Both/And Reality

Sermon for Sunday, November 27, 2016 || Advent 1A || Matthew 24:36-44; Romans 13:11-14

At the end of this sermon, remind me to tell you why “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” is a funny thing to say. I’ll get to that in a few minutes, but first I want to tell you about my parents’ Nativity scene.

During the season of Advent when I was growing up, my family placed a beautiful Nativity scene on the shelf above the TV. The wooden stable had a bark and moss covered roof, above which we suspended angels on fishing line. Inside the stable, a bearded Joseph leaned on a staff and a kneeling Mary pondered things in her heart, while a donkey and a cow looked on. Outside the stable, a pair of shepherds, a woman balancing a jug of water, and assorted townsfolk queued up like bridesmaids and groomsmen in a wedding photo. Each character was transfixed by something going on at the center of the stable, something that was obviously important if the painted expressions on their faces could be believed. The trouble was that nothing was going on at the center of the stable. An unassuming manger stood in between Mary and Joseph, who stared lovingly down into the empty box.

Continue reading “Both/And Reality”

Naaman Syndrome

Sermon for Sunday, October 9, 2016 || Proper 23C || 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

*Plays the opening riff to the Beatles’ “Blackbird”*

Does anyone know what this song is? (Hopefully someone will.) That’s right. “Blackbird” by the Beatles. I’m having something of a Beatles kick in my sermons recently. Not only is it “Blackbird” by the Beatles; it is also the very first song I ever tried to learn on the guitar.

It was the day after Christmas my senior year of high school. I had used my Christmas gift money to buy an incredibly cheap acoustic guitar from the local shop. My friends in musical theatre class all knew how to play guitar, and it seemed like a really good way to impress girls.

So I thought to myself, “What was in impressive song I could learn on the guitar?” And, of course, “Blackbird” came to mind. The trouble is, “Blackbird” is not an easy song to play. Your left hand has to move away from the precious comfort zone near the neck of the guitar where most chords are played and venture into the hazardous territory closer to the body of the instrument. Your right hand has to pluck the correct strings at the correct times, in concert with the movement of your left hand hand. Continue reading “Naaman Syndrome”

Spiritual Deadheading

Sermon for Sunday, August 28, 2016 || Proper 17C || Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

I hope it hasn’t escaped your notice that the gardens here at St. Mark’s look fantastic right now. Over the course of the summer, a group of dedicated parishioners came together to restore every one of the gardens here at the church — and there are about a dozen. Now that the weeds are plucked and the mulch is poured, the hard work of maintaining the gardens has begun. I don’t know much about gardening myself, but I watched the gardeners work and I listened to them strategize. And I learned a horticultural word unknown to me: deadheading; that is, the process of removing dead flower heads to encourage further growth and blossoming. Continue reading “Spiritual Deadheading”

The Freedom of Sabbath

Sermon for Sunday, August 21, 2016 || Proper 16C || Luke 13:10-17

A month ago, Leah and I loaded the twins into the minivan and began an 853-mile road trip to my favorite place on earth. Kanuga is nestled into 1,400 acres of western North Carolina’s beautiful mountains and is the site of my family’s annual vacation; though after more than twenty years of attendance, you might call it a pilgrimage. Every year during the final week of July, my family has trekked to this wonderful Episcopal conference center. We love going because it is so peaceful and because we’ve made lifelong friends there and because — until recently — there was no cell phone reception and no wireless internet. Continue reading “The Freedom of Sabbath”

God and Not-God: A Short History

Sermon for Sunday, May 22, 2016 || Trinity Sunday C || John 16:12-15

GodandNotGodThere’s a group of folks at St. Mark’s that meets every Thursday morning for Bible study. The class is called “Genesis to Revelation,” and as its name implies, we set ourselves the goal of reading the entire Bible. We started last autumn and should finish sometime around next winter. It’s a daunting task to read the whole thing, but very worthwhile too. A few weeks ago, we were working our way through a particularly thorny section, and one member of the group said something to me that made the whole group double over in laughter. She said, “Well, I thought I understood this until you started explaining it.”

So with that humorous word of caution in my mind, I turned my attention to Trinity Sunday, traditionally one of the thornier preaching days of the year. Continue reading “God and Not-God: A Short History”

Lake Logan

lakeloganNo sermon from me this week, since I was at a conference called CREDO in North Carolina. Instead, here’s something I wrote during a silent Saturday morning, when I was able to get quiet enough to write poetry.

If a tree were unable to sway
It would break
At the first puff of air
Strong enough to ruffle its branches.
So it is with me.
The wind whips and howls here
In this valley between two mountains,
All sound and fury, signifying everything.
The water in the narrow lake ripples,
Then whitecaps leap and curl,
And the trees bend.
How is it possible?
How can they grow straight and tall,
Spindled columns connecting earth and sky,
And yet sway when the wind blows?
I watch them now – evergreens mostly,
With branches high up their trunks –
And a hypnotic peace breathes itself into me.

I notice a finch –
Or some other tiny bird
(I don’t know the difference) –
Land halfway up the bare trunk
Of the largest tree in front of me.
This one’s not an evergreen,
And the first promises of new growth
Are visible at the tips of its branches.
The finch (do they have finches in North Carolina?)
Starts climbing the trunk.
It doesn’t fly up, but hops little hops skyward –
Twenty or thirty feet, a few inches at a time.
Why doesn’t it fly?
Perhaps the wind is too strong,
Would blow the tiny bird off course
If it let go the trunk.
I wonder what its course is.
Where is it going
That a climb up the trunk would suffice?
Whenever I walk in the wind,
I imagine being lighter than I am,
Imagine floating off to God knows where.
God knows where:
Where the finch is traveling,
Where I am traveling.

Seeing the finch reminds me:
I heard tell that a bald eagle patrols Lake Logan,
And suddenly my only desire is to see him,
See him glide through the valley,
Not fighting the wind, nor hiding from it,
But soaring on it.
I stare out past the swaying trees,
Hoping my desire might resonate
Along one of the strings of creation
(The eternal music that God began
With the opening consonance of light)
And twinge the soul of the eagle
To take flight and give me something truly memorable
To treasure in my heart.
But this desire is selfish – I know –
And selfishness does not resonate,
But plays a discordant note,
A quarter-tone flat
And expects the rest of the orchestra
To re-tune their instruments accordingly.

Instead of the eagle,
I am blessed to witness a pair of geese
Skim the surface of the lake
And land atop the water
Sending ripples ahead of them,
Announcing their arrival.
If I had not been looking for the eagle
I would not have noticed the geese,
And they, too, are a gift.
I thank God that my selfish desire
Did not blind me to the gift of the geese,
The ripples catching the mid-morning light,
The water returning to relative calm,
Moved now only by the wind.

Another gust pummels the trees,
And they bend dutifully,
And again I marvel at their swaying.
How is it possible?
The answer comes to me on the wind,
Breathes into me,
Nestles in my heart:
The treasure I receive
Rather than the one I desired.
“You see only part of the tree,” says the wind.
Yes, of course, I had forgotten.
The tree began in the dark earth,
Playing its nascent notes,
A piccolo trill,
A rat-a-tat of the snare.
And then it began to grow –
Both up and down.
The roots reach deeper and deeper;
Stretch through the soil;
Brush the bedrock;
Hold fast.
The trunk above sways in the gale
And does not break,
But moves where the wind directs.
Oh God, I pray,
Make it so with me.

After sharing this with a few people at the conference, I was informed that the tiny bird I saw was in all likelihood a Carolina Wren. But I wanted to preserve the authenticity of my wonderings (this is a stream-of-consciousness poem after all), and I personally know exactly zero about birds.

The Living Among the Dead

Sermon for Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 || Easter C || Luke 24:1-12

thelivingamongthedeadGood morning, and welcome to St. Mark’s Church on this Feast of the Resurrection. You know, every Sunday is a Feast of the Resurrection, but today is special. Do you know why? Because today is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox – and that makes today Easter. So if a late night talk show host ever jumps out of a cab and asks you how to calculate the date of Easter, now you know.

Today is also special because of the week we’ve just had here at St. Mark’s. We’ve walked with Jesus from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to the last supper with his friends to his agony in the garden, to his betrayal and arrest and trial, to his crucifixion, to his burial in the tomb. We’ve been through the darkness of Good Friday; we’ve been to the foot of the cross. Now the dawn breaks on Sunday morning, and once again we set off, walking this time with the women and their spiced ointments.

I doubt they slept much the last two nights, Mary Magdalene and the other women who rose early on the first day of the week to minister to their dead Lord. Every time they shut their eyes, I’m sure they saw the silhouette of Jesus’ cross in the distance, his limp body barely recognizable because of his torturous hours hanging there. No, I doubt these women slept much, though if they did finally fall into fitful slumber, it was because they cried themselves to sleep. When all you have left is your tears, you’d want to hoard them; but that’s when they flow all the more freely.

I’m sure the tears began again when they awoke early Sunday morning. New grief is like that. Each morning you wake and remember again that your loved one is gone, and again the pain stabs you anew, just as fresh as the first time. They bear the rawness of their grief by taking on a mission; after all, staying busy is one way to soften the blow. And so the women take up their burden of fragrant spices and trudge out into the darkness in order to arrive at the tomb at first light.

Out of deep troves of love and compassion, these brave women are ready to care for the body of their Lord and to prepare it for proper burial. It turns out Mary and her friends are making the happiest mistake in the history of mistakes. They are ready to wash and anoint a lifeless body, but what they find is no body at all. They find an empty tomb. For a horrible moment, their grief threatens to overwhelm them because the mission they were planning to perform – the one they had been clinging to since his death – is gone now, too. They didn’t think they could be more desolate, but they are wrong. For this horrible moment, the empty tomb magnifies their desolation.

But into this scene of despair and grief comes the sudden presence of two gleaming messengers. They enlighten the woman as to their happy mistake: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has arisen.”

The messengers continue talking, but the women have ears only for that last word: “Arisen!” For the first time since Friday, they remember Jesus’ words, and first one, then another, then another breaks out into a tentative smile. “Could it be true?” they ask each other.

“Yes, yes, yes it could.”

“Jesus never lied to us.”

“How could we forget his words?”

Then one repeats the messengers’ question: “Why are we looking for the living among the dead?”

This question echoes down through the centuries, and we find ourselves asking it when we read the beginning of the final chapter of Luke’s account of the Gospel. Why do you look for the living among the dead? How often in our day-to-day lives could we hear the gleaming messengers ask us this question? How often do we trudge down our own well-worn paths to life-defeating things hoping this time – maybe this time – something life-affirming will happen?

Perhaps you’ve had a string of boyfriends who were real losers. Your friends tell you so at every opportunity, but you’ve got a blind spot for the proverbial bad boy. They treat you with no respect. From time to time they’ve even called you a name that I can’t say during this sermon. And yet you meet another one and all the signs are there, but you dive in headfirst anyway. To you the gleaming messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Perhaps you’ve been sober for three months. Your sponsor hands you your chip and slaps you on the back. You’ve got a couple of other three-month chips in a drawer somewhere, but that’s not on your mind right now. On your way home from the meeting, you run into an old buddy from back in the day. The next morning, you stagger to the drawer and toss the newest chip in. Maybe you’ll get another one in a few months time, but for today your salvation is at the bottom of a bottle. To you, the messengers say, “Why do you look for living among the dead?”

Perhaps you work through your family vacation because you’ve got too many projects on your plate. Or you’ve given into the tiny fearful voice that says you’re too old or too sick or too broken to make a difference in someone else’s life. Or you spend every waking hour mindlessly surfing YouTube and Facebook and Instagram. Or…or…or… Every one of us has a few life-defeating paths that we have no trouble finding. To each of us, the messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”The Resurrection of Jesus Christ spurred this question all those centuries ago. The women made the happy mistake of looking for a dead messiah, when the Risen One was alive again. Our life-defeating paths lead to tombs, as well, but they are not empty, for our dead messiahs are there waiting to suck the life from us. But the tomb of the Risen Lord is empty, and a new, life-affirming path stretches from that tomb and reaches into eternity.

Today, on this first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, on this special Feast of the Resurrection, we see most clearly this new, life-affirming path stretching from our feet off to the sun-drenched horizon. As we walk it together and with our Risen Lord, we will pass by so many people going the opposite way down the life-defeating paths. This may be due to their own choices or because they are caught up in systems that will never produce anything but defeat; systems of poverty, injustice, racism, apathy.

But as we walk this life-affirming path, we have the opportunity to be apostles like those brave women, to show people the power of the Risen Christ in our lives, to hook arms with folks going the other way and help turn them around. We have the opportunity to be the gleaming messengers who ask one simple question. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And then we have the glorious opportunity to share the heart of the Good News. “He is not here, but has arisen.”

*I preached a version of this sermon at Easter in 2013. The old version had a lot of problems (mostly, it was two or three sermons smushed into one, which is a sign of lazy thinking and writing on my part). I think this rewrite fixes those things. Of course, in a few years time I might think the same thing about this version, too. And so it goes…

The Grace of the Fig Tree

Sermon for Sunday, February 28, 2016 || Lent 3C || Luke 13:1-9

graceofthefigtreeThis is a sermon about grace. I’ve been wanting to share with you my definition of grace for a while now, but the time didn’t seem right. Then after spending time with Megan Palmer’s family two weeks ago, preparing for and leading Megan’s service last weekend, and having the stomach flu most of this past week, the time to talk about grace has finally come. Maybe I was waiting for a moment when I was sure I had recently experienced it. But before we talk about grace, I need to tell you about my dad’s sense of humor.

Growing up, my favorite movie was Return of the Jedi. I watched it about once a week, except for the year I was six when I watched it once a day. VCRs were still relatively recent inventions, and none of us realized you could wear out a VHS tape until I wore out Return of the Jedi. Whenever I finished watching the movie and the iconic John Williams score started blasting throughout our house, my father would turn up in the living room doorway and ask, in all seriousness, “Did the rebels win this time?”

Whenever my sister or I got hooked on a particular movie, this same joke would resurface, notably in the late 90s. “Did the Titanic sink this time?” And after I got my Lord of the Rings Special Edition DVDs: “Was the ring destroyed this time?” Now when it comes to senses of humor, mine is a chip off the old block, for better and worse. And so when my kids start watching the same movie over and over again, I will never in a million years be able to resist the urge to ask: “Did they find Nemo this time?”

I tell you all this because, believe it or not, it impacts the way I interpret today’s Gospel lesson. You see, I think the Gospel writer Luke and my dad share this bit humor. Luke narrates Jesus telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Do you get the joke yet? It’s pretty subtle (and not exactly haha funny), and maybe you had to grow up with a dad like mine to see it. The joke is this: that fig tree is never getting cut down. Luke preserved it in his Gospel. Luke knew this great story he was writing would be shared and he hoped it would be shared until the sun stopped putting forth its light. Every time someone read this parable, the fig tree got another chance. Luke wrote these words down about 1,936 years ago, which is 1,935 more years than that fig tree had to produce. And the fig tree is still standing. Every time we read it, there is the tree still standing. Yes, the rebels win at the end of Return of the Jedi – every time – because that’s how movies work. And yes, the fig tree is still standing because that gardener is taking care of it and always will. I told you this is a sermon about grace. Do you see it yet? We’re getting there.

Now you might quibble here and say Luke’s joke doesn’t work because, even though the fig tree is never going to be cut down, it’s also never going to bear fruit. It’s stuck in this in-between time, a time of potential but no results. Yes, this is true, and we’ll get back to that in a minute.

But first, one more word about why I think Luke is playing with his readers here. Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a lot in common, so much in fact that we often refer to them as the “synoptic” Gospels. “Synoptic” means “with the same eyes.” But Luke’s version is the only one with this parable about the fig tree. There’s a fig tree in Matthew and Mark, which Luke does not include, and their fig tree fares much worse. In Matthew and Mark, the fig tree withers and dies when Jesus gets a bit petulant that it doesn’t have any figs on it. But Luke doesn’t share that story. Luke shares this one, the one about the fig tree that always has another chance to bear fruit whenever the story is read.

The key words here are “another chance.” That’s grace. “If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” Next year. Another chance. We read the parable again. Next year. Another chance. That’s grace.

Growing up, I always heard my dad define the concept of grace together with the concepts of justice and mercy, as a way to distinguish between them. His version went like this: “Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve.” I’ve always loved that, and these definitions have guided me my whole life. But recently, I’ve added this: “Justice is having a chance. Mercy is having a second chance, or a third, or a fourth. Grace is not having your chances numbered.”

Grace is not having your chances numbered. Grace is being the fig tree that will always have the gardener tending to it, no matter how long it takes to bear fruit. Grace keeps us moving ever on, especially when we are stuck in the in-between time, the time of potential but no results. Grace gives us another breath when grief has knocked the wind from us. Grace gives us another chance when disillusionment or apathy sap our will to seek for justice and peace. Grace gives us another bit of rope when we think we’ve come to the end of ours.

Grace is the sublime consequence of a God who will never give up on us. That’s pretty good news, right? And yet, while God will never give up on us, we still have every opportunity to give up on God. Our chances are not numbered except by how many we are willing to take, by how often we are willing to trust God to be with us, come what may. That’s God’s promise to Moses in today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, by the way. “I will be with you,” says God. No matter how often you fail, no matter how many chances you need, I will be with you. That’s grace.

It’s true that our chances are only numbered by how many we are willing to take. It’s also true that another chance is always shimmering on the horizon of possibility. And so grace beckons us to take more chances, to lead more expansive lives, to trust more deeply in the God who will never give up on us. And to bring that God to people who have never even been given one chance, who have never experienced the blessing of justice, let alone mercy or grace.

Yes, the rebels win at the end of Return of the Jedi. Every time. Yes, the Titanic sinks. Yes, the ring is destroyed. Yes, they find Nemo. Yes, the fig tree still stands. And yes, grace abounds in limitless chances to trust in a God who never gives up.

Citizenship in Heaven

Sermon for Sunday, February 21, 2016 || Lent 2C || Philippians 3:17–4:1

CitizenshipinHeavenLast fall, I had to renew my passport before my trip to Haiti with Tim Evers. I had originally gotten my passport in advance of a choir trip to England back in college in 2003, and that first document was still valid when Leah and I went to South Africa for our honeymoon in 2011. But they’re only good ten years, so in the fall of 2015, I found myself stapling an unsmiling picture to an application I picked up at the post office. I filled in all the information – name, address, social security number. I checked the box marked “U.S. Citizen,” dropped the package in the mail with the processing fee, and a few weeks later, received my new passport.

The trip back and forth to Haiti went swimmingly. The government agents stamped my shiny new document and welcomed me to Port-au-Prince and New York City, respectively. All was well until this week when I read the lessons for today. All was well until I realized that I lied on my passport paperwork. I checked the box marked “U.S. Citizen.” I checked that box because I was born in the great state of Maine, and I have the birth certificate to prove it. But the Apostle Paul claims something else for me: “Our citizenship,” he says, “is in heaven.”

Reading those words this week knocked my socks off. Our citizenship is in heaven. Not some time in the future. Not after we die. Paul doesn’t say, “Our citizenship will be in heaven.” No. Our citizenship is in heaven. Take a few breaths to let that sink in.

If we believe our passports our wrong; if we believe we are citizens of heaven, then we can take this imagery one of two ways. First, we can extend the metaphor and claim to be resident aliens here on earth. We have green cards, but this isn’t really our home. Our home is in heaven, and we’ll get there someday and be reunited with those we love who have gone home before us. This idea of heaven brings comfort and hope and peace, especially when life here on earth lurches towards the intolerable.

This idea of heaven finds expression in so many African-American spirituals, which have their roots in the horror of slavery. “Deep river, my home is over Jordan.” “I’m goin’ home to be with Jesus, since I laid my burden down.” “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” What better way to combat the misery of enslavement than to sing about one’s true home, a home that can never be bought or sold or taken away? What a sense of power enslaved people must have felt to be able to claim citizenship in heaven?

This legacy of hope and consolation – this balm in Gilead, so to speak – is the positive side of thinking of heaven as a home we are heading towards. But there is a negative side, as well. During the Industrial Revolution, the notion of heavenly citizenship began meandering down a long path towards environmental apathy. “We don’t really belong here on this planet,” this thinking goes, “so we need not take care of it.” This poor judgment had little effect on the environment until we got really good at polluting. But now the idea of heavenly citizenship is oftentimes weighed down by indifference for the earth and for generations yet to come. This is especially true in the United States where heavenly citizenship and American individualism collide.

Both the positive balm in Gilead and the negative environmental apathy find their roots in the idea of heaven as somewhere else. Somewhere better and new, and often “up.” Along with this idea of heaven as a home over Jordan, we can also think of our heavenly citizenship in another way. Here we must think of heaven not as a place, not as a location, but as the full and all-encompassing presence of God.

Now suddenly heaven is not just somewhere we go when we die; heaven is the kingdom of God breaking into this reality. Heaven is the name for the reality we strive for when we pray the Lord’s prayer, a prayer that is decidedly about now, today. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be down, on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, “May thy reign, O Lord, be so present and so participatory that we can’t tell the difference between heaven and earth.” This is our prayer, and we pray it everyday to remember where our citizenship lives: in the full and all-encompassing presence of God. That’s our true home.

And that home is here. The full and all-encompassing presence of God is all around us, within us, permeating and sustaining creation. You may have felt this presence in your life. You may have stumbled into it one day when you least expected it and needed it most. You may have encountered this presence and not known what to name it. Its name is heaven, and it happens more than we realize.

When you see someone in need, and your heart trembles, urging you to reach out with open arms, then heaven is close by, the presence of God is calling you home – this home that is not up or away, but deeper in. Deeper in relationship. Deeper in solidarity. Deeper in love.

When you look out at an eagle in flight, and for a moment you are struck by the incredible closeness of your son who has passed away, then heaven is close by. Your loved one is awash in the full and all-encompassing presence of God. And for an elusive minute you realize you are there, too. And so you two are close again, and the barrier of death seems ever so flimsy.

When you fall to your knees in thanksgiving or in fear or in mourning or in joy, and your soul whispers to you that you are not alone and that you are loved beyond measure, then heaven is close by. It’s only our frail and limited perception that keeps us from seeing the home of our true citizenship breaking in all around us.

Living into our heavenly citizenship combines these two understandings of heaven: first our hope of future consummation and bliss in our home across the Jordan, and second our awareness of the immediate presence of God, which through us, continues to bring heaven closer to earth. There will never be true heaven on earth until all people and all things are fully reconciled to God. Put another way, there is no way for some of us to experience true heaven in the here and now. Either everyone does or no one does. If there is even one person living in hell on earth, then heaven is not fully realized this side of the Jordan.

These may seem like abstractions, like pie-in-the-sky theology that will never, ever in a million years become a reality. And yet, as followers of Jesus Christ, we live each day with the willing expectation that heaven on earth will come to fruition. And in so doing, we make it more real. We live our heavenly citizenship. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. We pray this daily because we are a people of hope.

And if there’s one thing I hope for more than any thing else, it is this. That every person on this planet, when their earthly journeys are done, might swim across the Jordan, back home to the full and all-encompassing presence of God, and have this one thought on their minds: “I think I’ve been here before.”

Tell Me a Story

Sermon for Sunday, February 14, 2016 || Lent 1C || Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

tellmeastoryRight now, the bedtime ritual at home goes something like this: bath time around 6:15; diapers and pajamas at 6:30; stories, snuggles, and songs until 6:45; and then, blessedly, sleep. We rotate through many beloved and well-worn bedtime books: Goodnight, Moon; Time for Bed; Guess How Much I Love You; The Going to Bed Book. Leah and I can recite every one of these and more. But I tell you, I can’t wait until Charlie and Amelia are old enough to ask us to make up bedtime stories.

“Tell me a story.” They’ll say these four magical words, an integral part of any bedtime liturgy, and their request will lead to a holy moment of collective imagination. I will ask, “What would you like a story about?” Pirates? Faeries? Princesses? Dragons? A faerie princess who saves a dragon from pirates? Okay. Here we go. Then the liturgy continues with four more magical words: “Once upon a time…”

Story shapes us. We make meaning by telling stories, which is one of the reason I love our Godly Play program so much. Godly Play stories teach the language of faith and celebrate the wonder of God’s movement. Those fantastical bedtime stories fill us with fervent hopes for lives of high adventure and romance, through which we learn chivalry, fidelity, and courage. We all have family stories, which rehearse the triumphs, failures, and oddities of life. There’s the endearing one about how your parents met; or the painful one about the Pacific Theater in 1944; or the embarrassing one that you hope your mom made up, but you know she didn’t. You don’t remember this, Adam, but one time, when you were potty training, your grandmother helped you, and then you sent her out of the room because you wanted privacy to wash your hands.

Above and around and within each of our little stories, the one, great story weaves: the story of God’s relationship with creation. This great story subsumes and explains and connects our stories with those of the rest of humanity. The one, great story has been recorded and bound, but it has never finished being written. When we tell the story, we participate in it. Put another way, when we remember the story, the story remembers us. We are each members of the story, and we discover our place in it when God re-members – reconnects – us. So let’s tell a version of that story now, beginning with our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures.

In today’s lesson from Deuteronomy, Moses directs the people of Israel to observe this work of remembering when they enter their new home after forty years of wilderness wandering. From the first harvest of your newly settled land, he says, take the first fruits of the ground and offer them to the Lord. While you faithfully give up the only piece of the harvest you are assured of reaping, rehearse your faith by telling this story. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” Moses bids the people to locate themselves in the collective memory of Israel. Each member can be re-membered by identifying with the story, by seeing themselves in the story. Even the youngest can say, “That’s me. I’m part of that great nation. I cried out to the Lord when the Egyptians afflicted me. The Lord heard my voice, brought me out of Egypt, and promised me a land flowing with milk and honey. And, see, here I am in that land offering my first fruits to God in thanksgiving.”

By directing the people to tell the story when they settle in the promised land, Moses hopes they will remember who they are and whom they belong to. But his hopes are in vain. Over the next couple hundred years, the people of Israel do a horrible job remembering. By the end of the Book of Judges, when a downward spiral has led to civil war, wanton rape, and vicious murder, no connection exists, no shaping happens. What does happen is entirely brutal and stomach-churning, and I’m telling you now only because it’s part of the story. Instead of the re-membering that occurs with the storytelling Moses urges, there is literal dis-membering of a rape victim (19:29). At this low point in the story of Israel, Moses’s bidding to rehearse the collective memory all but vanishes.

But all is not lost. The beginning of the book of Samuel tells us “the lamp of God had not yet gone out”: the story still remains in the hearts of the faithful (1 Samuel 3:3). The prophet Samuel learns how to listen to God from his teacher, Eli. Samuel then holds the story in trust as David’s monarchy establishes itself in Israel and Judah. Generations later, King Josiah rediscovers the “book of the law” (which may be Deuteronomy) and realizes how much of the story has been forgotten (2 Kings 22). When the people are forced into exile, the connecting nature of the story sustains them. They remember how the Lord brought them out of their bondage in Egypt. The prophets tell and retell the story of God’s relationship with creation until its shaping power begins to work a change in the people of Israel and Judah.

That change reaches fruition in the great story found in the Gospel. In today’s reading, Luke connects Jesus back to the story of Moses, as Jesus’ forty days in the desert mirror the Israelites’ forty years of wilderness wanderings. Jesus meets the devil on several occasions, and Jesus resists the Evil One with the power of the great story. Unlike the people at the end of the Book of Judges, Jesus remembers what is written: “One does not live by bread alone…Worship the Lord and serve only him.” In desperation the devil then tries the same tactic, quoting the story to Jesus, but it isn’t the devil’s story to use. And Jesus frustrates the devil with the collective memory of the people of God: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

The early church shared this collective memory during the forty days of Lent with the culmination of a years-long program of formation. Seekers discovered that they had been members of the great story all along. When they learned their part in it, the community of faith re-membered them with the sacrament of baptism on Easter. The story shaped them, as it shapes us when we take the time to remember it and tell it.

Today, fewer and fewer people know this story, this great story that connects us all to each other and together to God. And yet never has there been a better time for the kind of re-membering that telling this story can cultivate. How many of us know people who are lost, disconnected, untethered to anything greater than themselves? I know I do. And sometimes I am one of the lost. But then someone tells a piece of the story, and I remember who I am and whom I belong to. This is one of our great duties and joys as followers of Jesus: to tell the story, and to live the current chapter of the story. The Gospel according to John ends with this curious verse: “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). We are those books.

So this Lent, practice the story: read it, tell it, live it. And if a child looks up from under the covers at bedtime and says to you those four magical words, “Tell me a story,” then I hope you’ll join me in beginning like this: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”

Art: Detail from Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown; illustration by Clement Hurd