Everyone loves a good story.
The Venerable David Stanton Canon Treasurer and Archdeacon of Westminster
Sunday, 17th June 2018 at 11.15 AM
Everyone loves a good story. The popularity of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia, illustrate the affection most of us have for engaging stories, and the omnipresent theme of good versus evil.
But why do we feel so much more engaged when we hear such stories? Well, they’re all about connections. They transcend generations, they engage us through our minds and emotions, and they’re classic ways of disseminating truth.
Jesus knew well that this is the common ground through which people communicate, helping us to overcome defences and differences.
But most importantly, stories trigger and engage our imaginations, allowing us to become involved in the narrative, stepping out of our own immediate world, and seeing things differently.
The idea that what we think and believe creates our reality seems very contemporary, but, in fact, it bridges centuries of religious tradition.
The parables are transformative in the way that only stories can be. They enter our unconscious minds. So let me tell you a short story:
Timothy Radcliffe, the well known Dominican Friar, has written about some of the discussions he had with a former headmaster here at Westminster during the 1970’s.
During his time here the headmaster worshipped regularly with the school, but all his life he wondered, ‘Do I believe or not?’ So he decided to ask six Christians, and six atheists, to come and meet him, to each talk with him for a couple of hours.
One of these was Fr Timothy Radcliffe, and they subsequently became good friends. The Headmaster’s key and most pertinent question was all based around his love for his wife and children.
He pondered, is there some ultimate meaning to such love? or is it just a passing emotion? Is it just a feeling that dies when we die, or, when we love people, do we find some ultimate significance?
He replied by saying that in our Christian faith, it’s through the love we have for others, and the love that they have for us, that we see some sign of the ultimate meaning of what it is to exist.
But also and most importantly, its through faith that we journey towards our ultimate meaning. So the question arises: can we learn to have faith?
Well, if we look around the world, we see that everybody in their own particular way has faith in something. People have faith in the importance of love. People have faith in the importance of seeking to reason and to understand.
We all have faith in all sorts of things. People have faith in democracy. The division isn’t between people of faith and those who don’t have faith, because we all believe in something.
The question then is, how do we discover what ultimately is implied by the things we believe in. The sceptical headmaster may say, ‘O, I don’t believe.’ And then we discover that he does actually fervently believe in those who are nearest and dearest to him.
But when we talk about the Christian faith we take things further by saying that such love is actually the seed of something very important.
Some people believe in God, some people don’t believe in God, but we all have faith in something. So perhaps I could ask you, what do you really believe in, what moves you, how do you react to the language of the gospel?
Although the story of the mustard seed has been typically understood as a reassurance for those who think that their faith is weak, that’s not actually how Jesus uses it.
The disciples become really concerned about believing, but Jesus is more focused upon how it may be put into effect. In other words it’s not so much about how much faith we have, it’s rather more about how much use we make of it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer often said that Christians explain their inactivity in terms of doubt, because if belief in Christ means that you must take a stand on an issue, or support a cause, or give yourself sacrificially, then you would probably do it.
He insisted that our problem is not faith, its about obedience. That often doubt is our excuse for inaction.
The unexpected growth of the mustard seed, a growth wildly beyond all proportion, inevitably draws our attention to finding out more, and discover more.
By contrasting normal seed growth, with unnaturally large seed growth, Jesus speaks to us of something that happens not to the seed, but to us as hearers or readers.
The power of the story allows our imaginations to ascend and expand, until they burst open. When we listen to such parables (such stories) the word of God invades us, overwhelms us, effectively placing us outside ourselves.
The stories that Jesus told, don’t just captivate us, they reveal that the Kingdom of God is always expanding, always growing, and always present when people of faith take on seemingly simple acts of love.
The love of God, like the lowly mustard plant, has a way of spreading beyond anything we can ask or imagine. It can take over your life.
Parables are often dangerous little stories. They’re rather like plants that take root in a tiny crack in the pavement, eventually break up the hard smooth surface.
Parables do the same for our religious and spiritual imagination. They deal with many of the big issues and questions of life: who God is, the surprising nature of grace, the awful power of money, the coming judgment, and not least the growth of the kingdom.
These stories captivate us because they tend to turn our instinctive inclinations upside down, and help us to see God afresh.