Telling Stories

Rev. Doug Floyd
Easter 5 2017
Deuteronomy 6:20-25

We begin to open up the beauty of the world to one another, the flowers, the trees, the skies, and how it all is revealing the beauty and love of God. We’re inviting others into this grand story.

I was competing at drama convention in Gatlinburg in the category of After Dinner Speaking. The basic idea was to deliver a humorous speech that was around 10 minutes long. I had written a speech about a man seeing a television set for the first time and he assumed that small people were inside the box putting on little plays. As I spoke, it felt like everything was going right. Folks were laughing. More and more people were showing up at the various rounds to hear. Other competitors were asking for tips in the hallways. At the awards ceremony, I was joking and laughing and excited. Finally, they handed out the awards for After Dinner Speaking. They called out my name, Doug Floyd, Fourth Place.

What? I could barely walk up front and take the award. How come I didn’t win? Everyone I knew thought I had nailed it. I didn’t even get second or third, but fourth. I was completely discouraged. At the end of the event, I turned to our drama teacher for some wisdom. She said, “Well Doug, life’s a b—- and then your die.” Of course, she didn’t say blank.

That become my slogan. I never competed seriously again. I went to competitions but without any serious drive. A friend and I entered one-act play. Instead of memorizing our script, we simply ad-libbed on the spot. We also enter debate but made a mockery of the process. It became a big joke to me.

I believed the wrong story.

When my teacher gave me that bit of council, here is what I heard, “It’s arbitrary. Some win and some lose. You don’t really have any power. Just accept the absurdity.” I don’t blame her. It was my response and my own fault. Yet, in that teaching moment, I could have been challenged to keep trying, to grow, to improve my character. Not to give up. But I believed the wrong story.

We often believe the wrong stories, and the stories we tell matter. They shape us. Not only the way we think about competitions but about life. Stories can inspire but they can also haunt. They can reinforce failure. They can make us feel shame. They can make us feel like life is not just. Things aren’t fair, and they don’t work out fair.

Then again, there are stories that bring hope and inspire dreams. Now when I say stories, I don’t mean necessarily a novel although novels do inspire. A story could be as simple as a bumper sticker slogan, or it could be as long as War and Peace. They can take the shape in songs, poems, video, and more. We live in a world of stories. And we are always telling ourselves stories, and we’re actually telling one another stories. And these stories have great power over the way we think about the world.

The reading from Deuteronomy introduces catechism or teaching in the form of story. It’s a story. And in fact, if I follow the way it works all through the Torah, it is a story that shapes people, instructs people. It affects their imagination. And the most common place the story is told is at home. And probably more even common is the family dinner table. It’s just talking about the day. We’re being changed. We’re telling stories. We’re not always aware of the stories we’re telling, but we are telling stories.

It’s not only at home though. It’s in the school, it’s in church. Actually in the workplace, as adults, we continue to share stories, exchange stories. We share with with friends, family. The passage today is describing a relationship between a child and a parent. The child asks the parent a question. Why do we do this? The parent tells a story. It makes perfect sense because children ask a lot of why questions. It has been estimated, and I don’t know if any of you counted it, but supposedly the average four-year-old asks about 400 why questions a day. So there are plenty of opportunities for catechesis.

In this passage, the child says why Passover? Why are we doing all of these rituals? The nice thing about doing liturgy, especially for people who are unfamiliar with it, it offers all sorts of why questions. Every time we come in here there’s all sorts of why questions. Why is there water sitting at the back? Why do we light candles? Why do we have two candles here? There’s all sorts of opportunities to tell stories.

In my childhood, I would say, “Why Sunday night services? Wide World of Disney is on.” Unfortunately, I don’t think my dad gave me a nice story. He said, “You’re going.” No questions asked.

In today’s passage, the parent is told to respond with a story. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and GOD powerfully intervened and got us out of that country. We stood there and watched as GOD delivered miracle-signs, great wonders, and evil-visitations on Egypt, on Pharaoh and his household. He pulled us out of there so he could bring us here and give us the land he so solemnly promised to our ancestors. That’s why GOD commanded us to follow all these rules, so that we would live reverently before GOD, our God, as he gives us this good life, keeping us alive for a long time to come. “It will be a set-right and put-together life for us if we make sure that we do this entire commandment in the Presence of GOD, our God, just as he commanded us to do.” (Deuteronomy 6:20-25, The Message)

The questions about the Passover ritual open the door for the parent to rehearse the story behind the liturgical actions:
• The Rescue from Egypt and from Pharaoh
• The Miracles of God on Behalf of the Israelites
• The Guidance of God Across Wilderness to Promised Land
• The Provision of God for the People in the New Land.
• The Call of God for the People to Obey the Commands

Today’s passage gives the child a sense of identity, of connectedness to a larger family and a larger story. It reminds them of the dangers in the world but also the grace of God to protect them. It teaches them that God is guiding them and providing for them. Finally, it is calling them to respond, to live into this story through obedience to the commands.

Most of the passage focuses on God’s action for His people. Only at the end does it call the people to obey the Lord’s command. The stories of Scripture are not primarily morality plays though we can discover moral truths. These stories focus on God’s action in the world: His creating, his ordering, his redeeming. They also tell us stories about people moving toward or away from His call. They are revelation, which is kind of hard for us to wrap around. They are God’s revelation to us. And he is telling us that as we meditate, and read these stories, and rehearse these stories, and remember these stories, and tell these stories, they’re changing us. They’re shaping us. They’re shaping at ancient Israel.

Some of the stories are strange, alien, from another time and place. And others feel like they describe the conflicts in our workplace or home or culture.

The struggle of Cain and Abel is carried out every day in the home and in the workplace. Siblings may not kill one another physically but they might kill with words, try to put the other down and themselves up in the eyes of the parent. In the workplace, people literally used the phrase, “throwing someone under the bus” to mean that person being accused of a mistake. The culture in many corporations is to find someone else to blame other than myself for failure. We see Cain killing Abel over and over, and that’s just one story. These stories all through Scriptures are played out in the world around us.

Deuteronomy helps us to see that the child and the adults live in a storied culture where similar themes are repeated in songs, holiday festivities, worship, aphorisms, and even jokes. The stories would shape the way people see world, see God, and even see their own lives. In light of these stories, the Israelites were called to obey the commandments and order their lives in the shape of God’s storied world.

In the Gospel reading, we see Jesus entering into the story of humanity. His life is entering into our story. He’s entering into Israel’s story, which we don’t have time to fully explore. But everything Jesus does is fulfilling Israel’s story. He’s fulfilling every event in Israel’s history. But He’s doing something else that is almost hard to believe. He’s leading humanity into the story of God. Which is almost impossible for us to grasp. In today’s Gospel reading,

8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. (Jn 14:8–11)

In Jesus, the disciples come to see a glimpse of the communion between Heavenly Father and the Son. They don’t fully understand what they are seeing and hearing, but they are beholding the communion of love that is behind this storied world. This world around us of sun and sky and trees and grass and flowers reveal the glory of the God. In Jesus Christ, we discover this Creator is a communion of love between Father, Son and Spirit.

And we also discover that the disciples are being taken up into that communion of love.

21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (Jn 14:21)

In Jesus Christ, we have been grafted into a love story. A love story that is bigger than us. A love story that precedes creation. A love story that has been in motion from the first, “Let there be light” and reaches past the final Amen. Jesus reveals in the Revelation to John,

13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Re 22:13)

In Jesus, we have encountered the fullness of the story. And He is leading us into that fullness.

We return afresh to the parent answering the child with a story. Years ago, the theologian Robert Jenson wrote a book with his 8-year-old granddaughter Solveig. She asked him questions, and he tried to answer. The book is called, Conversations with Poppi about God. This is a great picture of catechism in action.

Solveig: So when we get to heaven and we’re going to live forever, won’t it get sort of tiresome? You’ll be there forever and ever and ever and ever and ever . . .
Poppi: That isn’t exactly what the Bible says.
S: All right . . .
P: It isn’t as if the kingdom of God were just the same thing going on and on and on. When I was just about your age, I was sitting in a pew listening to the preacher, who happened to be my father. He was talking about heaven and hell, and I sat there thinking like you— if heaven just goes on and on and on, and hell goes on and on and on, there’s not a whole lot of difference between them.
S: There’s no pleasure at all.
P: But what the Bible really talks about finally is being taken into the life of God himself, and the life of God is just, as it were, one big excitement, a kind of explosion of excitement.
S: So it’s like the excitement of getting something you have always wanted— that kind of excitement.
P: Or the excitement of giving something you’ve always wanted to give.
S: Or the excitement of sitting in your grandpa’s lap.

While we are hearing a conversation between Solveig and Poppi, there is someone else participating in this conversation: Jesus. By His Spirit, He is bearing witness to Solveig and Poppi. Darryl Johnson once said that evangelism is entering a conversation the Jesus is having with someone…when we are invited. Someone asks you a question. Guess what? You’ve been invited into the conversation that Jesus is already having with them. What is Jesus doing? He’s bearing witness to Himself by his spirit. His spirit is bearing witness to His love, to His kingdom, to His truth.

As Solveig and Poppi talk, Jesus is present bearing witness, drawing them to Himself. Even now, Jesus is bearing witness by His Spirit. He is drawing us to Him. He is shaping us into His people who live into His story of love.

That’s why people will say, like John Wesley, my heart strangely burned within me. Because when the spirit begins to move, something is happening inside, while we’re hearing something outside. Both are happening simultaneously. He is drawing us to Himself. He is the one shaping us into the story. It is by His grace that we are speaking His story into our culture, and we are not being overwhelmed by the stories of our culture that say things like life’s a blank and then you die. Stories that say life is empty and meaningless. Stories say that we’re nothing more than atoms, that people who are different from us are enemies. Stories that say our personal worth is based on how much money I earn. Maybe what I look like, how much I spend.

We live in a world with so many competing stories. Stories that will tell us, “Life’s a blank and then you die.” Stories that will tell us that people who are different from us are enemies. Stories that tell us our personal worth is based on how we look, how much money we make, how much we spend. If you think about it, all our cultural holidays center around buying and selling. The big days like Christmas and Easter are focused on buying and selling, but also days like Memorial Day and Fourth of July. It is all focused on sale of clothes, cars, and even food. The church calendar re-centers our celebration around a story, the story of Jesus entering history and leading us into His love and His story.

We have a challenge and an opportunity to learn how to enter into the story of Scripture. To soak in the ancient stories, the Psalms, the wisdom writings, the Gospels and all the texts, allowing them to shape us and trusting that the Lord is shaping us in the process. But also trusting that He is teaching us how to speak, how share, how to encourage our children, our co-workers, our friends and family with stories that re-center us around God’s faithfulness, His goodness, His mercy, His grace.

The writer of Hebrews says, “exhort one another every day” (Heb 3:13). At times may be a phrase, a personal story, a story from Scripture, or even a reflection on the beauty of the flowers or trees or skies. All of life presents glimpses of His beauty and love if we but have eyes to see. Learning how to encourage one another without condemning is something we must learn. In some sense, we will be learning how to live into His story and how share His story throughout our whole lives. And as we do, we are being shaped into lovers who reveal His love in word and deed. We begin to open up the beauty of the world to one another, the flowers, the trees, the skies, and how it all is revealing the beauty and love of God. We’re inviting others into this grand story.

Lord have mercy on us. I pray that we would hear you Lord Jesus, as we read the Word, as we share with one another, that your word would burn within us. You would reshape us, that you would have a sense of your great love for us, your great purpose for us, and we would freely share your love and kindness to those we meet each day and each week. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Image by Steve McFarland (used by permission via Creative Commons).

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