Sunday, January 16, 2011

Telling stories

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A Sunday, January 19, 2011
John 1:20-42 (43-51)

“Let me tell you a story…” “Once upon a time…” “I remember when…” “Daddy (Mommy, Grandpa), tell me a story…”

Something happens when we tell a story. The people who study this kind of thing tell us that when we start a story off like this, something happens in our brains. With the right equipment they can see it happen right before their very eyes. They say that when our brains are scanned in a certain way, and we start to tell a story, the researchers looking at their screens see whole parts of our brains light up with color that had just a minute before been dormant. It is as if a different part of the brain from what we use every day is activated. We are not just talking about facts; we are painting images in our minds.

Once upon a time, when I was a kid, my father had a study with a drafting table, and in this was a old tabletop AM/FM/SW radio about the size of a modern-day microwave oven. He set me up with my own little drafting table, and he would work on these great big drawings of electrical gee-gaws that did I-don’t-know-what except that I was sure he was drawing plans that would one day land a man on the moon. On Saturdays, when he would work in the study, I would sit at my little drafting table and we’d listen to the baseball game together over that big radio, and he during those times, he taught me keep the box score. You did not need television to visualize a baseball game, just a careful ear, imagination and a yellow number two pencil.

When my children came home for Christmas a month or so ago, they asked that we hold off putting up the tree until they were both there and then we scheduled a time when we all could work on decorating it together. I don’t know about you but we have a very eclectic collection of Christmas ornaments. Very few are store-bought anymore. Lots were made by our children as they grew up. Some are associated with special events: Our First Christmas, 1979. Baby’s First Christmas, 1981 and 1988. And they love to hear the stories connected with each one.

Sometimes they tell them to each other. They say, “Hey, this is your ornament. Remember when…?” “Remember when…?” is another phrase that takes us to a special kind of imagination.
Stories are important parts of our living. They tell us who we are, what is important to us and how we understand ourselves. The stories could be from books or movies or plays or shows, or they could be something as simple as telling about a picnic or a day at work or funny thing that happened at the store.

Have you heard a group of people who have all seen the same play in the same game tell each other exactly what they saw? “Did you see that?” Or how many times have you seen a group of people talk about a really great movie? They recall scenes, repeat memorable lines, and talk about emotional moments. We are not just sharing information or confirming what the other person saw. We are experiencing the story over and over again with someone else. Telling the story is like shining a light down a dark path and then walking along that way together.

I particularly love today’s Gospel story. The first half of the first chapter of John’s Gospel is that great liturgical hymn to the Logos, the word of God. We heard that on Christmas Day. Today, we hear part of second (much longer) half of that first chapter. It is one of my very favorite Gospel passages because it is all about how people tell the story of the Logos. Think of the first chapter of John this way: first comes the idea then comes the story. The Word, the Logos is real, but it is the story that makes God’s Word, Jesus, real.

The gospel story today consists of a whole sequence of people telling each other they have seen Jesus and who they think Jesus is. So John the Baptist points to Jesus and because of that, the Beloved Disciple and Andrew decide to peel off from John’s band and follow Jesus. Then Andrew goes and tells Peter who then goes to Jesus and, after meeting him, follows him too. Next, in a part of the Gospel we don’t get to hear today, Jesus calls Philip, who then goes and tells his brother Nathaniel, who—while scoffing—goes to see to Jesus anyway and because Jesus knows him, he follows too. And it not just John the Baptist, or Andrew or Philip pointing to Jesus: it is also the Beloved Disciple, who through his Gospel is telling us that Jesus is the Messiah and bidding us to “come and see” and to tell what we have seen and heard.

So what does this all mean? It means that the Logos, God’s Own Best Expression of Godself, Jesus, is made known through people who tell the story. At the end of the first chapter of John, Jesus says to Nathaniel that this process of hearing, telling, of coming and seeing Jesus, is just like Jacob’s vision of angels ascending and descending to earth from heaven. God comes to our world, but no one knows it until, after we come and see, we then go and tell. This is how God’s word breaks into our world and changes everything: when people who have discovered God’s love and learned God’s love have also shared God’s love.

When we tell the Gospel story it becomes a part of us. We find that the telling of how God came to us in the past makes us more conscious, more aware, of how God is at work in us now. God calls us to be story-tellers, we are wired to tell stories because we are also wired to be at home with God. And this, finally is what we are looking for. The stories point us to what is really pulling us, calling us, attracting us. We are looking for a home. Looking for a place to be.

In the middle of the Gospel lesson today we hear Jesus ask the two disciples "What are you looking for?" That question is for us, too. "What are you looking for?" He doesn't ask "What do you want?" or "Who are you?" He asks “What are you looking for?” The heart of the story is that the disciples don’t just tell the story, they don’t just point to Jesus. They stay with Jesus. They meet him and he meets them.

The thing about telling a Gospel story is that people who hear and respond it are not looking for information. Anyone today can look on Wikipedia or watch the Discovery Channel or go to the library and find all the information they want. We don’t lack for information. The story is compelling for other reasons that have to do with people’s hearts much more than people’s minds.

In the Gospel today, two disciples did not ask Jesus “what are you doing?” They asked, "Where are you staying?" They go and see "where he was staying and they stayed with him that day." Yes, the disciples were curious, but what they are looking for is not information. They are looking for a place to be, a place to rest, a place—and a person with whom the can “abide.”

What we are all looking for—often without knowing it—is a place to stay, a place to remain always, a place to be. Jesus is that place, a person who is himself a home, who is himself a place to belong, a person with whom we live a whole way of life. Jesus knows that what the disciples really want is a place to belong. He meets them at the point of their greatest need and invites them to "Come and see." They go with him. They end up staying, and his story becomes their way of life. And after they came and saw, they invited someone else to that home, too.

We have people in this congregation who have been Gospel story-tellers, who have pointed the way so that others can find a home, a place to be. There are a lot of you but I will call out one of them out because she is not here to defend herself (and when I’ve told this to her face, she didn’t believe me): I’ve always been impressed with MJ’s ability to point the way; the way in which she shines that light down a dark path and then walks with people. She is a natural: most of the time she doesn’t even know she’s doing it. For a while it seemed as if the whole radiology department of a local hospital came to Saturday night service. And today, Shaun and Tracy and their son Connor are part of our community because their friend said to them “come and see.”

MJ is not alone. There are more of you. We are all story-tellers. Because we are also ones who have found a home, not just in a parish, but in God’s Best Expression of Godself, Jesus Christ, and we point the way. When we welcome a person to AA or treat a Soup Kitchen guest with dignity or when we bring a meal to the home of a home-bound stranger through Meals on Wheels or go to the Keystone Blood Bank and say “I’m from Trinity Church, Easton” when we give our pint of blood, we are beginning to tell the story. Our deeds say much, but like John’s Gospel, the way the Word is really made known in when we move from idea to story. From concept to invitation. Maybe we haven’t found the words yet to go with our actions, but make no mistake, we all have a Gospel story to tell. And it is through story-tellers like us that God’s power, God’s love, God’s peace breaks into the world and changes everything.

"What are you looking for?" says Jesus to people who were told by someone else where he could be found. To people who wondered if they had a place in Jesus’ story, he said “Come and see.” The thing that moves people from one question to the other, from "What are you looking for?" to "Come and see" to “We have found the Messiah!” is the story the church is called to tell. In fact, the only story the church has to tell! For all the things we do, for all the activity and program and worship, the only thing we have to offer is the story of our home, from which we draw hope and strength and power. That place, that home to which we invite people to “come and see,” is a person, Jesus Christ, and the best way to tell his story—perhaps the only way—is with our lives.

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