By Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD.
1 Samuel 15.34 – 16.13 Psalm 20 2 Corinthians 5.6-10 Mark 4.26-34
I’ve yielded to the temptation to start this homily by saying “it’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone.”
Lake Wobegone, if you haven’t heard of it, is a town smack in the middle of the state of Minnesota, created by the consummate storyteller and writer, Garrison Keillor, who for years ran a show on Public Radio called A Prairie Home Companion. Every Saturday night, as part of his show, he told a story about the inhabitants of Lake Wobegone, in the same vein as our beloved Canadian Stuart McLean and the Vinyl Café in the fictional town of Big Narrows, in an unidentified place in Atlantic Canada.
Lake Wobegone, as Keillor told the story, had a mysterious past. It was omitted accidentally from the map of Minnesota where the four train lines intersecting the state were supposed to cross each other but the surveyors miscalculated and the tracks never met. As a result the mapmakers omitted Lake Wobegone from the state map. However, the American Automobile Association put it on the map when A Prairie Home Companion grew so popular in the 1970s that if you went to someone’s home for dinner on a Saturday night, conversation would politely cease at 8 pm while we all listened to “The News from Lake Wobegone.” And he always started “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone.”
Well sadly we lost Stuart McLean in 2017. Garrison Keillor’s star has risen and fallen and is rising again at the age of 79. He can still spin a good yarn about ordinary, quiet people in a little prairie town in the middle of (literally) nowhere. The stories from A Prairie Home Companion, like The Vinyl Café, are full of humour and pathos, sadness and joy. In Keillor’s stories, the ups and downs of peoples’ lives are a kind of parable for the ups and downs of the country and the world as seen through the eyes of a fierce democrat. When you finish listening to or reading one of McLean’s or Keillor’s stories, you’re left with a sense of hope that “all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”
Now I’ve strayed from the scripture readings to talk about storytellers because great storytellers have a few things in common with Jesus. They can speak truth to power in parables. They touch the lives of ordinary people with healing and hope. People like McLean and Keillor can relate to anyone – rich or poor, morally good or bad, healthy or sick, male or female, adult or child. Jesus did the same. He loved them all – even those he criticized, which is what made him both weep and express anger at the religious authorities, because those beautiful people, walking images of God, were created to do good and had been badly tarnished.
Jesus grew up among ordinary people in a little town in first-century Palestine. We often try to make him relevant to contemporary people by describing the Holy Land – but for non-church-goers books like the Joshua stories bring Jesus right into contemporary life, instead of taking us to Palestine. So sometimes when I ponder the parables I try to picture what it would be like for Jesus to be telling his stories and talking of God’s love here in Toronto, or the Canadian prairies, or Cape Breton.
So it’s been a quiet week in St. John’s Convent but a creative one. We’ve been inspired and energized by our conversation about outreach ministries, by Sr. Wilma’s telling us the stories of some of our departed sisters. Sr. Elizabeth and I have had the privilege of an amazing conference with Susan Beaumont on How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, and we were moved and inspired by the beautiful Morning Prayer service on St. Columba’s Day, led by all of the sisters. It made me feel so proud of us as a community of ordinary people faithfully singing in a 1500-year tradition of the monastic office. We had a joyful beginning to our Companions Online program last Sunday. And the churches are beginning to open. Commerce is beginning to revive. So many encouraging and hopeful and healing things for us and our church compared to the week before.
And here we are this morning with the most amazing collection of hopeful and healing readings from the scriptures. Because they are all so familiar, and rather transparent really, compared to last week’s readings, they don’t need a lot of unpacking, so I have indulged in this reflection about how storytellers can touch our hearts, raise our consciences, and offer us healing and hope.
The reading about the anointing of David is told in wonderful story-telling mode. The writer doesn’t just tell us that God has rejected Saul as King because he was such a bad king, and anointed this young shepherd boy as King in his place. Instead, the story is told in a most wonderful way. Both God and Samuel are grieving over Saul. They must have been angry too, but that isn’t the focus. We are told “Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.” But God gets Samuel up and moving, and says essentially it’s time for a new leader, so let’s get on with it. So Samuel obediently goes off to Bethlehem to choose a king from the sons of Jesse.
The story is spun out so we get a very clear sense of how God’s choice of leaders is based not on human assessments but on the Spirit of God within them. No it’s not him, no it’s not him . . . and then the least expected of all. Just like Mary being chosen to give birth to Jesus – who would have thought this ordinary, small-town prairie-type girl would be chosen? And who would have thought that God’s instrument of salvation was going to be a young man from an ordinary Jewish family with a stepfather who was not among the elite but a simple carpenter?
It’s equally awesome to think of the way God chooses leaders now – very different from the way secular leaders are chosen for their great accomplishments, or influence, or money. Here we are ordinary women from ordinary families brought together in an ordinary community for ordinary sinners who have a deep desire to love God and share that love. That’s us, and we’re all leaders in this Jesus movement, this ongoing story of monastic life as a small but vibrant model of real kin-dom. All of us, including our elected leaders, are ordinary sinners and lovers of God – prairie girls and country girls and city girls – all of us together unremarkable by all of us with a vocation to be God-bearers, like Mary.
We see something very similar in the very short parables we have today in the gospel. Jesus speaks in parables, in stories, because that’s what ordinary people understand. The kin-dom of God grows when we scatter some seeds of love and then step back and let God produce the fruit. The kin-dom of God’s creation grows like a mustard seed – the smallest, most ordinary thing becomes the greatest in God’s eyes. Both the parables use images of seeds, of natural, ordinary growth in nature.
Those of us who were here 16 years ago remember how barren everything looked, and thanks to our amazing gardeners, God’s assistants, we stand in awe of how it looks now – how 16 years of God giving the growth has helped us nurture a place of renewal and healing and hope for us as well as for those we hope to welcome back here when we’re able.
The passage from Mark’s gospel closes with this comment, and I’m using William Barclay’s translation here:
“It was with many such parables that Jesus kept speaking the word to them, suiting his instruction to their ability to hear it. It was his custom not to speak to them without a parable; and when they were by themselves, he unfolded the meaning of everything to his own disciples.” (Mark
Stories come first, and the meaning can be explained, as in a homily or as Jesus did with his disciples. But what is most important is the way in which the stories Jesus tells are seeds scattered on the ground and planted in our hearts, that grow, gradually, and bear fruit in our hearts and in the heart of our community. The stories we hear from scripture and from our own history are seeds planted in our communal heart. Think of people in your personal kin-dom. What seeds of ordinary, unremarkable, sacrificial love have they planted in your family’s communal heart? How will they grow? What fruit will they bear if we just water them and give them air and light?
It’s been a quiet week at St. John’s Convent, but see what creative work God has done. Amen.