Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Telling stories

One of the best off-the-cuff sermons I have ever heard was from a colleague at Imperial College London who turned up to find he was preaching on Matthew Chapter 1 verses 1-17. For those of you who have not yet memorised the whole of the Bible and who haven't clicked on the link it is worth knowing that this part of the first book of the New Testament is a long genealogical list leading from the start of the Jewish Faith (ie Abraham) to Jesus.  It's not something many of us would relish reading, lacking the humour, narrative and immediate appeal of the Bible passages most of us remember and appreciate, but it is one of the set readings following the Lectionary through the year.

To be confronted with this text without having any preparation for preaching on it would throw most of us, but not Bill (for it was he) who proceeded to preach for ten minute in a way that brought these seemingly dry verses to life,  who teased out some of the meaning in them and some of the purpose in having them placed at the start of this first of the books of the stories of Jesus.  Bill drew out something of the importance of the divisions within the lists (three lots of 14 generations) and the very deliberate choice of names on the list; Luke's version (Luke Chapter 3.23-38) of the same list is arranged differently with different names and goes all the way back to Adam, actually even back to God.  (For more material on the differences between the two accounts of Jesus' ancestry try this link to 'about.com'.)

Bill talked of those who are mentioned in this list and those who are left out, and of the presumable aim of the author in compiling this list.  But more than anything else he said one thing which has stuck with me over and above all the other stuff he managed to get from this bit of scripture.

"Beginnings are important"

This statement came to mind again when a Twitter friend, Revd Robb Sutherland (@changingworship) mentioned that he was writing a post for the Digidisciple section of the Big Bible website which is working through Genesis at the moment.  It's worth wandering off there when you finish this, by the way, or even now if you are starting to lose concentration!

There are so many arguments about Genesis, about historicity, science, creationism, translations, words used about God, different documents being combined to create one book, redaction criticism etc etc.  The big argument is, of course, the six day creation one, which a very loud and very significant minority of the Church are obsessed with and for whom it represents the touchstone for whether one is saved or not - by which I mean if you don't accept a six day creation account then you obviously don't "believe in the Bible" and therefore can't be a Christian.  It's nonsense, obviously, but that's not what I want to say...

I think the arguments about Genesis, along with the concerns of where Jesus came from, and the many stories within the Bible about origins, foundations, the nation of Israel, the start of the Church, are because we as human beings need stories which root us and give us meaning.  In my undergrad theology days (too many years ago for me to count) we were encouraged to think of the stories of Genesis and 'The Fall' (for want of a better title) as 'Aetiological Myths" or 'stories which give us meaning'... So when a child asks 'hey why did God make snakes with no legs' there is a story that says they once had one but they were removed as a punishment.  That is obviously a very simplistic reflection, but the principle is there - "why is the world like it is?" is the question - the stories of Genesis offer a rich mine of meaning as an answer, though many of us would think of them as allegory and metaphor rather than literal accounts.  That's a discussion for another time perhaps.

We all need stories which give us meaning - the stories of our families, our ancestors, our communities, our nations. For me, my journey to faith is an important story I hold on to and re-tell. My ongoing faith story is one which I invite others to share and to join in.  Jesus himself was a consummate storyteller and preferred to give his hearers stories and parables to grapple with and find meaning in and from rather than a more didactic or dogmatic approach. Cultures survive by sharing their stories and passing them on, they die when the stories of meaning and origin die and identity is lost.

So often Christians find themselves 'selling Doctrine' rather than 'telling stories'.  We are obsessed with 'right thinking' or 'right teaching' rather than allowing people to encounter faith through the stories of and from Jesus.  We risk losing our identity if we don't hold on to the stories of our faith and share them, and if we are unable to see that sometimes these stories are meaningful and true, without being literal.  (There is some more thought on that from the excellent Liturgy website, the particular post which caught my attention is here and a follow up post is here.)

This post is a long way from the reflections on Genesis that had originally inspired me to write something about stories.  I wonder, though, if the obsession some have with creationism/literalism doesn't actually allow the story and its meaning to truly blossom and grow, for the stories of our Scriptures are significantly more nuanced and contain much more depth than the simple 'it must be literally true to be true' argument could ever allow.

I'll leave you with that bit, maybe another Thought For The Week from our local Midweek Herald later :-)

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