The Greatest Story Ever Told

Stating the dilemma 

images-1I am the rector – which is Episcopal speak for senior priest-pastor of a church where many faithful people are perplexed about how and in what to believe. Given our formation and experience in the modern world, we are a highly educated, middle-class congregation, both attributes that seem to only add complexity to our perplexities concerning faith.

For many of us, the metaphysical image of an enchanted universe in which God is actively present within the material structure of time and space seems improbable to our disenchanted, rationalistic minds. What we seem clearer about is the social action bit – we understand about being good people doing what good people do. Yet, is this really enough to sustain a robust and dynamic faith in this brave new world of ours?

Many of us feel an affection for the parish community rooted in memories of former times when family and community jelled together in a seamless whole. Some of us are new or newer seekers, attracted by the messages heard from the Sunday pulpit or read in the online sermon blog relationalrealities.com.

The Anglican approach of sitting in the tension where Tradition meets Modern Family is attractive to people fed up with easy answers to complex questions. However, this approach is not for everyone. We are keenly aware of our greying, we know that the biggest challenge facing us is the need to grow in order to maintain our historic witness. We are warm and welcoming and committed to social action, yet our worship life, which lies at the heart of our self-definition, is complex and not instantly user-friendly.

Nevertheless, it is the human dimension of community life that holds many of us still in place, despite our perplexities and complexities about what it means to be a Christian in the modern world.

How are we to find a good account of the hope that is within us for ourselves, let alone give it to those who are searching? 

I came across this paragraph in a wonderful piece: Why nothing seems to get people back to Church in which Erik Parker challenges the notion that the way to attract Millennials (outsiders) is to emphasize the community – social networking aspect of church life. He tellingly notes:

Now, imagine someone is looking for a church. They are looking for a church with a commitment to following Jesus at its core and they show up at a social commitment church. It would be like showing up for a soccer team that stopped playing soccer years ago, and who instead gathers for coffee and donuts with friends and family. But this gathering of people still call themselves a soccer team. Now imagine members of that “soccer team” wring their hands week after week over the fact that no one wants to join the team to clean up coffee and pick up the donuts. You can see why soccer players looking for a team wouldn’t join. You can see why many members of the team left a long time ago.

Our future lies in being a community that offers an experience of being part of what Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry calls the Jesus Movement. I know it sounds kind of glib, but it focuses attention on the core nature of Christian community. The actual playing of soccer is not an historical artifact for something called a soccer team. It is the sole justification for existing. Likewise, being disciples of Jesus is not an historical artifact for a Christian community – an optional bolt on for a minority of those who are so minded.

In my community, we are less perplexed by the question – in whom can we believe? Jesus is a magnetic figure. The gospel message of hope over despair is a compelling one. Given what I have said about our levels of education and intellectual sophistication, the real question we stumble over concerns the how of belief.

How are we to find a good account of the hope that is within us to give to ourselves, let alone give to those who are searching?

Faith

Last week I preached on the call of Abraham, the first of the Hebrew Patriarchs. This Sunday we hear of an incident at the waters of Meribah involving Moses, the first of the Hebrew prophets. These are two chapters from the greatest story ever told, to quote from the imagestitle of that old Hollywood blockbuster. The greatest story ever told is a story that is technically an epic. Epic and myth are both a variety of story. But whereas myth is a story that exists outside temporal time – i.e. it is always the same and forever unchanging, an epic is an unfolding story that develops and changes within time. Epic is a story embedded in history, playing out within time through its impact on the lives of individuals and communities. The greatest story ever told is an epic story. Abraham and Moses are major footnotes in this epic story; a story that for Christians culminates with Jesus.

Abraham, Moses, and Jesus demonstrate lives of faith, modeling within their particular contexts day-to-day experience of what living in covenant with God looks like. In John’s Gospel, we eavesdrop on an encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well that models how we too are called to challenge the limitations of social convention in order to reveal something completely new[1].

We talk of having faith as if it’s a noun, a commodity we either possess or don’t. I don’t understand what having faith as a commodity I can have more or less of this looks like. I do understand what keeping faith as a verb means. Keeping faith helps me deal with what comes at me day-by-day. Keeping faith is not like telling myself that ten impossible things are true before breakfast every day. Keeping faith is letting my life be shaped by the greatest story of faith. The greatest story ever told, my current catchphrase for the Biblical epic is such a story and it must be at the center of our lives if we are to be followers of Jesus.

Story

We are storied beings because stories shape and guide our lives. Stories make sense of the world and ourselves in it. One pervasive story shaping our lives in the 21st century is the materialist story of the individual deal maker, who through the exercise of power grabs material success. We are shaped by the story of the autonomous individual who beholden to no one else pulls him or herself up by their own bootstraps. There is a corresponding story that shapes those who don’t match up to this story; a story of losers or victims. Competing stories have different consequences not only for those in them but for wider society. It’s not difficult to see the consequences of competing stories playing out around us.

The congress is currently struggling with competing stories about the role of health care for American Society. One story shapes us as a society in which health care is a right of all citizens and as such becomes an inclusive instrument for social good. This story competes with another story that sees health care as the private concern of individual citizens, the outworking of personal responsibility and personal choice. In this instance, in trying to decide which story to give allegiance to, as Christians we need to ask how does each story on health care fare when judged by the consistent priorities and demands of the greatest story ever told?  We then need to repeat this analysis with respect to the other stories – stories of race, gender, sexuality, power and powerlessness, in short, the many other stories that shape our lives.

Relationship

The greatest story ever told has one central recurring theme that translates human experience in a variety of contexts that could not be more different from one another. It is the story of covenanted relationship. Covenant is a form of relationship that binds separate persons together in mutual partnership. The covenant made between Abraham and God is renewed between God and Moses and uniquely reaffirmed in the covenant between God and Jesus. The interesting thing about covenant relationships is that they not only serve the interests of the partners but exist for the fulfillment of a higher purpose.

This last week in the New York Times David Brooks wrote of the human dimension of covenanted relationships:

People in a covenant try to love the other in a way that brings out their loveliness. They hope that through this service they’ll become a slightly less selfish version of themselves…. Love is realistically a stronger force than self-interest. Detached calculation in such matters is self-strangulating. The deepest joy sneaks in the back door when you are surrendering to some sacred promise. 

Will the story of covenanted relationship provide the good account of the hope that is within us to give to ourselves, and most importantly of all to those who are searching?

[1] We see the dynamics of this played out in the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman; in the way she comes her eyes become open to seeing him contrasting with the continued cultural blindness of his disciples.

  1. The encounter with the woman at the well occurs within the context of the historical dispute between Jews and Samaritans about the location of God’s dwelling place, whether here on the Samaritan Mt. Gerizim or at Jerusalem and reflects the sad legacy of division following the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel some 700 years earlier.
  2. Using living water as a metaphor for faith Jesus offers a new vision of a world freed from the disputes of history and geography.
  3. This sign story offers a radically new vision of gender relations in which Jesus speaks directly to a woman in public to whom he is not related. He addresses her as woman not sister – implying a level of equality between them contradicting the gender hierarchy of his society.
  4. Water also becomes the metaphor for inclusion. The living water that Jesus offers cannot be polluted by racial or religious differences. It can be drawn by anyone, and shared with everyone without distinction.
  5. Liberated from the blinders of history, religion, race, and gender, the woman is led to make the first proclamation of Jesus as messiah from the lips not from an insider, i.e. one Jesus’ Jewish disciples, but from the despised Samaritan outsider. Foreigners have a way of comprehending the truth first.
  6. The shock and horror of the disciples on returning to find what has been taking place between Jesus and the woman simply reinforces the radical nature of this exchange. Faced with Jesus radical departure from strict religious, racial and social conventions they instantly reject the possibility of discovering something new. This is what insiders do. When their worldview is challenged they quickly foreclose on possibility and retreat into the blindness of conventional expectations.

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