6-12-16 Tell Me a Story: The Parables of Jesus

If you were going to describe the realm of God, how would you do it? Our hymns and praise songs aim to describe God’s realm all the time, and these songs generally use language like “King of kings, and lord of lords,” thrones and high, lofty language to describe a God who is high and lifted up and far away. This is emphatically not how Jesus describes the new realm of God. Jesus talks about gardening and house work. Jesus consistently talks about God in the ordinary and the commonplace, God’s surprising presence even in the weeds of our lives. Listen for the word of God for you this day:

Luke 13:18-21 Jesus continued, “What does the kingdom of God resemble?  To what will I liken it? It’s like a mustard seed which a gardener took and planted in the garden.  It grew and became a large shrub, the birds of the air nested in its branches.” then he went on, “:To what will I compare the kingdom of God? It’s like the yeast which a baker added to three measures of flour and kneaded until the whole ball  of dough began to rise.”

June 12, 2016

Tell Me a Story: The Parables of Jesus

The new realm of God is like a dog who dies. For 13 years she was there every time we walked in the house and she greeted us with delighted howls and pure enthusiasm. For 13 years she took me on walks around the neighborhood and kept me healthy. And in her death I notice the presence of an absence, the gift of a memory, the sound of what’s not there, the nudge to take care of myself anyway. A friend called his dog his spiritual adviser, and I can relate to that, for sure. The new realm of God is like a dog who is and isn’t there.

Jesus used parables to describe the new realm of God. We will be reading these pithy stories for our summer sermons this year, today and in July and August. When I was growing up in church, I was taught that parables were stories of Jesus that had a simple point and the pastor would figure out what the point was and tell us and it made for a nice tidy message.

When I became a pastor and began studying parables for myself, I found out that these stories of Jesus are much more profound than that. The authentic parables of Jesus, like the two we read this morning, don’t tend to have one simple point. Rather, they are brief stories that express a mystery and tend to have a surprise that tweaks the listener into paying closer attention or that makes the reader or listener say, “Wait a minute. What did he say?”

I love stories. I think librarians are some of the best people in the world, partly because they give away stories. They ask for them back, of course, but then they give the stories to someone else again. Jesus’ stories are some of the best, and Jesus is a story in himself. And the best of these stories are like these parables that grab your ears and say, “pay attention. Wake up. Think about this!”

Like these two parables we read today. In the first one Jesus says, “What does the realm of God resemble? To what will I liken it?” Well it’s like a mustard seed which a gardener took and planted in a garden. Now, when I was younger and listening for the point of the story, the point was right there. A mustard seed is a tiny little seed, and it grows into a big ol’ tree. So that’s what God’s word is like. It comes in a tiny package and yet it becomes a home for you. And that’s not wrong. It’s just that a parable has more twists and turns than that, and they’re fun and surprising, and make you think.

So would you like to hear a little more about the mustard seed parable? You may remember me talking about it before. Jesus says, “The new realm of God is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into the greatest of all shrubs.” You see we think of mustard as being a spice or as a leaf that we can put in a salad. I could have bought some in the farmers’ market yesterday. But to the people listening to Jesus, mustard was a weed.

A weed, common, ordinary, and persistent as a dandelion and even less welcome. It grew all over the place and you wanted to get rid of it. To Jesus, the new realm of God is invasive, and disruptive. God is forever invading our orderly sense of things, opening our eyes to new gifts and surprises.

A mustard seed certainly was not what one usually used as an example of a great tree as a home for birds. That distinction usually went to the cedars of Lebanon. Jesus is purposely tweaking people’s expectations by talking about the common mustard weed that grows into one the greatest shrubs. Can’t you imagine that he’s saying God’s new realm is near and among us, as common as this shrub that we can’t get rid of even if we want to.

Then there’s the second short parable in our reading for today. The new realm of God is like a little bit of yeast which a baker added to three measures of flour and kneaded until the whole ball  of dough began to rise. That sounds pretty straightforward, and similarly about a little bit of something – whether faith or whatever – that has a major effect. Again there’s a little more of a surprise when you think about how the original hearers might have heard Jesus’ words.

That little bit of yeast was not a convenient little yellow package from the grocery store, as most of us probably think of it. Yeast in Jesus time was generally thought of a borderline evil. It’s what you couldn’t have anywhere in the house during Passover, right? You eat unleavened bread because it’s prohibited to have any yeasty things around. Yeast was kind of like a sourdough starter. You keep it for a while and if you keep it too long or if you add too much of it, it gets too sour.  If you add too little it has no effect.

But if you add the just right amount of yeast, it can leaven a huge amount of meal. The parable talking about 3 measures indicates about 56 to 100 pounds of meal. And if God can use a little bit of evil stuff like yeast, or a common bush to make good things, think what God can do with you. For Jesus the realm of God is not far off. It’s as near as the next bush or the next loaf of bread

So, we think about what we might compare the new realm of God to today, to understand it. Maybe, the new realm of God is like a difficult moment, a simple moment of clarity, when a person realizes she doesn’t need to depend on cigarettes or alcohol or coffee to get through the day – and she quits all three, at once!

The new realm of God is like a dollar, asked for by a child for who wants to do something about malaria, and that dollar added to an offering becomes ten dollars, and that congregation ends up raising thousands of dollars and the denomination ends up raising millions in a commitment to end malaria worldwide.

The new realm of God is like a car accident that got a couple to go back to church, and they become the backbone of the church for decades.

The new realm of God is like having an ongoing argument with a friend that makes you realize that you are never going to agree, but that your love for each other is more important than your disagreement.

The new realm of God is like a worn spot in the carpet that causes a congregation to decide to replace the carpet in the sanctuary and because of that having to move the pews and because of that putting down a new floor, and because of that making the whole sanctuary new, and because of that learning to try new things and becoming open to a new generation to worship God.

The new realm of God is like a group of young people who grow up together in a small town. They have a picnic once a year, and one year turns into ten, turns into 50! And their love for each other matters so much that they’ll travel for hours to renew old friendships and support each other in the trials of their lives.

Responsive Hymn Tell me the Stories of Jesus