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Telling The Story (March 4, 2018)

If I were to ask you to tell me about yourself, you’d probably begin by telling me your story. You’d mention important parts of your life as a way of telling me about who you are. It’s one of the ways in which we make sense of our lives and our world.

The same thing is true of the church. We tell our story as part of the people of God. It’s a way of making sense of who we are—that we are part of God’s grand story in the world.

John Westerhoff writes, “Our identity depends on having a story that tells us who we are. Our understanding of life’s meaning and purpose depends on having a story that tells us what the world is like and where we are going. To be a community of faith, we must be a people with a story, a common memory and vision, common rituals and symbols which express our community’s memory and vision … The church is a story–formed community.”

All of that raises the question, “So what’s our story?”

The Bible’s way of telling the story reflects how our ancestors in the faith thought about God. It begins with the creation of a wide and beautiful universe, moves on to a particular people in Abraham and Sarah. Our story continues as God liberates Israel in the story of the Exodus. The story continues with Israel settling the land, forgetting the story, and being called to remember it again. It includes judges and prophets, psalmists and sages.

For Christians, the story culminates in Jesus. It’s the gospel story of a life lived with compassion and grace. Jesus had no doubt that God was everywhere present. He was executed, and the story reaches its climax in the grand surprise of resurrection.

There are many ways to tell the story, just as there are many ways we can tell the story of our lives.

For me, the heart of the story centres around a God who comes to set us free, who invites us live with grace and compassion, who calls us to care for each other and for the world.

One of my mentors, Jim Cruickshank, told the story this way: “I am your God. You are my beloved people. I will never let you go.”

Exodus 20 also tells the story. We often read this story of the 10 Commandments as a story of law and judgment. In our minds, we picture Charlton Heston as a stern Moses, coming down the mountain surrounded by clouds and lightning, his brow furrowed as he lifts two huge and heavy tablets above his head, thundering that the people must obey God.

That’s one way to tell the story. It works for Hollywood. But that’s not the way the Bible tells it. The Hebrew Bible doesn’t even call them the 10 Commandments. These are the 10 Words. What a difference it makes when you change that one word. The 10 Words.

It begins this way with the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God; I brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Now wait a minute! This isn’t a commandment at all. It’s a statement. It’s a claim. It’s an announcement about what kind of god God is.

In fact, this pattern is how the Bible most often tells the story. It begins with a claim about who God is and what God does for God’s people. The story begins with God’s initiative, and only then does it move on to our response. God has set us free; now, this is how we can live as God’s free people.

These 10 Words begin this way: I am God. I have set you free. I have liberated you. You are no longer enslaved, and then I will lead you to a future of new promises and new possibilities. These 10 Words begin with a declaration that life had been made new.

Pharaoh’s dominance has been ended. God has defeated the domination of Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s brutal system of exploitation has come to an end.

I am God. I set you free.

And then … the 10 Words give us strategies to stay free. If you want to stay free, this is what you must do. Don’t have any other god. Don’t worship them or bow down to them. Don’t use me to bless your pet projects (which is what taking the name of God in vain really means).

Why? Because any other god will enslave you again. If you want to stay free, worship this God alone. Pharaoh, in this story, is a metaphor for anything that demands that we be loyal to it. All the “isms” of our lives which trap us, including racism and sexism and nationalism. Don’t be trapped by them. Don’t worship stuff. Don’t misuse God.

The first half of the 10 Words has to do with honouring God with all that we are.

The second half of the Ten Words tell us to take our neighbour with utmost seriousness. Recognize the dignity of every neighbour, and most especially the disadvantaged and vulnerable neighbour. Don’t violate your neighbour—don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie. Don’t crave or take what belongs to your neighbour.

The second half of the 10 Words has to do with loving our neighbour.

And in the middle between these two halves is the command to keep sabbath. Give time to God so that you don’t fall back into the rat race of busyness, the rat race of producing, the rat race of consuming which enslaves and exhausts us.

This is our story: I am God, who set you free. Now live with each other in dignity and compassion.

How does this fit in with our baptismal covenant? Here’s the third promise we make in baptism:

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?

Will we tell this story which forms us? Will we help others hear this story of grace and hope? This is the mission of the church—to tell a world which is enslaved to the rat race about a God who sets us free with love, grace and compassion.

Last week, in a very challenging message, I noted that taking up our cross is not really a choice for us. It is a gospel imperative.

The same with this. It is not a choice. That is to say, we can’t really choose to take it or leave it. We can’t do it only when we feel like it. We either tell the story — we either take up our cross and follow Jesus — or we fail to be God’s people.

This is a gospel imperative. We are called to tell and live out the good news of God’s love and compassion in everything we do and in everything we say.

Christopher Duraisingh, who teaches at the Episcopal Divinity School near Boston, says it very simply: “A church that is not a church in mission is not the church.”

Then he goes on to define mission in this way: “Mission is a matter of love. Mission is God’s love affair with the world. The church’s part is to get involved in a love affair with other human beings with whom God has already fallen in love.”

When we promise to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, we are promising to tell a love story. A grace story. A joy story. A hope story. A peace story.

God enters our lives and loves us with an endless passion. God sets us free from all that tries to enslave us. God embraces us with a love that includes everyone. God invites us to walk in the way of the cross and to tell this story in our words and in our actions.

As the church of Jesus Christ, we are formed by this story of grace and freedom. Day by day, we add our own chapters to this story as we proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.

So let me ask you:

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?

I will, with God’s help.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt

March 4, 2018 (3rd Sunday in Lent)

Exodus 20: 1–17

Psalm 19

John 2: 13–22

1 Corinthians 1: 18–25