Saturday, August 25, 2012

What Story Shall We Tell?

RCL Proper 21B (Thematic)
26 August 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Readings:  Joshua 24.1-2a, 14-18; Psalm 34.15-22; Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-69

For an audio recording of the Sermon as preached at the 10.00 a.m. eucharist, please click here.

            Recently I have been reading Bernard Cornwell’s trilogy that re-tells the legend of Arthur.  Recent historical study has given some credence to the existence of a military leader who led the Britons, the ancestors of the Welsh and Cornish, in their struggle against the invading Anglo-Saxons, the ancestors of the English, during the late fifth and early sixth centuries.  Since the historical data is relatively slim, re-telling the story of Arthur is a novelist’s delight.  One’s imagination has greater freedom when the facts are so shrouded in mystery.

            What I love about fiction, especially historical fiction, is that the writer can tell a ‘true’ story that may or may not be factual.  In telling the story the writer has an opportunity to interpret known facts and offer the reader a possible reconstruction.  Some stories are more improbable than others, such as the recent spate of horror stories that cast historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln as vampire hunters.  These stories say something about our contemporary culture and our desire to find something  about the supernatural darkness lurking behind or just outside our day-to-day reality, but these stories rarely offer us a compelling alternative understanding of our lives.

            Unlike casting Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter, the legends of Arthur continue to be told and re-told because there these stories tell us something about ourselves and our own life-stories.  At their core the legends of Arthur are about the desire to defend one culture, thought of as sophisticated and cosmopolitan, against the threat posed by another culture, thought of as militaristic and violent.  What makes these stories even more compelling is that we know how the story ends:  the Celtic culture of Arthur is eventually overcome by the Saxon culture of the invaders.  Great Britain, once the domain of the Britons, becomes what we now know as England, Scotland and Wales.  English law, English language and English culture becomes dominant and Celtic laws, languages and cultures cling to what is sometimes called the ‘Celtic fringe’.

            My own children embody these ancient stories.  From my side they carry on the story of Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Normans.  On Paula’s side they carry on some of the same stories as my family but have added the stories of Spaniards, both Christian and Jewish.  When they were little, we would often listen to Celtic music, both traditional and contemporary.  From time to time I would ask them, “What does this music tell us?”  If no answer was forthcoming, I would often say, “This music reminds us that there was a time when some people tried to silence our Celtic voices.  But they did not succeed.”  Arthur may not have succeeded in sending the Saxons away, but he did not fail in keeping the story of my ancestors alive so that it could thrive today.

            So why does an author tell the story of what might be seen as a ‘doomed cause’?  He or she tells the story because telling the story releases its truth and that truth sets the readers free to shape their future.

            When the ancient editor of what we now call the book of Joshua put pen to parchment, he lived in a time when the glory days of the kingdom of David and Solomon were past.  On more than one occasion the people had been defeated in war and were just recovering from more than seventy years of exile.  Their belief in the covenants that God had made with Noah, with Abraham and with Moses had been severely tested.  All around them were numerous alternatives to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and some were no doubt tempted to follow these alternatives.

            Rather than weave a story of endings, the editor of Joshua tells a story of beginnings.  He weaves together all the stories of Israel’s past, whether factual or not, stories that remind the people that God has acted and has promised to act.  In this story a fugitive people fleeing from the greatest empire of their day return to the land of their origins, now the home of many other peoples.  This fugitive people regains lands once thought lost and become a corporate sign of God’s faithfulness.

            This story ends with the renewal of the covenant at Shechem.  Joshua is described as speaking to the people of his time, but in truth he is speaking to the people of the editor’s time:  “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  (Joshua 24.15)
            “It is true,” the editor is saying, “that we have witnessed evil times and have wondered whether God is still for us.  Some of us have chosen other paths, but God is faithful to the covenant.  So choose which story you will live:  the story of assimilation and defeat or the story of faithfulness and resistance.”
            So why does the editor tell the story of what in hindsight might be seen as a ‘doomed cause’?  He tells the story because telling the story releases its truth and that truth sets the people free to shape their future.

            When the writer of the gospel of John put pen to parchment and wrote what we know as the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John, he was writing to a people who were experiencing the early stages of opposition and persecution.  The generation of Jesus’ first apostles was dying and, despite all their hopes, Jesus had not returned.  Although the followers of Jesus understood themselves to be part of God’s covenant people, their friends and families saw them as misguided at best, heretics at worst.

            Rather than paper over the conflict, the writer of the Gospel according to John confronts it head-on.  He reminds his fellow believers that Jesus has not abandoned them and that in every celebration of the eucharist Jesus is present and gives himself to them.  To his fellow Jews, especially those who oppose the ‘Jesus movement’, he connects Jesus with the events of Jewish history and describes Jesus as the one in whom God’s saving purposes are embodied.

            Chapter six of the Gospel ends with some of Jesus’ followers shaking their heads and turning away:  “So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’”  (John 6.67-69)  Although Jesus asks the question of his immediate followers, it is clear that the writer of John is directing the question at his own contemporaries.

            “It is true,” the evangelist says to us, “we are living through times of conflict.  We all expected Jesus’ return, but it seems we are meant to wait longer and to form a new community.  We face opposition and experience defections.  So choose the story you will live:  the story of an impossible dream and disappointment or the story of God’s abiding presence and our mission.”

            So why does the evangelist tell the story of conflict and opposition?  He tells the story because telling the story releases its truth and that truth sets the people free to shape their future.

            Despite centuries of persecution and marginalization, the Jewish people continue to proclaim their faith in the God of Israel, the God of the covenants.  Despite all efforts to silence the voices of the early Christian movement, we are still sharing with the world the good news of God in Christ, the potential to life an abundant life in the here and now even as we work for God’s future.

            Three Sundays from now we shall celebrate the sixty-fifth anniversary of the founding of this parish.  When we came into existence as a parish, our neighbourhood was very different and the climate was friendlier to religious communities.  But our neighbourhood has changed over these past six and a half decades and attitudes towards religious communities range from ignorance through indifference to hostility.

            In our present climate it is very tempting to tell stories of ‘the good old days’ and to bemoan the present.  While it is right to remember our past, let us not forget why we remember the past:  We remember the past in order to shape our future.  And if we find some of the attitudes towards religious communities troubling, then we need to do all we can to share the ‘good news’ of what we are doing and why we are doing it.

            You and I have chosen to serve the Lord; let us not be shy in telling others why we have made this choice.  You and I have discovered the words of life here; let us not be reluctant to share with others the life we have found here.  While we are facing significant challenges, I do not believe our story is finished.  All around us are people who are searching for what we have found.

            It is true, I say to you, we are living through a time when the Anglican way of following Jesus of Nazareth seems in decline.  We may not have expected this, but our tradition offers us ways to proclaim our faith that will help us weather the stormy present and offers our neighbours, young and old, male and female, newly arrived and long-time resident, a way to discover God’s presence and life in the here and now.  So let us choose the story we will live:  either a story of disappointment and decline or a story of our continuing role in God’s mission and our commitment to that role.

            As for this household of Saint Faith, I think that we shall choose to serve the Lord, for it is in this household God has spoken and continues to speak to us the words of life.  Amen.

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