This week the Hebrew Scripture and the gospel passage echo one another in description and depiction of the servant God sends to “save Israel” and to “be a light to the nations.” Isaiah gives us strong images of this one whom the Lord has known in the womb, since before birth. His voice/message is piercing like a sword and his power is polished like arrow. He is protected in God’s quiver until his revelation to the world. The gospel passage from John gives a picture of this servant whom God reveals, unveils as it were, to John the Baptizer. John testifies to the power of this one, Jesus, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. We also see and hear Jesus begin to use his piercing message and the pointed power of his spirit as he calls Andrew and Simon Peter as disciples.
Psalm 40 is a poignant testimony to the character of a God who sends such a servant. The psalmist, speaking as a servant of God, is extolling God’s steadfastness and intimacy in sustaining and nurturing God’s servant. With joy the psalmist gives thanks that the minutiae of religious rules are not required but God has given “an open ear.” What an image – to have the open ear of God! And we assume that the psalmist’s ear is opened in return.
The I Corinthians passage testifies to the enduring power of the servant, Jesus, and his message from God in the creation of new faith communities, the creation of the church. In the text we “hear” the writer greeting the community that has been formed through testimony to the power of God in Jesus. The writer goes on to exhort the church to stay true to God’s message in Jesus for it “does not lack in any spiritual gift.” It can be confident that it has been given by God the means to endure and to proclaim.
I am intrigued this week by the psalmist’s image of God’s open ear and Paul’s proclamation in I Corinthians of the their abundance of spiritual gifts. There is a correlation between the two images. God’s ear is open to us and desires an open ear in return rather shallow repetition of traditional practices such as burnt offerings. As we open our ears to hearing the ways of God we are given spiritual gifts to further the community. There will be no lack of spiritual gifts – strength, enrichment of speech and knowledge, grace, to name a few – given the church through Christ Jesus.
Following the lead, the imaginative thread of the images above reminds me of a story about a farmer and his six sons. It is called “The Bundle of Sticks.” The farmer raised his sons well, teaching them the ways of farming and the ways of life. He coached each one according to his gifts and taught them to work as a team. The farm thrived even in the leanest of years. As the farmer grew old and retired from active work he kept an eye on the workings of the farm that his sons carried out. It seemed that they had begun to cut certain corners as they run the farm and the farmer feared they were growing lazy. Finally the day came when he took to his bed knowing that his death was near.
As he lay there with his eyes closed he listened when they thought he was asleep to his sons discussing the farm and its future. There were six different ideas of the direction that it could take and the plans that needed to be made. After a time the farmer roused himself from his “sleep”. He asked his sons to go out and gather him a bundle of sticks. The sons were puzzled by his request, but they loved their father and wanted to please him. So they gathered the sticks.
When they returned to the father’s bedside they put the sticks on the bed. The old farmer gave each of them a single stick. “See if you can break it,” he said. Each of the strong sons took their stick and easily broke it in half. Then the father asked them to tie the remaining sticks in a bundle. “Break this,” he said to them. Each in their turn tried to break the bundle of sticks but none of them could do it. Their father said to them, “Remember your sticks and this bundle of sticks as you run our farm together after I am gone.” And with that he closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep.
I found this tale in Elisa Davy Pearmain’s book Doorways to the Soul, 52 Wisdom Tales From Around the World (Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, OH, 1998).
Questions for the Preacher/Storyteller
- In the gospel story we experience Jesus as he begins to call his disciples. If you are focusing on the call aspect of this story, how does it resonate with the story of the farmer as his sons?
- If you use “The Bundle of Sticks” as a children’s story how could you make it interactive? Would it work in your context to have sticks (or maybe a stick as handing out multiple sticks could create delightful, but disruptive spontaneous sword play) and a bundle of sticks for the kids to try breaking? I have used old pencils for this activity. Could you make the story interactive in another way, perhaps through acting out the discussion of sons in which they are all advocating for their own ideas with out listening to the others?
- Think about the story as a warm-up for your sermon if you tell it as a children’s message earlier in the service. What themes does it highlight that you want to adults to begin thinking about before they even hear the scripture or the sermon?
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2014. May be reprinted with permission only.