My sermon title this morning is borrowed from Anna Carter Florence, preaching professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. A few years ago during the season of Lent, she says, she “started thinking in parables.” She continues:
"I don’t mean Jesus’ parables in Scripture, which I love, by the way. I mean parables that just hit me when I wasn’t looking for them and certainly wasn’t expecting them. I guess that’s appropriate, since the word parable literally means ‘thrown alongside.’ As in: now you don’t see it - boom! - now you do. One minute you’re humming along, everything’s normal, and then, without warning, you just collide with some flash of insight, and you know for sure that the kingdom of God has come near and you just saw a piece of it. You don’t know why. You don’t know how. You’re just glad you happened to be paying attention in the moment it broke."
“What if we simply assumed that parables were all around us, and our job was to walk around looking for them?” she asks. “And since parables are really sermons in miniature, what would happen… if [she] asked her [preaching] students to go somewhere unexpected, every week, and to come back with a parable they had witnessed?” They “started gathering them, and before you knew it, the gathering became a habit… and [their] parable universe, which was only supposed to be a classroom exercise, turned into a way of living and speaking, all the way to Easter.”
Well, this whole idea of “a parable universe” – a play on “parallel universe” - intrigued me, and I wondered if it might also be an interesting way for us to spend the season of Lent this year. What if we read some gospel parables each Sunday of Lent, focusing on kingdom stories Jesus told, and then – equipped with those reminders – headed back out these doors looking for additional parables wherever our week happens to take us? How might it transform the way we see the world, to use a bit of holy imagination, and play a glorified game of “I Spy” together as a church family?
Do you know the game? “I spy with my little eye something blue,” “I spy with my little eye something round?” Well, what if our particular look-out during Lent this year was for images, scenes, snapshots of the kingdom of God?
Perhaps I should back up a bit here, to be sure we all know why we’d be looking for such things in the first place. Jesus often taught in parables, using both longer stories and simpler word pictures to convey important truths about God. This morning in a single chapter in Luke’s gospel we encountered three of these parables Jesus told, all of them in this particular subset sharing a “lost and found” theme.
The first two start out as rhetorical questions. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?... And when he comes home, he gathers his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that is lost.’” (Luke 15:4-6) “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” (Luke 15:8-9) Jesus right away supplies the moral of each story. There is great joy in heaven, a giant heavenly party among the angels, over every sinner who repents.
Naturally Jesus could have conveyed the same truth another way. He could have skipped the stories and gone straight to the moral: God longs for sinners to repent. It gladdens God’s heart when we return to him. The spiritual truth is no less important in that more straightforward form. But adding those memorable visuals, of a shepherd racing around the wilderness to find a single wayward lamb, or of a woman tearing part her whole house to find a lost coin… well, you can tell Jesus was a gifted teacher, because those images really help the lesson hit home, don’t they?
Poets know it, prophets know it, teachers know it. Jesus, who was all of those things, clearly knew it. Metaphors, illustrations, and stories work because they can reach us in a different way, and help that little lightbulb go on over our heads. “Oh! I see!”
I’ve preached on Jesus’ parables before and done my best to mine them for meaning by leaning on experts in the field of New Testament scholarship. But if there is a liability to reading a bunch of commentaries on Jesus’ parables, it’s that you end up with all these different arguments about what they mean, as if they could mean only this or that. But what if a parable can mean both this and that? What if that’s the whole point of telling stories in the first place, rather than expounding doctrines about God in lecture form?
I actually love the way parables can open up meaning vs. shutting it down. Stories, or word pictures, can allow a number of different avenues for a word from the Lord to reach your heart, or mine. Perhaps that’s by design.
By way of example, let’s return to the lengthier story in Luke 15, the story we often call the parable of the prodigal son. But I’ve come to learn it’s really about two sons, each lost in his own way. One who finds himself distanced from the family by disrespecting his father, wasting his inheritance on reckless living, and ending up far from home; the other separated from his dad by his inability to forgive his brother. The father, of course, has been watching all along for the prodigal’s return, so that “while he was still far off,” dad sees him and runs to welcome him back. God’s love is like that, Jesus is telling us. Standing ready to scoop us back up with a giant bear hug if only we’ll turn back to him. The father also leaves the welcome home party for that son, going outside to look for his other son and to plead with him to join the feast. God’s love is also like that. A love so gracious and generous, so forgiving of sinners, that we’re going to find ourselves challenged to keep up with that level of graciousness at times, and may even be called out for trying to exclude those God means to include. A single story with multiple audiences in mind. A story big enough to include those who fear they’re outsiders, beyond the reach of God’s mercy… and those pretty confident they’re insiders, who are bothered by some of the questionable characters God’s letting into God’s kingdom these days.
Of course, these parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons in Luke 15 are just a few of the many ways Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God. Dozens of parables are sprinkled throughout the gospels. Each of them offering a helpful way of seeing, a useful lens through which to understand a little something more about the enormous subject of God, and God’s ways in the world. In fact, on a future Sunday we’ll visit a single chapter from Matthew’s gospel that contains something like 8 separate parables all in a row!
I suspect when Jesus told parables, he didn’t so much mean to say “the Kingdom of God is like these things and only these things,” as he meant “here’s a start…try this image on for size.” Perhaps that’s why he heaped one metaphor on top of another, told one story after another? One might touch your heart more deeply, and one might reach out and grab mine. They’re all just ways to try to package eternal divine truths into a form we can understand.
After the sermon today we’ll be singing “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” What if we spent this Lenten season seeking where God’s kingdom is hiding in plain sight, looking for parables wherever we go? What might we find?
I hope you’ll enjoy the hunt. And I hope you’ll even be willing to swap kingdom of God sightings with one another. If so, I’ll work in an opportunity toward the end of Lent for us to share what we discover as we wander through this “parable universe” between Sundays.
If you love being outdoors like I do, you might find parables about God, hints about what the kingdom of God is like, in nature. Certainly the biblical psalmists loved those kinds of images. But kingdom spotting is by no means restricted to hikes through the woods or walks along the beach. After all, today’s parables found their settings at work (for the shepherd with the lost sheep), in the midst of house cleaning (for the woman with the lost coin), and in the messiness of family life when our children might not behave exactly as we’d wish them to (the story of the father and his sons). We’ll see as we continue reading around in the gospels that Jesus set other parables in the marketplace and along busy roads, with farmers in their fields and fishermen with their nets. It would appear, then, that kingdom-of-God-spotting or message-from-God-spotting can happen just about anywhere.
For instance, I was struck one day recently as I stepped onto an elevator that at least four racial groups were represented among the six of us standing there. And I thought to myself: Jesus would have loved this. Since he enjoyed pointing out object lessons wherever he went, I imagined him riding along with us in that elevator and saying – this beautiful mix right here, this is what the kingdom of heaven is like, my friends. For that matter, I imagine it’s also a little like the beautiful diversity of faces represented among all those Olympic athletes in the parade of nations last weekend. So thank you, God, for parables in elevators. And parables in Pyeongchang, Korea during this Olympic season. Because isn’t it a great feeling when the little lightbulb does go on over our heads, even for just a second now and then, and we start to get it? When we start to understand what God has been trying to show us all along?
Certainly the arts can assist us in the search too. I’ll just be driving along in my car sometimes, listening to one of my daughter’s Broadway playlists, when suddenly I’ll realize I’m actually listening to a little message from God hidden in a song, as I did in those powerful lyrics from the musical “Come From Away” I shared with you back in the fall, about showing hospitality to strangers. Or I’ll be struck by a scene in a novel I’m reading – some of you may know the author Louise Penny and the way she works sin and redemption, grace and mercy into her stories about a little Canadian community called Three Pines? Or perhaps you’re fans of Harry Potter, or the Chronicles of Narnia, or of the Star Wars films? They’re all filled with kingdom parables too. Or maybe the visual arts draw you in, either as an artist yourself or as an art appreciator. What lessons do your favorite paintings hold? How might Jesus use that quilt or that sculpture to teach an important truth?
Not everything is a kingdom parable, of course. There are limits, and we’ll circle back and address that issue another time. But if we steep ourselves in Scripture, if we learn the parables of Jesus well, surely it can train us well to see God’s messages elsewhere too.
If you’re intrigued, as I am, by this idea of a “parable universe,” I invite you to enter the season of Lent this year open to the notion that the whole world is God’s canvas, God’s mouthpiece, God’s love letter to us, to teach us what the kingdom of God is like.
Perhaps you'll stumble across a kingdom parable or two at some point over these next several weeks. So you’ll be able to tell us a story, where:
"… now you don’t see it - boom! - now you do. One minute you’re humming along, everything’s normal, and then, without warning, you just collide with some flash of insight, and you know for sure that the kingdom of God has come near and you just saw a piece of it. You don’t know why. You don’t know how. You’re just glad you happened to be paying attention in the moment it broke."
For surely signs of God’s kingdom are all around us as we make our way through this parable universe. Amen.
 Anna Carter Florence, “A Parable Universe” in Journal for Preachers, Lent 2015, p. 3.
 Florence, p. 4.
 Florence, p. 3.