Robert McKee, who is a well-known professor of creative writing and a teacher about the structure and art of storytelling – once wrote that “storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.”
McKee is likely correct – as a species, we love and cherish and find ourselves most fully engaged by stories. Whether it is in the way that we are entertained in movies and on theatre stages, or whether it is in the stories that we tell each other at the end of a day, or whether it is in the books that we read, or whether it is in the ways that we listen when others speak, there can be absolutely no doubt that telling a story is one of the most powerful and impactful ways to communicate a message or to convey a truth to those around us. Even when the stories are fictional – and perhaps sometimes especially when they are fictional – we pay attention to them to seek to discern, in them, what helps us to understand ourselves better, what is insightful, what is true.
Which is something that Jesus seemed to know well. “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”
Today’s suggested lectionary reading is only one of the many passages in which Jesus tried to convey his vision of the kingdom of God without resort to long, doctrinally complex and nuanced lectures, but rather through the offering of little vignettes, little parables, little stories. And if you wonder whether or not his approach was effective, please bear in mind that here we are, two thousand years later, on the other side o fhte world, reading and re-reading and pondering and talking about those little stories that Jesus told.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark recounts two of those little stories.
“The kingdom of God…” he began, might be compared to a farmer who spreads seed on the ground. The seeds go into the ground and then…well, then nothing seems to happen. The farmer sleeps and gets up, day after day and night after night, and yet, even though the farmer does not really know how or what is happening, the seeds that were once tiny and seemingly insignificant are eventually transformed into healthy, life-giving, large heads and stalks of grain. And as a result, from that tiny seed, the farmer’s family, the farmer’s animals, the farmer’s community is fed and sustained. And it all starts from a tiny seed.
Or, Jesus said, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. A tiny seed which again seems to be so small, so insignificant, but which grows into a bush whose branches spread out and become a nesting place, a safe place, for the birds of the air to protect themselves and their young.
They are simple stories, straightforward stories, and yet they are incredibly powerful stories.
Tell me the stories of Jesus, I love to hear, things I would ask him to tell me, if he were here. Indeed.
But what is equally important for us to realize is that the stories that he told – which were the stories that he intended to use to help his listeners to understand the ways of the kingdom of God, in this world – these stories, more often than not, were entirely based upon his simple observations about the world around him.
Which, now, can be a challenge for us. After all, some of you might be gardeners, some of you may have worked on farms at some point in your lives, and know something about the size of mustard seeds or the ways that mustard bushes grow. But when it comes to the relative size of different types of seed, or the best practices for planting crops, or the size and shape of mustard bushes in the Middle East, well, that is the kind of thing that most of us have to turn to the internet to learn about.
Which, in a way, distances many of us from the real power of these little stories. They were not meant to be stories that one had to do research in order to understand. The people to whom Jesus spoke these powerful stories knew what he was talking about. They knew what he meant when he talked about fishing nets and sheepfolds; they knew what he meant when he talked about farmers planting seeds on fertile or rocky ground; they knew what he meant when he talked about unjust judges and vulnerable widows; they knew what he meant when he talked about corrupt scribes and questionable Samaritans; they knew what he meant when he told stories about absentee landowners and workers in a vineyard. These, and so many of his stories, were entirely based on images and ideas that were drawn from their own daily life.
Which, in its own way, is a powerful, powerful spiritual invitation to each and every one of us. That is, it is good to remember that Jesus turned to the daily, simple, mundane events and images of daily life in order to help his listeners to catch glimpses of the ways of God. Most of them – and most of us – probably think that the important, big ideas of life and faith are supposed to come to us in miraculous ways – in heavens being torn open or in inexplicable supernatural experiences. We think that the ways and the presence of God are supposed to be prefaced by trumpet sounds and thunder cracks and some absolutely indisputable confirmation that God is, and that God is trying to get our attention.
But the way of Jesus invites us, and asks us, to cultivate a different way of seeing, a different way of experiencing life, a different way of understanding how God is present, and how God can be understood. Maybe these big stories about little things like farmers and mustard seeds are a better and a more engaging journey into an awareness of the presence of God at work in our lives. Maybe it is the little coincidences that reveal more to us about God than we realize – if we have the eyes and ears and hearts and minds to actually pay attention.
Each morning, when I get up, and before the day really begins, I roll out of bed, grab a cup of coffee, and read from the Bible and from a few different devotional guides as the day begins. This past Friday morning, as I was thinking about finishing the sermon for this morning about these simple little stories of Jesus, I happened to pick up one of those books, written by an American Presbyterian minister named Craig Barnes, called “An Extraordinary Mercy”. Unlike some devotional guides, the readings are not designated by any particular calendar date so that the reader is free to read them whenever, and in whatever order works for them.
On Friday, in the midst of my thoughts about this week’s reading, I happened to just open the book to a random page, and start reading. And I found myself smiling, in light of the fact that the words on that particular page could not have been more perfect for my reflections on today’s Gospel reading. Barnes had written,
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if God did something big in your life? I mean really big, so you would clearly know that you had just been visited by God. Maybe he would leave you healed of that which is incurable. Or maybe one day you would hear him speak to you in an audible voice…
It could be that the yearning to have something miraculous happen is symptomatic of how hard a time we have in finding God in the common moments of life. Yet in claiming that God became flesh and dwelt among us, Scripture indicates that God will be found in the ordinary and even the mundane routines of life. The question is not whether God speak to us, but whether we hear him. Have we become too distracted by the noisy routines of life?
Rather than waiting for God to do big things in your life, think about how God is finding you through the marvelously mundane moments of everyday life. For if the momentary is not sacred to you, then neither will be the momentous. Yet if the common moments of life are sacred opportunities for encountering God, then all of life will become rather spectacular.
It was exactly what I needed to read, what I needed to ponder, at the right time, the right moment.
And Barnes’ words got me thinking that this is, for most of us, how God usually works. We see something – perhaps not a mustard seed or a farmer sowing a field – but something in the usual course of our day, and we are offered an opportunity to remember and to realize that God is at work in the seemingly mundane, inviting us to catch a glimpse of the marvelous.
So I wanted to end today’s sermon in a slightly different way. I wanted to offer the beginning of a few parables, a few moments from daily life, a few opportunities for writing your own parables, with the encouragement to all of us to pay attention – because the good news, revealed most fully in the life of Jesus, is that God is very much at work in this world, and very much at work in every one of our lives, whether we realize it or not.
And faith grows, grace is realized, love is experienced, inspiration is found, the kingdom of God comes close – if we have the eyes and ears and hearts and minds ready to receive what God is trying to do.
So try these on.
The grace of God…is like a sudden and unexpectedly refreshing rain shower on a hot summer day.
The voice of God…is like that snippet of conversation that you overheard between two strangers on a packed subway car that strangely spoke directly to what you needed to hear.
The forgiveness of God…is like that moment when you realize that someone is able to see you for who you are and who you are becoming, even though they know who you’ve been and what you’ve done.
The mystery of God…is like a frustrating Suduko puzzle that seems impossible but which you know can, in fact, become clear…if you don’t give up.
The glory of God…is like looking up and seeing a beautiful stunning panaroma of blue skies and fluffy clouds and bright sunshine, which have been there all the time but which you forgot to look up and see.
The peace of God…is like the relaxing moment when you take that first sip of coffee at the beginning of a long and eventful day.
The presence of God…is like that glimpse of unexpected kindness between complete strangers on the street, and the smiles that they share before going on their way.
The comfort of God…is like the pillow that cushions your weary head when your labours find fulfillment in rest.
The kingdom of God…is like walking into an old stone building, dwarfed by office towers, at the corner of a busy downtown street, and suddenly realizing that you are among friends.
And perhaps the most important one .
The love of God…is like…. well, that one’s up to you to figure out.