Trinity 2 2021 – A sermon by Kevin Bright
You might judge what I’m about to say as a bunch of random thoughts about parables, stories, context and stuff spoken around, rather than about, because it’s too hard to fathom.
If you were hoping for a neat explanation of how parables work feel free to switch off now. Oh, and for me the readings made me think about how we actually hear and take stuff in as well as whether we are actually listening to each other at all!
A woman walks into a bar after a hard work shift on a hot day, orders that cold beer she’s been thinking about for the last hour, hands over her cash and downs it there and then.
That would have been a perfectly reasonable little introduction a couple of years ago but anyone who has bothered to buy a pint recently knows that it doesn’t work like that anymore.
A man makes a booking two days in advance, walks up to a bar wearing a mask, scans the QR code, enters his details for track and trace, sits at his designated table and orders a pint of beer using an app on his mobile device citing his table number, is served on a tray by someone wearing gloves and a mask and he pays via contactless card! It’s so dull that you’ve already given up waiting to hear what follows.
The point of this isn’t to illustrate why our pubs are struggling but just how in a short period of time people hearing a story either can immediately relate to it or have to use their imagination a bit because it’s not their immediate reality. Anyone aged about 19 and a quarter hasn’t (or shouldn’t have) known anything different.
We heard the ‘Parable of the Mustard Seed’ and how ‘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.’
Because many who heard his parables made their living from farming or fishing it is no coincidence that aspects of the natural world arise. God’s kingdom in its entirety would be too much for us, literally mind blowing so Jesus gives us parables to demonstrate aspects of the kingdom that we can relate to from everyday experiences.
Parables have the potential to help us discover the truth for ourselves rather than simply being told that something is factual and that we should believe it. They might open the new eyes needed to discover a reality beyond the immediate and obvious and are worthy of our attention. They can also easily be dismissed as irrelevant or too obtuse to wrestle with.
Parables were often told in a way that would particularly resonate with the needs, even yearnings of those hearing them, yet in a way that wasn’t too much to bear in one go.
There’s a cheerful sense of mischievousness to the way many parables start. It’s often not what people are expecting to hear, perhaps a bit like some comedians engage you by saying something ridiculous like a horse walked into a bar…it’s not so much that people listening to Jesus expected a joke but they were hooked initially to the extent that they wanted to know how the parable would end, even if they were sometimes left puzzled.
‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground’, what?
Is it too much of a leap to expect those listening to think about a seed time for God’s harvest? Perhaps there might not be much to see yet but keep the faith because God is at work.
It’s also like a tiny mustard seed, did those hearing think - is this guy for real, I’ve got to hear where he goes with this.
Apparently black mustard grows wild in the Jordan river valley to the height at which a person on horseback can stop under it for shade. Of course when you hold its tiny seed in your hand it can be a leap of imagination to believe in its potential. Yet this tiny seed held similarities to the kingdom of God according to Jesus.
Those hearing of a small seed could have found resonance with Ezekiel’s times of suffering in exile . In both cases God talks of taking action to provide shade and shelter, a refuge in God.
Here’s a big question. With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what would help us explore it?
Imagine yourself among hundreds gathered to hear Jesus talk as he says the kingdom of God is like an acorn that grew to become a mighty oak. I bet like me some of you have got oak seedlings which are just a few inches in height, we can walk on them without even noticing at times yet given the right environment they can grow to around 100 ft tall.
The kingdom of God packs as much power as one of those chilli seeds you touch when preparing a meal, small and insignificant you can even forget about them for a while, and then you rub your eye!
It seems likely that Jesus is challenging his listeners to explore a parallel to his own situation. One man in Galilee isn’t exactly the kingdom of God type change that people were expecting. How could God bring the change needed from such apparently tiny resources? Jesus wants the people hearing him to consider how different the kingdom of God is to their experience of a kingdom where the powerful rule unjustly.
There are aspects about our lives, God included, that only make sense in parables or non-factual descriptions. No one has ever bottled love, given it a scientific formula or defined it in words. Yet we make songs, films, stories about it that help us absorb its reality. We witness great courage and sacrifice motivated by love that help us feel its power.
Parables are often thrown in alongside a situation or a problem but not as the neat direct solution which we often crave. Perhaps they run parallel in a way that we need to cross over to explore yet there is no logic which can unlock their meaning absolutely. Its all part of their intrigue, not a code to be cracked but something to be felt, not something that will always reveal itself in a timescale we find acceptable. Parables can be frustrating, painful, enlightening and delightful.
What if we were trying to tell someone how we think God wants us to live, what it would be like to have heaven on earth where might we begin? Perhaps by listening to each other, perhaps by being open to multiple ways of discovering this truth.
I was walking by the River Thames on Friday and there was bunch of guys listening to urban poetry on a big speaker like the one Philip wheels out to accompany our hymns. It’s an interesting thought that they were determined to share this with all passers-by within a few hundred yards. When I say urban poetry, they would call it rap but it’s still just issues they can relate to in a format they find acceptable. Whilst I didn’t raise this with them I thought that it could do with a few less expletives but the poetry was actually superb and I slowed down my walk to listen a bit longer.
There I am, one of those people who pretends not to listen but actually is drinking it in. We can be sure that whenever anyone talks about God there’s always some like this.
A lot of us would give their material a wide berth yet there’s a creative sense of lament about a lot of life’s sadness and problems if anyone can be bothered to listen. One of Eminem’s collaborations with Ed Sheeran speaks of moving from the darkness pain and regrets of the past leading to rivers of tears…
Been a lover, been a cheat
All my sins need holy water, feel it washing over me
Well little one I don’t want to admit to something
If all it’s gonna cause is pain
Truth and lies right now are falling like the rain
So let the river run
Jesus gave us a hint of how to get people intrigued enough to explore further. Perhaps a bit of a hook, an opening line might get their attention.
The opening line in Norman MacLean’s book, ‘A River Runs Through It’ is…
‘In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.’
People will quickly find their own twist on the fly-fishing part, whatever their passion is football, music, cooking, or you never know they might actually be obsessed with fly fishing.
The hard way in would be telling them in a believable way that if they really knew what the kingdom of God was like that their other passion might be put in perspective. But what if they were to start by recognising God in the very things already most important to them?
It may be unrealistic think that we can find ways to give everyone a hook or a theme that resonates for them as a route to ponder God’s kingdom. Once the words have left our mouths we have no further control over how they fall upon people’s ears.
Yet we’re all here or listening on a Podcast because we are people who want to know the kingdom of God. Like those hearing Jesus’ parables it might prove beneficial to consider how we find creative and surprising ways to explore this in a deeper sense.
Just in case we need reminding, it’s OK to start with something really small.