Page Turner

Mark 4:26-34 – The 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – for June 17, 2012

“He also said, ‘With what can we compare the Kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?’” (Mark 4:30)

Jesus “did not speak to them except in parables.”

So said Mark’s Gospel.

The sentence’s “them” were the people that followed Jesus around the countryside.

Parables, of course, are stories.

Tell me a story...

Remnants of Jesus’ tales and teachings appear in every Gospel; some seem complete and intact, others are partial, like slices of light through shutters. Compared to a novel—say John Irving’s most recent book or the briefest of Alice Munro’s award-winning short stories—all of Jesus’ parables are spare. A few could easily be tweeted. Several parables might be page-turners, but only if the first verses began near the bottom of a page! However, all possess a story’s most basic structure:  a beginning, middle and end.

We know them. 2,000 years later Jesus’ stories roam popular culture like restless travelers, eager to be part of the next big thing. Whether in a film or book, enduring or forgettable, blatant or subtle, Jesus’ stories are continually “resurrected.” Rich landowners, good Samaritans, prodigal sons, wicked tenants and the vineyard workers have had more lives than the luckiest of cats. Even with our urban sensibilities, with most of us never setting foot on a working farm or doing more than driving past a cornfield, our favorite writers—from William Shakespeare to Aaron Sorkin—toss out references to tiny mustard seeds, lost sheep or new wine in old wineskins.

Tell me a story, a child pleads.

I love the B&W photo of my Dad I’ve included in these thoughts. After all, I’m writing this (and many of you will read this) near Father’s Day. Dad holds me in his lap, a book open and a story about to unfold. I can almost hear his voice. Dad often read to me. Mom read to me. My older sister read to me. Stories keep us up past bedtime. They introduce heroes and villains. They conjure monsters under the bed and conquer them before sleepy eyes drift shut.

Tell me about your favorite story from a book or movie or television show. Maybe I’ll hear about Perry Mason in a courtroom or Neytiri on Pandora. Will you wow me with Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) or Jean Louise Finch (aka Scout)? Whatever your favorite tale might be, I’m betting you’ll share it as if it’s real. Those fictional people matter . . . they are harsh mirrors and warm blankets, demanding mentors and bestest friends.

Share with me an essential story of your life. If you tell it honestly, both of us may convulse in laughter or wallow in tears before it ends. If I shared with you, I’d tell about my divorce or broken leg or the time-I-was-lied-to-and-lost-my-job-and-innocence. And yet these “true” tales of our past, for all they reveal about who we once were or who we have become, will also—as the years and retellings go by—contain a tablespoon or a boatload of make-believe.

Like this . . .

For years I boasted to my wife I’d been to all the states in the union except Alaska and Hawaii. After a trip to Juneau and a tramp near the Mendenhall Glacier, I claimed to have only one island state to go. But then, at my parents for Thanksgiving or Christmas, we stumbled across my mother’s travel diaries. My family had taken two lengthy cross-country trips during my elementary school years. Those jaunts had transported me across scores of state lines. But darn Mom’s well-kept notes! We never ventured into Montana. And why hadn’t we swerved across Rhode Island’s border on the way from New York to Massachusetts?

I had told a lie! And yet a truth.

A story truth . . . a tale of family adventures, of a little kid that witnessed a Grand Canyon and an Old Faithful and those weird above-the-ground tombs in New Orleans’ cemeteries. Truth be told, I haven’t been everywhere. Montana and Rhode Island remain uncharted territories. Truth be told, an essential story of my life was spending a thousand hours in the back seat of my parents car with my older sister and seeing-smelling-tasting a vast new landscape. As time went by, I added a few bonus states. As time went by, it was a story that helped me recall being a child in a world that seemed to stretch forever and contained wonder after wonder after wonder.

Jesus told tales. Mustard seeds and men left to die in a ditch; a woman on her hands and knees, seeking the glint of a lost silver coin or a rich man hurling his wedding guests out into the streets. In the ancient tradition of make-believe and once-upon-a-time, he spoke stories to people who were convinced they knew the stories of their lives.

We come to believe, in our old oft-told tales, there’s only sorrow, forgiveness is foolish and the rich get richer. And then Jesus tells a new story. We glimpse a new way.

Like the weary father, we can break into a run and welcome the lost one home. Like the tiniest of seeds, the barren ground of our old fears can be planted with hope and renew faith in our God, our neighbor, ourselves.

Tell me a story. Tell me a page-turner or, better still, about the one that turned a page in your life.

Share with me how your life has changed . . .

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  1. Having put in my share of time in classes studying the Bible, I run across the frequent question of what is the genre of the books in the Bible. On the one hand, there is a strong case to be made that the Gospels are sui generis, a genre invented by Mark, combining imperial announcements with fables and ancient history and biography. Aesop’s fables predate the Gospels by about 600 years, so there is a good case of an influence there, especially in Greek literature. Apothegms (proverbs, wise sayings) are probably even older, and probably appear as spices for dialogues, dramas, comedies, essays, histories, and what have you. The key is that they are easy to remember. But I dither, as I try to find an answer to the question at hand. OK, here goes. A two parter…
    Our ELCA Synod (NE Pennsylvania) had a program called the SALM (synodly authorized lay ministry) to develop people with a modicum of training to fill in chinks in the roles of Lutheran churches (such as off hours services and the like). For this, they had a “Saturday School”, with classes each month at a Lutheran church outside Emmaus (like the symbolism there!) Teachers were really very highly qualified clerics and professors. The teacher for introduction to the gospels was Dr. Walter Wagner (check out his book on the Qur’an, please. It is VERY GOOD), who was at the time an adjunct professor at Moravian Theological Seminary (a “retirement” posting after some major positions at colleges and with the national church). I was my usual smart-ass know it all (polite smart-ass, if you will) and asked Dr. Wagner for a contact at Moravian (his c0-speaker happened to be the Dean of the Seminary.)… The SALM program fizzled, but not before I began a year long “continuing education” program at MTS, 16 courses, several taught by Dr. Wagner. As luck would have it, because of a conflict with my church council meetings, I missed the “keystone” course, which introduced the whole program. As it all would down, I told the organizer of the program that I thought they would give me a “by” for that one course. Nope. and here is where Chapter 2 begins. She said if I enroll as a full time student with the seminary and finish the two seminary courses on which that intro was patterned, she would give me the certificate for the full Continuing Education program. Well, I did, especially since, except for a few courses, the continuing education fare was like skim milk, when I was looking for heavy cream. Well, two years later, I have a certificate which, with 2 dollars, will buy a cup of coffee, but I also have a Master’s Degree from a seminary, because I was a wise – ass at an ad hoc class on a Saturday, given by Dr. Wagner. Sorry. That’s my best shot.

  2. Hi Larry,

    Great post. Thought I knew the story of my life too … but God’s a great page turner, and we don’t always expect what’s on the next page. But God is good…

    Thanks for your inspiration.

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