Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 17, 2012

2012.06.17 “Never Without a Story” – Mark 4: 26 – 34

Central United Methodist Church

Never Without a Story

Pastor David L. Haley

Mark 4: 26 – 34

June 17, 2012


Then Jesus said, “God’s kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The seed sprouts and grows — he has no idea how it happens. The earth does it all without his help: first a green stem of grass, then a bud, then the ripened grain. When the grain is fully formed, he reaps — harvest time!

“How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it.”

With many stories like these, he presented his message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. He was never without a story when he spoke. When he was alone with his disciples, he went over everything, sorting out the tangles, untying the knots.” – Mark 4: 26 -34, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson


        At a recent wedding I performed, I went to the rehearsal dinner and sat with people I didn’t know. I introduced myself to the man on my right. Since we had just come from the wedding rehearsal, he knew who I was, so one of the first things he asked was: “So what do you tell your people to assure them that when they die, they will wake up with God in heaven?”

I think I probably responded with a long sigh, and wondered if it was too late to move to another table.  I’d rather sit with a 3-year-old or a flirtatious woman or two drunken old ladies (all of whom I’ve sat with on previous such occasions) than with a sincere but ignorant religious zealot.

Nice guy that I am, I didn’t get up and move, but responded by saying, “Oh, we talk about much more than that. Do you realize, for example, that in the Gospels Jesus talked more about money, than he did about heaven? And what he talked about most of all was the kingdom of God, how we live here on earth, rather than how we get to heaven.”

“Really?” he said.

I’m sure he drew his own conclusions, and we went on to have a conversation about many things, mostly religious. Turns out, he too was a pastor, a lay pastor, because of some unknown discretion of their previous pastor. Thrown into that position, he was sincere, but ignorant, being in a kind of church that really doesn’t require pastors to know anything about what they’re talking about, as our church does. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people out there like that, including some pastors: true believers, sincere but ignorant.

And, after all, how could I sum up five years of graduate education and forty years of study and experience? Because the truth is, like life, the life of faith and even the Message of Jesus Christ sometimes resists simple and easy explanation.

Today’s Gospel, and Jesus’ teaching, are a perfect example of this. Like almost everything else in the Gospels, this reading combines accessible images with opaque elements that resist simple interpretation. In reality, as we peel off layers, we discover infinite riches.

In Mark 4, Jesus teaches the people using stories, specifically parables, beginning with the well-known parable of the sower: “A man went out to sow.” He went on with other agricultural stories, which might make us wonder if he was speaking to the Farm Bureau:

“God’s kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it . . . “How can we picture God’s          kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like a mustard seed.          When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is    planted it grows into a huge tree with thick branches.  Birds nest in it.”

Now, if you were taking notes, what would you have written down?  “Seed. Lazy farmer.  Sleeps too much. Mustard seed. Tree growing in garden. Farmer doesn’t notice? Tree full of birds.  Don’t sit under tree.”

Or might we have written: “God’s kingdom like seed. Starts small. Grows silently, mysteriously. From small beginnings, a mighty tree grows.”

And then Mark summarizes:

“With many stories like these, Jesus presented his message to          them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. He was          never without a story when he spoke. When he was alone with his          disciples, he went over everything, sorting out the tangles, untying the    knots.”

In other words, when Jesus spoke, he didn’t just quote Scripture and say, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” He didn’t use a catechism, with questions and answers. He didn’t do three points and a poem, he didn’t present ten rules or four spiritual laws or one clear summary. Instead he told stories.

Why did Jesus do this?  Because it not only fit the nature of the truth he was trying to convey, but also had the broadest, deepest, impact upon the people to whom he was speaking, including us.

There are some forms of truth, like religious truth, that is best communicated through myth and stories. Such stories are not always historical or scientific or even factual; those are the wrong criteria. They’re not always neat and tidy, and the point is not always clear. Parables, for example, are such stories. As someone once pointed out, if you hear a parable and think you understand it, then you’ve probably misunderstood it. They are not aphorisms or allegories or analogies, but time-delay bombs, which keep on ticking until they explode our old ways of thinking and living.

Take, for example, today’s parable of the mustard seed.  What if it’s not about what we usually think, big things coming from small beginnings?  Because the thing about mustard seeds is, in general they were considered pesky and dangerous. Wild mustard is hard to control; once it takes root it can take over a garden.

So pick your favorite garden, and your least favorite weed: crabgrass, dandelion, wild onion, kudzu, and watch it taking over your garden. Is that what Jesus is comparing the kingdom of God to?  Oh, and that part about birds seeking refuge?  Sounds nice, but is it suggesting is that once the weeds move in, all kinds of “undesirables” begin to show up? Think pigeons, or a backyard full of wild geese, eating up that garden you just planted.

So maybe that’s the point: this kingdom Jesus proclaims is not something we can control.  It’s not safe, that is, if we’re even minimally satisfied with the way things are.  Rather, the kingdom comes to overturn, to take over, to transform the kingdoms of this world.

On the other hand, if we’re not satisfied with the kingdoms of this world, if we can imagine more than the status quo of scarcity and fear and limited justice and all the rest we’re regularly offered, then maybe Jesus saying that God’s kingdom infiltrating the world offers a word of hope, that just might invite, entice, prod, or poke you into working toward the vision of the kingdom of God Jesus proclaims.

Through such stories and parables, Jesus offered the hope that God’s kingdom is coming and while we cannot control or summon it, we can anticipate and participate in it, by aiding and abetting its growth, wherever and whenever we see it.  Where do you see it growing?  You only have to look around, with the eyes and ears of Jesus.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the use of story to convey the truth God gives us. As I have looked around, a preacher who has inspired me the most is one I never heard in person: Fred Craddock. Fred Craddock’s own life is quite a story, one especially worth telling on Father’s Day.

 Fred Craddock

Fred Craddock

Craddock, who is now 84 and struggling with Parkinson’s disease, preached his last official sermon last October. He is 5-foot-5 with a plump belly and an impish smile, and lives in Blue Ridge, Georgia, a small town in the Appalachian Mountains.

He never became a televangelist, never built a megachurch or preached to an adoring crowd in a packed stadium. He is a diminutive, bespectacled man whose voice is so soft that he once compared it to “wind whistling through a splinter on the post.” Yet he is a pulpit giant, a man who, one preaching scholar says, tilted the preaching world “on its axis” after creating a revolutionary method that led to him being selected as one of the 12 best preachers in the English-speaking world. The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, herself on the list, describes him as “a preacher like no other.”

Fred Craddock was born in 1928 in Humboldt, TN, not too far from where I was born. His father was a master storyteller, another thing that appeals to me, because, growing up, I listened to such storytellers and their stories.

Fred Jr., was one of father’s most devoted fans. At the end of the day, the elder Craddock would return home, roll a Bull Durham cigarette by the fireplace and thrill his children with adventure stories about Chief Loud Thunder, Civil War battles and, on occasion, stories from the Bible, the Craddock version.

For example, each student in young Fred’s first-grade class was required to answer morning roll call with a Bible verse. Craddock didn’t know any, until his father taught him one. So one morning, he stood up like a bantam rooster and repeated his father’s scripture: “Samson took the jawbone of an ass and killed 10,000 Filipinos.” The teacher sent Craddock home with a stern note to his parents for his use of profanity. Ethel Craddock chided her husband, but he chuckled, saying, “I bet the class enjoyed it.”

When Fred Jr. turned 17 and told his mother he was thinking about becoming a minister, it was her turn to tell a story.  On a winter night in 1928, when he was 8 months old, he almost died of diphtheria. His father ran a mile to summon a doctor, who couldn’t do much, and the baby’s breathing grew more labored.  His mother couldn’t watch him suffer anymore, and fled to the barn, where, sprawled on a bale of hay, she prayed: “Dear God, if you will let him live, I will pray every day that he will serve you as a minister.” She fell asleep on the hay. When she awoke at daybreak, she ran to the house, where the doctor said her son was going to be fine, and left without asking for payment.  Why hadn’t she told him this story before? Because she didn’t want him to feel pushed into becoming a minister, she said.

When he started preaching in rural Tennessee in the 1950s, he employed the traditional “deductive” preaching style:thesis, three supporting points, restatement of thesis. “Something in me said that’s not the way to do it,” he said.

Gradually he stumbled onto his preaching style. While serving as a young pastor at a church in Columbia, Tennessee, he noticed people responded more to his informal talks outside church than to his sermons. So he started experimenting. What if you didn’t structure the sermon like a legal argument but more like an extended conversation? The listener – not the preacher – would be challenged to give the sermon its meaning. So Craddock became a preacher who didn’t preach. “No one wants to listen to pulpit bullies, behaving as though they had walked all round God and taken pictures,” he wrote in the introduction to his book “Craddock on the Craft of Preaching.”

Though Fred Craddock gathered all kinds of awards during his 50 years of teaching, it turned out that what he wanted most he would never receive: the praise of his father.

The sad truth was, as much as he loved him, his father was an alcoholic. When the Great Depression tore into rural Tennessee, and they lost their house, Craddock Sr. drank to cushion the pain.

At first, when they went to church, Craddock’s father went with them. But as his drinking grew worse, he stopped attending. “He felt guilty,” Craddock says. “He’d say, ‘Every time I go to church, they preach against drunks like they can’t go to heaven.'”

The church dispatched preachers to his home, hoping to draw him back to the pews, but he belittled them so much that Craddock’s mother worried a fight would erupt. “I know what the church wants,” he’d say. “Another name; another pledge. Right?”

When Fred Jr. was still a young preacher trying to find his voice, one day he received a call from his mother: “You need to go see your father,” she said. “He may not live longer.”

He found him in a VA hospital in Memphis. He had never stopped drinking or smoking, and at age 63, was hospitalized with throat cancer, and weighed 73 pounds. Radiation treatments had burned him to pieces. He couldn’t eat or speak.

When he saw his son, he picked up a Kleenex box and scribbled on it a line from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”: “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”

“What is your story, Daddy?”

His father’s eyes welled with tears. He wrote: “I was wrong.”

His father’s hospital room was filled with flowers and a stack of get-well cards 20 inches deep besides his bed. Every card and every flower came from that church in Humboldt, the church his father scorned. His father confessed that he was wrong about the church and the people in the pews. They didn’t just want a name and a pledge. They wanted him.

His father’s admission didn’t provide Fred Jr. relief; in fact, it deepened his grief. “It was so late. It was at the end. With his personality and his education – he was generous to a fault; give you the shirt off of his back. He could have been such a good person, helping people, talking to people, playing with children – he could do all these things.”

What Craddock remembers of their last moments together is not just his father’s confession but something his father did. After he asked his son to “tell my story,” Craddock reached out and clutched his gaunt hand. “I just held his hand…. He couldn’t move. I couldn’t move.” He squeezed his father’s hand, and both men cried. (A Preaching ‘Genius’ Faces his Toughest Convert, by John Blake, CNN, December 14, 2011)

“Tell my story,” said Jesus, and so, silently, mysteriously, uncontrollably, the kingdom of God is sown in the world.  Amen.


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