Sermon for May 4, 2014
The few mashed potatoes left in the bowl are beginning to form a yellowish crust,and tiny pearls of grease float on the water that once covered green beans. Napkins, plates, and silverware lay strewn across the table that, not long before, had been festively decorated for another Easter feast. All of us gathered around the table have relaxed in our seats; some sit with elbows comfortably resting on the table, others carry on quiet conversations; we share a last glass of wine and a breather before the dessert and coffee.
Suddenly from a low-voiced conversation at one end of the table someone speaks out, “Aunt Jane, tell us about how you first came to St. Mark’s.” We have all heard the story before many times, but the satisfaction that comes from hearing Jane’s soft southern drawl speaking those familiar words, unleashing the telling of other stories—the time the canon spilled the sacramental wine; the time the dean forgot his sermon; the time the verger lost his staff, the time… It is like sharing the most special of secrets. The voice of the teller, warm and quiet begins, “I remember….”
The telling of stories is woven into the fabric of our lives. When we speak about the deepest hurts and joys of ourselves and our families, we break into story. The stories we have from growing up— from the Bible, from faerie tales, from our parents or neighbors or friends— these shape our images of who we are in the world and of the communities of which we are a part. We all love stories. Sometimes we pass along some really important truths wrapped up in a story. Sometimes the story itself is the point. And sometimes the story gets in the way.
To know a story deeply and profoundly is to have a sense of belonging. First, we belong to the story. We have come to know and to care about the characters; we carry them around with us in imagination. An incident occurs in our lives, or a certain word is spoken in a certain tone of voice, and we are suddenly in the presence of one of those characters.
Story also reminds us to which communities we belong. Family stories tell us that we are part of a community related by blood. In some respects knowing the stories is as much a part of belonging to a family as our biological inheritance. The stories that shape who we are and what we value also define the parameters of the communities to which we belong. When we don’t know the stories, and the history they carry, it’s hard to know our way around with any confidence, let alone feel incorporated into the community that tells the stories. Because we know the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, and many others from the Hebrew narratives, we belong to the community of persons for whom these characters are life companions. Because we know the stories of Jesus and his followers and indeed claim to be followers ourselves, those stories form the persons we are and the decisions we make even today.
So it was for the disciples on the Emmaus road as they encountered the master storyteller himself. In him was the communal memory of a people, the entire history of their encounter with God from its beginnings up to the present. In their panic and despair they had been tempted to forget their own story, to turn their backs on the gathered community and the shared memories. But Jesus calls them back to themselves and reminds them of their heritage and their calling. And even though the disciples still do not yet recognize the Risen Lord, the familiar stories serve their purpose: they are comforted, put at ease, given back a sense of purpose and identity. So they respond as is only natural: they offer hospitality, table fellowship. You know, the Seneca people say that one should repay a good story with food: one nourishes the soul while the other nourishes the body. And even today, even in the age of television, if stories are told anywhere, they will most likely be told at the table. There the responsibility for telling the stories does not belong to one member alone but is passed around the table, each teller contributing a fragment of memory to the vast mosaic. So it is with the disciples, who by the end of today’s narrative are eager to share their own stories.
Storytelling is itself a form of hospitality, part of an ancient communal spiritual discipline. It is a continual process of transforming sojourners into kinfolk and strangers into friends. The voice of the story resonates from deep within the body and imagination of its teller, and its vibrations reach into the physical and imaginative depths of the listener. The images that linger on the outskirts of consciousness and the voices that continue to sound in the ear of the heart are the threads that connect us to those who have known and loved the story across the ages. Thus to be invited into the world of a story is to be offered the hospitality of the community of people who live by that story.
Anyone who tells a story speaks a world into being, just as our story says God in creation spoke the universe into being. In this we are like God, created in the divine image. And storytelling is re-creational, as the spoken word re-enacts the first divine reaching out in relationship. This reaching out through story is by its very nature invitational.
The teller’s words evoke the story world and invite the listener into the co-creation of that world. Again, this is exactly what Jesus does with Emmaus travelers...and with us. His spoken word invites our response but does not control it. We are free to enter into the world of the story as fully as we choose. Christ initiates but does not dominate the process.
It’s little wonder that the moment of recognition, the moment of transformation, comes at the table, in the breaking of the bread. When we, as Christians, are invited to the Lord’s Table at Holy Communion, we take part in the same communal, invitational, re-creational and transformational storytelling experience. The presider at the table tells us of God’s acts on our behalf throughout history. Then, as though in answer to the unspoken question, “Tell us about the time…” we hear: “On the night before he died for us Jesus took bread….” When we respond to the invitation to enter into the story’s world, to accept God’s hospitality, we taste the wine of transformation and the bread of life. Once again, like those first disciples, we are seated at the banquet table; the story happens to us.
And like those first disciples, in our encounter with the story we are changed for ever. We belong to the story and the story belongs to us. It is now ours to tell, to share with others. Here once again, we are living into our created heritage: we remember because God remembers. As we retell the stories of God’s ages-old dance with creation, sometimes at a distance, sometimes in a close embrace, we re-collect the community. And our re-collection extends the community by reaching out to those who have not heard the stories or have heard them only in ways that excluded them before. To remember aloud the stories of God is to re-member the community, to bring together the odd assortment of those who hunger to be remembered by God or God’s people.
Yesterday one of our number around the table took a deeper step into the story, becoming a professing member of that branch of the Christian family that is the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church: Judith Jean Brunner. As we did at her baptism, we promised to walk beside her on her journey, to nourish her at our table, to share with her the stories we have received. Judy is eager to know, to be fed, and she has a lot of her own to share already. I encourage you to get to know her, to share stories with her. May we give willingly and listen deeply.
And what are your stories, the household of God that is Gethsemane? When you talk about the life, identity and mission of this place, which stories are about abundant life rather than scarcity? Which are told from the perspective of faith rather than fear? Which stories proclaim, by word and example, the good news of God in Christ? Remembering as we do in Easter season our call to be an apostolic, missionary church, what can we do to reach out and actively invite others into our story, into the story, offering them hospitality and room to make the story their own? Above all, through living out the story day by day how can we continue God’s work of re-creation, constantly building up for the good of the Church? You have a wonderful heritage. You have a God-given story. It is, after all, the greatest story ever told. May we never stop telling it.