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!

Playing with Purpose

Sermon for Sunday, November 16, 2014 || Proper 28A || Matthew 25:14-30

playingwithpurposeAs an avid game player, one of my favorite things to do is teach other people how to play games. Leah and I have several dozen board games in our upstairs hall closet, but we don’t have people to play them with because games like Monopoly have, over the decades, taught Americans that board games are not fun. But the ones we play come mostly from Germany, and the Germans sure know how to make fun board games. These games are beautifully designed and highly strategic, so a new player often doesn’t catch on until near the end of her first game. For the bulk of that first game, she plays by the rules, but she doesn’t play strategically. Then something happens. The light goes on, and she realizes why she might do this instead of that. She realizes how a choice made now will affect the game in a few turns. I love watching for this moment when I’m teaching a game. Suddenly, the new player stops wandering through her turn and begins striding through it. She’ll need several more games under her belt before she really understands the strategy, but she’s taken the important first step. She has begun to play with purpose.

Like many of the lessons board games can teach, playing with purpose stretches far past recreational outlets and touches all facets of life. Playing with purpose encourages us to act intentionally rather than spasmodically. Our daily questions of “What?” and “How?” deepen with the addition of “Why?” We plan, we set goals, we care about the destination and the journey.

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond because he realized he wasn’t playing with purpose. He writes, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” *

To live deliberately. To live with intention. To waken to all the ways God could be calling you to make the most positive difference with your life. This is what playing with purpose means.

Most of us take a while to start playing with purpose. Case in point: allow me to introduce you to Glenn. Glenn graduated from college three years ago with a degree in history. He thought about law school but never got around to registering for the LSAT, let alone studying for it. In three years, he’s worked five jobs but none has held his attention for long. Same with girlfriends. A few dates here or there, but he’s never made a true commitment to any of them. He’s also moved back home twice since college for a couple months at a time. When his parents ask him what he wants to do, he says things like, “I dunno,” or “Something’ll come along.” Glenn does everything vaguely, indistinctly, like he’s a figure in a coloring book, who’s only partially colored in.

Then he meets Helen, and the light goes on. They really click, but Glenn knows that he doesn’t deserve to be with someone as luminous as she. She is so full of life. She pursues her passions. She has dreams, yes, but more than that, she has lists of conscious steps to achieve those dreams. Opening her own bakery is just a year or two away. Seeing himself through her, Glenn realizes just how listless he has been, how the last three years have been one long meander. And yet when Helen looks at him, he feels fully colored in.

Following her example, Glenn begins playing with purpose. He remembers his love for history and the high school teacher who fired that passion. He starts substitute teaching at a private school, and soon he’s there everyday filling in for a history teacher on maternity leave. He starts taking night classes to get his masters in education. Two more years sees him in a classroom of his own. His purpose is to teach, and he’s never felt more alive.

Before Glenn met Helen, he could have been the third servant in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus tells the story of a man who entrusts his servants with extraordinary wealth. The first two play with purpose and double that wealth by the time their master returns. But the third servant never uses the wealth given to him. He just puts it in the ground and goes about his regularly scheduled life.

This story fits snugly between last week’s Gospel lesson and the one we’ll read next week, which make up the entire twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. In each parable, there are characters who make deliberate, intentional decisions to act and those who don’t. The wise bridesmaids bring extra oil. The foolish ones don’t. The first two servants invest their master’s wealth. The third doesn’t. Next week, we will hear of the sheep who feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty and clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned. And we’ll hear about the goats who don’t.

In each story, the ones who act with intention – the ones who play with purpose – remain in right relationship with the various persons of power: the bridesmaids enter into the wedding banquet with the bridegroom; the first two servants “enter into the joy of their master”; the sheep who served the least of God’s family “inherit the kingdom.”

If we stop there, however, then we will see these stories merely as quid pro quo. Do what you’re supposed to do and you’ll be rewarded. Don’t and you’ll be punished. But such a conclusion reduces our relationships with God to mere transactions. If God desired for us to live these quid pro quo kinds of lives, God would have given us a rule book or a scorecard. But God did something else. God gave us God’s son. And this Son taught us to live with intention, to keep awake for opportunities to bring the kingdom closer to earth, to play with purpose. And more than that: this Son, our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, wiped out the quid pro quo system entirely when he died and rose again.

If it’s a scorecard you’re looking for, a measuring stick to see if you’ll be rewarded or punished, then you’ve come to the wrong place. In this place, we practice playing with purpose. We act as Helen does with Glenn, as catalysts for each other’s dreams. We pray for clarity about where God is calling us. We discover how our passions fit those callings. We partner with one another to strengthen each other for service. We take risks, knowing that the Holy Spirit will lead us through both failure and success to greater collaboration with God in our own lives and in the life of this community.

If you feel like a figure in a coloring book who’s only partially colored in, then ask God to help you play with purpose. Playing with purpose is the difference between talking and proclaiming, the difference between swaying and dancing, between running and racing. Playing with purpose is the difference between floating along and trimming the sail to catch the wind.

*Henry David Thoreau. Walden. (But I first hear it in Dead Poets’ Society.)
**Image of Walden Pond courtesy of my sister, Melinda Thomas Hansen.

The Seeds of the Kingdom

(Sermon for Sunday, June 17, 2012 || Proper 6B || Mark 4:26-34)

When I was nine or ten years old, I walked into the church across the street from our house really early on a particular morning. Ash Wednesday had always been one of my favorite days. I’m not sure why, but I think I liked going to school with the ashes scraped across my forehead – hence me being in church really early. As many of you know, my father is also a priest, and he met me in the church wearing all of his vestments. But no one else came for the service early that morning. However, as Jesus says, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” So we went ahead with the service, just my dad and me.

When the time came for the ashes, he put his thumb in the gritty, black stuff and scraped first a vertical and then a horizontal line across my forehead, making the sign of the cross. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” he said. Then he knelt down and offered the little bowl with the ashes to me. I was surprised, but I put my own thumb in the gritty, black stuff and scraped the sign of the cross on his forehead. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” I echoed with all the solemnity that my fourth-grade voice could muster.

Then we finished the service, he took me to school, and we went about our days, and we went about our lives. And about a decade later, my father and I realized that on that Ash Wednesday morning, God planted a seed in me, one so small that neither of us noticed the seed until the stalk started poking through the topsoil of my life.

This seed was the mustard seed of God’s kingdom, the one that Jesus talks about in today’s parable from Mark’s account of the Gospel. Before we go any further, however, I want to dispel any notion that you may have that such a seed would only be planted in someone destined to be ordained as a priest. While some of the seeds of the kingdom that God planted in my life have germinated into my call to the priesthood, others have grown into my call to be Leah’s husband and to spread God’s love through our marriage. I hope other seeds that are still hidden in the soil will sprout into a call to parenthood. God sows within each of us, not just we few who wear the collar, the seeds that grow into a panoply of kingdom callings. Together, as our seeds stretch upwards into beautiful flowers and trees, we help God transform this planet once again into a garden of God’s kingdom.

I firmly believe that God has sown seeds so wildly, so expansively, that every person on this planet has the seeds of the kingdom nestled in the soil of their souls. The parable before the ones we heard this morning speaks to this belief. The sower doesn’t seem to mind that his seed lands, not just on the good soil, but on the road and on the rocky ground and among the thorns, as well. The sower doesn’t just plant in nice furrows in the prepared field, but across every surface, no matter how ready the ground is to receive the seed.

Because of God’s unrestrained scattering of seed, each of us surely has the seeds of the kingdom within us. But, as Jesus says, the seeds start out so small that we can barely see them. In fact, until the seeds have grown into visible plants, we won’t have much luck seeing them at all. But this is how the life of faith works – oftentimes, the moments when the seeds of the kingdom drop into our soil are as small as the seeds themselves. We miss these moments all too easily because they tend to be subtle and quiet. Or they tend to happen in the midst of really difficult and challenging circumstances. Or they tend to happen when we least expect them, when our soil is least ready for the seeds.

With God’s help, we can train ourselves to notice the seeds of the kingdom earlier and earlier in their development. Perhaps, you have a mustard seed that has grown into the full-fledged plant or perhaps you have a stalk peaking up from the ground. Move into a space of prayerful reflection and trace that plant back to the subtle, quiet moment when God scattered the seed in you.

Consider this example. God has given you the gift of teaching. Even though some of the students can be pains in the neck, you love going into the classroom everyday to teach. You feel that teaching is certainly a way that you respond to God’s call. Now, work your way back past your first year struggles, past your student teaching, past your high school days, and find yourself back in fifth grade when your favorite teacher in the whole wide world instilled in you a love of learning and a desire to teach. There’s the seed. God used the dedication and love of your fifth-grade teacher to plant the seed of the kingdom in you.

Here’s another example. God has given you the gift of cooking. Recently, you began helping at your church to prepare hundreds of meals every week for a local homeless shelter. You can feel in each stir of the pasta and each pour of the sauce that you are doing something in which God takes great joy. Now, work your way back past your joining the church, past all those experiments in the kitchen trying to perfect your pie dough, past that semester at culinary school, and find yourself in the kitchen with your mother on the day she finally let you spice her world famous chili for the first time. There’s the seed. God used your relationship with your mother, who passed on her culinary secrets to you, to plant the seed of the kingdom in you.

No matter how old or young we are now, God has planted seeds in us. Some have grown into the greatest of shrubs and the birds nest in their branches. These are the places where we can see God’s kingdom blooming into beautiful gardens around and within us. Other seeds are still nascent, still tucked in the soil waiting for the right moments to start their journey toward the sun. By tracing the plants we can see back to when they were invisible seeds, we can train ourselves to recognize the currently hidden seeds even sooner in their development. And when we do, we can join God in more active participation of their cultivation.

Every week in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom begins as tiny mustard seeds, which God scatters wildly into our very souls. As we live out our lives as followers of Jesus Christ, we become gardens of the kingdom, spreading the beauty of God wherever we go. The seeds are in each of us. The seeds are sprouting and growing and blooming each day. All we need do is notice.