The Power of Story
Jerusalem, go up on a high mountain
and proclaim the good news!
Call out with a loud voice, Zion;
announce the good news![b]
Speak out and do not be afraid.
Tell the towns of Judah
that their God is coming!
10 The Sovereign Lord is coming to rule with power,
bringing with him the people he has rescued.[c]
11 He will take care of his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs together
and carry them in his arms;
he will gently lead their mothers.
I John 4:7-11
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 And God showed his love for us by sending his only Son into the world, so that we might have life through him. 10 This is what love is: it is not that we have loved God, but that God loved us and sent his Son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven.
11 Dear friends, if this is how God loved us, then we should love one another.
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Stories are powerful. They are life changing. Stories can kill. Stories can heal.
Take this story. A man took 29 pills. He thought they were anti-depressants. And his heart rate went down and his blood pressure went down. He required urgent medical attention to keep him alive. He went to the hospital. They put him on intravenous and he was still not recovering until he was told that the pills he took were sugar pills and there was nothing wrong with him.
It was the story that was killing him. It was what he believed.
This idea of story and the power of story is not new to me and I have talked about it and preached about it before, but it was brought home to me again in an interview on the CBC with Harold Johnson, an author, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a member of the Cree nation. He stopped being a lawyer in part because he believed the legal system was not helping Aboriginal People.
He believes that the Justice system is just a story. And the story we tell ourselves is that if we punish people who do wrong they won’t do it again, and if you see someone being punished then you won’t do it.
But that is only a story. We know that if we incarcerate people, they are more likely to commit offences when they get out, because instead of healed by the justice system, they are even more broken when they get out.
Harold quit practicing law, because he saw the justice system instead of treating the cause of crime, which was mostly addiction for Aboriginal People, incarcerated people, and it just dehumanized them more and made things worse. It hurt people instead of healing them.
He went on to talk about the story of Colonization which is a story told mostly to Aboriginal People instead of by Aboriginal people.
The stories we tell and hear change our lives. The stories our parents and our grandparents told us, and what stories we remember about them and spin in our heads, are so influential in our values, our moral compass, our hopes, our dreams, our interactions, our relationships, our faith, our politics and our joy or sadness.
The stories we see and hear and make up is the stuff of our lives, for we are selective in the stories we remember and tell and even make up…
Our brain loves to make connections, and little stories and events and thoughts and memories are connected and sometimes they form bigger narratives that form our lives.
And in fact, that story, that narrative can grow and everything that happens in our lives our mind might start to connect to that big narrative, that big story which becomes the prism by which everything in our lives is interpreted.
Eckhart Tolle in his book “The New Earth” talks about something called “The Pain Body” which is the accumulation of negative energy within a person. Emotional pain in the present is often merged with pain from the past. This pain instead of being healed grows and wants to take over the ego.
And I have found that this is often accompanied by a story or a group of stories. Stories about painful things in one’s life that are added together and added together until one’s whole life becomes one big story of pain. I am a victim. Nothing goes right. It never rains but it pours.
And every interaction and every relationship and every opportunity and every event can be coloured, or poisoned even, by seeing it through the prism of one’s painful story.
Tolle talks about two ducks who fight over something on the pond. They flap their wings and bite at each other for a few seconds and then it is over and they forget about it and move on.
But he says if they were humans, they would create a story about that event and tell all their buddy ducks about the so and so duck who was such a jerk, and try to find allies who will believe their story and share their story and pretty soon the whole pond is filled with two different stories by two different ducks about that other evil duck and his or her evil buddies.
Stories are powerful. They control lives. They even can control countries and nations.
Just over four years ago a man came out of literally nowhere politically to capture the Presidency of the United States, arguably one of, if not the most powerful position in the world.
I think what propelled him to power was story. “Make America Great Again.”
He also had stories about walling off America from foreign influence, and stories that fueled fear and anxiety.
He told a story of the power of the Status Quo and the Privileged in power and how he was going to clean house.
And whether or not his stories were true. Whether he could or should actually clean house and make America great and protect it from outside influence… it didn’t matter… and true, half of the people didn’t believe the stories…
But the stories resonated enough with people that it propelled him to power.
He is still creating stories. We won the election but it was stolen from us started a riot that swarmed the Capitol Building. It is utterly amazing how many people actually believe that story and were moved to rioting and violence.
Story is powerful. That is why there are lots of places in the bible that condemn false stories and hurtful stories from the commandment to not bearing false witness, to the writings of Paul condemning gossip.
And here is just a sample from the book of Proverbs
18 Whoever conceals hatred with lying lips and spreads slander is a fool. 19 Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.
9 With their mouths the godless destroy their neighbors, but through knowledge the righteous escape.
28 A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.
9 Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.
8 The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.
21 The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.
19 A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much.
20 Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down.
You know that old saying that sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
It is a nice saying, but I have found in the church it isn’t sticks and stones that hurt the church and church congregations, it is words. It is stories. It is gossip. It is fabrications, or exaggerations that put people in a bad light.
I have thought sometimes of putting a sign over my desk.
“Do not talk about others behind their back.”
Sometimes that is true even when you mean well. How true it is when you don’t mean well?
And another saying could go with it: Judge not that you be not judged. Some guy named Jesus said that one.
Stories about others and your opinions about others can cause a great deal of hurt and it is one of the things that I have to confess to God about.
It is so, so easy to do.
How many congregations I have seen in my life where the dominant story was not about love, or acceptance, or forgiveness or reconciliation…..
…the dominant story was that the minister was bad, or the session was divided and conflicted, or that the church had split into two sides over a theological issue, or over supporting the minister, or over a financial issue, or over some little thing that we might all think is stupid.
The dominant story is that there is bad guy or bad guys in the church and we the good guys and if only we would get rid of the bad guys.
That is why I love the gospel. The word gospel means good news….
And today’s story, the story of the baptism of Jesus is the beginning of a whole new story, what we call, the gospel.
Yes, Matthew and Luke begin with birth stories, about the God who becomes human, the God who is incarnated, which literally means to take on flesh.
The God who comes to earth as a tiny baby.
But the first of the gospels, the man who invented the genre of gospel, is a man by the name of Mark who starts out the gospel with the Baptism of Jesus.
Specifically, he starts with saying this: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Then he introduces John the Baptist who proclaiming a baptism for of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And then Jesus appears. And when Jesus first appears in Mark’s gospel he is baptized.
“But wait” you say. “Why is Jesus baptized? Surely he isn’t repenting of his sins? Surely he doesn’t need forgiveness?”
You are sharp to see that and you are right.
Jesus’s baptism is not about repentance and forgiveness. Jesus’ baptism is about identity. Listen to what the Spirit says: You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.
That statement is the foundation statement for any parent and child. You are my child and I love you and you fill me with joy and delight.
Every human baby needs to experience that especially in the first year of their life. Even though a baby doesn’t understand the words, they know the feeling that they are absolutely loved and accepted unconditionally and that there is nothing that can stop that. We also need to hear that as we grow up and make mistakes and learn and struggle with being human.
And that is the beginning of the good news of Jesus. Because when Jesus hears that he is unconditionally loved and the child of God, then he begins to tell others that very same thing, that they are children of God and that they are unconditionally loved.
He will go on to say and do and live much more than that, but it all starts with the message that God loves you. That you are a child of God…
Then the secondary message will be. Now that you know who you are… now that you know you are a child of God and loved… then this is the way to live…
And that way to live…the way of Jesus is to love others the way God has loved you.
Now this story. This Good news that you are child of God and loved unconditionally you can find in the Old Testament but not always quite as obvious as in the New Testament.
There are lots of stories in the bible. The overarching story when you take all the scriptures together is this one: That you are God’s beloved child.
And another is this. As God’s beloved child, you should love others.
But it was not always the way people thought about God. People did not always think that God was loving. In fact, there are still those who think God is more about punishing those who don’t accept him or believe in Jesus.
In the old testament there were four major stories about the nature of God and how we were supposed to live.
The first was found in the stories of people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. The story was that God entered into a covenant with people, that God chose people to enter into relationship with, and that entailed an agreement and obligations on both sides. God would be there for his people, rescuing them, caring for them and in return they would stay faithful and keep God’s ways and commandments.
The second story was that of Priestly Theology. That God was Holy and far and above humans, and therefore, the people who followed God were to be holy and separate and different than others and be more pure and more holy and have higher standards.
The third story was that of Wisdom Theology. That God is found in nature and reason and through the things of this world. Those who think and reflect and listen and learn and serve others; and observe this natural world; who watch and pay attention to action and consequences, who are careful about their choices...can find God's way.
And the fourth major story is found in the stories of the prophets. Prophetic theology over and above belief and theology, over and above clean living and holiness, over and above wisdom...takes the approach the right actions towards others is what it is all about. Let justice flow like a stream or river.
But it is Jesus who really points out just how much God loves us, by even going to the cross, dying to prove God’s love and that God will still love us even if we kill Jesus. That is love.
That love story encompasses all the other major stories in the bible. Love is about relationships. When you are in a relationship and you love you will be faithful and keep the spoken and unspoken rules of your relationship.
Real love takes people to another level of holiness and separateness, not because people are better than others, but real love, God’s love, is unconditional, and those who love unconditionally separate themselves from the herd in some ways, they act in higher ways.
Real love sees and finds and celebrates God in all loving and good things, in wisdom and literature and the arts and creation, in animals, people, acts of justice and deeds of kindness.
And real love is always concerned about right actions towards others and especially looking out for the weak, the powerless and the disenfranchised.
Love is the story we share. That is the good news.
That story of Jesus, of love, is over against the story that we have to find the bad guys and get rid of them or punish them…
We have the gospel story that even while we were yet sinners Christ died for us and is the means by which our sins our forgiven. And that is what real love is.
You know sometimes, the presbytery is called to go into a congregation and deal with a very conflicted situation where one group of people in the congregation are at odds with another.
And mostly what people are looking for is for the Presbytery to identify who screwed up, who is wrong and to punish them and get rid of them.
And certainly, the presbytery always has to notice if someone is hurting another…
But what I have found in congregations is that most people are sinners and most have contributed to a greater or lesser way in the conflict. Often neither side wants to forgive or reconcile, they are more interested in Presbytery declaring them right.
This actually may be hampered in part by the Presbyterian System which is a legalized system and is very much a system of motions in which one speaks for or against the motion.
So sometimes it seems that with every motion there are winners or losers.
But the theology of the Presbyterian System is covenantal theology, that we are all one family, that we are all in this together and the goal of any situation, even conflicted situations is harmonious relationships, love for one another, and forgiveness and reconciliation when things go off the rail.
Easier said than done.
But when congregations go off the rails, when families go off the rails, when there is conflict between spouses, or between children and parents, or between co-workers, or between congregants in a church…
….what is needed, I think, is that gospel story. That each one is a child of God and loved by God and will not be abandoned.
And if we lived that with each other. Wow. If couples could tell a gospel story of how they even though there were differences they reconciled.
If nations could tell the same story.
If churches could share that same story of forgiveness and reconciliation when there was conflict, what a powerful witness to the gospel that would be.
Harold Johnson, the Aboriginal author, I mentioned before, in the interview I heard on the CBC, shared something from his Aboriginal Heritage.
He said that there were four responses in his heritage one could do if someone killed your brother.
The first, the lowest form of response was to kill the person who killed your brother.
The second, the next highest response was to do nothing. To get on with your life and forget it.
The third, was to deal with the one who had killed your brother and ask for some kind of restitution, some kind of gift to show that person was sorry.
But the fourth, the highest response was to adopt that man as your brother, as your family.
And Harold Johnson didn’t just talk about this, he experienced this. His brother was killed by a drunk driver. And yet Harold went to the man Hillary Cook and forgave him. Together Harold and Hillary talked about alcohol and addiction and shared that with students in a high school, hoping that their message of loss and reconciliation would speak to people.
That is a powerful story. A gospel story.
And our gospel story is about Jesus who told us we were loved and accepted
And instead of punishing or killing the ones who killed him, Jesus adopted us as his brothers and sisters, forgiving us loving us and inviting us to Go and do likewise.