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Tell Us a Story

September 17, 2006

Mark 4:1-2, 33-34

I love a good story. I come from a long line of storytellers and enjoy storytelling, as do many of you.

My earliest memory of a religious experience was my dad telling me a Bible story after I had gotten into some kind of scrape with someone. That night when I went to bed, my dad sat down beside me and said, “Kirk, I want to tell you a story about a man who won without fighting.” He told me one of the great stories in the book of Judges, a story about Gideon, a man who did not think of himself as a leader at all. My dad told of God calling Gideon to lead a small band of men to defeat an enemy wreaking havoc across the land. Gideon had amassed a very large army, and God directed him to trim the numbers. After numerous attempts, God finally told Gideon, “Take the soldiers down to the river, and watch the way they drink. Those who get down on all fours, put their face down in the river, and lap the water like a dog cannot remain in your army. Keep only those who kneel by the water, scoop it in their hands, and bring it to their mouths to drink.” My father interpreted that method of selecting soldiers, saying that those who put their face down in the water could not see what was happening around them. Those who scooped water with their hands could be more observant.

Following this process, only 300 men remained in Gideon’s army. Their weapons consisted of a ram’s horn, which the Jewish people call a shofar, and a lamp concealed inside a pitcher. Those 300 men circled the opposing army, and on Gideon’s signal, sounded their horns and broke that external jar, revealing the lamplight. The army of the enemy was routed, and Gideon and his men did not strike one single blow. My dad told me that story because he said conflicts can be solved in better ways than fighting.

Stories have an important place in our lives. A story like that can stick with you for a long time. That one has obviously stuck with me. Telling stories is a way to teach our children and grandchildren. It is one reason we are entering into a new series of sermons on the parables of Jesus today.

When I was being considered for a fellowship at Harvard Divinity School, the committee asked me what five books had shaped my life. Think about that question for a moment. What five books have shaped your life? I told the committee that the King James Version of the Bible in the Scoffield Reference Edition was one because I had carried it to Sunday School when I was a boy. I also listed the Revised Standard Version of the Bible in the Oxford Annotated Edition because I had studied that in college and seminary. The Broadman Hymnal also shaped my life, teaching me most of my theology. I named the Boy Scout Handbook because Scouting was so important to me; and the last book I mentioned is Joel Chandler Harris’ The Tales of Uncle Remus, which is no longer politically correct. That book is chocked full of stories that teach important lessons. Stories shape our lives.

John Lane, a teacher in the English department at Wofford College, says there are only two kinds of stories: stories that basically say, “A man took a trip…” and stories that say, “A stranger came to town…” Consider that statement for a minute. The Old Testament records a trip an entire nation took. It tells how the Israelites got their start, became slaves in Egypt, traveled to the Promised Land, made decisions about governing themselves, divided the kingdom, lived in exile, seized their land, and finally rebuilt their temple. The Old Testament is not about a man who took a group; it is about a nation that took a trip. The New Testament focuses on a stranger coming to town. Jesus came to earth as a little baby. He grew up, had a relatively short mission, and died a cruel death. This story about a stranger who came to earth is the story of all stories.

Our stories are important to us, whether they be Aesop’s fables, the proverbs of Solomon, or ballads by country and western singers. Kenny Rogers sings about a gambler on a train bound for glory. You know the refrain that speaks of people playing cards:

You got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them.

Know when to walk away and know when to run.

You never count your money while you’re sitting at the table.

There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.

One of my favorite storytellers in song is Tom T. Hall who sings a wonderful story about a one-legged chicken.

Do you like true stories? I do.

That is why I’m singing this song about the one-legged chicken who lives
in the straw on the floor of my barn.

I remember the day she was hatched out. The vet took one look. Then he
said, “She only has one leg. She’ll never grow up.

I think this chick would be better off dead.”

I said, “No, let’s just let her keep growing. We’ll wait and see how she

Before long, that chicken was hopping and pecking and catching bugs
with the rest.

Though now she is a beautiful chicken, although she has only one leg,
each morning I go out to see her. She hops from her nest and she
leaves me an egg, and she cackles.

Do you like true stories? I do.

That is why I’m singing this song, a song about a one-legged chicken who
lives on the floor of my barn.

That story about a chicken with a missing part, a handicap, does not focus on the disability; it focuses on the ability. That story tells of every person’s life in the world. It is your story and mine. We may not be a one-legged chicken, but we all have something wrong with us. Our stories help us understand that we must not focus on our disability; we must focus on our ability. That is part of the role of the Christian church.

You have heard me tell about the man who came to draw the lines on the parking lot. He walked into the church and gave me the opportunity to use the punch line on a joke I had heard years earlier. He asked, “How many places do you want marked handicapped?” I answered, “I want you to mark them all handicapped because something is wrong with everyone in this church.”

Our text for today comes from Mark 4. Follow along as I read several verses at the beginning of this great chapter and then a few toward the end. Mark 4:1-2:

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables…

Verses 33-34:

With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

The greatest storyteller of all was Jesus. He was a collector of stories. Scripture confirms that Jesus used stories as his primary teaching method. He taught by using parables, a word that means, “to throw alongside.” Jesus positions a story alongside an important teaching in order to give an earthly story a heavenly message. Jesus had heard numerous stories, many from the tradition of the rabbis. If you reread some of those old rabbinical stories, you can hear them echoed in the parables of Jesus. He modified most of them to fit his concept that the kingdom of God was at hand.

Why did Jesus choose to teach in this manner? One reason is that almost everyone relates to a story. Almost anyone can find himself or herself in a story somewhere. That is especially true if the storyteller is good. Storytellers must know their audience. When we read the stories of Jesus or when we tell stories, the kind of stories that resonant in our spirit connect us to our heritage. Those who heard Jesus’ stories found themselves in those stories because Jesus took his topics straight out of life, many agricultural in nature, centering on plowing, harvesting, vineyards, and olive trees.

The editor of Sandlapper magazine, Aida Rogers, heard the Christmas story I wrote last December for the Morningside congregation. After reading all of the stories, she wrote a two-page article about the book containing those stories in the current issue of Sandlapper. She commented to me, “These stories are about ordinary people: a man who drives a tow truck, a woman who finds an old quilt, a man who grows Christmas trees and picks up discarded trees, a man who enjoys fishing. They are stories about life.” She pointed out that the ordinary characters provide a very important strength to those stories.

Jesus taught by using parables because stories help people remember. Do you remember the sermon last week? Do you remember the sermon two weeks ago? Three weeks ago? Sermons do not remain with us very long.

A debate in the London Times some years ago focused on the value of preaching. The debate continued for some time until finally one man’s letter to the editor of the London Times ended the argument. He wrote, “I have been married for thirty years. I have been eating the food my wife has cooked all of those years, but I cannot remember what I had to eat last week. I cannot remember what I had to eat three weeks ago, but I have the clear impression that I have been fed and nourished.”

My grandmother and mother used to tell me that eating oatmeal was good for me because it stuck to my bones. My, how it has stuck to my bones! A good story makes spiritual nourishment stick to your bones. While the point that we are teaching may not stick, the stories stick. Stories are memorable.

A teenager recently asked me about a story I had told during a Sunday sermon. He commented on the boy from Tennessee who was really down on himself. The teenager remembered that the boy’s preacher had said that God had a plan for him. Of course, I recognized immediately that the teenager was referring to the story of Ben Hooper. Can you imagine what a compliment it is for a teenager to remember a story in a sermon?

A little child came to me once and asked, “Dr. Kirk, will you tell me about the time you went fishing and hooked the biggest catch ever caught – your grandfather? You hooked him in his eyebrow!”

Maybe you do not remember the sermon from two or three weeks ago, but I bet you remember the story of Elner Shimfissle who put the ladder against a fig tree and tried to climb it. Do you remember that a hornet stung her, causing her to fall? Elner died and went to heaven. There she met her sister at the pearly gates. Elner’s sister was quite upset that Elner had allowed let her to be buried with a bad hair day. Do you remember that Elner brought a piece of caramel cake and the recipe back with her from heaven? Stories are easy to remember. Stories are important.

One way Jesus held his listeners’ attention was by developing an interesting plot. In the synagogue, he had pretty much a captive audience, but Jesus’ audiences were usually outside on a hillside. Stories often begin with “Once upon a time.” His stories began, “A man had two sons.” You immediately know that story. You also immediately know, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among thieves.” When you hear the first line, you are hooked. That is the beauty of a story.

Clare was reading to me again this week. She told me that somebody had said that the best first line of any novel ever written appeared in One Hundred Years of Solitude, written by a Spanish writer named Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The first line reads: “Many years later as he faced the firing squad, the Colonel was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” That sentence provides enough information to hook you three or four times. It just makes you want to know the story. Jesus had the ability for creating that kind of interest, for drawing his audience in and placing them right in the middle of the plot.

Those of you in the teaching profession know some characteristics of good teachers. Good teachers have a lot of humility. Good teachers are also good learners. They are constantly learning. Good teachers do not have an attitude of superiority, saying, “Let me tell you what I know.” Instead, they invite a learner to learn along with them, saying, “We are colleagues in this. We are going to learn together.” Jesus used stories because they connected the teller to the listener. Jesus, a man of humility, did not talk down to others. The Pharisees did that. Jesus invited his listeners to come along with him. Good teachers have patience, repeating something more than once if necessary. Being redundant is a gift of good teachers. They know that they cannot just say something one time. You see that patience in the teachings of Jesus. Good teachers are kind, valuing the personhood of their listener and affirming that person. When Jesus taught the multitudes, every single person felt as if he or she were important. They felt as if Jesus was not only just telling them a good tale but that he was also ministering to their spirit because they were important.

Jesus’ stories are so effective because they have an element of surprise. They can get beyond our defenses and disarm us. Every time Jesus told a story, Pharisees or scribes were somewhere in the wings waiting to attack him. For example, when he tells the story of the Good Samaritan, he makes his point so clearly and so disarms those who would trick him. All he has to say is “Go and do likewise.”

When a man with the reputation for bringing lawsuits against everybody in town came in the lumberyard one time, my grandfather told my father, “You are not going to be able to do business with him because he will sue you.”

My dad responded, “We certainly cannot tell him we are not going to do business with him because he will sue us for that.”

My grandfather said, “You let me handle it.”

The next time the man came to the lumberyard, my grandfather said, “Fellow, I had a dream about you.”

“What was it?”

“I am not going to tell you. I do not want to tell you what it is.”

The man said, “You have to tell me.”

“No, I don’t.”

My grandfather walked away and went back into the office.

The next morning, the man returned to the lumberyard and said, “Mr. Neely, I could not sleep last night wondering what you had dreamed about me.”

“I am not going to tell you. It is not a very flattering dream, and I do not want to tell you.”

“You have to tell me.”

“No, I don’t.” Again he did not tell the man about the dream.

This went on for several days, and finally the man was beside himself. He pleaded, “Mr. Neely, you have to tell me what you dreamed about me.”

“I don’t want to tell you. It is not flattering.”

“Tell me anyway.”

My grandfather told him, “I dreamed that you were dressed up in a fine suit, and you humiliated a little boy who was asking for a handout.” The man turned red-faced and stalked out of the lumberyard. He did not come back, and my grandfather’s quip was, “You cannot sue a man for a dream, can you?”

You cannot sue a man for a parable. Jesus told parables because his enemies were always at hand. He wanted to disarm them and let them see themselves.

One parable Jesus knew but did not tell involved King David, a great man, a king among kings in his time, a politician, and a poet. David, “the sweet singer of Israel,” was a man after God’s own heart. The accolades just poured in for David.

One day David behaved very inappropriately. He took a stroll onto the roof of his palace. From his rooftop, he could see down into a garden where a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, was bathing. He was so good at so many things, but he had terribly neglected his own need for intimacy. David decided that he must have this woman and ordered that she come to him. David committed adultery with her. He wanted to hide the fact that a child was conceived in that act, so he ordered the woman’s husband, Uriah, to return home from his duty as a soldier and spend the night with his wife. Uriah, a dedicated soldier, refused to leave his post. David went a step further and ordered that Uriah fight on the front line where the battle was the heaviest. He knew that Uriah would die.

David committed both adultery and conspiracy to commit murder. He thought his deeds were unknown, but the prophet Nathan came to him and said, “King David, let me tell you a story. A poor man had one little lamb. Another man, quite wealthy, had a whole flock. When visitors came to see the wealthy man, he killed the neighbor’s lamb and offered it to his guests.”

David, outraged at this unfairness, ordered, “Bring that man to me! Justice will be done!”

Nathan, using the storyteller’s art, held up a mirror to David and said, “King, that man is you.” David was convicted.

Stories have power. They have power to bring us to our knees. The story of Jesus Christ and his love for this world – the story of Mount Calvary – is for all the world. As we consider the parables of Jesus in future sermons, we will see how this great story of God’s love and His plan for every single one of us unfolds.

Have you accepted Christ as your Savior? If you have never done that, could I invite you to do so? Would you acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Savior of your life? Some of you have other decisions to make, a decision perhaps about church membership. Whatever God leads you to decide, we invite you to make that decision now. Come forward and take my hand. We will pray with you. You come as we stand and sing our hymn of invitation, “More Love to Thee, O Christ.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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