Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Most Powerful Words

Today's reading: Matt. 13:31-35, 44-52


About three and a half years ago, we found out we’d be moving to Beaufort, South Carolina... and I started reading Pat Conroy.

This is what we readers do: we use books to go places, the places we never expect to visit and also the places we have to learn to think of as “home.” We turn to stories to help us make our way through the world, sometimes literally. So I started reading Beaufort’s literary patron saint, and even before we got here I started experiencing the smell of pluff mud, the sight of shrimp boats, the sound of fighter jets.

I felt that in Pat Conroy I’d found a kindred spirit. In his nonfiction book “My Reading Life,” Conroy writes about his childhood, growing up relocating frequently because of his dad’s military job. My dad was a salesguy, not a Marine Corps fighter pilot, but moving houses every couple of years was the story of my childhood too. Pat Conroy eventually found a homeplace in South Carolina, and the smells, sights, sounds of the Lowcountry came to permeate his work. In his writing, Pat Conroy welcomed his readers to find their place among these salt marshes, just as he had. As for me, I grew up in nearly a dozen different houses, and then my husband became a military chaplain, and now we are still rooting and uprooting, settling and resettling. I’m still waiting to find my homeplace; some days I wonder if I ever will.

No matter where we’ve lived, I’ve been a reader and a writer. As a kid I took every creative-writing class I could, in college I majored in journalism, and in seminary I discovered a calling shaping words into sermons and liturgies. As a reader and a writer, of course I hoped to meet Pat Conroy when we moved to Beaufort. And you might think I’d have wanted to ask him about books, about publishing, about words.

But the question I really wanted to ask Pat Conroy was--and still is: What is it like to land at last in a place where your heart can settle down, where you are so rooted that your work takes on the smells and sights and sounds, where the landscape seeps into you so deeply that it becomes your story?

In “My Reading Life,” Conroy wrote, “The most powerful words in English are ‘Tell me a story...’” I want to ask him to tell me a story about what it feels like to finally be at home.

When we read the stories Jesus told, we call them “parables,” and that makes it sound fancy, but they were stories. In his stories Jesus invited his listeners to experience a place only he was qualified to tell about. Jesus welcomed his hearers--and still welcomes us--to find our place in his true home. But instead of Spanish moss and oyster shells and dolphin fins, Jesus shows us the everyday sights and smells and sounds of his earthly experience, garden seeds and baking bread and rustic fields. Instead of inviting us to experience the Lowcountry of South Carolina, Jesus invites us to experience his own homeplace, the kingdom of God.

Once upon a time, Jesus says, there was a tiny speck of a mustard seed that grew into a tree so big, bigger than any mustard plant has ever grown, so big the birds could build nests in it!

And once upon a time, Jesus says, there was a woman who started making a batch of bread that would feed a hundred hungry folks!

And once upon a time there was a treasure buried in a field, and a farm worker who was so excited to find that treasure that he sold off everything he owned so he could buy that field. And once upon a time there was a shopkeeper who sold everything he owned to buy a most wonderful pearl!

And once upon a time there was a boatload of fishermen who caught a giant netful of every kind of fish you can think of and then some, and when the net couldn’t hold any more, they returned to the shore and divided the good fish from the rotten ones!

I wonder if those who gathered around him--all those disciples yearning to understand, and the Pharisees hoping to catch him in a sin, and the clusters of crowds wondering what wonders he would do next--I wonder if they ever prompted him with the most powerful words in ancient Aramaic, “Tell us a story.”

Pastor, theologian, and novelist Frederick Buechner said “A parable is a small story with a large point,” and that is certainly true of the stories we read today in Matthew 13. In the space of 15 verses Jesus told 6 small stories, rapid-fire parables, back to back to back to back. I don’t know if the disciples asked Jesus to tell them a parable, the way children beg for bedtime stories one after another after another. But I do imagine them listening with wide eyes, and wondering about what they heard, and trying to get a word in edgewise; I imagine them trying at the end of each tale to interrupt Jesus with their comments and their questions. But the way Matthew’s gospel tells it, Jesus barely pauses for breath in between these small stories, between the mustard seed and the yeast, between the treasure and the pearl and the fishing net. 

But as Buechner also wrote: “With parables and jokes both, if you’ve got to have it explained, don’t bother.” Every rare once in awhile in the gospels, Jesus does pause to help his disciples understand his small stories; in fact, that happens here in the middle of Matthew 13, when Jesus takes a time-out to explain an earlier story, the parable of the weeds and wheat. But more often than not, Jesus does what the best storytellers have always done: he leaves the tale to stand on its own. He trusts his hearers to use their own experiences and their own imaginations to discover what the story means for them—for us—where we are today.

Over the past few months I’ve been listening to a podcast featuring interviews with bestselling authors; many of them have had their books turned into television shows and movies, and over and over again they have discussed the unusual relationship between writers and readers. When we watch a film or tv show, we are observers and we enjoy all the details that visual media can provide, but the image on the screen does all the hard work for us--and in a way it does all the fun stuff too. When we think of Scarlett O’Hara’s dress made from draperies, we see her exactly as the big and small screens have shown us: first as Vivian Leigh in green velvet, then as Carol Burnett with the curtain-rods sticking out of her shoulders. But when we come as readers, entering into the pages of a book, we have to come ready to work, ready to imagine, ready to bring our own ideas into partnership with the author. The possibilities are wide open because the author leaves room for us. The best storytellers invite us to bring ourselves to every story we read and hear.

Jesus’ “small stories” invite us to bring ourselves closer and closer to the “large point” of the kingdom of God. He doesn’t need to show us all the details on a big screen; it’s up to us to envision a mustard tree, as big as we can imagine. Never mind that mustard plants simply do not grow that big; the kingdom is going to surprise us, springing up from the most unremarkable places, the places we’d never think to look. If you think that tiny seed is too small, too ordinary, too ridiculous, then stretch your imagination further. See momma and poppa bird circling their nest; hear their newly-hatched babies chirping away in the branches of that unbelievable tree. This is the kingdom of God.

Smell the pungent yeast, stirred into 10 full gallons of flour, the yeast hidden among the countless grains of wheat, resting, waiting until time ferments it into extravagant loaves. Never mind that yeast is traditionally a symbol of corruption; the kingdom is going to surprise us, rising up from sources we thought were unclean, in its own sweet time. And if you think the baker’s recipe is all wrong, just way too much, then stretch your imagination: when this bread is finally ready, there won’t be a table big enough to fit the crowd who will come and eat. This is the kingdom of God.

See dirt under the fingernails of the farmworker who discovers treasure in a field, and see the manicured hands of the meticulous salesman sorting through piles of pearls for that one amazing specimen. Would you do it--sell every square foot of your house, every stitch of clothes, every electronic gadget and priceless antique and one-of-a-kind work of art just to hold a single treasure in your lap, or a pearl in the cup of your hand? Never mind that possessing it will not pay the bills or gain you any of life’s luxuries; you know, once you sell it for cash you can spend, the treasure itself will be lost to you. But if you think the price is too great, stretch your imagination: the discovery of this treasure turns all your values upside-down. You can’t unload your worldly goods fast enough to satisfy the urgency of your desire to obtain the kingdom of God.

Now, take a whiff of the salty sea air. See the boats dragging their nets, full to bursting, back to the shore. I know you can see this, we see this every day: the boats, the nets; I know you can smell that particular Beaufort-y smell. As a humid breeze stirs the palm branches, can you detect a tinge of bad fish, too? Never mind that no fresh catch should contain seafood that’s already rotting. When the catch is finally hauled to shore, the dockworkers alone will have the task of throwing back the bad and filling baskets with the good fish of every kind. Our family took a shrimp boat tour a couple of summers ago, and it was amazing how many kinds of creatures were emptied out of that net! Plenty of dinner—I mean, shrimp—but also toadfish and horseshoe crabs and a even tiny shark and all kinds of other stuff I didn’t recognize! If you think only the fish just like you are in the net, and if you think you can sniff out the rotten ones, stretch your fishy imagination, because we fish are not in charge of hauling in the net or separating good and bad. We must all stretch our fishy imaginations, because the net of the kingdom of God is even now pulling through the waters, gathering us in.

In Matthew 13:51, Jesus seems to take a breath at last. I imagine him looking around the circle of his listening disciples, noting which of them have glazed over, which have furrowed their brows as they try to make sense of what they have heard. “Do you understand?,” he asks. He has described his hometown for them, the landscape of his heart. He has invited them--and he still invites us--through the sights and sounds and smells of everyday life to experience the unexpected and eternal kingdom. And do we understand?

Once upon a time, Jesus says, there was a scribe--a writer, a storyteller--who was taught to tell all the kingdom’s stories, bringing them out one by one like the treasures that they are, all the old familiar tales and all the surprising new ones no one has ever heard before. God is calling us, teaching us, preparing us to be storytellers. Every time we hear the stories again, may we bring a little more of ourselves to meet them. May we understand at least a little more every time, so that we can bring out these treasures, old and new. Every time we hear them, and every time we tell them, may God’s story become a little more our own, and every time, may we find ourselves a little more at home.




God, you call us to be storytellers. Teach us to see the unexpected in the ordinary, and the never-ending in the everyday. Teach us, so that when someone comes to us with those most powerful words, asking us to tell them your story, we will be ready to tell the stories of your long-expected kingdom and the ways it breaks through into our lives, coming ever nearer, bringing us always closer to our eternal home. Amen.

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