This sermon was preached at First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Chelmsford in Chelmsford, MA, on April 14, 2013. What I like about how their flow of worship is that they choose one “ancient” and one “modern” reading. Supposedly there is a recording of the sermon that has yet to be posted — once it is, I will link to it. A previous post (see here) is what I did with the children before they went to worship. (I have preached versions of this sermon at St. Paul’s in Palmer, MA and First Parish in Northfield, MA).
Ancient Reading: Genesis 37:1-9
37 Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan.
2 This is the account of Jacob’s family line.
Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.
3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate[a] robe for him. 4 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.
5 Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 7 We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”
8 His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.
From the Reverend John A. Buehrens, Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals:
God is said to have created the world itself because God loves stories. And so do we. Perhaps it is because our lives, like all stories, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But what is the meaning? Underneath so much of our religious, philosophical, historical, scientific seeking lies a persistent, unanswerable question: What kind of story are we in? Is it an unremitting tragedy? A mere farce? A divine (or human) comedy? Or something more complex than any of these genres?
Certainly the Bible, since it is not so much a single book as an entire library, would suggest that our forebears understood that human life can only be meaningfully understood when we see it as a complex story made up of multiple instances of creation, generation, liberation, exultation, frustration, redemption, expectation, inspiration, proclamation, passion, resurrection, incarnation, salvation, and revelation – among other things.
These themes, however, are only broad abstractions – without the stories themselves. We understand what they mean in our own lives only when we encounter them in stories that remind us of something deeply shared in the challenge of human living.
Sermon: The Holy Stories of Our Lives
Growing up, we were not a church-going family, except for one year, probably 1974, when my mother took me and my brother to a Congregational church. I remember three things from that experience: the kindly pastor, the grape juice of communion, and the Bible story picture book I got to bring home: Joseph and His Coat of Many Colors.
No doubt many of you – perhaps all of you – are familiar with the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors. Joseph is an important character in the story of the Bible because he connects the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Canaan to the subsequent story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
Perhaps you know the one from the Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament, the book of Genesis. The basic story is that
Joseph is one of 12 sons of Jacob and is, in fact, his favorite. Joseph has dream that indicate he will reign over his brothers and father. These dreams threaten the brothers who deceive their father and sell Joseph to be a slave in Egypt. Joseph’s skill in understanding dreams wins him favor with Pharaoh, at a time when all the lands enter into famine. With Joseph’s planning, Egypt survives the famine with abundance and Joseph become a powerful man. His starving brothers, not knowing he is their brother, approach this powerful man, seeking food to survive. Joseph knows these men to be his brothers and tests their intentions, given they attempted fratricide the last time they were together. The brothers win Joseph’s confidence after Judah offers his own life in exchange for younger Benjamin’s, proving their redemption from their former fratricidal ways. It is then Joseph reveals his identity and persuades his brothers to return to Egypt with their father and the whole family.
Full disclosure here. Even though I stand before you as a preacher and I am truly a seminarian, I am much more familiar with the Broadway version: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. [SING] This story has a different emphasis, one with a distinctly American moral: if you believe in your dreams, you can make them come true.
Did you know that the Qur’an has the Joseph story as well? There are some key differences in the Qur’anic version of the story. In Islam, our fates are already known to Allah. Because Jacob has a special relationship with Allah (he is one of the prophets), he knows that his other sons have it in for Joseph, but does not stop it, for he trusts Allah intends a greater story in the making.
I must admit to you here and now that up until recently, I was basically scripturally illiterate – still am when it comes to the New Testament. Even though our faith is one that does not place Scripture at the center of our theology, Scripture remains deeply influential, both religiously and culturally – so it’s kinda important I do something about that. So I have come to call my process of getting to know Scripture, “befriending the Bible.”
I am an anomaly at my seminary where Unitarian-Universalists are few and far between and others – Christian, Jewish, Muslim – seek inspiration and guidance in their faith’s holy books. Though there are many UU seminarians who know the Bible inside and out, I’m guessing that there are more than a few like myself. A bit sheepish at first about this, I have come to understand my lack of familiarity as a symbol of our free church that does not bind itself to one specific doctrine or limit its members to a narrow search for truth that comes from loyalty to a specific holy book.
“Narrative theology” means the use of stories to answer spiritual questions, questions like “What can these stories tell us about God and our experience of God?” and “What wisdom can these stories give me about how I should live my life?” These stories can come from Scripture, but also from the lives of ordinary people, from the stories of the lives of people like you and me.
The stories we choose to tell and how we interpret them can help us to be better people, better members of the Beloved Community, or they can generate further suffering, for others and for ourselves. As Greg Garrett, author of a book called Stories from the Edge tells us,
… being able to put the pieces of our experiences together in some satisfactory way – telling a story that makes sense, if you will — is an essential part of the process of a meaningful life. The thing is, some of the stories we tell that make some sort of sense to us may be dangerous theologically, emotionally, spiritually. Believing that God is punishing you for your past sins by giving your son an incurable cancer may allow you to make some sort of sense of the trauma your family is experiencing, but it seems to me that it is an unhealthy kind of sense – and probably an unhealthy story about who God is and how God participates in our lives.
What I have found so far, both in my spiritual life and the professional life I am in the process of leaving, is that we humans have two deeply-powerful, intricately-connected gifts: developing and telling our stories (testifying to the truth, what some would call testifying to the Gospel) and listening to our stories, which I understand as bearing witness.
Perhaps you have heard the storyteller Kevin Kling on NPR. He’s from Minnesota and when he talks, there’s no mistaking it – he talks fast, he talks full, he talks like he’s in the movie, “Fargo.” He’s funny and he’s poignant. Born with one arm much shorter than the other, in 2001, he lost the use of his other arm in a motorcycle accident. In a recent interview, he spoke of the power of stories and storytelling:
By telling a story, things don’t control me anymore. It’s in my vernacular; it’s the way I see the world. And I think that’s why our stories ask our questions, our big questions like: “Where do we come from — before life, after life?” “What’s funny in this world or sacred?” And even more importantly, by the asking in front of people and with people, even if we don’t find the answer, by the asking, we know we’re not alone. And I have found that often that’s even more important than the answer. (Kevin Kling, The Losses and Laughter We Grow Into, On Being, March 7, 2013)
I believe it is in the interwoven fabric of these two gifts that we find and enact our elemental holiness.
The acts of telling and of listening makes a story inherently relational – sometimes it is a relationship between two people, one testifying and one witnessing, and sometimes it a relationship between one person and their God – one testifying and one witnessing. Sometimes it is the story written in a foreign tongue thousands of years ago, sometimes it is in the well-crafted story published on a page of a new book, and sometimes it is the story when we light a candle and speak our broken heart in this beloved community.
Primo Levi was an Jewish chemist from Italy caught up in the claws of Nazi hate. He was sent to Auschwitz, where he – like so many millions were tortured, starved, and worked in inhumane ways and where he – unlike so many – survived to tell the world. His first and most famous book is simply titled, Survival in Auschwitz, and was published in 1958.
Levi has a lesser known book, Moments of Reprieve, published in 1978, nine years before his death. In the book, we meet a host of ordinary people. Levi – “the Italian” as he is known in the camp – is already a seasoned resident of the camp. Levi is assigned to work with Bandi, a newly arrived Hungarian and decides to try to convey some of the age-old wisdom he has learned about how to survive. They work together, carrying bricks from one location to another. Levi tells us,
Twenty bricks are heavy; so on the outgoing trip we did not have much breath, or at least I didn’t, for talking; but on the way back we spoke and I learned many attractive things about Bandi. I wouldn’t be able to repeat them all today; every memory fades. And yet I cling to the memories of this man Bandi as precious things and I am happy to preserve them on a page. I only wish that, by some not-impossible miracle, the page might reach him in the corner of the world where he still lives, perhaps that he might read it and recognize himself in it.
This particular story is short: not even five pages, typical for this book. We learn about life in the camps, about what it takes to communicate for people who do not have a shared language but that of the harsh taskmasters (remember, Levi is Italian and Bandi is Hungarian). There is no grand moral at the end of the story. There’s little that is outstanding about Bandi besides his circumstances; there is little that is compelling about the relationship between Bandi and Levi. This is beside the point because Levi does not tell the story of Bandi, or of the Tischler, or of Lilith, because there is something extraordinary about these individuals.
He tells these stories as an act of witness. So much of what Levi did in his writing about the Holocaust was to tell the world what happened in this horrendous sweep of history. In telling these stories of individual people, he makes a grand gesture that their individual lives will not be forgotten. For though it was six million who lost their lives in this unforgivable epoch, it was one person who lost his or her life, six million times over.
There is more to why he tells these stories. He knows that in telling stories, there is meaning to be found and meaning to be made and re-made. An avid atheist, he is employing the tools of narrative theology here. How does this story guide me to live my life? What does this story tell me about who God is in the world? How, in telling a story or in listening to it, might it be transformed? Might I be transformed? In one story he wrote,
… these are things that I have written about elsewhere, but, strangely, with the passing of the years these memories do not fade nor do they thin out. They become enriched with details I thought were forgotten, which sometimes acquire meaning in the light of other people’s memories, from letters I receive or books I read.
Levi struggled with depression, the aftermath of trauma few of us can even begin to imagine. Eventually, in 1987, Levi killed himself – the weight of his experience too much to bear. I think of these stories as Levi’s attempt to bear witness, to bring a healing balm to this broken world, as well as self-healing, trying to balance the dark narrative.
This is deep stuff, these holy stories we embrace, these holy stories we tell each other, we tell ourselves. When we name a story as holy, we are saying it holds deep and lasting insight, inspiration, some understanding that we did not possess before. Yes, books that have stood the test of time – like the Hebrew scriptures, like the Christian ones, like the Qur’an – these books and other ancient texts hold that power.
But they are not alone. These are not the sole holy books, the sole holy stories. As Unitarian Universalists, our faith does not bind itself to one book to the exclusion of all others. This enacts our belief that holiness resides in so many places, the usual and the unusual, the expected and the unexpected, in texts long-written and those yet to come. God, the Great Mystery, the Divine – whatever you choose to call it — is still telling stories. It is our job to witness them – whether these stories are in the form of books, or more likely poems, or even more likely, in the lives of those living among us.
What is the story of First Parish? How you tell the story of First Parish is important – how you tell it to each other and how you tell it to visiting guests. How you tell it and how you listen to it – the testifying and the witnessing – how you are changed by it and how you are moved to change the world because of it – it is here that you find the holy elements of your lives.
In the first reading, Reverend Buehrens asks the question we all ask, “What kind of story are we in? Is it an unremitting tragedy? A mere farce? A divine (or human) comedy? Or something more complex than any of these genres?”
Let us continue to engage these questions, by engaging the holy stories of our lives. Let us not let creation play to an empty house. Let us tell the stories that bring justice to our lives and the lives of those who suffer. Stories that move us to be transformed and to transform this broken world. In the telling and in the listening; in the testifying and in the witnessing, let us make holy our own lives, each others’ and the worlds’.
Amen. Blessed be.
Buehrens, John A. Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals. Beacon Press, 2003.
Garrett, Greg. Stories from the Edge: A Theology of Grief. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Kling, Kevin. “The Losses and Laughter We Grow Into,” from On Being with Krista Tippet, NPR, March 7, 2013.
Levi, Primo. Moments of Reprieve. Summit Books, 1986.