It’s Saturday morning. All around me people are rising late, plans are being made for a day that does not involve work, perhaps sport with the kids, or a visit to the farmers market, or a long bike ride in the sunny cool of a New England spring day. My mood is partly resentful, party curious. Resentful, because my Saturday morning invariably finds me sitting at the computer screen instead of riding the bike I have yet to buy along the bike trail from Providence to Bristol or up into the Blackstone Valley. Alas for me, Saturday is sermon writing day and I am curious to see what stirrings the Spirit has in mind.
As yet, I don’t know. Which is why I am easing myself into something yet to be born through idling away in self-preoccupied reflection. No matter how hard I try, how much I read around the text in the days preceding Saturday morning’s arrival, I am never ready to write until this moment. Saying this kindles a feeling of acceptance. I look ahead to emergence of a story. Sermon as story, now there’s an idea to play with!
At St Martin’s, we have begun a community reading of The Story. Some are clearly asking themselves, why? My answer is because the perceived wisdom about a community’s spiritual deepening involves something called embedding the Bible. I think this might be a very good idea. The Story, is a rendition of the Bible with all the bits that divert attention away from the narrative flow, skipped over. The Story preserves the flow over time of the Judeo-Christian account of the human relationship with the divine. The Story is aptly named because there is always a narrative element in our self-understanding.
Despite this, there is a modern idea that our understanding of the world results from direct observation. But direct observation has to be put into a framework that gives rise to meaning. All such frameworks are narrative. Joining up so-called objective observation results in the weaving of explanatory narrative. This weaving of explanation is always an internal, psychological process that results in the telling of a story. We are the stories we tell, has become my oft-repeated mantra.
The opening chapter of Genesis begins an epic story. To our understanding of narrative, the flow of the story is often frustrating to follow. There are so many loopholes made by statements seemingly without explanation. It seems enough to simply assert that an improbable thing happened. It’s also a story many of us are not sure we like very much for many of the characters, including God, are not much to our liking.
From the opening grandeur of the first creation story in which humanity arrives as the crowning glory of creation, it goes downhill fast. Beginning with humanity being made no less than in the image of the divine community of creation, a piece of the creation seemingly intended by God to be not only self-reflective but reflective of divinity itself, the story descends from this lofty height into one in which human beings are reduced to being naughty children who need to be punished for being disobedient; so much for the equality of the divine image. It seems that being made in the image of the divine community has two inbuilt restrictions that contradict the original intention. Adam and Eve are free to romp around the garden of creation but the fruits of the trees of eternal life and the knowledge of good and evil are off limits. It seems there is a limit to how much God, who self-refers using the plural pronouns wants us to be like them.
Yet, for Christians and Jews, this is how the story starts. Talking with my neighbor Rabbi Voss-Altman from Temple Beth-El this past week, I was reminded how differently Jews and Christians hear our common story. And maybe that’s the point of story. A story shapes us not only through its construction and articulation but fundamentally through the way it is heard.
For Christians the story that begins with Genesis reaches its crescendo in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, whom we believe fits into the trans-generational story as the Christ or anointed one- the long awaited Messiah. This is the point at which the Christian and Jewish hearing of the story take different paths having reached a fork in the road. From here two new stories branch away from each other.
Sunday-by-Sunday, through the Lectionary we are given four selections from the overall story of salvation, each taken from a particular stage of the story. In the Old Testament and Psalm lessons (I deliberately use lesson rather than reading because we are intended to learn something) we have snippets from the Jewish stage of the story. In the New Testament lesson, we hear from the emerging Christian understanding of the story. In the Gospel, we are given a snippet from the story of the life of Jesus.
In John: 10, John is telling part of the Jesus story intended for the ears of his community of Jewish Christians using the metaphor of the sheepfold. He writes in such as way as to offer his listeners a story that helps them understand the world they find themselves in. Being rejected by the authorities of the Second Temple, John’s community needs to find an explanation for their exclusion and persecution. They find it in the rejection of Jesus himself by the very same authorities. Later generations of Christians down into our own time have heard this story, not as John intended it, but as a justification for the development of anti-Semitism. So my question is how do we, a community now intent on the so-called embedding of the Bible as the foundation for a new phase of our spiritual deepening, hear this story?
In an age of rationalist reductionism the battle cry is: where’s the proof? We live in a world where according to the rationalist point of view, we no longer have need of story. This viewpoint seems oblivious to the fact that a belief that humanity has now grown beyond the need for stories to explain the world is itself, a story.
We hear the Temple authorities asking Jesus to substantiate his claims, to our modern ears an absolutely reasonable request. Jesus could have responded with: you want proof, let me give you proof. Don’t you remember that when I was in X I was able to do Y? Don’t you remember when I was at M, I said C and do you recall what then happened, J was no longer blind? You don’t want to believe the evidence of your own eyes and ears. Look it’s no good me telling you anymore, because you have no intention of accepting who I am, so don’t fudge this by pretending that you are only seeking simple verification.
This part of the conversation is very familiar to our ears as we every day face the questions: is the story true – if so how do we know it’s true – how can we convince others its true, because if we can do that then maybe we might really be able to believe its true ourselves?
These are not just the external questions that our rationalistic world asks us for proof of the truth of what we believe. Being shaped by the modern world, these are also our internal questions. Unless we reject out of hand the story of modernity – and some do –we have to struggle in the tension as people shaped by rationalism and yet, also the heirs of an older story, or at least wanting to be shaped by a different story.
The thing about story is that they are neither true nor false. I don’t mean that stories can’t embody truth or falsehood. I mean more that stories should be judged as effective or not effective. Does the story we live by help us understand the world and our role in it in ways that enhance our quality of experience? Or do they hamper us in this endeavor? Jesus continues to tell the Temple authorities that the only way they can be satisfied about him is if they stop asking for proof and come into relationship with him.
The Gospel stories are not unproblematic. Many Christians still choose to hear Jesus’ response in John 10 as a validation of Christian exclusivism, i.e. you are either in the sheepfold or outside it, you are either one of the sheep or you are not. Trying to make sense of this as something to live by in the 21st-century, what I hear in this exchange is Jesus saying that his identity is not a matter of propositional truth, it’s a matter of relational truth. Jesus is repeating God’s invitation echoing down the ages: my people come into relationship with me and let us sit down together.
I said on Easter Day that resurrection is not something to be believed it is to be-lived. What I mean is that the Christian story is not propositional but relational, truth. It makes sense through the way it shapes our relational choices, i.e. who and what is important in our lives, what enriches our experience of life, through whom and how do we give back in life. The Christian story is not the only relational story. Billions of other lives are given meaning by other relational stories, some more complete than others, at least seemingly so from our own storied location. All we can say is that Jesus is our relational story. Our only claim is to be able to say that this is our story. Jesus is the religious story that brings new meaning and an ever-expanding depth into our lives.
Everyone needs a story to live by. The question is not which story is true, but which story makes us fruitful. Is it effectiveness in our lives? Can our Christian story bring us into a relationship with the divine dimension that guides and informs us in negotiating the complex relationships with the world around us? Through living out this story the choices we make and those we reject will determine the quality of our fruitfulness, i.e. determine how we make a difference for good in this world.