We are stories and water. That is what a friend mine who blogs under Black Coffee Poet said when I told him that our worship committee had approved moving to the Narrative Lectionary. The Narrative Lectionary was developed by some folks from Luther College in Minneapolis a few years ago because the Revised Common Lectionary, which we have been using until now, doesn’t capture the flow of the story of the Bible. It tends to be episodic and makes it difficult for us to know our stories. And we are stories and water. Stories are important. Our stories form us and our world and it is important that we know them.
Thomas King, the Cherokee writer and activist in his book The Truth About Stories tells us that the truth about stories is that is all we are. King quotes the Okanagan storyteller Jeanette Armstrong who says, “Through my language I understand I am being spoken to, I’m not the one speaking. The words are coming from many tongues and mouths of Okanagan people and the land around them. I am a listener to the language’s stores, and when my words form I am merely retelling the same stories in different patterns.”
When I tell a story I’m not just painting a picture of some events that either happened or didn’t happen. When I tell a story I am channeling all the other people who told the story before me. I am channeling all the cultural events that contrived to make the story what it is. Or more accurately all the cultural events that contrived to make the story possible. Stories form who we are as individuals and as a community and as a society.
It’s not just biblical stories either. We have stories about the formation of our country, about western civilization, about the Roughriders and the Banjo Bowl, even about Wesley. I wonder what our stories would tell us about ourselves. And all these stories are important. Stories are important.
In western European culture we have lost some of the respect that I believe we should have for stories. Thomas King had a professor who told him that you could not have a dependable literature without writing it down; that an oral Literature is a lesser literature. When we pair this notion with the story that Indigenous peoples don’t have any history writing we can see how this privileging of the written word could be damaging. Not all stories are good stories. The one about indigenous cultures being limited to oral literature is not a good story. It is not even based in truth. There are many examples of hieroglyphics being used to keep records.The Aztecs had a library to rival the library at Alexandria until it was burned down by Spanish Conquistadors. So you see, it is possible to have written literature and oral literature thrive side by side. But in the west we have denigrated oral literature and lionized the written word.
This kind of thinking has caused harm to us as individuals and the communities we live in. This is what is called the Tyranny of the Written Word. It has been especially harmful in reading the bible. Don’t get me wrong. I love reading and I love reading the bible. And much of the bible lends itself to be written down. The Poetry of Psalms, Job and Isaiah and the prophets is dependent on clever wordplay, double entendre and metaphor as it cries out for justice in this world. Also lending itself to be written down are the laws and lists. But stories are another matter.
Our stories didn’t lend themselves to being written down, at least not as a replacement to telling them. We have taken stories that some level need to be spoken and written them in the proverbial stone. What the words say must not and cannot be changed. They story is frozen in time and space. For example, it is perpetually Adam’s rib that is removed to generate grow eve like an alien in a science fiction story. But wait, when I told the story to the children I didn’t use a rib. Rather, I had God manually divide Adam into two beings, Adam and Eve. Who gave me the right to do that? Well, I didn’t make it up. In fact I was referring to a particular Midrash. Midrash is a method that Rabbis have long used to try to explicate biblical stories. A Midrash will tell the story differently or tell another story that will shed new light on the original story. The purpose is to understand the story and the world better, through the practice of storytelling.
In fact, I think one of the most beautiful things about stories is that they in fact do change. They change to reflect and to affect the changing world in which we live. King starts every chapter in The Truth About Stories with the same paragraph. In this much repeated paragraph he tells us that every time he hears a story it is a little different. Sometimes it is in the voice of the storyteller, sometimes it is in the details, sometimes it is in the interaction with the audience. There are always changes. But some part of the stories remains unchanged. While there are changes there is also constancy as well.
When I tell biblical stories to the children I change them for them for the theology. I want the children to know that God is good all the time. And I want the children to know that they are loved. They are loved no matter what because they are inherently lovable. There can be changes but some constancy is required. And foremost in constancy is the presence and importance of love in the world. So both change and constancy are important to stories.
In the first creation story I told the children I tried to amalgamate the first creation story in Genesis and the story of the Big Bang. I was trying to tell the story in light of scientific knowledge so that the children might learn to value only facts and scientific knowledge also a sense of wonder. I’m not sure how well this worked but that’s OK. Stories are permeable and malleable. And in the Noah story, I pictured God not as interventionist who tries to save the world by destroying the whole world but as a God of love who never do something like that. I tried picture a God who cares for us and our well-being and the well-being all creation. A God of love who only wants best for us and all the animals and the plants and all of creation. That is how I imagine God to be: a God of love who is never coercive but always persuasive; consistently calling us to act in the way that most engenders love, justice, beauty and adventure.
Stories are important. We are stories and water. They help us to understand ourselves and the world. And the story we heard today, the flood story wrestles with the existence of horrible, horrible evil that exists to this day. Massive floods like Katrina that destroyed so many people’s lives still occur. And evil perpetrated by human beings exists as well. For example, the scientists tell us of a looming environmental crisis that might make floods like Katrina a common occurrence. In fact, our children may face an environmental disaster of our making that could conceivably tip their world in to mob rule. There is a chance that children born today will not live out their full lives but that their lives will be shortened by the destruction of the planet. But our stories say something different. And perhaps with the help of our stories we can have a different world.
Today we have heard parts of two creation stories. Actually the first creation story was two stories interwoven or perhaps smushed together so that is three creation stories. And, I’m not making this up some scholars think that the flood story may have been first told as a creation story. We can at least hear it as a re-creation story. So that’s four. And all of the ancient creation stories tell us that creation is good.
In the first creation story it is only when God looks at all of creation, all the plants and animals and birds and the creeping things and even human beings and proclaims that it is very good. All of it. All of creation is very good. The Noah story echoes this sentiment when God promises all of creation not just human beings but all of creation that God would never try to destroy the world. For God so loves the world. And this promise, heard in the light of wrestling with the existence of massive evil of the world shows us how God chooses to relate with world. God resists the evil in the world. God desires the well-being for all of creation. God desires the salvation of the world.
In fact, one of the most important themes of our scripture is the salvation of the world. From the flood story to the, to the story of the Hebrew peoples to the prophets to the live ministry and resurrection of Jesus the Christ the bible is always asking the question: How can the world be saved? I know salvation has become a dirty word in many liberal united churches because of Substitutionary Atonement Theology that has done great harm to the church and the world. Substitutionary Atonement holds that we are inherently evil and that we can only be saved through belief on Christ. That has contributed to the rampant individualism and exclusion of people of different faiths and indeed all of creation. I am not advocating some kind of personal salvation that harms and excludes.
But Substitutionary Atonement is an attempt, even though a poor and damaging one, to answer the question: what does salvation look like? What I think is that salvation looks like the salvation of the world. If you read scripture through the lens of the Gospels, through the stories of Jesus then you almost have to think of salvation of the world including the end of poverty the end of hunger, the end of suffering. I think this is what the salvation of the world means. A world where hunger and suffering are no more.
I know that seems impossible but we are still called to try. That means that our decisions should be made in the interests of reducing the suffering of the world. I know you have to pick up the kids at dance and pay the bills and all that. But as Christians all our decisions, all of our lives should be pointed to the reduction of suffering of the world.
And even though we may be overwhelmed and think that we are doomed perhaps we can take courage in today’s stories. Perhaps we can see God promising us that there is hope. When God proclaimed that all of creation is good, when God proclaimed God will never destroy the world, God promised that God will always be with us.
And as sign of this covenant God placed a rainbow in the sky. The rainbow is the sign that God is with us; a sign that there is hope. Hope that we can create a better world, a world without suffering and despair. Maybe when we look at a rainbow we remember the promise that God has made. That death and destruction are not inevitable. That a just and righteous world is possible. Maybe when we look at a rainbow we can hope. Amen.
Thomas King, The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative, (Toronto : House of Anansi Press Inc.), 2003.