Telling the Story

Judges 2:6-12, 16-19

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

November 16, 2014

In our Year of the Bible readings, you won’t read the Book of Judges until Advent, so I’m preaching it a little early.
But I wanted us to spend some time with this book. Judges helps us see a piece of the development of the Hebrew people after the Exodus. Moses led them out of slavery and got them through the wilderness to the edge of the Promised Land.

Moses passes his prophetic mantle to Joshua, who leads the people as military leader, but never as king.  He is more than a general though, instructing people to keep the faith, and follow the one true God. He gets them settled in the Promised Land, the land divided up among the 12 tribes and people live out lives of faithfulness with their ‘40 acres and a mule’ of the Promised Land.

After Joshua dies, we’re told “…that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.”

I don’t know if you remember one of the texts Edward read us last week, Joshua reminded the people to choose this day whom they would serve. At every other turn of the Book of Joshua, he reminds the people of the Exodus and reminds them to tell the story to their children so they will know their story.

We’ve talked about this before.

What are the stories you tell of your life? Do people hear the stories of your difficulties or only your success? Do they hear stories of redemption after difficulty? Do you tell the stories of failure and resilience or only the stories that flatter and self promote?

Do you tell your stories at all?

There are studies that show children are more resilient and well adjusted when they know where they fit in their family narrative, and when they hear the whole arc of the narrative—not just the good times or not just the bad times, but the way our lives oscillate between them.

“…children who have the most self-confidence have what they call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves,” reports Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University.

And according to these first lines in Judges, a generation passed away and a new one grew up that did not know their story. They did not know they belonged to something bigger than themselves.

I think we are at an interesting moment in church history, as church attendance and participation is declining and families are busier than ever with other things that keep church participation from the levels it was at a few generations ago.

I’m not a fan of those articles that tell those details with headlines like “the church is dying!” First, we’re resurrection people, so the dying of old ways of being church might just be making room for a new life that is coming.

Second, I look around at this church and many other churches in this community and around the country, and it is clear that the church is not dying.

But the church is changing.

And we are faced with a real issue of how we are going to tell the story to our children.

Increased participation—for children, youth, and adults—in Sunday School and Bible Studies would certainly be a place to start. But that is still just one hour a week.

My kids spend 2 hours a week in worship and Sunday School and 10 hours a week in soccer practice. In which subject do you think they are more conversant?

What are the stories we tell at the dinner table?

What are the stories we tell in the car on family trips?

What are the stories we tell our grandchildren?

I’ve been thinking about stories differently since finding out about my birth family.

I’m grateful to be able to connect with my birth father’s family and to hear stories of his life, to find out the stories of the people whose blood is in my veins.

Yet I realize most of his story is lost to me and will not be mine to have, which is the way it is. My story to tell is that my story is messy and confusing—the story of my real, adopted family interacting with the story of the people who gave me life. As I’ve been telling that story on my blog, I’ve been struck by how much gift there is in every little nugget of information I learn. I’ve also been struck by the fact that the grace in it all doesn’t erase the pain of it all.

I also realize my existence in my birth father’s family complicates the story they tell too. I only exist because he had an affair with my birth mother. It makes adultery a part of their story. It does not erase the stories they already knew and told about what a good man he was, but my existence makes clear it is a part of his story too.

As we approach the holiday season, I invite us to attend to the stories we tell and to take these family gatherings as times to tell our stories of God’s provision and deliverance.

Because as growing numbers of people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, which I think might actually mean, “religious but not institutional”, the stories we tell matter more than ever.

How are we to tell our faith stories, our stories of where God has been in our lives, when Sunday morning worship is not the place some of God’s children want to be?

This is a real question for you to consider and then share your answers with me or the session in the coming weeks.

Our monthly Sabbath service seems to be reaching out to some new people who won’t/can’t worship on Sunday mornings. How else can we reach out to others?

I, frankly, understand why some people might want to be spiritual but not institutional. When institutional religion mistakenly focuses on moral purity, judgment, and exclusion (and I mean those terms broadly, not just on one issue) people grow up not knowing how they are connected to God’s family. Instead they become convinced they don’t belong to God because they either aren’t pure enough to belong and they quit before they are found out, or because they know enough about God to know that hatred and exclusion are NOT marks of faith and they leave over the hypocrisy.

And so we have to find new ways to tell our story, to connect with people who love and believe in the God who created them, but who haven’t heard how their story connects with that God and why it matters that they connect to something bigger than themselves. And we have to recognize they may never again darken the door of a sanctuary and trust God will work through that.

And this is not about evangelism to “correct” people who don’t see the world the same way we do. This is not about evangelism to get more people into this building on Sunday mornings. This is as much for us as it is for them, because hearing each other’s stories is sacred work and keeps us all on the divine path.

This morning on NPR, I heard a story about a man who found a family film in a closet. He realized it was from a trip to his grandmother’s hometown in Poland. In 1938.  3,000 Jews lived in that village before the war. 100 were still alive after the war.

During a 1938 vacation to his hometown, Glenn Kurtz's grandfather filmed the townspeople of Nasielsk, a Jewish community in Poland, just before World War II.

During a 1938 vacation to his hometown, Glenn Kurtz’s grandfather filmed the townspeople of Nasielsk, a Jewish community in Poland, just before World War II.

Once the film was restored and on the US Holocaust Museum website, a woman contacted him and said that when she watched the film, she saw her grandfather as a 13 year old boy, and that he was still alive and would love to talk with him.
Here’s how Glenn Kurtz, the film discoverer, describes the conversation:

“One of the things he said to me on the phone when we first spoke was, “You’ve given me back my childhood.” And I think, for someone who survived the Holocaust — the tragedy of that, the loss of it, the intense fear of that experience — just overshadows everything that came before it and makes what came before, in a sense, almost incomprehensible. And when we were sitting and watching the film, one of the things that he said was, “I just can’t believe that I was a kid.” It was a part of his life that he couldn’t even relate to anymore. But here it was, in these beautiful color images, and one of the things that he said to me was, “Now, I can show you that I’m not from Mars.” He had felt that isolated in his family, as if he had come from Mars.”

Sharing stories and sharing lives is sacred work.

Roger Wolsey, a Methodist pastor in Boulder, CO wrote a poem this summer called Glue.

my religion is agape
my religion is the glue that unconditionally brings out the best in each other and holds us together

and because jesus dunked me in a giant vat of that thick and sticky agape adhesive,
i promise to love you by holding doors open for you and
offering to share my umbrella when it rains

solomon said
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:  If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?  Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

…and my religion is to lie down with you to keep you warm — and ponder that “third strand”
my religion is to come to your side to help you fight your battles
my religion is to volunteer at local soup kitchens, and to read the local paper, and to write letters to that paper, and to volunteer for political campaigns, or at least to vote!
my religion is to promise to help build homes for you through Habitat for Humanity
my religion is to increase awareness of your hunger through joining my local Crop Walk
my religion is to reduce your hunger by lobbying congress through Bread for the World
my religion is to help you get the right to marry the person you love, if the powers that be tell you you can’t
my religion is to give a damn about you

— trusting that you give a damn about me.

my religion is to promise to ask you “how is it with your soul?”
and my religion is to hope that you ask that of me

my religion is to sing my heart out with my church’s gospel choir so i can express my highs and my lows
as i hear the heart-aches and joys of those around me

my spirituality isn’t private, and it isn’t personal,
and neither is yours

you are my brother and i am your keeper
please tell me that you are mine

God would raise up judges from among the people when God heard the cries of the people. In the Bible, the judges were Deborah and Barak and Gideon and others.

Today, I wonder if God is raising you up to be judges—people who can help guide people back to their story, to remind them they are part of something much bigger than themselves.

You may not be called up as a military leader, as the biblical judges were, but God’s people are crying out because they’ve lost the path and have forgotten the truth that they are God’s beloved children in whom God is well pleased, a part of God’s family.

Go tell them the story. Go listen to their stories. God will be in the midst of it all.
Amen.

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3 thoughts on “Telling the Story

  1. I would add — institutional synagogue wants me to pay to maintain its buildings according to its particular standards, when keeping my own tent pitched and secure is harder every year.

    The very last time I interviewed for an academic job, it was at a Methodist institution, and the dean told me, we want to teach people what we know and are learning, but we don’t care if there are more Methodists. That impressed me quite a bit. I think the point about trusting that it’s okay if the people we reach out to don’t come into the sanctuary is an excellent one. The story that any religion tells shouldn’t be about building fiefs. The people in the Gospels who come to hear the preaching do it outside of buildings and the main thing seems to be feeding them, not signing them up on membership cards. And we don’t know what they did afterwards.

    • Agreed. Evangelism with the goal of institutional survival is not compelling for me.
      That said, I have found so much support and love in good institutional religion that I worry about people who do not have that kind of community.
      I’m okay if their community doesn’t look like mine, but I want to make sure they have a close community to support them.

      • oh, I’m with you on the relevance of institutions to me personally but also that I have learned that community looks all kinds of ways …

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