Sunday, October 9, 2011
by Ellen Sims
Lectionary readings in Isaiah, Philippians, and Matthew are printed after the sermon. The sermon followed a weekend retreat for Open Table UCC. The retreat was led by Karen Lee Turner and Nevin Trammel, who teach storytelling as a spiritual practice (http://feastforthejourney.com/blog.html).
The Bible often seems a somber book, maybe because we tend to read the words with respectful but grim seriousness or detachment. But I hope that today you caught the bright note of joy singing its way through each of today’s lectionary passages. I hope you noticed that Isaiah the prophet imagines God inviting us to a sumptuous banquet where every tear will be wiped away. I hope you overheard Paul tell the church at Philippi to “rejoice always”—in what many consider to be Paul’s most joyful letter. I hope you observed that the Gospel reading for today retells one of Jesus’s many parables about a wedding feast—his culture’s most extravagantly celebrated occasion —and in this particular wedding feast story even the lowliest are included in the joy.
- K Chesterton was right to highlight the role of mirth in religion. He said, “Life is serious all the time, but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as sex, death, and religion) you must have mirth or you will have madness.”
We’ve not trained our ears to hear it, but scholars tell us there’s not only joy and celebration in the Bible—but there’s also humor we miss because of cultural differences. After all, what is considered funny in one culture might get you arrested in another. But we found it easy to laugh at the story of Tamar in Genesis—when the pompous Judah is made to look the fool as his henchman wanders the town seeking to pay his master’s prostitute with a bleating, randy goat. That, my friends, is a Saturday Night Live skit.
The word “comedy” means something different in literature than it does in television. Biblical comedy is not necessarily of the LOL—Laugh Out Loud—variety. Comedy in the Bible is often used to ridicule the arrogant, to let the fools and underdogs triumph. But biblical comedy is rooted in a “comic vision” that is transformative (J. William Whedbee, The Bible and the Comic Vision, pp. 4-5). So comedy in the Bible is often a tool for coping with the harshness of life. But biblical comedy also opens up an entire vision of life—and that vision is hopeful. The simplest way to differentiate comedy from tragedy—in the classical sense (think about Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies)—is that a tragedy usually ends with a funeral and comedy ends with a wedding feast. Each and every Sunday, we are invited to God’s feast for us—where we remember Jesus’ death even as we celebrate his love and his living presence among us. Comedy is not a silly escape from life’s harsh realities; Biblical comedy shows us an alternate reality of hope and joy.
I was thrilled when Karen Turner accepted our invitation to lead our first retreat—not only because she’s a dear friend and a wonderful retreat leader, but because she uses storytelling in her ministry. I understand my own life as a story. I think of the Christian faith in terms of a story.
Elie Wiesel says that “God made [humanity] because [God] loves stories.” I would clarify that humans are not characters God manipulates, but co-creators in life’s ongoing story. If I think about Divine activity as storytelling, and humans participating in Life’s creativity as co-authors, then our goal is to continue constructing and living into a story unfolding with hope. Hope, after all, is the storyteller’s gracious capacity to imagine what is not yet. Our other human purpose is to connect, and that is also the storyteller’s goal: to create a bridge from one being to another, to construct a mental framework that connects life’s pieces meaningfully, to imagine someone else’s situation and empathize, to understand one’s self in community, to relate . . . to love. To live a life of faith is to participate as a story teller in this unfolding love story.
Jesus preached through stories. But Jesus also revealed God’s saving love in his life story and his Passion Story. The Jesus Story is the master story for Christians. Through Jesus we understand that God enters human history to suffer with the suffering, love the unlovable, and bring hope to the hopeless. Renouncing a system of violence and domination, Jesus showed us a creatively different way to write the Story.
I believe Jesus gave us a storied way of knowing God—not the only way, but the best way for me and countless others. Jesus’ crucifixion was never God’s plan, but was a consequence of self-giving love, a tragic event transformed by hope. You see, it was God’s gracious gift of hope that allowed Jesus’ followers to see their resurrected Lord, through the eyes of faith, and to begin narrating the horror of his death into a saving story of life, a story we believe today through faith. The cross, a consequence of Jesus’s choice to embody selfless love, generated the story. The God-with-us story “saves” as hearers choose to engage and enter the grace-filled construct Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection offer. Had the crucifixion been a human tragedy, the story might have lingered on while Jesus’ followers continued to follow his precepts. But the Jesus Story lives on because we do not simply follow Jesus’ teachings but in fact enter into his very way of being. His disciples act within his story instead of simply retelling or understanding a story. We walk alongside Jesus, we participate in his story, we enlarge upon and modernize the story, and we partner with Christ to work toward the empowering and peaceful kingdom of God. When we partner with the Jesus of the story, we receive the saving grace of the storyteller: to imagine what is not yet, to create a vision of God’s hope and love, to re-author our own lives in healthier ways, to live purposefully into that ever-developing God-authored/Jesus-enacted/Spirit-inspired story. We are telling with our very lives a story of hope. This story is a comedy, in the older meaning. And I suppose that makes us all a bunch of comedians. If you were at the retreat this weekend, you know that is true.
What this joy looks like in worship is not what comedy looks like on television. There’s a big difference between joy—and entertainment. Entertainment depends upon certain conditions and circumstances. Joy is above circumstances. You may recall that Paul wrote to the Philippians while he was in prison—yet his letter brims with joy. Entertainment is escapism. Joy is transcendence. Entertaining worship manipulates our emotions. Joyful worship gives expression to the full range of the human experience.
But joy needs to be expressed—as it was at our retreat. In her memoir, Annie Dillard urges readers to express their joy. Dillard recalls being an exuberant 10-year-old in love with the world. One day, as she was walking down Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh, her body craved a way to express her joy so she decided to try to fly. Now she was old enough to know people can’t fly—but “just once [she] wanted a task that required all the joy [she] had. She’d noticed that if she waited long enough, her “strong unexpressed joy would dwindle and dissipate inside her, like a fire subsiding.” Just once she wanted to let it all out.
She tells the story this way:
“So I ran the sidewalk full tilt. I waved my arms ever higher and faster; blood balled in my fingertips. I knew I was foolish. I knew I was too old really to believe in this as a child would, out of ignorance; instead I was experimenting as a scientist would, testing both the thing itself and the limits of my own courage in trying it miserably self-conscious in full view of the whole world. You can’t test courage cautiously, so I ran hard and waved my arms hard, happy.
Up ahead I saw a business-suited pedestrian. He was coming stiffly toward me down the walk. Who could ever forget this first test, this stranger, this thin young man, appalled? I banished the temptation to straighten up and walk right. He flattened himself against a brick wall as I passed flailing—although I had left him plenty of room. He had refused to meet my exultant eye. He looked away, evidently embarrassed. How surprisingly easy it was to ignore him! What I was letting rip, in fact, was my willingness to look foolish, in his eyes and in my own. Having chosen this foolishness, I was a free being. How could the world ever stop me, how could I betray myself, if I was not afraid?
I was flying. My shoulders loosened, my stride opened, my heart banged the base of my throat. . . . .
A linen-suited woman in her 50s did meet my exultant eye. She looked exultant herself, seeing me from far up the block. . . . Her warm, intelligent glance said she knew what I was doing—not because she herself had been a child but because she herself took a few loose aerial turns around her apartment every night for the hell of it, and by day played along with the rest of the world and took the street car. So Teresa of Avila checked her unseemly joy and hung on to the altar rail to hold herself down. The woman’s smiling deep glance seemed to read my own awareness from my face, so we passed on the sidewalk—a beautiful upright woman walking in her tan linen suit and a kid running and flapper her arms—we passed on the sidewalk with a look of accomplices who share a humor just beyond irony.”
Dillard then explains that the joy multiplied as she ran, even as she slowed bumping to a halt. And regarding those other dignified witnesses to her wildness on Penn Ave., she concludes: “I had not seen a great deal accomplished in the name of dignity, ever” (Dillard, 107-109).
We are storytelling creatures. We can tell stories to others—but simply by living we are composing the stories we tell to ourselves that shape our lives. These stories can be joyful. Although our past stories have already been written, our “preferred stories”–to use Karen Turner’s term–are being composed. We can choose to retell ourselves the story others have written and are writing about us—or we can re-author the stories of our lives in collaboration with the freeing Spirit of Love. Often unconsciously, we live out a scripted life. We have accepted an unhealthy or limited story about ourselves and we keep living according to that story’s implicit parameters. Some tell themselves the story of their lives as “the rebellious son” or “the dutiful daughter” or “the class clown” or “the hard worker” or “the one who bottles up his feelings.” We get locked into those narratives. It is true we cannot control circumstances that might suggest or reconfirm for us our role as “silent sufferer” or “angry avenger.” But we CAN rewrite our part in those circumstances—by God’s gracious gift of imagination. There is a different and more complex and gracious story we hear first in our own hearts about our belovedness—and then we tell that story with our lives—not with words, but with moment by moment choices and intentions. There are always plot twists. And characters are always imperfect and inconsistent. But over time we can collaborate with the Spirit in a new and freeing story of our lives. Maybe you are ready to compose a life that is freer and truer, a story more consistent with the Jesus Story. Rewrite that script you were handed. Jesus told us, with his words and ways, that a new story is possible. Thanks be to God.
Prayer: Storytelling God, free us to compose a joyful life worthy of you. God who experienced the indignity of the cross, save us from our false dignity so we may let loose our joy. May we continue hearing and creating stories of joy and hope, interweaving our own stories with the great story of your love. Amen
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth. , . . Let us be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation. Isaiah 25: 9-10
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4: 1-9
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. . . . 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. Matthew 22: 1-3, 8-10