When I was young, say 40 years ago, I did a good bit of public speaking. I even partially paid for grad school by speaking (preaching) at churches on the weekends. Somehow, as I got older, that gift of speaking got channeled in different ways, mainly in the classroom and in the public performances by my students. “Preaching” took a backseat as music and teaching became the main avenues for helping support my family.
Recently, however, I was given the opportunity to preach at my church. So, several decades after I learned how to do this, I found myself in the pulpit on Father’s Day. The text for the morning was from Mark 4. Here is that sermon text:
One of the first things I remember learning about the Bible as a young child was that Jesus talked in parables. He told stories! A parable, I was told, was an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. I have been bumping into parables my entire life and only in recent years has the full significance of this type of teaching really made sense to me. As a teacher myself, I discovered that my young students often were more attentive to information given via a story than by any other means, even technology! And so it was when Jesus told his stories – simple, yet complex parables/stories that extend far beyond the story into the middle of Life itself.
My Dad was a master storyteller too. Another of my earliest memories is of sitting on my Dad’s lap or hanging over his shoulder with my other siblings while he regaled us with stories of B’rer Rabbit or Uncle Wiggly or Uncle Remus. Dad introduced us to Dr. Seuss…he discovered “The Cat in the Hat” the very first week it arrived on our public library shelves. Dad was forever telling us stories, entertaining us with his vocal and facial expressions, teaching us – albeit indirectly – how to be family for each other!
We learned many lessons from those stories Dad told or read to us – lessons about life, about morals, about relationships…but I realize now that the most significant lessons were inherent in the very act of telling those stories. Jesus, too, understood the power of a good story. He used that power to capture the attention and imagination of his listeners, imbedding in those stories some of the essence of God’s Presence. Perhaps I can get at this best by telling you a story!
When our younger son, Joel, married Maria, she brought with her a young son, Samuel. We were delighted with this “instant” grandchild, but our chances to really get to know him were severely hampered by the fact that Joel and Maria moved to Chicago. A few short visits a year were all we could manage at first. Sammy seemed like a stranger, and I wondered if we would ever have those special grandparent feelings I had heard so much about.
Then, one summer, Joel suggested that we go camping with them. So we loaded up our cars with everything, including the kitchen sink (!) and headed for the mountains of West Virginia. There was the normal chaos of setting up camp, followed by days of cooking over open camp fires, searching for tree frogs after dark, photographing mushrooms and bugs, hiking in the woods, riding horses, throwing the Frisbee, playing board games, napping in the hammock … all those things that were part and parcel of a Spencer camping trip.
We were beginning to forge some family bonds with our young grand son, but the real clincher happened on the night a storm was brewing. As we listened to the approaching thunder, and felt the wind begin to blow, little Sammy crawled into my lap, curled up under a blanket, and said, “Grandma, can you tell me the story of the day my daddy was born?”
And so, the family stories began. In the following days, we relived many details of Joel’s childhood, laughing over long forgotten antics, growing closer, becoming family as the stories unfolded. In that one short week, we, Sammy and Ed and I, became family for good.
Jesus apparently understood that stories helped draw people together. He recognized that his listeners would come the closest to understanding his message if he couched that message in stories. He began many of his own stories, or parables, with the words, “The kingdom of God is like…” In today’s gospel we get a glimpse of two such parables, but the verses that most caught my attention are the last two (verses 33 and 34): “Jesus used many similar stories and illustrations to teach people as much as they could understand. In fact, in his public ministry he never taught without using parables.”
Have you ever wondered what Jesus meant when He talked about the Kingdom of God? The focus of much of Jesus’ teaching was the Kingdom of God. In fact, that Kingdom was Jesus’ central message. He wanted to make certain that his listeners understood as much as possible about living in God’s Presence. “The Kingdom of God” happens in one’s life when that person learns to become aware of God’s Presence always.
When is the last time you were personally aware of God’s immediate Presence? When you knew God was present, working in your midst as surely as that friend now sitting next to you? Do you believe it is even possible to sense God’s presence, to catch God in the act of working out details on your behalf? God is involved in the details of our lives. God is constantly at work in our lives, pulling together events in such a way that one cannot possibly believe it is coincidence.
Let me tell you another true “dad” story to illustrate: In the spring of 2005, I was working in my classroom after the students had left for the day. Normally, I worked in silence – welcomed it after the noise that was inherent in the music room! For some odd reason that day, I flipped on the radio, tuning into NPR just in time to hear about a new venture called “Story Corp.” A mobile recording booth had been constructed in Grand Central Station. People were encouraged to bring loved ones in to record special family stories. The recordings were made and archived in the Library of Congress as a record of everyday American life. The main idea behind these interviews was that listening is an act of love.
Somehow, as I first heard that report on NPR, I knew I had to get my Dad into one of those recording booths. Several mobile units were beginning to travel around the nation as part of the project. One was coming close to Martinsville, with stops in Charlottesville Virginia, and another in Charleston, West Virginia. By some miracle, my busy teaching schedule “just happened” to offer a short window of down time at exactly the time the phone line was opened for taking reservations for recording time. I was fortunate enough to secure one of those limited and highly-coveted appointments. Our recording date was only a few days after Dad turned 85.
Dad had always been the paragon of good health. He only went to the hospitals for the birth of his six children, but never was he a patient himself! Yet, less than 2 weeks after our interview, he came down with such severe pneumonia that he was hospitalized. Ten days later, he was gone! That very evening, someone working the Story Corps booth called us to be certain our interview experience was successful! From that phone call, our story became part of the national fund raising efforts by the Story Corp team.
The recording of our Story Corps interview was a remarkable gift that shaped not only the celebration of Dad’s life, but also fixed in our memories the sound of his voice and much of the essence of who Dad was. I found myself, much like Moses and the burning bush… standing on sacred ground in the Presence of God! There is no other way to explain how perfectly the logistics of that entire event fit together! Such timing to me is always a mark of God’s Presence, as uniquely recognizable as a thumbprint. The Kingdom of God is at work just as surely now as it was when Jesus spoke in parables!
I was always Dad’s little girl. I was the only girl in the middle of four brothers, and Dad did many things for me, seemingly little stuff at the time, but that had huge significance later. I have many warm memories of time we spent together… gardening, shopping, making book runs to the public library. I learned that all routes to our home led past Krispy Kreme, especially if the “Hot off the line” sign was lit!
One of my favorite memories was searching for agates along the banks of the Mississippi River near the lake in Minnesota where we vacationed every summer. Over the years, I filled a glass jar with those layered red and orange gemstones. Every year that jar went with me on the long trip from Tennessee to Minnesota; the rest of the year, it had a prized place on a shelf in my closet.
When my parents downsized from the large home where they raised 6 children, I went looking for my agate jar… and couldn’t find it anywhere! I assumed those rocks had been assimilated into the family’s large agate collection, but I was sorry they were no longer in my jar.
Not too many years passed before my mother realized that keeping up the house by herself was too much of a burden. She decided to enter an assisted living facility, so we began the process of shutting down her home. I was with her one weekend and she suggested I make one last trip to the basement. “There might be something down there in all the junk that you might want.” She said.
So, I bleakly rummaged through the piles of ancient tools, boxes of rocks from family rock-hounding days, moldy camping gear, listening to the echoes of years gone by, grieving that such days were over and done. And then, I stumbled upon a small, innocuous plastic box. The contents took my breath away! In a flash, I vividly remembered a conversation with Dad on a weekend visit home from college, some 40 years before. He had offered to tumble polish my agates in his lapidary. I gave him the entire jar, carefully pointing out a few favorites that I wanted left in their natural state, because I loved their texture and color. There in the plastic box was my entire agate collection carefully tumble polished, …and those most special favorites were there too, left in their natural form, just as I had requested! Forty years hence, and years after my Dad died, I felt as if he was standing beside me. I could hear his voice almost audibly, feel his breath on my hair as he hugged me close. In those brief moments, I experienced again the depth of my Father’s love for me. The surprise was that such love could reach beyond the grave and rock my emotions so intensely! In that same instant, I was aware that God was there, giving me exactly what I needed during a difficult time of transition.
The Kingdom of God! It’s as simple as it is complex! As I researched for today’s sermon, I ran across a blog called “From His Presence…because your life can be Heaven on Earth”. It is written by a young woman named Jamie Rohrbach. She writes from the premise that Jesus himself taught us to pray, asking “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus himself taught us to ask explicitly for God’s Kingdom! We ask for it every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer!
Just what is the Kingdom of God? The arrival of the Kingdom of God was Jesus’ central message. “The Kingdom,” Jamie Rohrbach writes in her blog, “––happens in your life when you learn to become aware of God’s Presence always.” Miss Rohrbach believes intensely that we can and should regularly experience the presence of God in our everyday lives.
God’s Presence for me is a constant reality. Sometimes I am more attuned to that Presence than others. Thankfully, God doesn’t base that Presence on our awareness! God comes not as an audible, disembodied voice, but rather in the midst of life, often in a sequence of events, so carefully choreographed, so perfectly timed that there is no way it could be mere coincidence. Most fascinating to me is that God seems to work in similar ways with others. God’s Fingerprints – in the form of a tiny boy and an approaching thunder storm, or in preparation for the death of a loved one, or in finding a long lost treasure … The more one takes time to slow down, listen and look for God’s presence, the more one can discover God is there in the midst! That still small voice speaks as eloquently today as it did 2000 years ago.
And so, I ask again … when is the last time you were personally aware of God’s immediate Presence? When you knew God was working in your midst just as surely as that friend sitting next to you? What stories do you have to tell about these experiences? Have you shared those stories with friends or loved ones? There are many ways to talk about God, about what we do here at church, about how much God loves us. But one of the most effective ways is direct, immediate, personal experience with God’s Presence!
What goals or dreams do you have for yourself? For this church family? What does the Presence of God look like right here at Starling Avenue? In many ways, we are family for each other here in this place. Yes, we have stories to share. Hopefully, we have dreams to share as well. As we move into the future, may God’s immediate Presence – His Kingdom – be immediately upon each of us, sharing beyond ourselves with a broken world the reality of God’s love – of God’s Kingdom in this time, in this place! Amen”