Saturday, May 5, 2012

Tell Me a Story

RCL Easter 5B
6 May 2012

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

            Early in my tenure at Vancouver School of Theology one of our students, Susan Lukey, came up with the idea of having a Saint Nicholas Day party for the children.  She had been raised in a home with a significant Ukrainian heritage, so the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day came naturally to her.  When she approached me about this idea, she asked me to do two things:  (i) play the role of Saint Nicholas and (ii) prepare a story for the children.
            Now the first task, dressing up like Saint Nicholas, was an easy thing for a high church Anglican to do.  Susan made a miter and a crozier for me.  I found a wonderful Navajo ring that could double as an episcopal ring.  I could wear my traditional alb, amice and cincture with a red stole and chasuble.  We were set.
            The crafting of a story was more daunting to me.  I had never really been into so-called 'children's sermons' and I was afraid that I would not be able to create a story that would capture the children's imagination.  Then I had a brainstorm:  I would craft a story with David, Anna and Owen providing the models for the roles of Bishop Nicholas' fictional nephews and niece.  The story began to take shape and it remains one of my favourite creations.  The children, both my own and others, loved the story and it became a required part of every Saint Nicholas' Day celebration.
            But one Saint Nicholas Day a young man, Marc Lepine, entered the Ecole Polytechnique in MontrĂ©al and proceeded to kill a number of young women, simply because they were women.  While I continued to play Saint Nicholas from time to time, the anniversary of the MontrĂ©al killings remained very fresh at a school such as VST with its long commitment to women's issues and development.
            But in recent years I have been able to resurrect my story and to use it on a few occasions.  In part I am able to do this because of Saint Nicholas himself.  While it is anachronistic to portray him as an early feminist, Saint Nicholas was well known for his efforts improve the status of the poor, especially young women who were often sold into slavery.  His story is a partial antidote to the tragedy of the Ecole Polytechnique.
            Stories are a core element of religious faith.  One might even argue that stories are the primary glue that holds religious traditions together.  Recently I was listening to 'Ideas' on CBC Radio One.  James Karse, a scholar of religion, was commenting on the wide variety of beliefs within any religious tradition.  He pointed out that Yale University Press had recently published a series on Christian creeds --- five volumes full of authoritative Christian statements about what Christians should and should not believe.  The glue, however, that holds the Christian community together, sometimes loosely, sometimes tightly, is not found in these volumes.  That glue is found in the story of a Jewish rabbi from the northern region of Galilee whose life and teaching changed the world as we know it.
            Another reason stories are the glue of religious traditions is this:  There is not always a direct correspondence between what a story says and what a story means.  If you and I disagree about what we should believe, we often pass quickly from debate, the effort to persuade the other to our point of view, to conflict, the effort to coerce the other to our point of view.  Stories do not lend themselves as easily to debate and conflict.  Stories tend to engage us in conversation, the effort to understand the perspective of the other person.  As we enter into conversation with each other, our world is enriched and deepened even as we realize that there is still more to the story than either of our perspectives can reveal.  James Karse would say that our conversation leads to a community where each participant is warmed by the contributions of others and where mystery, the deep truth we are all trying to comprehend, embraces us.
            Today's readings are invitations to enter into stories that gave rise to two religious  communities.  In our reading from Exodus we hear God entering into the covenant with the Hebrews who have come out of Egypt and who are on the path to becoming the people of Israel.  They are told that they are to be a priestly people who will be a sign to all peoples of the holiness of the God who brought them from slavery into freedom.  Everything else in the Hebrew scriptures can be understood as the community's struggle to understand what being a covenant people means.
              In some texts being a covenant people will mean being separate from all other peoples.  In other texts being a covenant people will mean being a beacon to others.  In still other texts being a covenant people will mean being open to bringing others into the covenantal relationship with God that the people of Israel enjoy.  In the Mishnah and Talmud, the two authoritative reflections on the Hebrew scriptures created by the rabbis in the centuries after the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce, there is no attempt to erase differing interpretations of the meaning of text.  All are allowed to gather around the text like campers around a fire who hear a story being told and try to ponder its meaning and its ending.
              In our second reading from the Acts of the Apostles the early Christian community is wrestling with the implications of the story of Jesus of Nazareth.  There are some members of the community who believe that the story means the redemption of the Jewish people and that membership in the community of Jesus' disciples is limited solely to Jews and to those who are willing to become Jews.  Others are wondering whether the story of Jesus has broader implications.  It is their interpretation of the story that we hear today.
              In the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, eunuchs are forbidden to be members of the covenant people.  Perhaps their membership is forbidden because they cannot fulfill the command to be fruitful and multiply, perhaps because castration was often practiced by various non-Hebrew religions, but they were excluded.  By the time of the Exile, however, attitudes seem to be shifting and the prophet we sometimes call 'Second' Isaiah, will write that God will welcome eunuchs into the promised reign of God.
              Is it a coincidence that the writer of Acts has the eunuch reading a passage from Isaiah?  Is it a coincidence that Philip, one of the so-called 'deacons' of Acts, has a Greek name not a Hebrew name?  Whatever we may wish to draw from the details of the story, the message is clear:  In the new covenant of Jesus all are welcome, even foreign eunuchs.  One of the tragedies of the history of the Christian community is that our 'yes' to Ethiopian eunuchs eventually became a 'no' to Jewish believers in Jesus who found themselves marginalized and eventually persecuted by their non-Jewish sisters and brothers.
              My friends, we have a story to share with the world.  It is a story that still has meaning for twenty-first-century North Americans who are struggling with all the ups and downs, the successes and the failures, the joys and the sorrows of living in a complex world that seems to foster loneliness and separation rather than community and communion.  It is a story that we not only tell but that we live. 
              The story of Jesus of Nazareth did not end with his death and resurrection.  As the gospel according to John puts, Jesus is the vine and we are the branches.  The story continues to grow and to reach out beyond its original historical and geographical location.  The story continues to be told in the lives of women, men and children whose 'hearts are fired up', whose 'minds are fired up' and whose 'souls are fired up'.  The story continues to be told when people ask questions about what the story means and when communities such as ours raise our distinctive voices to share what we believe the story to mean.
              The Christian story is a story about relationships rather than, a story about communities rather than institutions.  It's a story worth sharing with others to start up a conversation with them about what it means.  So let the story-telling begin.  Amen.

No comments: