A couple of years ago, in a sermon I preached in this sanctuary, I told you the story of my son, Matt, taking, what was then, the longest train in the world across the Sahara Desert during Ramadan. The Mauritania Railway consists of one railway that is 437 miles long and links the iron ore mining center in the country with their port. When my son told me he and his friends planned on this mode of transportation I got on the Internet to see what I could find out about it. Mauritanians use this railway as a free mode of transportation. When the train stops they climb to the top of the iron ore cars, drop down inside the cars and ride across the desert. The article I read said, “This is not the way tourists get around in Mauritania.” I told my son what I had read. He said, “You just made me want to do it even more.” You might remember that the story ended with the car they were on being disconnected from the train and left in the middle of the Sahara Desert…..and they had drunk all their water. It is quite a story but whether you were here that Sunday or not you know that the story has a decent resolution because my son Matt is still alive.
Today I want to tell you another part of the story. When my son, Matt, and his friends arrived in Mauritania at the port to ride the train, Matt said he finally understood what the longest train in the world looked like. He said there were train cars for as far as the eye could see. They chose one and scampered up to the top and then dropped down into the bucket of the car….these pale, white young adults from the United States. When they got inside the train car they found they were sharing it with five other people….citizens of Mauritania who spoke French and Arabic. My son and his friends knew a bit of French. None of them knew Arabic. One person in Matt’s group had brought along goggles and turbans for everyone. My son declined to put on the goggles. He said he thought to himself, “There is no way I am putting on those silly goggles.” Then the train began to move and it got faster and faster and the sand blew all over the car. He couldn’t put on the goggles fast enough. He said to me later, “I have sand in my very bones now.”
It happened to be Ramadan when my son and his friends were traveling in a Muslim country. Devote Muslims pray five times a day. During Ramadan, Muslims go without food and water during the day. When it was time to pray, the Muslims in their car would stand, go to the corner of the car where they had placed a stone and since they couldn’t bathe, they would touch the stone to symbolically wash themselves. Then they would turn in the direction of Mecca, kneel, bow and say their prayers. Matt and his group just watched. After the third time that happened, one of the young men approached Matt’s group very angry and said something in French. Matt made out the words “pray” and “death.” He figured there was a way those words could be in the same sentence without being a threat but he knew the young man was frustrated with them and Matt was a guest in their country.
So Matt stood up and looked the man in the eye and said in faltering French, “I do not know how to pray as you do. Will you teach me?” Immediately the young man softened. Very carefully he taught Matt the fine art of prayer…how to pray the Salah – (Su – lah). How to touch the stone and symbolically wash. How to face Mecca. How to kneel. He taught Matt the words to say in Arabic. When Matt would get them wrong he would make him start over.
After prayer the other Mauritanians in the car settled down to break their Ramadan fast and enjoy their Iftar. First they spread out a cloth in the middle of the train car. Then, inside this iron ore car, off to one side, they started a small fire. They brought out a teapot, filled it with water and began to make tea. When it was brewed they poured some for Matt and his friends. In response Matt’s group got out some of the food they had brought with them. They laid out some canned tuna and some bread. The young men brought out food they had brought. They placed it on a cloth in between all of them and they sat down together for a Ramadan potluck. The beloved community can be created anywhere…even inside the iron ore cars of the longest train in the world traveling across the Sahara desert during Ramadan between people who speak different languages and pray differently.
I told that story this year at Song and Story Fest. I heard back that one man said to his family afterward, “Susan’s stories are filled with these once in a lifetime experiences. How can she have so many of them?” The truth is all of our lives have dozens and dozens of once in a lifetime experiences and ordinary every day experiences. The key is noticing and finding meaning in them. For stories carry a power far beyond themselves.
The theme this year at our denominational Annual Conference in Cincinnati was “Living Parables.” The theme is chosen by the conference moderator. This year’s moderator was Rockford Illinois pastor, Samuel Sarpiya. Samuel was born in Nigeria. He is co-founder of the Center for Non-Violence and Conflict Transformation in Rockford. In the past he has been a community organizer and a church planter. He is currently working on a doctorate. He is a faithful man with a deeply engaging spirit and what appears to be limitless energy.
Samuel believes that Jesus taught in parables so that we could continually find ourselves hearing those stories in new contexts and seeing ourselves as different characters in the parables at different times in our lives. By teaching in parables Jesus kept the word of God alive and transformative. Samuel believes that the way Jesus taught was a call to engage the world so that we can become living parables ourselves. Which I think is another way of saying we want to continue the work of Jesus in our day and age, with our once in a lifetime experiences and our common, everyday experiences. The evening worships at conference were built around different parables in the New Testament so that we might find ourselves in those stories and hear the call to God afresh in our individual contexts.
As someone who loves to write and tell stories, I find the parables of Jesus not only engaging and alive and transformative….but absolutely dangerous. What does it look like to be the parent on the road running out to welcome back the prodigal? What does it mean to be the Samaritan on the road, caring for the beaten victim who carries deep resentment towards you and your kind?
Today, Eric read you a one sentence parable of Jesus. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” That is the extent of the parable. It feels a bit like a throwaway parable. What does it mean?
My other son, Brett, loves to bake bread more than just about anything else in the whole world. I remember a time he called me on the phone. The conversation went like this:
I answered the phone with, “Hello?”
He said, “Hi, Mom. I called because I need you to just listen to me while I geek out about yeast.”
Then for fifteen minutes he talked non-stop about where yeast comes from and every place you can find yeast.
Then he said, “I gotta’ run. I love you, Mom.” He hung up.
In that fifteen-minute phone call I said, “Hello?” and that was it.
Obviously my son loves yeast. When he comes to visit me he flies with his own yeast starter in his bag and is always stopped by TSA to have him explain why he travels with yeast. The woman in the parable must have loved yeast as much as Brett because she mixed yeast in three measures of flour. Three measures of flour would have been over a bushel of flour….a lot of flour…way more than she needed to bake loaves just for her family…more like she wanted to feed her whole village. Besides, in Jesus’ world, yeast was considered a contaminant and represented the destructive nature of sin. And yet, Jesus uses a story of yeast infecting enough flour to feed the whole village as a parable to describe the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.
I love Jesus. I would have loved to have been nearby to watch the reaction of his listeners when he compared yeast to the Kingdom of God. Jesus said such evocative and provocative things…a Samaritan who is the hero; a father who hitches up his tunic and runs out on the road to welcome back the bad child; a tax collector who goes home justified and a Pharisee who doesn’t.
…and yeast that represents the Kingdom of God because it has a way of infiltrating the whole system and taking over the host. The Kingdom of God should be like that – spreading beyond our wildest imaginations…far more pervasive than we can possibly imagine…hard to see but spreading like wildfire. David Lose uses these words to describe the parable of the yeast:
Be careful. People who have been infected by the gospel have done crazy, counter-cultural things like sharing all they have with others, standing up for their values in school or the workplace, looking out for the underprivileged, and sharing their faith with the people around them.
Our denominational moderator called us this year to be living parables. He described a living parable as a heavenly story with an earthly meaning. In some ways that sounds lovely and easy but if we take on these parables we become the gospel alive in the world. It is a dangerous calling. It will infect your whole life. You might find yourself welcoming back the prodigal; taking in the very person that holds prejudice against you; selling all you have to buy a field with the promise of treasure; letting the Kingdom of God infiltrate your whole life…..or eating a Ramadan potluck inside an iron ore train car with people who pray differently than you do. Dangerous and so, so beautiful and sacred and wondrous! Amen.