Saturday, July 15, 2006
Stones and Stories--Sermon 7/16/06
When I was a seven or eight year old, my bedtime ritual seldom strayed from the routine. And the routine was this, both my parents would come upstairs with me to tuck me into my antique spindle bed in my pink-painted bedroom, each sitting on either side of me. My mother would kiss me goodnight, remind me of the special events the next day, and tuck me snugly under the covers. And then she would leave the room, graciously allowing my father and me our Daddy/Daughter time. And thus, the highlight of my evening ritual would commence, the telling of the nightly story. Now, I know many of you probably had people read bedtime stories to you, but I would wager a bet that few of you could say you had a bedtime stories as outrageous as I, for I had stories of the Finkelstein family. The Finkelstein family was my father’s own creation, a brainchild perhaps of his hippie seminary years, and what was fascinating about the Finkelsteins was that each and every one of the family, right down to the family ferret, Farcus, had names that started with the letter “F.” Moreover, the family, that would be the parents, Frank and Francine and their children Freddy and Freida, and we dare not forget the fluffy Farcus, only ate foods that began with the letter “F,” which limited their tastes to frankfurters, Froot Loops, Fritos, and the occasional bowl of fettucini. Each evening I waited in anxious anticipation to see what those funky Finkelsteins would be up to, were they going to a football game, or playing Frisbee on the front lawn, or learning to dance the Funky Chicken? Often, I would contribute to the Finkelstein story, inserting my own dialogue, or adding a few more colorful details to the Finkelstein epic. Through this continuing story, a story which grew richer and more complex each evening, my father and I would weave a world, a world where we could work out the problems of my own life, such as the day Freida was made fun of by friends at school, or the day the family ferret got sick and they had to take it do Dr. Flugelheimer to be put to sleep. I learned in that nightly ritual what it meant to allow a story to shape you, and I loved a good story.
The fourth chapter of Joshua tells a story of its own. It is the story of a posse of vagabonds looking for a home. It is the story of a people making their way toward the land that their God has promised. And while it doesn’t have the illiterative appeal that the Finkelstein Fables had, it has a hearing far broader than the writer of Joshua ever could have imagined.
Ever since I first read the story in Joshua I have always enjoyed it. How Joshua came back from chit-chat with the Lord, how he had each of the twelve tribes send out one man, how he gave those select men special instructions. He said, “OK, men, I have an important assignment here so I want you to listen up good. What I want you to do is, I want you to put on your hip boots and I want you to wade out there into the Jordan River. Now, I know you’re all busy, and I know the wife and kids have other plans for you, and I know you don’t want to slop around in all that mud, and I now you’re going to get all wet, but you have been chosen for something special. I want you to go out there and bring back a stone. Now, I don’t want something that looks like a wad of chewing gum. I want something large. I want 12 big bruisers. Now Know that there are some nice-looking specimens right here along the shore. But I don’t want them. I want stones from right out there in the middle of the river, where the water is the deepest and the current is the fastest. And I don’t want 11 and I don’t want 13. I want an even dozen. And once you get back to shore, what I want you to do is, I want you to plan on carrying them around with you every day as we travel. Now you don’t have to carry these pet rocks around with you forever, of course. I’d say it wouldn’t be more than, say 20 or 30 years.” Now you and I know from our perspective in time that Joshua new what he was doing. He was creating a memorial. He was creating a ritual. He was coming up with something to tell around the campfire at night, as the people sat with their heads perched against those rocks. Something that became part of their history. Something for the little ones to notice. Something for them to point at and say, “Why do you always lug those things around with you?” Then the elder could say, “Well, these stones are memorials. They help us remember something. One time a bunch of bad guy were chasing us and we came to this very wide river and we didn’t know how we were going to get across…” And the tale would begin to be told and the children’s eyes would grow wide.
The stones served as a reminder to the people, never to forget, never to allow themselves to dismiss the story of their lives, and the one who gave them that story. The stones served as a Godly whisper which said that it was not just a matter of wisdom to remember, but a sacred duty, a trust to hold on to the stories of the past, for by retelling them, by honoring them, the people could be brought forward into the new creation. And those stones stood, ultimately, in that new land…the Israelites lived within sight of those stones, a constant reminder of their past, and of their good God.
Part of the reason that I am a preacher is because I love a good story. Henri Nouwen claims that the great vocation of the minister is to continuously make connections between human stories and the divine story. Eugene Peterson, one of the foremost writers on the vocation of pastoral ministry, writes to all new clergy, “Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit.” And as the interim pastor here, I want to hear your stories. I began ministry, and I stay in Hospice ministry, because I like to listen to the stories, and because I long to tell the story of God’s love, and of God’s mystery, and of God’s compassion, and of the presence of the sacred in the profane. And it is such a sacred task for us all, for we are all called to ministry. We are called to hear our brothers and sisters into speech, to know the twists and turns of their own journeys, to find out the ways in which their story intersects with the story of the Huntington Church of the Brethren, and the larger narrative of God’s story for our world. Each of you have been given the holy vocation of listening, and it is our duty as brothers and sisters in this community to minister to one another by telling the story, and asking the questions, and pointing to the stones, and asking what they mean.
It is said that when the founder of Hasidic Judaism, the great Rabbi Israel Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, he celebrated Maggid of Mezritch had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the sacred fire, but I am able to say the prayer,” and again, the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go to the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the words to the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished. Then it fell, four generations later, to Rabbi Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer, I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient. For it is said, God made humanity because God loves a good story.
In time, when your children ask you, “What do the stones which created the Huntington Church of the Brethren mean?” What will you tell them? Will you tell them of the faithful hours spent rolling out cinnamon rolls in the kitchen? Will you tell them about the light in the eyes of the children of Nicaragua when you took that trip to Tisma? Will you tell of the countless hours spent in this sanctuary? Or of the way someone embraced you after church when you were feeling so lost? I invite you to begin to tell those stories again, to one another, or to me, or to God in prayer, remind one another of the stones which sustain this faithful body of believers, for in telling the stories you begin to cast a vision of what you want as you continue the journey together, and you uncover anew the faithfulness of the God who has accompanied you.
Our call is clear. It is the same call Joshua pronounced as the words of God thousands of years before and the call is this: wrap yourself in your stories, each of you and all of us, and know that it is the stories what will call us home, right smack dab into the arms of our faithful and loving God.
And all God’s people said,