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.
In her last sermon with us Pastor Stacey Kohl reminded us that stories are powerful things. Sharing stories helps us make meaning, pass on tradition, teach lessons, deepen relationships, learn from one another’s experience, and grow closer to God. Today, I’d like to share with you three stories, all sparked by a single verse from today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” I’d like to share with you a story about Jesus Christ yesterday, a story about Jesus Christ today, and a story about Jesus Christ forever. Each of these stories is about Jesus and about me, and if I do my job right, each will also be about you.
This is the script for a new Christmas Pageant written for Advent 2017. At St. Mark’s we have an abundance of small children (under 4), so this pageant is written with them in mind. Seeing them jump up excited when it was their turn to run up on stage was so wonderful!
If you’d like to hear a monologue version of this from the early service, please click here.
Narrator is seated on a stool slightly stage right of central entrance. Children are all seated on the floor in front of narrator, speaking characters are in the sacristy.
In the beginning, God had a story to tell: the greatest story ever told, the story of Creation. And God began that story with four simple words: “Let there be light.” Everything God created was a character in the story: birds and bugs, land and lizards, fish and flowers, mammals and the moon. Birth and life, death and decay were also characters, as were both cataclysm and cultivation. For untold generations, God’s story of Creation grew in the telling until a new group of characters entered the tale, characters who somehow knew the story was being told.Continue reading “Part of God’s Story: A Christmas Pageant”→
Sermon for Sunday, February 14, 2016 || Lent 1C || Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13
Right 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
Sermon for Sunday, June 14, 2015 || Proper 6B || Mark 4:26-34
I first learned how to tell Godly Play stories back in 2006 when I was interning as a hospital chaplain at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. We chaplains had these miniature golden parable boxes, which we would bring to the patients’ rooms and lay out the stories on their beds. The first one I got my hands on comes from today’s Gospel lesson. The kingdom of God is “like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
As I said these words, I unrolled a green piece of felt cut in the shape of a tree and affixed to it nests and birds illustrated on tiny pieces of wood. This parable is very short, and the Godly Play story did not embellish it at all. So I would say the words slowly, with lots of pauses to put more and more nests and birds in the tree. Now the Godly Play method, which we use in our children’s education program, does not direct the storyteller to explain the parable. Instead, when you’re done, you ask open-ended wondering questions so that the children can explore for themselves what the parable teaches. The storyteller facilitates the children’s own discovery, walking with them and pointing things out, but resisting the urge to explain.
Thus, in a way, Jesus himself was the first Godly Play storyteller. He knew the value of personal encounter with the holy. He knew that offering pat answers is never as fruitful as offering food for thought. He knew that teaching a man to fish was better than giving a man a fish.* And yet, we often find ourselves wishing that Jesus had made it all just a little bit easier. I mean, this being one of his followers isn’t exactly easy, right? And yet Jesus seems to have made it even harder by speaking so enigmatically. And so we ask: why did Jesus speak in parables?
For starters, Jesus knew that when you have to work at something, you really start to own it. My parents made me pay for my first car for two reasons. First, they couldn’t afford to buy me a car. And second, they knew what Jesus did: that if I put my hard-earned money into that automobile, I was much more likely to cherish it. I’ll tell you – I had that tan 1992 Mazda Protégé with the manual transmission from my sophomore year of high school until my second year of seminary. I took care of that car because I had made a long personal investment in it.** In the same way, Jesus’ parables – even the shortest ones like the mustard seed – give us plenty of fodder to work with.
Why did Jesus speak in parables? He knew that narrating a story is much more effective than giving a direct answer. Indeed, we make meaning by sharing stories. Humans have always been like this. When you sit around a campfire, the urge to tell stories is so great because you’re tapping into this primal instinct to speak of what’s most important.
Or let me put it like this: I was pretty insufferable when I was in my early teens. I was an obnoxious know-it-all, and I wanted you to know it. And I wasn’t good at making friends because of the obnoxious thing and because my family moved around so much. Then in ninth grade, I read The Lord of the Rings. When I finally put the book down after 900 plus pages, I was different somehow. I had journeyed with Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamge to Mount Doom, and dwelling page after page in their incredible friendship – friendship that literally stood the test of fire – changed me. People could have told me the answer to friendship is being loyal and giving of yourself. But I would not have understood until I read that story. In the same way, when we enter a parable, when we really live in the world Jesus creates in those few short sentences, we find so much depth of meaning.
This depth often comes not from one encounter with the parable but many. Why did Jesus speak in parables? He knew that using everyday images helps illustrate abstract concepts. The more ordinary the image, the more likely you are to encounter it day in and day out. Thus, Jesus shares images so that when we see them, the story triggers in us again. I guarantee you that at the parish picnic this afternoon, when you see birds flying around the trees, you will think about the parable of the mustard seed. And as you watch those birds nesting in those trees, you will connect more deeply to the kingdom of God.
And finally, Jesus spoke in parables because parables resist sound bite theology. He knew that his opponents were looking for evidence against him, and so instead of giving them ammunition, he told them stories: innocuous little stories, that, if you really let them get inside you and do their work, you realize that the kingdom has sprouted within you while you were sleeping. The problem is that these days we are so used to sound bites ruling public discourse that any speech, which calls for deep thinking, seems too difficult or time-consuming to wrestle with. We’ve lost the attention span necessary for stories to do their work. We are a people molded by story, who no longer seem to have time for them.
And that’s why Jesus’ parables are still so vital to our lives today. He invites us to slow down and place more and more nests and birds in that green felt tree. His stories sail to us on the wind of the Holy Spirit and impel us to dive in and swim around and make them our own. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” he asks. He says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows to be the greatest of all shrubs and puts for large branches so that the birds can nest. That’s the kingdom of God: Our true home that we might not be able to see at first, but which grows and grows and grows until it contains all the nests of all the birds. In Godly Play, we invite the children to name the birds, and we find that those birds’ names are the children’s names. Our names. The names of everyone, regardless of any ungodly reason – and I mean that literally – that we might discriminate. That’s what the kingdom of God is like.
Why did Jesus speak in parables? Because the kingdom of God is like a story, in which everyone has a role.
* Mark’s text does say that Jesus explains everything in private to his disciples. I would argue that might have done more harm than good, as you can see how they act for the rest of the Gospel.
** I did blow the head gasket about six months after getting the car. But that’s because I didn’t know what the Hot-Cold gauge was for. Oops. The repair cost about 2/3 what the car was worth. My parents did pay for that. Thanks, Mom and Dad!
Sermon for Sunday, May 25, 2014 || Easter 6A || Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
I couldn’t help but notice the readings selected for today all have some flavor of courtroom drama. We have the Apostle Paul sightseeing around Athens and discovering an out of the way shrine dedicated “to an unknown god.” When he stands up to debate at the Areopagus (the Athenian equivalent of the Supreme Court), he proclaims to the Athenians that this unknown god is the God who created all that is, the God of Abraham and his descendants, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the end of his speech, some scoff at him and leave; others are intrigued and join Paul on his journey.
Continuing the courtroom theme, in the letter of Peter, the writer urges the reader to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
And finally, on the night before he dies, Jesus makes a promise to his disciples: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth.” You can think of this “Advocate” as the one who would stand up for you in court, one that would counsel you and speak on your behalf.
The courtroom drama of these three passages makes sense when we hop in our TARDIS and go back in time to first century Asia Minor. In the early days of the movement that would become Christianity, those spreading the word about Jesus were met with many reactions: anger, curiosity, rejection, embrace, incredulity, joy. Last week, we read the tragic story of the stoning of Stephen, the first person to die for faith in Jesus. Two weeks ago, we read about three thousand people being baptized after hearing Peter preach. Notice here that reactions to the proclamation of the Gospel at that time – at least the ones recorded in the book of Acts – were never tepid.
Now hop back in the TARDIS (that’s Dr. Who’s time machine, by the way), and come back to the present. We’ve all heard the news and seen the statistics. The church in the United States is in decline. More people than ever before marked the “none” box on the religion question of the 2010 census – note that’s none N-O-N-E, not nun N-U-N. The reasons for this are many and varied, and they are way beyond the scope of this sermon. Well, all but one is. You see, one reason for the downward trend is that over the last several decades the church has lost the ability to tell our story – the story of the God made known in the witness of the Bible and in Jesus Christ.
For too long, the church relied on its primacy in American society, a society steeped in the language and tradition of the Biblical story. When that primacy began to erode, the church didn’t realize how much it was relying on society as a whole to carry its message. And ever since that primacy evaporated entirely, the church hasn’t come to grips with how to proclaim this wonderful and life-giving story from its new position as underdog.
People nowadays – even many faithful churchgoers – just don’t know the story, both the Biblical story itself and how we fit into the story’s narrative trajectory. At the same time, we’ve entered into that underdog role. This might not sound like good news (and in many respects, it’s not, to be sure), but in one honest-to-goodness way, this news is good. This is the first time in history since the earliest centuries of Christianity that the church is not the dominant force in Western society. Back then people didn’t know the story either, or they didn’t know the version the apostles were telling.
What I’m trying to say is that we have reached a new apostolic moment. We have a story to share with a world that’s unfamiliar with this life-changing narrative. And I guarantee you there are people hungry to hear it.
Case in point: I’m a gamer. I love games. Video games are okay, but board games are my true love. When I lived in Massachusetts I frequented a local game store, the kind of store that sold games and had tables set up for people just to come in and play. The clientele of the store – think characters from The Big Bang Theory – were mostly those who would have checked “none” on the census form. But over the couple of years I played games there, an interesting thing happened. As people got to know me and found out what I do for a living, they started asking me questions – deep questions about faith and morality and how to know God. They were hungry for something beyond their own physical ken, for something deeper than today’s reality, for something…more.
This seeking happened occasionally, but often enough that I started thinking of myself as the chaplain of the game store. And I’m glad and feel so blessed to have been someone who could bear witness to my faith and to let them in on the story we all share.
I know this kind of witness and sharing can be so daunting. When we feel like the underdog or when we feel like we’re on trial, speaking up can be hard. But remember the promise Jesus gave the disciples: the Father “will send you another Advocate” to help you speak, to walk along side you as you share your part of the greatest story every told. Paul felt that Spirit when he spoke out in Athens, but you don’t need to be a Christian rock star like Paul to do it. All you need is six words.
You might be familiar with the Six-Word Memoir Project started by SMITH Magazine in 2006. Based on a legend that Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story in only six words (he succeeded, by the way),* SMITH Magazine invited people to share their life stories in only six words. Such an extreme restriction bred abundant creativity, and people continue to share six word stories today on blogs and Twitter.
This week, I invite you to write your own six-word witness to how you fit into the story of God’s creative and redemptive work among us. I’ll be honest: this is quite a challenge. I’ve been working on mine since Thursday and I’m nowhere close to happy with it. But the act of trying to distill my witness to God’s movement in my life down to six words has me currently wrestling with what parts of God’s story are truly the most important for me and which parts I fit into. And when I find those words, I’ll have something to say when someone inevitably asks me why I’m a follower of Christ.
I went through scripture looking for six-word stories to get us started. I’ll end this sermon with a few. Consider these some of the ways the Spirit of truth, the Advocate that Christ promises us, is still speaking to us.
Here’s a story from Genesis: God said, “Go.” So Abram went.
Here’s one from the psalm we studied two weeks ago: God’s my shepherd. I lack nothing.
Here are a few from Jesus himself: I am the resurrection and life.
The wind blows where it chooses.
And my favorite: Remember, I’ll be with you. Always.
Perhaps your six-word witness will spring from your favorite Bible story like one of these. Or maybe from your favorite hymn. How’s this one: Amazing grace will lead me home.
When we tell our story – even just six words at a time – we actively participate in it, and we invite others to join it, as well. We can trust our Advocate the Holy Spirit to help us bear witness to God’s constant and creative movement. This is our new apostolic moment, when the world is hungry and…
We have good news to share.
* Hemingway’s (tragic) six word story read: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
(Sermon for Sunday, September 1, 2013 || Proper 17C || Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16)
Stories are powerful things. Sharing stories helps us make meaning, pass on tradition, teach lessons, deepen relationships, learn from one another’s experience, and grow closer to God. You may have read in the Carillon that this year at St. Stephen’s we are going to practice sharing our stories, so I thought I’d get a jump start – a sneak preview, if you will – during this sermon. I’d like to share with you three stories, all sparked by a single verse from today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. I’d like to share with you a story about Jesus Christ yesterday, a story about Jesus Christ today, and a story about Jesus Christ forever. Each of these stories is about Jesus and about me, and if I do my job right, each will also be about you.
We’ll start with Jesus Christ “yesterday,” and we’ll start as many Godly Play stories do. Once there was someone who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things that people followed him. This someone was called Jesus of Nazareth, and he came from seemingly humble beginnings, though his mother knew better. At his birth a disreputable cadre of outcasts claimed him as their savior, and that’s what he was. His very name means “God saves.” When he grew up he left his mother’s house as sons often do, but that was perhaps the last normal thing he ever did.
“Change your hearts and your lives,” he preached to any who would listen. “Because the kingdom of God is so close you can taste it.” This was his good news, his Gospel. But that was not all. Every day he revealed what it was like to live in God’s kingdom, God’s dream for all creation. He healed those who were sick and those who couldn’t walk or see. He renewed the broken to wholeness, he gave hope to the despairing, and he welcomed everyone, especially those no one else would bother with, to his table. His words provoked peace, joy, and courage in some, but, sadly, malice in others.
Jesus told his friends to love and serve others, come what may. He stood against the machinery of the world that enslaves people with false promises and misplaced priorities. He desired with every fiber of his being to replace the machine with a life lived fully in God, a life of blessing and abundance derived from God’s promises, God’s priorities. In the end, the machinery of the world felt threatened by this man, who was also so much more than a man. And for good reason. He was a threat. By putting Jesus to death – and a shameful death at that – the machine thought it had won. But on the cross, Jesus gathered to himself all the brokenness the world wrought, all that separates us from God – sin, shame, guilt, death – and their power died with him.
This is the story of Jesus Christ yesterday. When I read this story in the Gospel, I feel his words penetrate my skin. They delve into my heart and take up residence, and they urge me to live the life Jesus invited his followers to live. As I read Jesus’ story, I long to make it my story. And this is where the story of Jesus Christ “today” begins.
Three days after Jesus died, he rose again. Before dawn that Sunday morning, God the Father returned God the Son to us, resurrected as Jesus himself, yet more than himself. He couldn’t bear to break the promise to be with us always to the end of the ages, so he conquered death itself in order to stay in relationship with us into eternity. He breathed the peace of his Holy Spirit onto his friends, and we are still breathing those breaths even today.
We are still breathing those breaths not just because the two thousand year old air still remains, but because Jesus’ resurrection has no use for the concept of time. While we mark that Sunday morning as the hinge of history, the resurrection did not happen just on that one morning in that one garden. The power of the resurrection emanates out from that moment into every moment, filling all moments with the possibility of entering fully into God’s eternal presence. Jesus’ resurrection ushered in the deeper reality of God’s dream, a dream that each of us can participate in, a dream of bringing God’s reign into the hearts of all people and all people into the heart of God’s love. Jesus’ resurrection is happening now, today, in this place, in our hearts, at our table, in our service, in our love. When I remember the startling truth of this wonderful story, I take the time to look for signs of Jesus’ resurrection in my life. And I try to be a sign of that resurrection in the lives of others.
But there is still one more story, the story that undergirds all the others, the story of Jesus Christ forever. Our first story began with God the Son emptying himself, taking on the form of a human being, and becoming like us so we could become more like him. The Gospel writer John resorts to poetry to enter even the edge of the mystery of this emptying. The Word, says John, was in the beginning with God and was indeed God. This Word became flesh and dwelled among us and we have seen his glory, the glory of God spilling from the person known as Jesus of Nazareth.
But as the Word, he is forever. This Word is the order, the logic behind all of creation. “All things came into being through him,” John’s poem continues, “and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life.” Whenever we look up and try to count the stars, whenever we appreciate the beauty and richness of evolving plants and animals, whenever we smell the coming rain, we encounter the artistry of the Word, the foundation of all things, visible and invisible. This eternal Word was in the beginning with God and abides with God and is God forever. This is the story upon which all others hang, and this is the story that Jesus invites us into. This is the story of God’s presence in and through creation.
This is my story. And this is your story. We read Jesus’ words. We feel them come alive in us through the power of the resurrection. We join God in the great story of bringing all God’s creation back to God. These stories are grand, and sometimes they seem so big and daunting that entering them feels impossible. But its in those moments when Jesus Christ – the same yesterday, today, and forever – takes us by the hand and reminds us that each normal day of our lives is part of the story whether we realize it or not. He takes us by the hand and invites us to follow one step behind him as he opens our eyes to all the ways we are already part of the story. And he takes us by the hand to guide us to all the new ways the story is still unfolding.