by Jennifer Ginn—
Teresa’s eyes sparkle from her little Zoom square, as she describes finding her new home. After 30 years in New York working in banking, she’d been ready to move closer to family. She’d downsized several times previously but did so once again—this time to fit into the small apartment in her daughter’s home in North Carolina. She’s found that she doesn’t need the old life or its income. Living with family is better than living with more, she
says, adding: “I found my pearl right here. I found peace. I found a church. I found friends.”
During the months of pandemic-related social distancing, my church’s storytelling group (StoryCorps) stuck together, meeting via online video conferences. Across our Zoom squares we worked at listening to one another, noticing each person’s tone of voice, pacing and the body language used to deliver the energy of each story. We wondered whether telling stories from the Gospels and from our own lives might encourage other congregational members who were longing to return to the warmth and connectedness of in-person worship. In the early grip of the pandemic, we eagerly anticipated a joyful Easter morning return to in-person worship.
But just in case, we looked far ahead in the lectionary to a series of parables from Matthew 13, scheduled for late July. Surely by then we could worship in person with our congregation. As our plans unfolded, we envisioned group members retelling the parables during worship, then each describing how their parable of choice pointed to an incident in their own life.
That’s the way Jesus’ parables were originally intended to work. The Greek word παραβολή means “throw alongside.” Jesus threw these little stories alongside the lives of his first-century listeners so they might see their own everyday experiences reflected in them. They would have recognized the characters in these stories characters who might easily have lived among their own community of friends: farmers, field workers, merchants, fishermen, women making bread in their homes.
Our StoryCorps group was stumped by Matthew 13 at first. Not by the 1st century characters or the stories themselves, but by the language. We tripped over the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” Oh, we’d all imagined what heaven might be like, but that future-focused vision didn’t seem at all related to Jesus’ everyday stories about common things—a pearl, a stash of treasure buried in a field, yeast working in dough, a mustard seed and a net full of fish.
When group members realized that for the original listeners, “kingdom of heaven” carried the same meaning as the more commonly-used “kingdom of God,” they found it easier to make their own connections. Jesus used concrete images to speak about the everyday world of first-century Galilee. He wanted his hearers, us included, to look for the kingdom of God not in the skies, but all around us in ordinary people we meet and surprising discoveries we make.
God’s kingdom peeks out every day around corners we regularly turn. For the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, the phrase “kingdom of God” names the very present presence of God. Listening to the lyrics of the hymn, “Gather Us In,” can affirm this very present presence: “Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away—here in this place a new light is shining, now is the kingdom and now is the day.”
Now is the day. Once our group began to focus on the now, our imaginations started making connections. Teresa’s opening story took the pearl of the Gospel parable out of first-century Galilee and located it in her new home. We were off and running!
I told my own story, prompted by the mustard seed parable. It begins in the Episcopal church school I attended as a child, where I never felt at home. My classmates’ families were easily able to pay the school’s tuition, but I could only attend because of the discount my mother received as a first-grade teacher there. Though I loved my teachers and did well there, still I felt like an imposter.
I shared how, in my own Baptist church, I did fit. That was because of Mrs. Robinson, the pastor’s wife. She had bright red hair and warm arms that folded around me as if to say, “You matter.” She read scripture with me and spoke plainly about Jesus. Even now, when I hear Jesus say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed … but when it has grown it … becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32), I think of Mrs. Robinson’s arms. Her arms became a safe nest, her love a mustard seed that helped me grow far beyond her reach.