Epiphany 7A: Stone Soup.

Readings

  • Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18
  • Psalm 119:33-40
  • 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23
  • Matthew 5:38-48
You can find the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translation, by clicking this link.

Sermon

Sometimes it’s tempting, easy even, to dedicate oneself to simply living out the rules of living as a good Christian.  Follow all the rules.  And we talked about this a fair bit last week.  Life as a Christian is more than the rules.  It’s more than a black and white system of manners and behaviours.

This week’s gospel reading seemingly brings us another bar to reach for in the life of a good Christian.  Jesus says,

“Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” [Matthew 5:48, CEB]

And maybe it’s slightly more familiar in the NRSV translation:

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5:48, NRSV]

The important thing I learned this week is that the word ‘perfect’ implies more than we think it does.  And in a way that we don’t often think.  The Greek word ‘telos’ means less about perfection as we know it and more about the intended income of the directive.  For example, the “telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, ‘Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.’”[1]

Jesus isn’t asking us to be perfect.  Jesus is asking us to be open to what God intends in the world.  And, according to God, and our scripture readings today, that’s relationship in community.  Our telos, then, is perhaps to be stewards of neighbourhoods.

“To be a steward of one’s neighbor implies getting to know others, to seek understanding and common ground. It means praying for the welfare of those one does not know and bridging the gap by finding ways to enter into relationship and learn from each other. It means seeing the image of God and the face of Christ in everyone, and it means stepping way out of our secure personal space and cultural comfort zones. It means acknowledging and working to move beyond racism, sexism, ageism, and all of our other ‘isms’ and schisms.”

After reading today’s texts, I knew immediately that I wanted to share a story with you.

It’s a folktale.  It’s seen versions in all parts of Europe; there are Scandinavian, French, Russian, German, Hungarian, and Portuguese varieties.  I have also read of the story taking place in Asia, Africa, all of the Americas.  I watched the late John Hurt tell a version of this story as the Storyteller in a Jim Henson production for television.

It’s known to me as “Stone Soup,” but it’s also been entitled “Axe Soup,” “The Cunning Pilgrim,” “Nail Soup,” and “Monk’s Soup.”

Once upon a time, three travellers were making their way along a road.  They were deep into a conversation about happiness when they came to the edge of a town.

Gazing down at the rooftops of a village below. The travellers knew the village had been through many hard times and that the villagers had even become suspicious of their neighbors.  The villagers worked hard, but only for themselves. They had little to do with one another.  When they looked out of their houses and saw the three travellers, they said to each other, “Look! Hungry strangers! We know what they want! Quick! Let’s hide all the food and pretend we have nothing!” And that’s exactly what they did.

They pushed the sacks of barley under the hay in the lofts. They lowered buckets of milk down the wells.  They spread old quilts over the carrot bins. They hid their cabbages and potatoes under the beds. They hung their meat in the cellars. They sat in their homes, windows and doors shut tight, and waited for the travellers to pass by.

The travellers came to the first house and knocked gently on the door. “Good day and peace be with you,” said the first. “Will you please kindly share with us a little of your food?”

“And a corner where we can sleep for the night?” added the second.

“We’ll tell you all about our travels in return,” promised the third.

“We have had no food for ourselves for three days,” said the first homeowner. He made a sad face. “It has been a poor harvest.”

At the next house the response was that, they had already given all that they could spare to previous travellers.  And all their beds were already full.

At the next house, the answer was the same.  The crops were very poor this year, and there wasn’t much to eat in the whole village. Most of the villagers were barely getting by.  It had been such a poor harvest that all the grain must be kept for seed.

So it went all through the village. Not a peasant had any food to give away. They all had good reasons. One family had use the grain for feed. Another had an old sick father to care for. All had too many mouths to fill.

The travellers decided then and there to help the villagers to see beyond their excuses.  “The people here have a lot to learn about life and true happiness,” they said, “Let’s help them as best we can with the gift of stone soup.”

While the other two set about gathering twigs and starting a fire, the first traveller announced, in a loud voice, from the centre of town: “We are three hungry travellers in a strange land. We have asked you for food and you have no food.  We are sorry to hear that you have so little, so we have decided to share with you.  We are going to make our specialty: Stone Soup.”

They placed a small tin pot on top and filled it with a little water.

A brave little girl who had been watching came to them. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“We are making stone soup and we need three round, smooth stones,” said the third.

The little girl watched as the oldest of the travellers pulled a silk pouch from his pocket and emptied three perfectly round stones into the small pot.

“These stones will make excellent soup,” explained the second. “But this very small pot won’t make much.”

The little girl ran home to get her mother’s big pot. “The three strangers are making soup from stones,” she said.

The travellers sat around their meagre fire and poked the coals.  As smoke drifted up, the villagers began to come out of their homes to watch from a safe distance.

It was all very curious, indeed.  One by one, the villagers came out to see just what this stone soup was. They’d never heard of stone soup and wondered how it was made and what it tasted like.

“How do you make stone soup?” they asked the travellers.

“Oh! It’s wonderful,” replied the first.

“Best soup I ever tasted,” exclaimed the second.

“With this bigger pot, we’ll need some more water and some firewood.  If you bring it, we’ll gladly show you how it’s made,” said the third.

Soon the large pot was settled onto a larger fire.  Water was brought from a number of houses and poured into the large pot.

“And now,” said the first, “for the special ingredients.” With a grand and dramatic flourish so that everyone could see, he poured the small pot out and the three smooth round stones plopped into the big pot of boiling water. “Soon we shall feast!” he exclaimed, stirring the pot with a big wooden spoon.

As the rumour of a feast spread round the town, an excited crowd began to gather in the square.

After the pot of water had been boiling for some time, the travellers began to sniff the air and lick their lips. “And now,” said the first, “I will taste it!”  As the traveller lifted a spoonful of bubbling water to his mouth, the crowd craned forward to hear his verdict. “It is completely … delicious!” he announced

At this, the crowd gasped and gurgled with delight.

“Of course, old-style stone soup should be well seasoned with salt and pepper,” he continued. “But we have none.”

“I have some salt and pepper!” said a villager, and disappeared and came back with spices.  They were added to the pot with a grand flourish.

The second traveller took a taste. “I do like a tasty Stone Soup,” said the second, “Of course, stone soup with cabbage—now that’s really special!”

“I might be able to find a bit of cabbage,” one villager said. And off she went to her house, returning with a small cabbage she had stored away in her pantry.  Into the pot it went!

After a while, the third traveller tasted the soup. “Mmm!” she said, rubbing her belly and moaning with appreciation, “Just wonderful!” she continued, as she added the cabbage to the pot. “This reminds me of the time I had stone soup with cabbage and a bit of salted beef. It was unbelievably good.”

After a moment of silence, the village butcher spoke up. “I know where there’s a bit of salted beef,” he said. And off he went to his shop to get it.

When he returned, the travellers added the beef to the soup pot and continued to stir.

The first stirred it once more and took a taste. “The last time we had stone soup of this size and colour, carrots made the broth very sweet.”

“Carrots?” said a woman from the back. “I may have a few carrots!” And she returned with as many carrots as she could carry,which the travellers quickly sliced and added to the pot.

“Do you think it would be better with onions?” asked the second.

“Oh, yes, maybe an onion would taste good,” said a farmer.  He left and returned in a moment with five big onions.  He dropped them into the bubbling soup.

Something magical began to happen among the villagers.  As each person opened his or her heart to give another suggestion to make the soup a little better, the next person would give even more.  The travellers simply stirred and the pot bubbled.

And before they knew it, the soup pot was filled to the brim with vegetables of all kinds— carrots and potatoes, mushrooms and onions, turnips and green beans, beets and celery—all brought by the men and women and children of the village. Not only that, but the village baker came out with some fresh bread and butter.

After another tasting session, the first traveller paused with a look of pure ecstasy on his face, before finally declaring: “This stone soup is totally scrumptious! I can truly say that the king himself would be happy to eat this most delicious and nutritious stone soup!”

“Food fit for a king!” murmured the townspeople. “And all made from stones! Isn’t it amazing?!”

At last, the soup was ready. The villagers gathered.  Everyone sat down to eat. They had not been together for a feast like this for as long as anyone could remember.  And when the feast was over, the townspeople listened with rapt attention as the travellers told their tales from far and wide. And the townspeople told the travellers all about their lives in the town. And then there was singing and dancing until late into the night.  Homes were opened and the travellers were given a place to rest their heads.

Early in the morning, just as the sun was rising, the whole village gathered in the square to see the travellers off.

“Thank you for having us as your guests,” said the travellers, “You have been most generous.”

“With the gifts you have given, we will always have plenty,” said the villagers, “You have shown us that sharing makes us all richer.”

“You’re very welcome,” replied the travellers, nodding and grinning.

“Be sure to visit us again,” said the townspeople.

“We certainly will,” said the travellers.

As the travellers were leaving the village, they passed by a group of children playing at the side of the road. The eldest traveller saw the little girl from the evening before and handed her the silk pouch containing the stones, and whispered, “It was not the stone that performed the magic. It was all of us together.”

Let us pray,

Three-in-One we thank you for the inspiration of your holy word in our lives.  May it continue to challenge, encourage, and inspire us wherever we work and live and play.  Help us to see that it the sharing of each of our gifts, however small, that enables us, as members of the body to participate in the fullness of your intended variety.  Help us to be the persons and community that you created us to be, just as you are the One God, you are supposed to be.  Amen.


Sermon Inspirations

  1. Denáe Ashley. “Stone Soup, 7 Epiphany (A) – 2014.”  Sermons That Work.
  2. Sharon R. Blezard. “Be a Good Steward: Love Your Neighbor!”  Stewardship of Life Institute: February 14, 2017.
  3. Canadian Foodgrains Bank. “Stone Soup.”
  4. Kevin Graat. “Stone Soup: A Story for World Food Day.” Commissioned by Unilever, 2008
  5. Karoline Lewis. “Be Perfect.”  Dear Working Preacher, February 12, 2017.  Preach This Week.  Working Preacher.
  6. David Lose. “Epiphany 7A: Telos.”  Dear Partner, February 13, 2017.  …in the Meantime.
  7. Lucky Iron Fish.
  8. Glenn Monson. “That’s Unfair!”  Law & Gospel Everywhere: February 11, 2017.
  9. Melissa Bane Sevier. “Praying for enemies.”  Contemplative Viewfinder: February 13, 2017.

This week’s image is entitled, “The Public Soup Kitchen,” created by Vincent van Gogh, in 1883.  The image is public domain.  You can find out more about the sketch here, and the artist here.  The image has been modified for the purposes of this blog.


[1] David Lose.  “Epiphany 7A: Telos.”  Dear Partner, February 13, 2017.  …in the Meantime.

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