Jesus said, “‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables.’” (Matthew 13:35 NRSV)
One of the great devotional books that I’ve returned to several times over the years is one entitled “Jesus in Blue Jeans: A Practical Guide to Everyday Spirituality,” written by Laurie Beth Jones. This is a marvelous work that focuses simply and eloquently on the day-to-day challenges each of us face living with dignity, integrity and faith in today’s world. But I think what continues to draw me back to this book is how Jones emphasizes the importance of “mastering the metaphor” in understanding and communicating our faith, that is, learning to recognize how one thing resembles something else and thus be able to shape the truth of what we believe into something we all can touch and embrace and understand.
And as the supreme example of this, she lifts up Jesus Christ. Jesus “spoke constantly in similes, and was the master of metaphor,” she writes. “How to translate the eternal, forgiving compassion of God? Tell a story about a wayward son. How to teach the colossal importance of faith? Talk about a mustard seed. How to explain your role to people? Describe yourself as a shepherd. What is the kingdom of heaven like? [Well,] ‘it is like a sower who went out to sow…’” It’s all about talking in parables, which is precisely how Jesus communicated the good news of God’s kingdom to others.” When Jesus spoke in parables, “people ‘got’ what he was saying, even if they chose not to act on it.”
Jones then goes on to suggest a spiritual exercise: to find some metaphors of our own and create a parable or two by taking a closer look at that which is in our immediate sight. It could be objects or people or even situations, but the point is to see how these things might just resemble God and God’s kingdom; to see what those word pictures might teach us about faith in the world.
Well, friends, I love that, and I have to tell you that this is a spiritual discipline that I’ve taken as my own! In fact, over the years, I have become “a seeker of parables,” so to speak, as a way of coming to a deeper understanding of my own Christian faith. I find lots of parables in my work as a pastor; certainly they’re to be found in abundance within the life of the church. Moreover, I hear them in the stories told by family and friends, and I read them between the lines of the news or on TV. And I always manage to find quite a few while on vacation; and this year was no exception!
After all, I was at camp – “uptacamp,” as we say in these parts – back with my family on that beautiful lake in the northern Maine woods where I’ve spent at least a portion of just about every summer of my life, surrounded by sights and sounds so familiar, memories so clear that, quite literally, almost everything tells a story or two! Well, given the spiritual importance of such stories, and given that we’re currently exploring the Parables of Jesus in our worship at East Church, it seems as good a time as any to share with you a few images that for me, at least, have become “parables on the pond;” in the hope that though they come out of my own experience, what they might reveal is not unique to me at all!
So, with that in mind, here’s a parable: the Kingdom of God is like going “up to camp,” which is by its very nature a place of rest, relaxation, renewal and above all, fun…. but which also means some amount of work.
It’s certainly no secret to anyone who knows me (or who reads this blog!) that this little lakeside cottage, purchased by my parents before I was born and still the summer retreat for a third generation of our family, is for me what the Celtic tradition refers to as a “thin place,” one of those wonderful locales on earth where heaven and earth seem to meet. And indeed, simply to be there in view of the lake is enough to reduce my stress level: the days are longer and my list of worries and concerns is far shorter; the air is clear, the water refreshing, the colors surround us are full and bright, and we find ourselves with a new awareness and appreciation of even the simplest of sights and conversations and situations.
It’s a wonderful thing; but that having been said, I also have to tell you that when you have a camp, there is always… always… work to do! From raking and clearing brush in the springtime, putting in the dock and tending to all the required maintenance projects, large and small, through the summer months, to finally buttoning things up for the long winter to come, having a camp serves as a constant reminder that even in the midst of our greatest blessings, we are still caretakers of that which we’ve been given.
And here’s what makes this a parable: how often did Jesus say much the same thing about the kingdom, about being attentive and ready for its coming, ever and always being about its business? Remember the story that Jesus told about five wise bridesmaids who took with them enough oil for their lamps for the bridegroom’s return late at night (Matt. 25); or how it’s the sheep – the ones who gave the Son of Man, in the guise of a stranger, food and drink and welcome – who “inherit the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world?” (Matt.25:34) In these parables and others like them, Jesus illustrated the necessity of preparing the way of the Lord by our very lives; reminding those around him, and us as well, that blessing always goes hand in hand with responsibility; and so faith is linked to discipleship!
Likewise, in the same way that going “up to camp” is a thing of joy that requires our constant attention, so also are we, each and every one of us, not only recipients of God’s grace but also caretakers of God’s kingdom in everything that we do; in our work and our play, in the ways we seek to be people in community and as the church; and even in the most casual of relationships we share with one another! As we joyously dwell in God’s good grace, we also need to be working at our faith, living faithfully as we ready ourselves for the kingdom’s coming!
More parables to come…
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry