The Meaning in Stories

Sermon for Sunday, June 14, 2020 || Proper 6A || Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

Today, I’d like to share a few stories and talk about how we use them to make meaning. The lessons and meanings of our own stories, our communal stories, and our biblical stories dwell inside us, and we can use what we learn from these stories to make sense of the story we currently find ourselves in. Today, I’m going to tell two and a half stories: first a personal one, then a biblical one. The half story at the end is the story of now, which isn’t finished being written yet.

First, the personal story. Twelve years ago today, I knelt in front of the bishop of West Virginia. He and a dozen or so priests laid their hands on my head, back, and shoulders. And they prayed for God to make me a priest in God’s church. The day of my ordination was a blur, but I remember the next day much more, the day I celebrated Holy Communion for the first time. I was so nervous on the day of my first Eucharist as a priest. I was convinced I was going to knock over the chalice because I had to make specific gestures while clothed beneath a baggy piece of outerwear. 

The moment came for me to set the altar with the special dishes and the bread and wine. I looked down at the two metal containers, called cruets, which held the wine and the water. But I had no idea which one held which liquid. They were identical. In the thousand permutations that I had imagined about this moment, none of them envisioned me not being able to tell the wine apart from the water. I looked over at my dad, who was sitting placidly in his seat. I held up the cruets, and my eyes went wide. Now, perhaps my dad didn’t understand my telepathy. Or he was trying to loosen me up before beginning the Eucharistic prayer. Or (and I’m pretty sure this is the right one), my dad was getting back at me for all those times I held up my watch to signal that his sermon had gone on too long. But he gave me the most comical, cartoonish shrug possible. I finally just poured a bit of each cruet into the chalice and figured out which one was the wine. After the service, I asked him, as the veteran priest, how he knew which was which. “You smell them, of course,” he said.

I will remember that moment for the rest of my life. It was a small moment, not being able to tell the wine from the water. But sharing that story in an effort to make meaning, I see two lessons. I see how anxiety can lead us not to examine all our options. And I see how, in the end, most mistakes are fairly inconsequential and we dwell on them to our detriment.

Second, the biblical story: The Lord appears in the form of three strangers, whom Abraham and Sarah welcome to their tent in the heat of the day. They make food for the travelers and show them the best hospitality. One of the strangers tells them that Sarah, who is no longer able to have children, will have a son. Sarah laughs incredulously at the preposterousness of this prediction. But it’s not a prediction. It’s a promise. I can see in my mind’s eye the young Isaac crawling into his mother’s lap and asking to hear the story of his own birth, of his name, which means “laughter.”

“Why’d you name me Laughter, Mama?”

Sarah hugs him tight despite the arthritis creaking about her old bones. “Because I laughed when I found out I was going to have you. God surprised me with the fulfillment of a hope I had long since abandoned. I couldn’t help but laugh because the idea sounded so crazy. But now that you’re here, I can’t imagine my life turning out any other way.”

The part of the story we read today follows God making the covenant with Abraham and Sarah to make their descendants as many as the stars in the sky and grains of sand in the desert. And that part follows the pair striking out into the desert on their own to find a new place to live and making the most startling discovery in the history of the world – that God wasn’t bound to a mountain or a river or a city, but that God was everywhere. And God was One. The part after today’s reading narrates the next few generations of Abraham and Sarah’s family. My absolute favorite Godly Play story shares this narrative, which it calls “The Great Family.” At the end of the story, the storyteller lifts a handful of sand out of the desert box and lets the grains run through her fingers. And then she connects each of us to the Great Family in the story, linking us to the promises of God made under the starry desert sky.

This story of the earliest members of the Great Family to awaken to the presence of God in their lives is full of meaning. Here are just three of the many lessons: We have the importance of hospitality, of taking care of the needs of strangers. We have a warning not to curtail the wonders of God because of our own limited imaginations. We have trusting in God’s promises over the long haul and not being dissuaded by the tyranny of the currently possible.

So, we have these three lessons which we can add to the two from the story of my first Eucharist as a priest. Meaning happens when we take the lessons we’ve learned from one story and apply them to another. Let’s do that right now with the story of the paradigm-shifting societal moment we find ourselves in. Today’s story is one of turning an upside down world right side up. The story is a tragedy in which more than a hundred thousand people have died in our country alone due to a disease that didn’t exist a year ago. A disproportionate number of those deaths have been people of color, not because of some innate immune deficiency, but because of the toll of racist structures in healthcare, housing, and employment, a perfect storm of susceptibility that exposes the death-dealing systemic nature of racism in this country. To this storm, we add the video evidence of racially-charged murder and the resulting protests and rallies and the glimmer of a new consensus. For the first time in my life I see a glimpse of a possibility that real change might happen to make our society a more just and equitable one, as more and more people speak aloud the truth that Black lives matter.

As we address the story of today, we can make meaning by taking lessons from others stories and applying them anew. Sometimes this practice confirms a lesson we’ve already learned. Sometimes this practice challenges us to realign old lessons to fit new learnings. Let’s take our five lessons from my personal story and the story of Abraham and Sarah.

First, anxiety keeps us from examining all our options. There is a lot of anxiety in the system right now, and for good reason. We need to acknowledge the anxiety and lean on one another so together we are able to see all the pathways forward. We can’t let empty rhetoric or purposeful misunderstanding limit the societal brainstorming currently underway.

Second, most mistakes aren’t as bad as we think they are. If we are serious about being part of the struggle for justice, we can’t let the possibility that we might do or say something wrong keep us from acting at all, for silence is complicity. We can do our own learning. We can be informed. And still we will err. That’s okay, as long as we learn from our mistakes, and don’t use them as an excuse to go sit on the bench.

Third, from the biblical story, welcome and hospitality should be our default position. In our current societal moment, this means being open to new ideas, new patterns of thinking, new ways of showing love. It also means widening our circles of exposure, so we let ourselves encounter such new ideas and patterns.

Fourth, don’t limit God based on our own limited perspective. The stranger in the biblical story asks the rhetorical question: “Is anything too wonderful for God?” If a woman who can’t have a baby can have a baby, just think what new life God might be birthing with today’s faithful people as the collective midwife? 

And fifth, trust in God’s promises over the long haul. God promises to be with us always as we live what the Lord requires: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. The struggle to remake our society into a more just and equitable one isn’t a sprint. It’s not even a marathon because a marathon still ends after 26.2 miles. Bringing God’s reign of justice and love closer to earth is the daily jog, the rain or shine training that molds a new way of being.

The stories of our lives and the stories of the Bible are full of meaning, and we make meaning in our lives by extending the lessons of one story to our present circumstances. I wonder what personal, communal, and biblical stories are speaking to you in this time of societal upheaval and new possibility. How do those stories help you see how God of justice and love is moving in the story that is still being written?

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash.

One thought on “The Meaning in Stories

  1. You hit every mark with this sermon! I laughed and then I cried. And then finally I felt hopeful! Thank you so much for this.

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