Led the church into multiple reforms where you can hear God’s Word in your own tongue in almost every church regardless of denomination. Led us to remember… the words themselves aren’t magic. The message is.
Before today’s reading, Jesus has given the Sermon on the Mount… and this is its conclusion. He says: I have told you all these things. I have said them. Now… who has really heard me and will go and produce fruit? And who will start… but for this reason or that, not finish?
Who heard the words, and got lost in nitpicking just who is my neighbor and just who gets to be called the meek…
And who heard the words, and said: care for others, and be humble and kind.
And who heard the words… and went and cared for others in humble and kind ways?
It is those who took what was understood, and did more kindness, that produced 30, 60, or 100 times more good in the world.
Did you hear about the care chain in Indiana on Father’s day? A woman looked in her rearview mirror at McDonalds and saw a man who had four kids in his van. She decided to pay for herself and him at the window, and told the cashier to wish the man a happy father’s day. The father was so impressed and happy that he paid for the people behind him, too. This went on all day! The only reason this chain stopped was because the place closed! One good deed produced the fruit of an entire days’ worth of good deeds. And each one of those people’s moods were lifted, encouraged, and they left telling others of the goodness that surprised them. And everyone’s days were better and more loving because of it.
The words I say and the words we read and hear today are important, but are seed on rocky soil if they don’t land in your fertile hearts and lead to more good words and more good deeds.
The Genesis story of the twins Esau and Jacob touches a little on this.
Both boys have grown up hearing from their mom and dad about the promises of God. Both have heard how God is making a nation out of their family and how God’s blessing is passing down generation to generation. And both have been told how the older boy, Esau, is the one Isaac is passing down the bulk of his land and the blessing of God to.
The words are just words. Neither boy has seen God in action yet. The words fall on Esau and he doesn’t do anything with them. They are just stories. The words fall on Jacob and he does something – he envisions the future and he works for it. He believes in God’s promises.
And so, Esau gives up future promises for the immediate gratification of soup now. And Jacob believes in future promises, takes Esau’s birth right, and waits decades to see these promises come through.
Do you believe in God’s promises? Do you believe enough to take action on them? To risk your immediate benefits for long-term benefits?
Do you work hard – toil – at life or do you work smart – trust – God ?
The words we use are often forgotten. But the deeds we do are remembered. Carl Bueher and Maya Angelo said: “They may forget what you say – but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
So… embody your scripture. And know your scripture enough to embody it. If it’s in a language too complex, get a different version.
So that, the words of God are more than just words, but a way of living and acting you can count on for your whole life.