SHAPED BY THE STORY
TEXT: Gen. 1:26-31; Matt. 5:13-16
Maybe some of you saw the movie in the early 80’s with Peter O’Toole about the stand taken by Jewish patriots against the Romans at Masada. It’s an incredible story, taking place only about 40 years after the death of Jesus in a mountain fortress down at the southern end of the Dead Sea.
The fortress itself was built by King Herod (of “kill all the babies in Bethlehem” fame) who was so paranoid about losing his kingdom to a rival that he built a fortress in the Judean hills where he could be protected if a threat arose. The threat never came and Herod never used his fortress in the rock, but when Rome marched on Jerusalem bent on destruction, Jewish patriots remembered that it was there and fled to the stronghold.
It was a couple of years before Rome could take the mountain, but finally, building a ramp with Jewish slaves to make the Jewish patriots think twice about killing them, Rome was on the threshold of victory. Last week I stood on that mountain inside the ruins of the synagogue where the 900-plus men, women, and children listened to stories of bondage and decided that death was better than becoming Roman slaves.
They selected ten men to kill all the rest of them…taking the sword to their own wives, children, brothers, and friends. Then the ten cast lots to determine which of them would kill the other nine and the last would take his own life. When the Romans finally breached the walls, they found only the dead. The patriots had burned all their assets with the exception of the food and water to prove that this act was freely chosen and not forced by the starvation of a siege.
Some claim that the story is mixed with legend, but in one sense the truth of it doesn’t matter. The story is embedded in the psyche of Israel and the memory forms the identity of Israelis even today. When the Israeli Defense Forces finish boot camp, they climb the 1300 ft. mountain and take their oath amidst the ruins. As they go to the place and remember the story, they reinforce their identity as proud nationalists who would choose death over slavery.
The murder/suicide of over 900 people and the moving speeches given in that synagogue to convince men to murder their wives and children rather than see them as slaves took some time to process, and so with three others I elected to climb down the mountain rather than take the cable car with the group. It gave me time to think.
I honestly don’t know whether it is helpful to have the story of Masada as part of your national identity. But the trip to Masada, along with the entire journey across the Holy Land, reminded me that we are all formed by the stories we believe. There are stories in our families that tell us who we are—the stories of immigration, of hardship, of family businesses, of the big storm or the Great Depression and how some of us survived it and some of us didn’t.
There are stories we tell as a nation, and those stories sound different depending on which group is telling it. I went to seminary with a woman from Georgia. She told me that she was in college when she finally heard the story that the South had lost the Civil War. She had been taught a different story in high school…a story that sought to save face and simply said that everybody got tired of fighting and signed a truce at Appomattox. The Native Americans tell different stories about the arrival of Europeans in America than those of us of European descent have often told.
The stories we tell, true or not, are a way of shaping our lives. They tell us how to define good and bad, proud and shameful. They tell us how to bear up under great difficulty, and it makes a great deal of difference whether the story that taught us such things came out of the Wild West, the life of an African slave, or Grimm’s fairy tales. We went to the Holocaust museum and the weight of the stories was so great it was a wonder any of us were able to walk upright back to the bus.
Jesus knew well the power of stories to shape human society and behavior and that was his primary means of teaching the people. He told parables—stories that would help people understand what God was like and how God expected us to treat each other. And then, ultimately, his own life became—as some have called it—the greatest story ever told. The story that has been told and retold so often that the cycles of the Church are built around it, helping us to remember what happened so that we can interpret our own lives in its light.
That is why Bible stories matter. The stories of Jesus weren’t just told to entertain. They were stories that Jesus felt would help us shape our lives to look more like heaven and less like hell: The story of the rebellious son who squandered his father’s inheritance, does everything wrong, but still receives a hero’s welcome from Dad when he decides to come home. And the sub-story of the older brother who deeply resented his father’s grace.
The story of the man who was mugged on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and how all the pious religious people took great pains to avoid him and how the only one who cared enough to help was a mixed-race, semi-pagan Samaritan.
Jesus also points back to the stories that helped to shape him. The story of Jonah who tried to run from the will of God and spent three days in the belly of a whale—three days in a dark fishy tomb before emerging to new life. And the central story of the Jewish people, the story of the Exodus from Egypt, forty years wandering in the wilderness before the final entry into a land flowing with milk and honey. Jesus actually blended his story right into that one, taking the Passover matzoh and saying it was his body; holding up the Passover cup and saying it was his blood.
We have become so sterile with our Bible stories. We spend so much time trying to prove that they did or didn’t happen, when the power and truth of a great story has nothing to do with that. As we drove down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho last week, our guide pointed to a spot on a hill that marked the inn where the Good Samaritan took the man who had been mugged. I remember thinking how ridiculous that was. It was a parable…there was no actual Good Samaritan taking someone to an inn. I don’t doubt that there would have been an inn along that road. It is long and very steep and those who traveled it then would have needed rest for the journey. But don’t go telling me that’s where the Good Samaritan went—he didn’t really exist!
But in a deeper sense, maybe he did. Maybe he still does. Maybe he still travels that steep road, helping out the Bedouin whose make-shift huts dot the landscape when a goat or a calf gets stuck in a rocky crag. Maybe he lives because Jesus honored his work with a story that took a moral lesson and made it flesh and blood. Maybe he is more true than the facts and more alive than those of us riding by on the bus who doubted his existence. That is the power of story.
What are the stories that have shaped you? What stories are shaping your children even now? Bible stories are not always safe. Stories in the Bible have been used to oppress people, to squash scientific inquiry, and to frighten others into submission. Which is why we tell stories in community…here…together. We are shaped and formed together as we sift through the stories and decide by the light of the Holy Spirit that this story is the one that fits us, here and now, and then lift it up to God to see if God will make it stick, will make it holy, will make it ours.
This is the season of Lent, and the Church tells us that now is the time to be reminded of the wilderness stories, the temptation stories, the stories about how life gets hard and desperate and how God turned that hard and desperate dust of the ground into human beings made in God’s image.
Soon we will move to the stories of Holy Week when we’re reminded that those who want to crown you king need only a few days to change their mind and want to kill you instead. It’s the week when we remember stories about friends who betray us and mothers who stand by us and how much we cry when someone dies. And it’s the week when we remember the story with the happiest ending of all.
The stories we tell here matter, and I felt that as I descended the heights of Masada where over 900 people died because of the stories of slavery and where people vow to die even today. When the enemy is about to scale the walls of our lives, the stories we know best will tell us how to respond. Ah, but which stories will they be? Will you open your minds to the stories of faith? The stories Jesus heard, the stories Jesus told, the stories Jesus lived? Some of them happened and some of them didn’t, but they’re all true. Amen.
Sermon © 2007, Anne Robertson
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