At social gatherings we are sometimes asked, “So what do you do?” I find this question a bit awkward….maybe even slightly offensive. The question really means…”What is your current occupation or job.” Well what if one doesn’t have a job, or is underemployed? Or what if one has a much broader understanding of what it is “they do” which can’t be explained or summed up in a simple word or sentence.
And in my case, I often hesitate to say to someone…. “I’m a pastor.” Or “I’m a preacher.” Because saying this is often followed by an awkward silence, or the subject quickly changes, or maybe I might hear something ridiculous like, “Oh! I’ll try and be on my best behavior, reverend.”
So now, when I feel so inclined to answer this question (What do you do?), I sometimes say…. “I traffic in narratives.” A look of confusion and a moment of silence follows. Then I hear … “Interesting answer. What do you mean?” Where upon I answer…. “I’m a preacher.” From there the conversation gets interesting and much more entertaining. I then have the opportunity to share about the narrative (Christian, in my case) through which I understand the world. It can lead to deeper questions such as, What’s the narrative guides your life? How do you see the world? What gives your life meaning? How is your work restoring the world? NOW THESE ARE THE QUESTIONS WE SHOULD BE ASKING EACH OTHER! Life’s too short for superficial small talk!
My fundamental operating thesis, as I may have mentioned in previous sermons, is … “We humans live and die by the stories we tell ourselves.” In fact, it is story, that makes us human. Another word for story is “narrative”.
This past summer I taught Bible to older children (ages 9 – 12) for a week at one our Mennonite summer camps. We had great conversations as we explored the meaning of foundational biblical stories.
At the evening campfires we always began the time with open questions about “God, life, and the Bible”. On the last night one of the campers asked, “Why did God make humans?” My initial answer was, after a pause,“I don’t know.” But then, the next morning as we met one last time at the campfire site I said, “I thought a bit more about the question, “Why did God make humans.” I think the answer is because God loves stories”. And then I said, “We’ve heard a lot of stories this past week about amazing people and events in the Bible. Those stories are about how God interacts and uses ordinary people in the world. But here’s what you need to know…. believe it or not, God is using you to live out new stories and ways that bring love and joy and hope into the world. God is making great stories through you, I reminded the campers …. both in your challenges, troubles, and failures, and through your successes. Always remember that! God is making unique and important stories that can only can be made through you!
Now you may be wondering…. How does this relate to the story of Peter and Cornelius? Remember what I said my thesis is… “we live and die through the narrative we believe.”? Well, Peter narrative or story is being radically re-written.
In this story Peter’s narrative (and thus his understanding of reality) was expanded. Where Peter originally understood the narrative through an outdated narrow tribal story of exclusivity and labeling…. laws and rituals…. Who’s clean and who’s not. Who’s in and who’s out. Who’s worthy and who’s not. Who’s chosen and who’s not.
Now Peter has a new narrative framed by Jesus… the one who says, “You have heard it said…. but I say to you…..” love your enemy; forgive without measure; judge not others; seek fellowship amongst the outsiders; honor the poor and stand with the oppressed; give up living for money or fame and seek only God and God’s justice…..on earth as in heaven. A NEW NARRATIVE, AND THUS A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF TRUTH.
Before this epiphany from God, (even after walking with Jesus for three years) Peter’s narrative of the world was way too small. He was still operating under a confined tribal narrative of exclusivity that perhaps provided a sense of security and identity…. but as far as God was concerned, it was way too small. Too immature. Too out of sync with God’s larger reality of universal forgiveness, love, and salvation.
In the gospel narratives of Jesus nobody gets left out. No body gets left behind. Everyone counts. We’re all members of the same tribe. We’re all pronounced “good.” We’re all invited to feast at the table. We’re all connected. We are all members of the Father’s household….even when we choose to stray and live amongst the pigs for a while. The only question that remains is, Will we respond to the invitation? or When will we wake up to even know an invitation has been given? For the Spirit is always calling out, Behold…I stand at the door and knock!”
This new, much more interesting and much more redemptive and expansive narrative of the gospel was what Peter was being called into…. and it’s what we’re being called into today!
Now let’s fast forward to our time. Let’s talk for moment about narrative and how it relates to another word…. “tribe”. “Tribe” and “tribalism”…. are words we hear bandied about as of late. As in, “we in America are fracturing into our smaller and smaller tribal groups which carry their own competing narratives… stories about how the world is, or should be. We no longer are one America. We are “blue and red” America. And with each passing day and week we grow more and more estranged from one another. Bluer and redder, and more and more confused, angry, fractured, and afraid. It’s like we no longer even exist in the same universe. We no longer can even seem to agree on what “reality” is even when facts present themselves to us in real time! Probably like many of you, I’m stunned how people come to believe what they believe when we both have before us the same information and facts.
Truth…or reality…..it’s what we’re all trying to come to terms with. At Shalom Church last Sunday someone shared how her three year old granddaughter, out of the blue, while in the back seat of the car, asked her mom, “What is reality?” (A three year old!) (The next question she asked, interesting enough, was “What is a bond trader?” I’m not sure what the two questions had to do with each other, or what the context was where her little three year old brain heard these phrases, but on an adult level those are some deep questions! (Regarding the question about bonds…. that’s a reality that is truly a mystery!)
But, whether the question is posed from a three year old child or from a full grown adult, “What is reality” is a fundamental human concern. Like Pontius Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?”
Recall the story…, before being sentenced to die Jesus is standing right in front of Pilate, the holder of empirical power, and Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” (or what is reality). The irony of course is Jesus, the very embodiment of truth, is standing directly before Governor Pilate, the cynical holder of empirical power. The image is one of illusionary worldly “truth” (represented by Pilate) standing before the embodied spiritual Truth (Jesus)!
“What is Truth?” When we first heard the concept of “alternative facts,” many of us realized that we’d slipped into a new and confusing world. A world whereby black is green, and 2 plus 2 equals 83. A world where neo-Nazis and Black Live Matter hold equal moral weight. A world where sexual predators can rise to high levels in politics and business. A world in which all decisions are based, not on clear common principles of justice and morality, but only on transaction and expediency. Everything going to the highest bidder, or the immediate concerns of a select few, or the comforts and pleasures of this moment without concern for the sustained welfare of future generations. A world where refugee children are forever damaged by being separated from their parents. A world where overwhelming evidence of climate catastrophe is obfuscated for the profits of shareholders and billionaires. “Alternative reality?” How is this possible?
A friend of mine recently sent me this quote….
“This blows my mind every single day: That a handful of old white men hold the fate of humankind in their hands. And they refuse to act because they are afraid of losing their money. It’s a lousy reason for a planet to die.”
I don’t think this is any great “news flash” but in our current historical moment, we live in a world of outrageous mendacity and criminality. We live in times, to use the phrase of Professor Cornel West, of “spiritual blackout.” And so it’s natural to ask….. “What strange world did we suddenly find ourselves in?” How is it that people who claim the label of Christianity and get caught up in a personality cult that support policies and behaviors so contrary to the teachings of Jesus? How is it that facts and compassion and reason no longer seem to matter?
Here’s my hunch …. And maybe this will be helpful in understanding differing views with family around Thanksgiving and Christmas. This isn’t an original thought, but I’ve come to believe that it is true…. Narrative and the need for tribal belonging carry more weight than facts and reason.
Now here’s what I mean by that… We humans are hardwired for tribalism. We long for belonging and community. i.e. we long for a tribe. This means, that at the most primal level, we are tribal. We need to belong to a group / tribe for our physical and psychological survival. Now ask any anthropologist and they will tell you that every tribe is held together by a common mythology or narrative. In other words, a tribal story.
On the national level, the old stories that once held our nation together….. stories of manifest destiny. Stories of American exceptionalism. Stories of justice and goodness and equal opportunity (despite the inconstancies of slavery, and of indigenous genocide, and of American Empire). Stories of unfettered growth. …. These stories around which we used to identify are now crumbling.
The neo-liberal story of economics is dying. The story of patriarchal dominance is dying. The story of brute force and military solutions is dying. They don’t fit anymore. They don’t work. Reality is breathing down our necks. (Or maybe we should say, “Reality is calling out to us.”) The planet is in crisis… and this “crisis reality” is speaking in ways we cannot ignore. It is calling out for us to re-assess our old, dysfunctional narratives about the earth and material reality, and replace it with a narrative that gives life to all.
(Even our old biblical narratives need to be reassessed. For example does anyone ever really question the biblical narrative of “original sin?” An idea suggested by St. Paul, and later given systematic credence by Augustine. It’s an extremely destructive narrative to our Christian spirituality. How about…. “original lost innocence.” That seems a lot more workable! )
In short…we are at a crossroads! And it is time to “repent” i.e. turn around…. Wake up!
In these extraordinary historical times, we are being called to come to the same conclusion that Peter came to when he had the strange dream whereby God revealed to him that nothing God made was to be considered “unclean”. Like Peter we are called to embrace the larger universally welcoming story of Jesus and the truth of His Resurrection. The fundamental truth of the cross and resurrection is that you cannot kill God! You cannot kill truth! You cannot kill kindness and love! Meanness, cruelty, and ignorance will never ultimately prevail! Eternal reality, of which we are all a part, wins out!
We’re all God’s precious children. We’re all connected. We’re all chosen. We’re all called. We’re all forgiven. We’re all saved. We’re all invited to the Great Banquet and to know God together. The only question is, “Will we respond to the invitation?”
So when you engage in exasperating conversations with people whom you think ought to be open to facts and reason and moral common sense, yet insist on (from your perspective, at least) unreason and denial of facts…. remember what I’m suggesting about the power of narrative and story. Remember our primal pull toward insecurity and tribalism. When you challenge or threaten the tribal narrative, you threaten the member of that tribe, and thus you threaten their sense of security. That’s what’s going on. It’s not about facts. It’s about narratives and emotion that reinforce identity, tribal affiliation, and security. So rather than argue facts and logic and morality…. ask instead, “What is the person’s tribal myth and what are the values that that myth speaks to? And maybe, when common human concerns and values are discovered, maybe then a meaningful conversation can happen. We can only hope!
Let me wrap this up. Change is happening, and the facts are calling out to us. We have moved as a species from clan, to tribe, to city states, to nation states, and now….. to something else. One world? One people? One inter-dependent, inter-connected, yet richly diverse human family?
Scary? Yeah, how that might work out scares me too. But it is the reality we now face. Who are we? How will we be? How will be live in peace? How will we (a world of 8 billion people) survive, and hopefully thrive? How will ecosystems and diversity of precious species continue to exist in balance? What has to change? What must be given up? How will all do well, and come to know the goodness of our humanity? Metaphorically speaking, we are all shipmates on this one precious vessel.
These are questions I don’t have easy answers for, but I know the Son of Man (the fully human one) is the One to whom I need to look. I know Jesus points us to a new narrative. I know the One who lived a full and complete life provides the teachings and the stories which guide me in living a full and complete life as God intends. I know that even though these are very strange and troubling times, and even though this may, in fact, be the end of the age of humankind (what some call the era of the Anthropocene – the human era) it is through Jesus (what he taught, who he was, how he lived, and the Ultimate truth demonstrated in the cross and the resurrection) that I am able to find courage and meaning in these disturbing times. That I am only one mysterious, momentary, and precious part of the eternal reality that is what we call “God.”
And I do confess, I sometimes despair. But then I fall back on the belief that these are the times…. this is the place… these are the people, for whom God has called me to both celebrate (yes, celebrate) and (yes) suffer with. Likewise, speaking as one called to preach, I believe it is so for all of us. That’s the “good news.” You are meant to be here. Now. Today. Doing what you’re doing with all the passion, compassion, humility, integrity, and righteous indignation you can muster. On earth as it is in heaven!
On earth as it is in heaven. That is at the heart of the gospel narrative. That is our Christian truth. May you live that truth through the unique story that God is writing through you! Amen.
This message was given to Spokane Friends Meeting by Gary Jewell on November 10, 2019.