There is an untold power in story that I both know and experience, and yet at the same time, neglect. One of the delights of having young children, and even pre-teens, is that exploration of story. Megan has become a far more voracious reader than I ever remember being, and not a day goes by that Ian comes up to me with a book and asks me to read to him. They get that from their mother. However, I remember asking my parents about family stories when I was between 5 and 10, which included the tales of my brother and I when we were far younger.
Stories and the telling of stories are how we learn. One of the reasons why the Bible is so powerful a document is not because there are a collection of rules, but rather the story that drives is. It is very rare that someone remembers the various dietary laws, and what clothes one should or should not wear that is present in Leviticus, but almost everyone that has been exposed to the Bible remembers the stories. There is a reason why the stained glass in this sanctuary displays scenes from Biblical stories, rather than a list of things.
It’s because stories matter.
Stories matter because we can imagine our place in them, we can imagine what it is like to be part of them, we can absorb them far better than we can a list of rules. It is why the stories that we tell stick with us, and form us and shape us from an early age.
It’s also something we’ve forgotten when it comes to the Biblical story.
I once had a parishioner in the first congregation I served in earnestly say that we come to church to “learn the rules.” He was very focused on the Ten Commandments and what was to follow. But here’s the irony, even the Bible itself doesn’t start out with a list of rules, even when the rules are presented, there’s always a preamble. Even when it is “the rules” there is always, always a callback to why these rules are in place, and that callback? It’s a story. The “rules” are meaningless without the story told, the rules have no weight without the story that tells why they’re there. There is never a place in the Bible where it says “there are the rules, that’s it, just ‘cuz.” No. They are always framed with a story.
And I think that’s something we’ve forgotten. Saying “that’s the way it is” doesn’t cut it.
One of the patterns that I tried to highlight in the Evolution of the Bible seminar which comes to a close tomorrow night is how much the story matters. For many people, a common obstacle for reading the Bible is we treat it like a novel. After all, this book has the same physical shape as say Lord of the Rings, or an Agatha Christie novel, but it doesn’t read that way. Much of the first five books of the Bible are indeed a large collection of ancient legal writing, and one can easily get bogged down in that, but what comes before it, through all of Genesis and the first third of Exodus, is this epic story about what God has done.
The story comes first. Before any rules are written, before anything is put down talking about ethics or morals, there is a story that is told.
Psalm 78 reminds us of that, and the importance to teach the story to our children. It doesn’t say teach them the rules, it is a song that calls for the story, to remember all of God’s wondrous deeds. It is in response to that, out of a sense of gratitude, that the people commit themselves to living in right relationships, with God and with each other. The psalmist knew that we cannot be the people of God without telling the story of God, passing the story on to each generation.
As author James Taylor paraphrases this psalm,
We belong to a long line of travellers,
snaking in single file through history;
we bear with us the beliefs,
the convictions, the experiences
bequeathed to us
by those who passed this way before.
From Abraham and Sarah, from Rachel and Jacob,
from David and Bathsheba, from Mary and Jesus,
we learn our faith story.
Only by knowing where we have come from
can we know where we are going.
Only by known who and whose we are
can we know that God is with us.
The call of the psalmist to a broken and divided kingdom of Israel to remember their stories, to tell their stories of how they connect to God and to one another again and again to the next generation until those stories become their own is applicable to us as well. We too need to tell our stories – to tell our personal stories, to tell our faith stories, to the generations that follow.
That is part of what we promise to do as a congregation when we celebrate baptisms as we did this morning. These two little ones, Sadie and Teddy, are too young to remember that they have been baptized and blessed and welcomed into this congregation. And so it is our call, as parents, as grandparents, as aunts and uncles, as cousins, as a church family, to remember for them – to share the story with them at home. We would encourage you, on each anniversary of their baptism, to pull out the candle they’ve received, light the candle, show them pictures from today, remind them why you chose to have them baptized, and most of all, tell them, again and again and again, that they are loved by you and loved by God.
And we are not off the hook as their church family. We too, are called to help Sadie and Teddy, to help all our children, our youth, our elders, to help one another and ourselves, to share what it is we celebrate around this font – the story of God’s love that has been with each and every human being from the very beginning, to tell it again and again and again through things when we gather together, in Sunday school, and youth group, and Sunday worship, and frankly everything we do, until it becomes so written on our hearts and our lives that we cannot help but to share it with others.
If we remember nothing else, the story comes first: the story in which God’s relationship with us is explored, and how God continues to be faithful to us even when we forget that. The stories remind us that the so-called “rules” are about developing and maintaining healthy relationships that emerge as a response to the great story… most specifically a response to God’s generosity and faithfulness. Psalm 78 is a song of the story, and that we teach our children best, not when we give a list of rules to follow, but rather when we tell the story.