May the words of my mouth be food for the hearts of your people, O Lord.
I love a good story. I like listening to them and, as anyone who knows me will agree, I like telling them. Maybe that’s because storytelling is an inherently social activity. Think about it. Even when you are reading a book in solitude you are sharing an experience with the author. She is providing you with the basic elements of the story, but your imagination is doing the rest. You really can’t tell a story without an audience. Well – you can try to do it in a mirror – but pretending to be surprised by the punch line gets pretty boring after a while.
Telling stories is probably as old as humanity itself. And we tell stories for dozens of reasons – to inform, to enlighten – and often simply to entertain. According to one neuroscientist, stories even produce brain chemicals that tell us who to hang out with. Paul Zak says that “As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness.” In order for us to be able to tell whether another person is likely to act in concert with us, our brains send out a neurochemical called oxytocin. “Oxytocin…motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing [our] sense of empathy, – [that is] – our ability to experience others’ emotions.” So basically stories help us find our “people.” Stories help us to survive.
The Bible is one of the primary bases of our faith – not because, as many people mistakenly believe – it is a book of rules that tells us how to act, but because it is a book of stories that shapes us by showing us who we are. It allows us to recognize our capacity for wisdom, kindness and courage – as well as for ignorance, cruelty and fear. And it shows us who and what we might become. Scripture, like oxytocin, helps us find our people – and ourselves.
But some biblical stories are harder to understand than others. Look at today’s Hebrew Scripture. We find Abram – who will become our patriarch Abraham – having a vision in which he is talking to God. God wants to reward Abram so he promises him wealth. But Abram doesn’t want wealth; he wants children. Because Abram doesn’t have any “people” – he’s a nomadic herder who lives among strangers at a time when kinship bonds are the primary source of community. So God says he’ll cut him a deal – and when I say “cut,” I mean cut him a deal. Because the phrase “to make a covenant” in Hebrew is actually better translated as “to cut a covenant” – and that’s exactly what Abram is doing when he cuts those animals in half. It is the shedding of blood that seals Abram’s covenant with God. Abram will get what he asks for – he will have heirs – he will have descendants – he will have people – but not before a lot of blood has been shed – and not before he experiences “a deep and terrifying darkness.” God tells Abram that he will be his shield – but that doesn’t mean that God will prevent Abram from experiencing danger or pain. It means that God will keep him from being overwhelmed by them. It means that God will be with him.
As God is still with his people. God continues to be with her people even when they slaughter one another in God’s name, even when they kill God’s prophets and stone God’s messengers – even when they crucified God’s son. Scripture tells us that people hurt one another, yes, but it also tells us that God weeps with us when it happens. We see that in today’s gospel when Jesus cries out for his people: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” All we have to do is take away the word “Jerusalem,” and substitute any number of other names that mean something to each of us – that signify our people – church, friend, spouse, teacher, priest – and we hear Jesus’s desire to remove pain from our lives. Because God is with us.
That is the core of our story – of the Christian story – of the St. Mary the Virgin story. God is with us. And there is more – because we are not like Abram. We are not alone. We are a community that is greater than that ancient nomad could ever have imagined. And as his descendants it is our responsibility, our sacred duty – and our gift – to continue to tell our stories. If storytelling is the way we connect to other people – the way in which we learn to trust one another – the way in which our very brain chemicals identify us a family – then our survival as a church, as a denomination – as a people, depends on it.
This afternoon some of us will gather to listen to a story about this community- and parts of that story will be painful to tell and to hear. But that story is still a gift. It is a gift because that story will be told in community. It is a gift because it will help us learn as a community. It is a gift because it will help us grow as a community. It is a gift because through it we will know that God is in this community. And however hard that story may be to tell or to hear we must remember what scripture tells us – that God is our shield and our strength, and that in days of trouble God will shelter us and keep us safe. We must remember what Paul told his people – that Jesus Christ can transform the body of our humiliation into the body of his glory. We must remember that God is our light and our salvation and we have nothing to fear. And we must remember that when we weep for those in pain and for those who have caused pain, God weeps with us, longing to gather us under her wings.
We have the strength and trust to share all of our stories because our collective story, the story of this community, is the story of the greatest gift God has given us – the gift that is at the heart of the Christian story – and at the heart of the St. Mary the Virgin story- the gift of love. Accept that gift. Love one another. Live in community. There you will find hope. There you will find strength. There you will find peace. AMEN.
Paul J. Zak, (October 28, 2014), “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” Harvard Business Review online, https://hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling/.