Speaking in Parables

Sermon for Sunday, June 14, 2015 || Proper 6B || Mark 4:26-34

speakinginparablesI first learned how to tell Godly Play stories back in 2006 when I was interning as a hospital chaplain at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. We chaplains had these miniature golden parable boxes, which we would bring to the patients’ rooms and lay out the stories on their beds. The first one I got my hands on comes from today’s Gospel lesson. The kingdom of God is “like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

As I said these words, I unrolled a green piece of felt cut in the shape of a tree and affixed to it nests and birds illustrated on tiny pieces of wood. This parable is very short, and the Godly Play story did not embellish it at all. So I would say the words slowly, with lots of pauses to put more and more nests and birds in the tree. Now the Godly Play method, which we use in our children’s education program, does not direct the storyteller to explain the parable. Instead, when you’re done, you ask open-ended wondering questions so that the children can explore for themselves what the parable teaches. The storyteller facilitates the children’s own discovery, walking with them and pointing things out, but resisting the urge to explain.

Thus, in a way, Jesus himself was the first Godly Play storyteller. He knew the value of personal encounter with the holy. He knew that offering pat answers is never as fruitful as offering food for thought. He knew that teaching a man to fish was better than giving a man a fish.* And yet, we often find ourselves wishing that Jesus had made it all just a little bit easier. I mean, this being one of his followers isn’t exactly easy, right? And yet Jesus seems to have made it even harder by speaking so enigmatically. And so we ask: why did Jesus speak in parables?

For starters, Jesus knew that when you have to work at something, you really start to own it. My parents made me pay for my first car for two reasons. First, they couldn’t afford to buy me a car. And second, they knew what Jesus did: that if I put my hard-earned money into that automobile, I was much more likely to cherish it. I’ll tell you – I had that tan 1992 Mazda Protégé with the manual transmission from my sophomore year of high school until my second year of seminary. I took care of that car because I had made a long personal investment in it.** In the same way, Jesus’ parables – even the shortest ones like the mustard seed – give us plenty of fodder to work with.

Why did Jesus speak in parables? He knew that narrating a story is much more effective than giving a direct answer. Indeed, we make meaning by sharing stories. Humans have always been like this. When you sit around a campfire, the urge to tell stories is so great because you’re tapping into this primal instinct to speak of what’s most important.

Or let me put it like this: I was pretty insufferable when I was in my early teens. I was an obnoxious know-it-all, and I wanted you to know it. And I wasn’t good at making friends because of the obnoxious thing and because my family moved around so much. Then in ninth grade, I read The Lord of the Rings. When I finally put the book down after 900 plus pages, I was different somehow. I had journeyed with Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamge to Mount Doom, and dwelling page after page in their incredible friendship – friendship that literally stood the test of fire – changed me. People could have told me the answer to friendship is being loyal and giving of yourself. But I would not have understood until I read that story. In the same way, when we enter a parable, when we really live in the world Jesus creates in those few short sentences, we find so much depth of meaning.

This depth often comes not from one encounter with the parable but many. Why did Jesus speak in parables? He knew that using everyday images helps illustrate abstract concepts. The more ordinary the image, the more likely you are to encounter it day in and day out. Thus, Jesus shares images so that when we see them, the story triggers in us again. I guarantee you that at the parish picnic this afternoon, when you see birds flying around the trees, you will think about the parable of the mustard seed. And as you watch those birds nesting in those trees, you will connect more deeply to the kingdom of God.

And finally, Jesus spoke in parables because parables resist sound bite theology. He knew that his opponents were looking for evidence against him, and so instead of giving them ammunition, he told them stories: innocuous little stories, that, if you really let them get inside you and do their work, you realize that the kingdom has sprouted within you while you were sleeping. The problem is that these days we are so used to sound bites ruling public discourse that any speech, which calls for deep thinking, seems too difficult or time-consuming to wrestle with. We’ve lost the attention span necessary for stories to do their work. We are a people molded by story, who no longer seem to have time for them.

And that’s why Jesus’ parables are still so vital to our lives today. He invites us to slow down and place more and more nests and birds in that green felt tree. His stories sail to us on the wind of the Holy Spirit and impel us to dive in and swim around and make them our own. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” he asks. He says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows to be the greatest of all shrubs and puts for large branches so that the birds can nest. That’s the kingdom of God: Our true home that we might not be able to see at first, but which grows and grows and grows until it contains all the nests of all the birds. In Godly Play, we invite the children to name the birds, and we find that those birds’ names are the children’s names. Our names. The names of everyone, regardless of any ungodly reason – and I mean that literally – that we might discriminate. That’s what the kingdom of God is like.

Why did Jesus speak in parables? Because the kingdom of God is like a story, in which everyone has a role.

* Mark’s text does say that Jesus explains everything in private to his disciples. I would argue that might have done more harm than good, as you can see how they act for the rest of the Gospel.
** I did blow the head gasket about six months after getting the car. But that’s because I didn’t know what the Hot-Cold gauge was for. Oops. The repair cost about 2/3 what the car was worth. My parents did pay for that. Thanks, Mom and Dad!