Listen to the sermon from Sunday, October 16, 2016 titled “Core Narrative” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
“Those are just words” I heard a public figure this week say of degrading comments he had made about a woman. “Just words.” As if words don’t matter. As if words themselves were not a form of action with power to hurt or heal, tear down or build up. I could spend this whole sermon, I could do a series of sermons on how seriously we take words in the Christian faith.
Suffice it to say the highest title we can give the Messiah sent from above is to call him “The Word of God.”
“The Word of God” is also is what we call scripture, which our reading today says “is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” To be sure, it doesn’t always affirm the wealth-worshipping culture in which we are marinated. And because the words of the Bible in the mouths of some so-called “Christians” have been used to abuse, even twisted to excuse such vicious vitriol towards their perceived enemies, other Christians have abandoned the Bible altogether as outdated, outmoded, and irrelevant.
They would never say as much, but they no longer read it, let alone study it, let alone attend Bible study or worship hungry to hear a word from God. And because of that, they don’t know the story well enough to know when somebody is misusing it to abuse them.
Hunger for a word from God rises in direct proportion to spiritual hunger and suffering. In the crush of their exile God’s ancient people gathered all their sacred stories in one book and pored over them to discover the commandments of God, that is the path to obeying and pleasing and drawing near to God to save them from the mess they had created for themselves by neglecting matters of the Spirit.
This led to a law and order approach to scripture as if it were primarily a book of commandments, rules to live by, the order in which a society might thrive. While the precise interpretation of biblical rules has been contested through the years, its law and order are good.
The irony of the election season we’ve created for ourselves is how the folks usually accused of lacking a moral compass are reminding the moral order folks there’s a lot to be said for common decency. But we have a way of perverting the law and order of scripture by majoring on the minors and forgetting the central organizing principle – the law of love.
Even the Legally scrupulous Jewish rabbis after the exile emphasized that scripture contains two types of material: halakha and haggadah, commandment and story. The law is derivative, they said. The story is primary.
From Adam and Eve to John the Revelator the Bible gives us a story of God pursuing us in love for life. The Bible is a collection of many stories woven into the greatest story, and joining the story is why we continue to hear and study and live by the scripture.
Every person has a story. Every person is a story, or as Joan Didion put it, “We are the stories we tell ourselves.” We each give our lives a narrative framework, with beginning, middle, and end, rich in character, plot, and drama. Story gives us meaning and purpose. Story is how we make sense of our lives. And of course, our stories are woven from and connected to larger stories.
The story of our nuclear family feeds into the story we tell ourselves. What happened before we were born, how our parents met, the home we were raised in, who those people were and how we were shaped by the people and events and relationships of our youth. Add stories of the extended family, clan, tribe, and ethnicity whose nature and nurture shape our trajectory. Connect that with the story of a larger spiritual family and the spiritual branch to which we belong. Combine the stories of community and geography, institution and profession, so many different great stories you have been a part of which become a part of you.
I was raised in Texas on stylized stories of brave settlers, Texas Rangers, the Alamo, and San Jacinto. Imagine my surprise later to hear of land stolen from Native Americans, wealth raised from slave labor, and American expansionism stealing Texas from Mexico. There is always more than one way to tell a story. And while all may contain a measure of truth, we choose the versions we want to define us.
That is true of the story of the nation where we are citizens, as every nation tells its story in a stylized way to each new generation as a means of conveying shared values. Political campaigns offer us competing stories of who we are and where we’re heading.
Our personal stories are a montage, a crazy quilt of layered narratives that make us unique as we choose which stories are most important and which take the major space in defining who we are.
The surprise lies in how unconscious we are of the interpretive choices we make in combining all these stories into “the story of me.” And of course, our stories aren’t static. We evolve. We reinterpret. Sometimes, we even change our interpretations to write a new story.
Usually we choose a single theme as the organizing principle around which all our other stories revolve. If you listen carefully and observe a person closely, you can usually discern the driving passion, the core narrative which self-defines that person. Here’s a list of common core narratives: the hero, the victim, the rebel, the peacemaker, the shame eater, the justice fighter, the winner, the busy bee, the helper, the calm head, the competent worker, the smart one, the leader, the lone ranger, the free spirit, the creative genius, and so on. These narratives, chosen and unchallenged, tell us who we are and what we should do.
What is your core narrative? If you had to state your identity in one word or phrase, what would it be? What is the story you tell yourself most often about what you are doing or how others are relating to you? That’s probably your core narrative. And, is it true? Is it working for you? Or have you become trapped in your own story?
Core narratives are a useful way to make sense of our confusion with so many stories that make up our identity. The danger, of course, is that they aren’t always true, aren’t the only way of interpreting what’s happening, and may not even be the way others see us. We can get stuck in a core narrative that is no longer helpful. Our certainty leads us to defend instead of listen, learn, grow. We think other people are being intentionally stubborn, stupid, even evil if they don’t see the world the way we see it, when the truth is, their narrative is simply different from ours. It’s always important to be aware of and to question the story you are telling yourself.
That’s where hearing, knowing, and living within the sacred story calls us out of our narrow interpretations and small, self-focused narratives. The Bible challenges the stories we tell ourselves, invites us to a greater narrative, informs us with possibilities we had not considered before. We find ourselves and our interaction with God in its stories, and we are called to be better, to be more, to make God’s love the core of the story we tell with our lives.
That narrative function of scripture is the reason we need more, not less of the Bible in our lives. It’s all about finding your story and placing your core narrative in the larger narrative of God’s love in Christ. We all choose the story that defines us. If not our sacred story from scripture, what story shall you use?
The canon is closed. The Bible is defined. For Christians these 66 books are the Bible. But in another way, which the Bible itself describes, the sacred story is unfinished. Our own stories turn words on a page into the living word of God. Our stories will show whether the word of God’s love, Christ’s call to service, and the guiding Spirit are real or just another lie.
What story are you telling with your life? Our calling, our core narrative in Christ, is the be “the Word of God for the people of God” so that others will say…. “Thanks be to God!” Amen. May we pray?
Thank you for the epic which tells us of your abiding and unstoppable love for us. Make our stories your story, and may our core narrative be a love that serves and gives life in the name of Christ. Amen.