In the world, there is a parable | July 23

Twelve Hymns Project: HWB 614 In the bulb there is a flower

Text: Matthew 6:25-29

Three times a year Mennonite Central Committee publishes its Washington Memo.  It’s a little six page pamphlet.  Each one focuses on a key social or political area of concern, giving historical background, policy principles for addressing the situation, ways MCC is involved, and ways for the reader to pray and act for peace.  We get it in the church office.

The spring/summer 2017 issue is about US/North Korea relations.  The cover page includes a large picture of an agricultural field with mountains in the background.  On the ground and in the air are a number of birds, cranes.  With MCC’s permission, we’ve used that image for today’s bulletin cover.

The cover page of the Washington Memo includes a caption beside this picture that says this: “View from South Korea into North Korea.  Red crowned cranes are an important symbol on both sides of the border of longevity, purity and peace.  The cranes thrive in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the countries because of the relatively undisturbed habitat.”

Seeing this, I felt myself drawn into something resembling a parable of Jesus.  Out of curiosity I did some online research on these cranes and their place in the Korean peninsula.

It turns out the Smithsonian Magazine did an article on red-crowned cranes back in April of 2011.  It’s title and opening line is this: “The DMZ’s thriving resident: The Crane.  Rare cranes have flourished in the world’s unlikeliest of sanctuary, the heavily mined demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.”

It turns out…this is a complex parable.  More on that in a bit.

Parable was a favorite form of teaching for Jesus.  Parables frequently, but not always, reference the natural world and invite the hearers to consider the wisdom on display.  Parables are playful.  They spark the imagination.  They confront one’s way of seeing the world with a challenge to see it another way.  But the meaning isn’t always obvious.

Jesus’ disciples once asked him why he spoke in parables.  He responded by saying: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’”  Jesus’ words are a reference to the call narrative of Isaiah that we looked at last week.  Isaiah was called to speak to a people who could see, but not understand.  Parables, it seems, stare us in the face all the time, and even if our eyes work, our hearts and minds don’t.  Parables bring a yellow highlighter marker to the landscape and say: “pay attention here.”

From our reading today: “Look at the birds of the air…Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither labor nor spin, yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

I also wonder if Jesus’ use of parables was part of his subversive mission of bringing good news to the poor.  Illiterate peasants were dependent on the elite literate class to mediate the words of Scripture to them, but the world of experience and creation was on full display in front of them, accessible, a holy text of continual commentary on the kingdom of God.  Jesus finds the holy in the ordinary, wisdom in seeds, and coins, sheep, and treasure, even weeds.  And birds.

Consider the red-crowned crane.

The Smithsonian article reports that they are one of the rarest birds in the world.  Less than 3000 survive in the wild.  A major cause is loss of habitat.

Between 1950 and 1953, over three million people died in the Korean War.  The armistice in 1953 ended the fighting and created the DMZ, a strip of land 160 miles across the peninsula, two and half miles wide, a demilitarized zone, DMZ, between the North and the South.  Despite the armistice, there was no peace treaty, so the two nations are still technically at war.  It’s been widely reported that when President Obama was debriefing our current President on foreign affairs, he named North Korea as the biggest threat to US security.

There’s no industrial or agricultural development allowed by either side in the DMZ.  It serves as a buffer zone for the humans.  For the red-crowned cranes, it serves as a sanctuary.  A temporarily undisturbed habitat.

The cranes are migratory.  They are trespassers of human created borders.  They are boundary crossers.  They are light footed, light enough to walk without threat among the thousands, perhaps a million landmines in the DMZ, installed with the express purpose of destroying life.  But they can’t destroy the cranes, which parade over them unharmed.  The cranes are revered by both sides and are a symbol of peace.  There are conservationists from the North and South working together, however cautiously, to protect and expand the crane’s habitat.  Consider the red-crowned crane.

Parables, it seems, stare us in the face all the time.

Today’s hymn feels something like a rapid fire series of mini-parables – a parable-infused stream of consciousness.  In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free.    In the cold and snow of winter, there’s a spring that waits to be.  There’s a song in every silence.  There’s a dawn in every darkness.  How many parables is that?  And that’s only half the song.

It’s fitting that this hymn got a lot of votes from children.  Children are naturally curious.  Kids are able to see things that adults may have stopped perceiving.  They ask questions we may have stopped asking.  Children are inherent boundary crossers because they are not yet enculturated into a militarized world that has zones.  If we pay attention, we may find that children are themselves parables, infused with wisdom, ready to be seen and heard.  Just make sure they’re old enough before you give them a yellow highlighter marker or it may end up all over your wall.

Parables are all around, but they require work on our part.  We are meaning making creatures, and parables are a dynamic interaction of environment and human consciousness.  We touch the world with our consciousness, we choose to find meaning amidst the chaos, amidst the violence, amidst a natural world that does not necessarily always reflect virtue.  Not every observation is hopeful.  We have a tremendous amount of power to choose what we find instructive and what we don’t wish to imitate.

A line from Wendell Berry speaks to this.  It’s more of an un-parable than a parable.  He wrote: “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”  Consider the economy of rats and roaches, and do otherwise.

It’s at this hinge of we do and don’t learn from the non-human world that the living parable of the red-crowned cranes gets especially interesting, and complex.

We long for peace among the peoples of the earth, peace in the Korean peninsula included.  But here’s the catch.  If there is ever to be peace between North and South Korea, the agreements of the Demilitarized Zone would be lifted, the land suddenly a candidate for development.  The Smithsonian article notes that “In the event of reunification, a huge port is proposed for the DMZ’s Han River estuary, where white-naped cranes winter; a reunification city is planned” as well.  Development pressures would be tremendous.  From the perspective of the dwindling red crowned cranes and other species who have found refuge in the DMZ, conflict among humans, rather than cooperation, at least in this case, has shaped up to be a good thing.

Conflict among the humans is not a good thing, but cooperation among the humans can and has put us in conflict with the larger forces around us.

And there’s a parable for that.  It’s an old, old parable.  We don’t know how old, but the biblical material situates it even before the Patriarch and Matriarchs, before Abraham and Sarai and their offspring.

It’s found in Genesis 11 and goes like this:  Once upon a time everyone on earth spoke the same language.  They all settled down in one area together, and had a big idea.  “Let’s make bricks.  And let’s stack those bricks, one on top of another, to form a massive tall tower, that reaches all the way to heaven.  We’re going to make our mark.  We’re going to be remembered forever.  And they were so clever, and good at planning and communication, that’s what they did.  They started to build a massive city and a massive tower.

Now the Lord came down from the heavens to check up on this curious species, the humans.  The Lord was all about cooperation and collaboration, was pleased that large clay legos inspired her kids to play so well together, but was faced with a dilemma.  If they can do this, what else might they do with their powers?  So the Lord made a difficult decision.  The Lord broke up the mono-culture, and cast a vote for linguistic diversity.  The humans now spoke many different languages, and could no longer make their plans and built their great tower.  They were scattered all over the face of the earth, in smaller tribes.  And the place where they had once tried to build their tower to the heavens was called Babel, which means confused.

That’s more or less how Genesis 11 tells it.

In our time the effects of Babel are being rapidly reversed.  We can understand one another and cooperate and collaborate on an unprecedented scale.  There are still places of conflict where we tear down rather than build up, but more and more towers go up every day.  And with them more and more of the other species retreat into diminishing habitat.

I suggest that the question of the parable is, Can we cooperate with one another in such a manner that the Lord of mercy and justice would not want to disrupt?  Can we make peace with each other without declaring war against nature?  Will we merely see, or will we also perceive?  Will we merely hear, or will we also listen to the parables that seeds, and the polar bears, and the ash trees, and the honeysuckle are trying to tell us?

Consider the parables of Jesus.  Consider the parable of the tower of Babel.  Consider the parable of the red-crowned crane.  Consider the words of today’s hymn: “From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery.”