“Our Life Story”
Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis
15 July, 2018
Proper 9B
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14

How many of you as children loved bedtime stories? When we lived in Copenhagen, we went through a period when our two eldest boys, Krister and Phineas, loved hearing tales of the adventures of Phister and Krineas—which were, of course, stories of their own lives back in America, about friends and sites they recalled in a place now far away.

Human beings are narrative creatures. We love stories—our stories, and good stories told by others. That’s important to know, because it’s by truly paying attention to the various stories of our lives that we begin to see how essentially connected we all are. How, despite our differences in so many respects, we are fundamentally more similar than we are different—across cultures, and time, and tradition.

Sometimes I think our culture lacks a deep appreciation for the power and importance of telling our story—and perhaps more importantly, of really listening to others’ stories. Have we lost that ability, or have we abandoned it by our failure to practice it faithfully? Because our Scripture writers definitely understood the importance of it.

The Bible is full of encouragements to remember our story as people of faith: there are 167 references to “remembering” in the Old Testament, and 52 in the New Testament—everything from what God remembers (or chooses not to in acts of divine forgiveness), to admonitions to recite stories of God’s faithfulness to our children, to appeals for God to remember and once again demonstrate that faithfulness, grace, and enduring love.

What happens when we don’t know our story as people of faith? When we forget who we are and whose we are? We become untethered, unmoored. We go adrift, not sure where we’ve come from or where we’re going, often uncertain of what is right and wrong. Think about it for a moment: do the people you know of who seem to lack a spiritual or moral compass have a strong sense of connection to an enduring narrative, something larger than themselves and their personal self-interest or agenda? Or are their stories mostly about themself and all their self-objects, narrow in scope, lacking a sense of concern about or connection to a bigger picture? Just read the Old and New Testaments—they’re full of characters like this. And God always grieves the fact that they don’t know their own story.

The Psalmist knows this. He’s writing in the midst of a crisis for the people of Israel. They’ve been conquered by the Babylonians, who now govern them, and have exiled their captives to disparate foreign parts of the kingdom so that they can’t organize and mount a retaliatory coup. The people of Israel don’t know who or whose they are anymore; they’re disoriented and wondering whether the God they once worshiped is real, or ever really cared about them, because God sure feels absent at the moment.

The lectionary only asked us to read the second half of Psalm 85. In the first few verses, the Psalmist recalls the goodness and mercy his people had enjoyed from the LORD the past: “LORD, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.” (Psalm 85:1-2) The next several are a series of appeals to God to be merciful and restore the people again; to relinquish divine anger, and grant salvation once again. And finally, the verses we heard: the Psalmist paints a picture—perhaps for God, but mostly for the people: a vision he has of how it will be when God’s salvation comes, which he confidently proclaims it will, just as it has in the past. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground and righteousness will look down from the sky.” (Psalm 85:10-11) In other words, things will be so much more harmonious, and relationships will be restored in ways that unite heaven and earth.

Do you see what he’s done? In 13 short verses, the Psalmist has told a life story for people who have faith: he’s reminded them that their relationship with God goes way back, and that God has been faithful to them since before they were aware of it.[1] The Psalmist reminds his audience by example, how to offer their prayers of petition to God. And then he invites them to hope with him as they glimpse his vision—the vision that God surely has in mind for the people, because God has brought it to pass before: peace and communion between heaven and earth.

I’ve known a number of people who were adopted, and in the conversations I’ve had with them about the subject, most who were adopted at birth were at least somewhat curious about their biological parents. Minimally, their interest may have been a need to understand something about their genetic and medical history. But more often than not, they wondered about what their birth parents’ lives were like—why they could not raise or tend to the child they’d created. And, in nature/nurture terms, they wondered how similar or different they were from the mother and father who represented the “nature” part of their existence.

Almost always, I think, those adoptees who’ve searched out and found the answers about their biological parents have been grateful for what they’ve learned—and usually, also more grateful for the parents who adopted them. And, also more often than not, the adopted individuals have made the stories of their adoptive families their own story.   Although their bloodlines may suggest differently, they understand their life as being fully integrated into the life of the family that nurtured them. The love that welcomed them into a new family, made them part of the narrative that stretched before their arrival, but grafted them in as an integral character in the narrative’s future unfolding.

This aspect of adoption is part of our life story as Christians. We heard Paul referring to it in his letter to the Ephesians, though I have to acknowledge that for some of us that passage was a little hard to follow. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians piles it on, with all of his effusive, flowery language about blessing and belovedness. It can feel a little “over the top”—who really talks like that? (One Bible commentator referred to it as Paul’s “thick accent”[2], which I thought was kind of funny. You understand a lot of the words he’s saying, but you still want to say at the end of it, “Excuse me?”)

But if you listen carefully to what Paul’s trying to convey, you realize that he’s reassuring a group of people who weren’t necessarily sure that God could really love them, nor that they belonged. This is an important part of our Christian “life story” to know, because: how many of you sitting here this morning, have ever wondered whether God could possibly love you, or doubted that you belong here? When we know or remember our story, it’s easier to see when it starts to repeat, and we can respond accordingly. It’s also why we’re encouraged to listen for God’s word to us in these ancient texts, even today.

Recall, when this letter was written, there was significant stress amongst the early Christian community. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were still learning how to live in company with one another, still learning to trust each other in light of the message that Jesus had proclaimed with his life and words. They were all learning together that God accepted and loved them equally, and God had a vision—one that had existed from the foundations of the earth—for their life together.

Also remember: Jews (including Jesus) had been taught from birth that according to Jewish law, Gentiles were considered “unclean” and not to be associated with. This went way back to the early days, a couple thousand years earlier, when Israel was still establishing itself as a powerful tribe; they, like other tribes around them, tried to maintain “purity” by banning intermarriage, avoiding too much interaction between religions and races. But Jesus regularly broke those cultural and religious protocols as he went about his ministry—which is why he was despised by so many of his fellow Jews.

In the first century, Jews who recognized Jesus as Messiah, as Lord and Savior, were navigating the painful process of extricating themselves (or being expelled) from the worshiping communities they’d loved and participated in all their lives, as they established new patterns of worship, understanding, and life together.

Then, there were some—the Gentiles—who had not descended from ancestors who’d been slaves in Egypt. But they had heard about Jesus and his message of salvation, of truly liberated life that is not tethered to the ways and things of this world, and they resonated with it! It wasn’t the story of their bloodline ancestors who were liberated in the powerful experience we call the Exodus. But that didn’t mean that Gentiles couldn’t recognize the powerful experience of God’s saving grace in their own life’s story, releasing them from the ways and behaviors of this world that kept them in spiritual chains. They hadn’t necessarily been watching, waiting, longing for a Messiah for generations; that hadn’t been part of their personal narrative. But they still recognized in Jesus Christ—his life, teachings, and way to eternal life—their Savior; they did recognize that they and their ancestors, like the Israelites, had also longed for divine redemption.

So, this fledgling Christian community had new habits of thought and relationship to establish—and that’s hard work, especially given how stuck in our ways we can be, even good, God-loving people.

In seminary, I once had a boss who came of age in an era when it was commonplace for men to address female colleagues or supervisees by pet names like “Honey” or “Sweetheart”—titles they would never use to address a male colleague, supervisee, or even the janitor. But to his credit, my boss—having recognized a couple decades earlier the inappropriate relational dynamic inherent in that behavior—had worked for many years to curb that habit. The one time he absent-mindedly addressed me that way, he was as taken aback as I was, and he apologized immediately. As a society, re-establishing habits of thought and relationship has progressed even more slowly. You see, it’s up to each of us to think about how our lives and actions tell the story of what we believe to be true, with faith, hope, and love.

So, there may have been Jews who continued to struggle with the idea that they were regularly worshiping and socializing with folks they’d long been taught, and how habitually viewed as “unclean.” And there were Gentiles who had a hard time believing that they were accepted into the community of God’s beloved. But those who came with open hearts and minds grasped a vision greater than any of them had previously glimpsed: one where they were adopted into a spiritual family, and all of them acknowledged a common bloodline in their human race. They embraced their identity as care-takers of ALL, regardless of man-made tribal constructs.

As this new, spiritual family of Christians continued to grow—in Ephesus, as well as across the Middle East and into Asia and other parts of Europe, made up of a growing number of races and backgrounds, they established sacred practices that would bind them (and us!) together across time and culture. Those sacred rituals—now we call them sacraments—were and are outward and visible signs that Jesus himself participated in or initiated, which point to inner, spiritual experiences of grace.

Both Holy Communion and Christian Baptism use elements that are common to all human life—bread, juice, and water—and elevate them to become sacred representatives. These universal elements remind us of how essentially we are all connected, and how the holy inhabits the perfectly ordinary things of our daily life. The stories we tell as we prepare to celebrate these sacraments also remind us of our common humanity, of our one Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer. They remind us about where our life—both our material life, and our deeper, more eternal, spiritual life—originate and culminate.

How are you telling your life story? How are you communicating the truth about who you are and whose you are? How might you find ways to deliberately remember (and help others to, as well!) the story of your faith, hope, and love across the coming week? May each of us be alert to every opportunity we have to remember and share in one way or another, our Life Story—the story of God’s love, which gives us life, and helps us to know life that is fully alive. Amen.

[1] The theological term for it is prevenient grace—grace that’s at work in us and for us before we’re even   aware of it; in our New Testament reading, Paul talks about prevenient grace, too.

[2] Edwin Searcy, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, p. 231

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC