by Rev. Joe Connolly
“With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it, as much as they could understand; indeed, Jesus did not speak to them except in parables,….” — Mark 4:33.
There is no question about this: one of the great story tellers of our time is movie director Stephen Spielberg. Among the movies Spielberg has directed are Jaws, Close Encounters of a Third Kind, ET, Lincoln, Raiders of the Lost Ark (many versions of that), Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List.
Interestingly those last two, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List were released in the same year. How could two stories be more different than those two? So Spielberg is not just a story teller but a versatile one.
And yes, I just referred to Spielberg as a story teller. And yes, we often think of writers as story tellers. And yes I know Spielberg does not write movies. He directs them.
That I would refer to a movie director and not a movie writer as a story teller tells us something about the medium called cinema. Movies are not a writer’s medium. Movies are a director’s medium.
Let me explain: these are examples of true mediums for writers— novels, plays, short stories to name just three. And in many ways the most important thing a writer does in spinning out a tale in any of these mediums is figure out how to tell a specific story within those forms.
Put differently, in a writer’s medium the writer needs to ask ‘what scenes will be revealed and in what sequence will they be revealed as the story is told?’ Indeed, it is pivotal to ask what scene must absolutely, positively be revealed next, right after the one currently in focus to make the whole story work, hang together, make sense.
Sometimes that concept is phrased this way. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Please note: this cliche is often also heard: “It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it.”
But that’s not what I just said. I said the way you say it, the dialogue, the words, are less important than how you say it. Mere words, on their own, do not carry a story. Scenes carry a story.
And that is why movies are a director’s medium, not a writer’s medium. The director has final say in what scene we see next and in which sequence we see the scenes. Those decision are about the way you say it.
In fact, Spielberg is famous for saying all stories, any story, actually never starts and never ends. The story was moving and active before the point at which the story teller starts, before the first scene we might see or read. And the story will continue after THE END flashes up on the screen or the last page of a book is read. Stories never really start or end. We just see the segment being told. (Slight pause.)
These words are found in the work known as Mark: “With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it, as much as they could understand; indeed, Jesus did not speak to them except in parables,….” (Slight pause.)
Now that I’ve said all that about story telling I hope this is obvious. The medium in which a story is told is an important aspect of any story, an important aspect of how the story is conveyed.
Therefore, a movie is different than a play, different than a short story, different than a novel. All these mediums tell stories but in different ways.
In the New Testament we get four Gospels. The Gospels are their own exclusive medium, like nothing else, like no other kind of literature. And what do we get in the medium called Gospel?
It is often said we get “good news.” The very phrase “good news” begs the question: what is the good news?
Well, what is the story the Gospels tell? Many would argue the Gospels tell the story of the life and the crucifixion, the life and death of the Christ. I respectfully disagree. I would even suggest that interpretation misses the point of the story.
Precisely because of how the scenes of the Gospels unfold, the scene we are shown last, the scene which I maintain the good news, the point of the story. It is, therefore, is simple and easy to identify. It sits right in front of us. Christ is risen. God is with us.
We also need to realize the four Gospels each tell that story in a very different way. They each present the story in their own way, have a different way of unfolding the scenes to express the good news.
Indeed, the Gospels, individually and collectively, are unquestionably, complex. They say many things. There are many stories therein. But I again insist the Gospels have a singular message when it comes to the point of the story. Christ is risen. God is with us.
So, the Gospels are complex stories with a simple message. Now let’s turn to the parables which are also complex.
As you heard when this Gospel reading was introduced, if you read a parable and glean only one meaning from it, you mis-read it. Parables are meant to spark the imagination, provoke more than one meaning. Therefore, you have within the complex story form called the Gospels, a small complex story form called parables.
Now, it is sometime said the parables are meant to be metaphors. So, let’s ask this: what is a metaphor? A metaphor is a way of saying what something is by saying what it is like. Therefore, you use something, by definition, it is not exactly like to describe it.
So a parable is not an exact description— not an exact description. Indeed, the words from this reading say (quote:) “Jesus did not speak to them except in parables,….” Put differently, even Jesus lacked the language to exactly describe the Dominion of God. (Slight pause.)
That, of course, still begs the question, what is the Dominion of God like? Tell me, what does your imagination tell you about what the Dominion of God is like? (Slight pause.)
Earlier I said for me the good news, the Gospel message, means Christ is risen. God is with us. It is that simple.
If my premise is right, that the metaphors known as parables are meant to draw us in, to spark our imagination, then I want to suggest understanding the parables might be simpler than we realize. I want to suggest the parables say the Dominion of God— note: not heaven but the Dominion of God— I want to suggest the parables say the Dominion of God is available right here, right now. You see, if Christ is risen, it is a given that God is with us; God reigns right here, right now.
Further, I want to suggest the specific parables we heard today say the Dominion of God is a place where things grow. Therefore, in the Dominion of God which is right here, right now, we need to help the world around us grow.
We need to help the world around us grow in justice— God’s justice. We need to help the world around us grow in equity— God’s equity. We need to help the world around us grow in peace— God’s peace. We need to help the world around us grow in hope— God’s hope.
We need to help the world around us grow in freedom— God’s freedom. We need to help the world around us grow in love— God’s love. (Slight pause.)
What is the Dominion of God like? The Dominion of God is like nothing we fully know. But the Dominion of God can be more real for us when we acknowledge the presence of Christ is with us always. The Dominion of God can be more real for us when we strive to seek God’s will. (Slight pause.)
I recently heard it said if you point your finger toward the moon you should not mistake your finger for the moon. The Bible is like a finger pointing toward the moon. The Dominion of God, present and real, is the moon.
And yes, story telling is a complicated, complex business. The Gospels and the parables within them tell a complicated, complex story. But the complicated, complex stories found in Scripture are not the Dominion of God.
Rather, the stories point toward the Dominion of God. And so where is this dominion of God? If we pay attention to what the story of the Gospels say— the presence of God is indeed with us— then we can then be empowered to strive to work on helping the world grow, on letting the love of God reign, right here, right now. In short, the Dominion of God is real, right here, right now… if we are simply aware of the presence of God. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Here is a paradox: what makes a good story is, as its scenes unfold, it never tells you what its message is. Good story telling simply invites you to explore. The Gospels, the parables invite us to explore the idea that possibilities abound when we become aware God is present with us. It is, hence, incumbent on us to work with God toward a fulness of the Reign of God.”
BENEDICTION: Let God’s love be our first awareness each day. Let God’s love flow through our every activity. Let us rejoice that God frees us to be witnesses for God. Let us understand every day as a new adventure in faith because the Creator draws us into community. And may we love God so much that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.