This sermon was delivered by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., on June 14, 2009.
Everyone loves stories. For as long as humans can remember, stories have been a central part of our lives, in every culture, language, and age. Perhaps this is so because stories are vivid ways of communicating. Stories help us remember. Stories make it interesting to convey information from one person to another, one generation to another, one group to another.
Judging from the Gospels, Jesus did a lot of storytelling in what we know as parables. Basically, a parable involves conveying a spiritual lesson or truth by laying it alongside a familiar situation or experience from the natural world. Parables are different from fables. Where the parable is designed to set out a spiritual truth, a fable is essentially earthbound. Another difference between the parables of Jesus and fables such as told by Aesop is that Jesus never resorted to fantasy in his storytelling. We have no talking hares, tortoises, ants and grasshoppers when Jesus used aspects of nature to teach about the spiritual life.
In the 4th chapter of Mark’s gospel, we read that Jesus shared a number of stories about spiritual truths—parables. We read about the Sower who planted seed that fell on different kinds of ground. Jesus told the story to the multitude. However, he explained its meaning privately, to his followers. Jesus then shared a parable about how seed grows invisibly, and how even a tiny mustard seed will produce a tree larger than other shrubs in which birds can nest. These parables dealt with a single theme—the Kingdom of God.
These stories about the Kingdom of God are not meant to merely amuse or entertain us. Jesus did not share them merely to pass the time of day or as a diversion from boredom. No, there are lessons in the stories about who God is, what God is doing, and about how God’s Kingdom is constantly moving and growing even in imperceptible ways.
Well, why don’t we get it? And how do we get so off track? How, for example, does a society that calls itself God-fearing get into the business of torturing vulnerable people, lying about it, and then hiding the pictures that show what we did? How does a Bible-owning and parable-hearing society find itself in that fix?
According to media reports, Pastor Ken Pagano of New Bethel Assembly of God Church in Louisville, Kentucky is inviting worshippers to wear their unloaded handguns to worship on June 27 to celebrate safe gun ownership and the Second Amendment. How do people who claim to love God with all their hearts decide to turn a place of worship into a handgun showroom?
Jesus explained such matters in the parables he taught the multitudes. You see, the parables were for the general public. Jesus spoke in parables because God always comes at us where we are.
But the parables are not meant to be dealt with on merely a “hearing” level. They are not meant to simply be stories we have heard and may recall. Most of the people who heard the parables of Jesus never got beyond the “hearing” level. They had eyes but didn’t see. They had ears but didn’t understand.
Jesus only shared the lessons of the parables with his disciples. Lessons demand that we shift from being hearers to becoming learners. Lessons demand the discipline of “follow-ship.” God’s lessons demand more than our passing interest. They can only be learned by people willing to follow a Teacher.
Jesus spoke the parables to the masses, and that is where many people find themselves—as members of the “mass movement” category regarding spiritual matters. Many people like Jesus. They like his parables. They like the Sermon on the Mount. They like the Golden Rule. They like thinking about a society where people are Good Samaritans. But they do not want to follow the Teacher who said the meek will inherit the earth, the pure in heart will see God, and the peacemakers will be called children of God. They do not want to inconvenience themselves on behalf of vulnerable people, let alone encumber themselves.
Bear in mind that the masses who heard the parables of Jesus were religious. They were attentive to the stories. However, they never learned the lessons because they did not become followers of Jesus. They were merely religious hearers.
Well, what about us? Are we hearers or learners? How will we know the difference?
The parables of Jesus will become lessons when our relationship changes with Jesus. If my relationship with Jesus is that of hearer to Story-Teller, then I may be quite familiar with the stories of Jesus but never understand the spiritual lessons within the stories. The lessons will be only revealed as my relationship with Jesus grows.
Jesus told people to follow Him, not merely hear Him. Jesus wants us to follow Him in learning about God’s love. Jesus wants us to follow Him so we can learn about God’s truth. Jesus wants us to follow Him so we can learn about God’s joy. And Jesus wants us to follow Him so we can learn about God’s justice.
But God did not send Jesus to teach us so we can merely become religious bigheads. The lessons are taught so that followers can learn and learners can live the truths in the lessons. There are truths about faith that can only be learned from the Captain of Faith by people who follow the Captain by living the lessons. The lessons contain the seed of truth. The harvest requires putting the spiritual lessons in our hearts, and making the lessons become the truths of our lives. The lessons from God become the truths of God for us as we trust them with our lives! Jesus kept talking about the Kingdom of God because He didn’t come to make us brainy about God, but to make us the people of God.
We are to be light in the world because God is light. We are called to be peacemakers because God is peace. We are called to hunger and thirst for right relationships because God is righteous. Jesus calls us to follow God as living citizens of His Kingdom, not merely as members of a religious audience.
The good news is that as we follow the Teacher, His lessons become truths in our living. Based on His truths, we will be loving people. Based on His truths, we will demand that every person be treated with the justice we seek for ourselves. Based on His truths, we will live as agents of peace rather than violence. As we live the true, loving, just, merciful, and hopeful lessons of God, God causes the word to become flesh. We will become the presence of God, peace of God, love of God, joy of God, and justice of God as we live out the truths that God has placed in the lessons of the stories that Jesus told.
Let us dedicate ourselves to following Jesus. Let us learn to love, live, hope, trust, forgive, pray, and serve from Jesus. He is not only the great Teacher. In Jesus, God has given us the Great Lesson, the Great Truth, and the Great Life of His Kingdom. Let us not be satisfied with a storybook approach to God when Jesus offers Life and Truth with God, for God, and for God’s glorious purposes. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.