Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

The Stories We Tell

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (September 10, 2017)
 Exodus 12:1-14 (CEB) – “The Stories We Tell”

Starting September 10, we are switching back to the Revised Common Lectionary from the Narrative Lectionary. A calendar of Scripture readings for the coming year can be found here.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month will be the first month; it will be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole Israelite community:

On the tenth day of this month they must take a lamb for each household, a lamb per house. If a household is too small for a lamb, it should share one with a neighbor nearby. You should divide the lamb in proportion to the number of people who will be eating it. Your lamb should be a flawless year-old male. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You should keep close watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month. At twilight on that day, the whole assembled Israelite community should slaughter their lambs. They should take some of the blood and smear it on the two doorposts and on the beam over the door of the houses in which they are eating. That same night they should eat the meat roasted over the fire. They should eat it along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Don’t eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over fire with its head, legs, and internal organs. Don’t let any of it remain until morning, and burn any of it left over in the morning. This is how you should eat it.

You should be dressed, with your sandals on your feet and your walking stick in your hand. You should eat the meal in a hurry. It is the Passover of the Lord. I’ll pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I’ll strike down every oldest child in the land of Egypt, both humans and animals. I’ll impose judgments on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be your sign on the houses where you live. Whenever I see the blood, I’ll pass over you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. “This day will be a day of remembering for you. You will observe it as a festival to the Lord. You will observe it in every generation as a regulation for all time.

As a pastor, I am fascinated by the stories we tell about ourselves, about others, and about history. I’m a glutton for good stories because 1) they’re interesting, because people are interesting, and 2) how we construct a narrative in our heads and then share it says a lot about who we are and how we perceive what’s happening around us.

The president of Austin Presbyterian Seminary gives a charge to each year’s graduating class. The current seminary president, Ted Wardlaw, publishes his charge in the fall edition of the seminary’s magazine. He shared this little anecdote with the class of 2017:

I have had kind of a weird relationship with one fellow minister… in our communion for decades. Over the years, we’ve been in a number of meetings together—him from one tribe of the church, one side of the aisle, and me from another—and, from time to time, we’ve argued over important matters of principle in the life of the church. But for the most part, it’s been a pleasant sort of relationship; we’re sort of “frenemies.”

A while back he reached out to me to say that he’d been doing some deep genealogical research on his family. He told me that he’d gotten as far back as the fifteenth century to one of his ancestors who was on the faculty at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland… And that the rector, he said (essentially the president), of St. Andrews University in that time was an ancestor of mine.

I said, “Yes, I know—Bishop Henry Wardlaw, from the early 1400s, Bishop of Scotland (this is before the Reformation) and the founder of the University of St. Andrews!”

He said, “Yes! So you know about this!”

“Know about what,” I said.

“Well, you won’t believe this,” he said, “but he and my ancestor argued over important matters of principle, and your ancestor had my ancestor tried for heresy and assassinated.”

I said, “Well, this is awkward.” [1]

The stories we tell about our past shape who we are in the present and who we hope to be in the future. They can determine our attitudes and our values in some very profound ways. They structure our world by helping us make meaning.

The Hebrew people have been telling this story from Exodus for centuries, millennia even. Jewish people throughout the world, generation from generation, rehearse it at Passover once every spring to commemorate God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. And here in Exodus 12 you have the Passover lamb described in abundant detail. Have you ever noticed how specific these instructions are? It’s almost like a checklist: “OK… get a lamb, check. Make sure it’s flawless, check. Make sure it’s male, check. Eat with bitter herbs, check. Don’t boil but roast, check.”

Why are they so specific? Well, for one thing, parts of this story were written by authors that scholars call the Priestly source. These are the people who ran the temple in Jerusalem, so naturally, being the ceremonial types, they were focused on the details of ritual. But what’s really interesting is that some scholars think this was written when the Jewish people were exiled from Judea and enslaved in Babylon. While they were in captivity in a foreign land, this is the story they told about their history. This was foundational to their identity. This is how they were to remember the fundamental nature of who they were—God’s own people, a freed people.

The Passover story prompts us to think about the various stories we tell…

What stories do we tell about who we are as individuals? Have you ever had to write a autobiography as part of an application or on a retreat or something like that? It’s hard to know where to begin, how much to cover, and what to leave out. I’ve heard that some people from Native American traditions, when asked who they are, start by describing where their ancestors are from, which communities they are a part of, from the parents on back.

What stories do we tell about our families? I attended a funeral once that was officiated by another pastor. He said in a schmaltzy way that the family of the deceased reminded him of the Cleavers from that TV show “Leave it to Beaver.” She made pies and was so sweet. He provided for the family. Their kids were cute little rascals. I almost choked right there in the pews because I knew more about that family than he did. Trust me, they were no Cleavers!

What stories do we tell about our country? At a rally for those affected by the Administration’s DACA decision, one of the organizers began her speech by saying that before we talked about anything else that day, we needed to remember that we were all standing on Tohono O’odham land which does not belong to us. Many of us can remember the dissonance when we learned (hopefully) that the story of America’s “founding” wasn’t as innocent as some Pilgrims sailing to Plymouth Rock seeking liberty. These debates over Confederate monuments in the South are significant precisely because historical narratives are so important. What do we mean by the claim of “accurately reflecting history?” Whose story are we telling exactly?

As Jesus pointed out in our gospel reading for today (Matthew 18:15-20), it’s critical that the stories we tell to and about one another be faithful to the truth. There’s a binding quality to them. They have an effect on our common life. God reveals herself most clearly in the true version these stories.

Looking down the road ten or twenty or more years from now, what stories will we tell (or will others tell about us) about this historical moment—how we responded to the challenges of the times, how our faith informed our actions, how God moved in a mighty way to liberate people held captive by Pharoahs in their various forms?

It’s been haunting how that quote from Martin Niemöller has resurfaced lately, again and again. Niemöller was a prominent German Lutheran pastor during the time of Adolf Hitler who, years later, reflected on his own complicitness. You may have heard his quote before:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

A generation from now, what stories will they tell about how we lived in these times?

The telling and retelling of Passover reminded the Hebrew people that God is faithful, that God is a loving, life-giving, and liberating God. It’s true for us, as well, that mainly in the rearview mirror of time that we see God at work in our lives and in the life of the world. That’s why it’s vital that we reflect on and share our stories: to remember who we have been and who God calls us to be.

[1] Theodore J. Wardlaw, “Be among the indispensable,” Windows summer/fall 2017.

Featured image: “The Sacrificial Lamb” by Josefa de Ayala