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Incomparable Riches

June 12, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Lynn Dunn at the White Plains Presbyterian Church for Church School Sunday, June 11, 2017

Children were our worship leaders/liturgists. The Call to Worship this morning was a responsive retelling of the story of Creation in Genesis 1. Scripture readings were the naming of the animals in Genesis 2, and the Deuteronomy reading calling upon us to keep all the words of instruction in our hearts and teach them diligently to our children. The chancel was decorated with large cloth and papier-mâché animal figures.

Prior to the sermon, the children were asked to name a favorite story and then use the sermon time to create something to help tell that story out of one of materials set out on several different tables in the front of the church. They were asked to leave their creations on the center table as their offering for the day when they finished.

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth, the work of our hands, and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer, our strength and our inspiration. Amen.

I want to thank the children who are leading us in worship today through their readings, prayers and music. Thank you, also, to you children who are participating in creative expression as I preach, and to the teachers helping them.

I begin my message to the adults by asking: What if all that ails us could be cured with a story? What kind of story would it be? Who would be the protagonist? Would there be a villain? What would the final outcome or resolution be? Most importantly, who would be the author of this story? I wonder.

What if a story could save us? If it could, what is it that this story would save us from, and what would it save us for, in this life, as it prepares us for eternity? Meaninglessness? Indecision? Isolation? Fear? Pain? Longing? Grief?

I asked the children earlier if they have any favorite stories, and I’d like to ask the adults to think for moment: what are yours? Of all the stories you know, books you’ve read as a child or adult, movies or TV series, what are your favorites? What are the novels you cherish? What TV series can you hardly wait to see, or look forward to binge-watching on DVR? Is it Orange is the New Black? House of Cards? Scandal? Game of Thrones? What about Movies?

Has a story every changed your life? Has it changed the way you look at the world? How have the stories you love shaped and formed you? Most importantly, the one question I would like you to carry with you as you leave today: What story do you tell about yourself and your life?

If you have heard me talk about our Church School curriculum, you know that our dedicated teachers teach the children by telling the core Bible stories by heart, using tangible materials to help tell the stories. The materials are a memory aid to the storyteller, and a visual prompt for the hearers, meant just to spark their imaginations, so they are quite simple. After we tell these sacred stories, we wonder together with the children about them. Some of the questions we ask are: Where would you be in this story, or what part of the story is about you? What parts of this story could you leave out, and still have all the story you need? These are big, open-ended questions, leaving lots of room to explore.

Doing a little fun research on stories and storytelling (sometimes known as “procrastination”), I came upon a website called, “102 of the Most Inspiring Storytelling Quotes of All Time.” Fascinating! Who doesn’t need another good quote from Alan Rickman in this day and age? I might even have just read you about 90 of them, and called it a sermon!   I found another website that posed the question, “what is a story?” and answered this humorously saying, “it’s the thing we can’t help telling the moment we open our mouths.”

That’s probably true: we are always telling stories! For it is through stories that we explain the world around us, factually, emotionally and spiritually– to ourselves and to others. Storytelling is how we communicate, educate and entertain. It is how we make sense of incoming information in ways that are retrievable and usable. It is how we connect the partial to the whole, and order things spatially, causally, and sequentially in time. And good stories simply delight us!

As Christians, we have been blessed with a treasury of incomparable riches in the form of the stories in our Bible. These stories are sacred because through them we trace the elusive presence of God throughout history and in our lives. In sacred stories we come right up alongside some great existential mysteries: Life, death, aloneness, agency, eternity. Through deep encounter with sacred stories we learn to recognize these mysteries, growing emotionally and spiritually in the process, and we may even experience healing. One doesn’t come close a great mystery in life often. If we aren’t prepared to recognize it we might miss it altogether. When we recognize it, it can move us, fill our lives with meaning, and transform us.

Narrative invites storyteller and listener to enter the story as collaborators in making or finding meaning together. It evokes a new way of seeing, allowing new insight and ideas to emerge collectively. The best stories create an openness within us, letting us drop our defenses for a time. Abstract intellectual argument and linear thinking polarize, as we array our facts and thoughts like an army deployed to defend what we already believe or think we know. Storytelling disarms as it delights us, as we are led into an alternative world where anything might be possible. Through storytelling, genuine conversion is possible as speaker and active listener cooperate in the search for truth and meaning. Think of the story of the great King David, who had sinned greatly in his lust for Bathsheba, sending her husband into battle to die, so he could take her. The prophet Nathan told him a story. It was the story of a man who had only one little ewe lamb that he loved dearly, but it was taken unjustly by a wealthy man who had many. The story enraged David, who said the wealthy man should be punished. When Nathan revealed that the story was really about David taking Bathsheba, David was convicted of his own sin. This is the power of story to disarm and transform.

I’ll give you a couple of examples from our classrooms, too. For Pentecost I told the story from our Godly Play curriculum. In the lesson, we first tell the story of the Tower of Babel, then transition to the story of the Apostles and their tongues of flame. To tell the Pentecost story by prefacing it with the Tower of Babel, is already to offer an interpretation, but it is a fairly classic juxtaposition in the history of Christian interpretation. As we began to wonder together about this story, I asked the children if there might be any part of this story we could leave out and still have all the story we need. One strong opinion was offered that we could leave out that part about the tower, because it didn’t seem to have much to do with the dancing flames of the Apostles. I repeated: we might leave out the part about the tower, and then I paused to let the children ponder that. In a moment the child who suggested leaving it out reconsidered and said, no, maybe we should leave it in, “because all it seems to be about communication.” Several others agreed. This was a creative leap in interpretation by a child that could only have been facilitated by simple story telling and open-ended wondering. I don’t believe any didactic method would have given the child the opportunity to make that insight his own.

Last week, we also held an open house upstairs in our classroom. Melanie asked each of the children to pick a story that they would like to tell to our visitors. One of the students brought together material from three different stories: the tabernacle in the wilderness, the Jerusalem temple, and then he pointed toward the lesson material for Jesus in the synagogue that turns into a church, indicating he might add that. I thought to myself, oh, this is good, he is going to trace the development of worship spaces over the ages. But then he surprised me and brought the model of Mt. Sinai and put it with everything else. I was puzzled at first. Then I realized something on a deep level: this is not just about the arrangement of worship spaces, but about the people of God gathering around the Word of God. For a young student to have made this abstract connection on his own, is deeply gratifying for his teachers. To watch the children connect the sacred stories in this way, so that newly recognized truths can emerge for both teachers and children is the kind of everyday miracle teachers love to see!

I recently purchased a children’s book for our program called Who Counts? 100 Sheep, 10 Coins, and 2 Sons, by Amy-Jill Levine, a professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, and Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, a leader in the area of spirituality and the arts and the author of many award-winning children’s books. This book is a retelling of 3 well known parables of Jesus. The authors have cast these stories in a fresh way to try to evoke how they might have sounded to the original listeners. In the notes at the end of the book Dr. Levine and Rabbi Sasso write:

“The Christian tradition has sometimes understood the parables to be allegories. It made connections between details in the parables and people or events in the world. For example, the sheep, the coin, and the prodigal son represent repenting sinners; the man who seeks the lost sheep and the father who welcomes the prodigal son are symbols for God. Ironically, the tradition less often sees the woman who seeks her coin as a symbol for God….

When we read parables, we should ask ourselves: Where am I in this story? How am I like the man who lost his sheep, the woman who lost her coin, the father who feels he may have lost both his sons? Do I ever feel like the lost one? How am I like the younger brother who does not want to stay home? How am I like the older brother who does everything his father tells him but who does not feel that he is loved?

The parable then prompts other questions: Have I lost something, or someone, and not paid attention? Is there someone I take for granted? What, or whom, have I forgotten to count?

If we take these questions seriously and act on them, we are better able to love our neighbors as ourselves….”

What story are you telling about your own life? Is it a story of hope, joy and love? Or is it of bitterness, regret and doom? What story would God tell about you? Not every story can or should be “happy,” but it can and should be set into the context of the larger story that is also true. We might need to let go of our private parables in favor of a story that has the power to transform us. Is the story you tell about who you are, where you are going, what your purpose is, how you relate to others, consistent with the Gospel?

I am not here today to offer you merely a few interesting words about storytelling, but to remind you of the one great story that can and does heal the world: That we were created as beloved by our Creator; that our Creator delights in us, but also weeps over us, because we are all sinners who disappoint our God every day in some way, small or large; yet by keeping our eyes and hearts fixed on Jesus, we find redemption and healing as we are formed more and more in the image of Christ, so that we will not, as the Psalmist wrote, “be counted as those who go down to the pit.”

May it be so!

 

 

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